April 24, 2013

Apple in 2013

“And in the absence of facts, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history.” ― Stacy Schiff

For the first time in about 8 years1, Apple has gone nearly 2 full quarters without making any new product announcements. They aren’t expected to make any until WWDC, another 6 weeks away. This is not to say they haven’t been busy — a quick glance at their press releases show lots of progress. Inroads are being made in China, a small processor bump for the MacBook Pro here, a capacity increase for the iPad there. On yesterday’s Q2 earnings conference call, Tim Cook was as chipper as ever about Apple’s performance and product pipeline, but was careful about setting expectations: “We have some really great stuff coming in the fall and across all of 2014.”

It seems the executive re-org at Apple has caused some product “bus bunching”: more products are being delayed and forced to launch alongside one another, rather than spaced out over the course of the year.

Given these known knowns, here’s what I think the product roadmap will look like for the rest of year:

June (WWDC)

Haswell MacBook Air: It’s unlikely the MacBook Air will get a Retina display this year, as the battery draw and graphics performance just don’t seem to be there yet. Performance is hard enough on the MacBook Pros and “Smaller and Lighter” is the motto of the MacBook Air product line, so I can’t see Apple doing anything which would add size or weight. Intel’s new Haswell chips will start to become available in June, and they would make a good fit for an incremental update.

New, Haswell (Xeon E3) Mac Pro: “Finally.” Tim Cook himself claimed a new Mac Pro was coming “Later in 2013” back in summer of 2012. A redesigned case is possible, but it’s questionable whether or not Apple would dedicate the resources necessary for that, especially given the state of the desktop PC market.

I doubt these machines would ship until July, given the constraints of the new processor ramp. Both computers wouldn’t be big enough updates to warrant major press coverage or ad campaigns, hence Cook’s downplay. However, both these machines are developers favorites, and would likely be well received at WWDC alongside the expected previews of iOS 7 and OS X 10.9.

“Fall” (September/October)

Haswell MacBook Pro: Not much more to add here, just a healthy bump to the MacBook Pro line. Depending on the pricing of the MacBook Air, the non-Retina version may be dropped entirely. It already confuses the product line and isn’t well differentiated over the Macbook Air.

New iPad 5: Featuring a next-gen A7X CPU and the case redesign rumored to look more like the iPad mini.

iPad mini 2: The big wildcard here is whether or not it will get a Retina display. John Gruber thinks not due to margin constraints, but I’m still optimistic. If not Retina, what would be the reason to upgrade? A faster processor and what else? Colors, perhaps.

iPhone 5S and Updated iPod touch: Likely a “tick” upgrade, as Samsung certainly hasn’t brought it this year. The rumored fingerprint sensor technology sounds interesting, but I’m not sure how it would play out.

iPhone 5/5S Dock: Finally.

“New Product Categories”

The iWatch is nonsense. 100 product designers, really? Watches are jewelry, they are fashion accessories, and as such they change quickly with the times. People who are willing to wear watches have already chosen one they love, and possibly spent a lot on it.

The iTV is also nonsense. Marco did a good job debunking it two years ago and his post remains accurate. In short, it’s too operationally complex to produce, is too difficult to sell in an already heavily commoditized market, has low margins, and low re-purchasability.

What isn’t nonsense is the emerging market of other types of wearable computing. Think Nike FuelBand, Jawbone Up, and FitBit. While these products are all currently centered around health metrics, there’s no reason they have to be. With a small display you could show information similar to what a smart watch provides: who’s calling, who a text message is from, what time it is, etc. But it could do so much more. With gyros, pedometers, and altimeters it could be a generalized tracking device. With NFC it could be a payment device. With other sensors it could be an interface device. It could exist not to replace your watch, but to live alongside it, maybe on the other arm.

The concept of wearable computing is certainly attractive, and I trust Apple to be more tactful in its design than some other companies.

2014 and Beyond

Regardless of what this “new product category” is, it seems unlikely to launch in 2013. It would make much more sense to launch in March or April of 2014, and give Apple back its spring / summer / fall product launch cycles.

It’s too early to speculate on what lies ahead in 2014 for all other product lines – We need to wait and see what happens this year.

Apple has always been a product company, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that the software is what makes the hardware so lovable. With the new leadership, iOS 7 and OS X 10.9 are sure to bring some very interesting changes. So in my opinion, the most exciting news is only weeks away.

Thanks to Christopher Clarko for reviewing a draft of this.

  1. As far as I can tell, the last time this happened was in 2005: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_Apple_Inc._products#2010s