On the Penultimate Day Before Apple’s iPhone Event

Gold iPhone 5S PrototypeHere we go again. Another annual Fall 2013 ritual. Ever since 2004, every September or October, it’s another Apple press event to announce the latest lineup of iPods or iPhones. And the rumor mill runs amok in anticipation of the big announcement.

But man, the rumor mill has never run quite so amok as it has this year. Just look at this huge rumor roundup from MacRumors. There are so many leaked details and photos of the anticipated iPhone 5S that it could fill a small booklet if it was printed. New colors! New camera! A fingerprint scanner! Gold! Champagne! A low-cost model!

Of course, on Tuesday we’ll find out how many of these rumors are actually true, and whether or not Apple needs to call a plumber to address the leaks. But there is no question that the anticipation for this fall’s iPhone launch is really high, and perhaps, for good reason.

In a typical calendar year, Apple holds between 3-5 keynote events to unveil new products. But this year, there’s only been one: June’s WWDC Keynote. And though it was a stellar keynote: almost none of those announced products have even yet been released: OS X Mavericks, the new Mac Pro, and iOS 7 are all slated to launch “this fall.” (Only a MacBook Air refresh was released at the WWDC, and Phil Schiller only spent 3 minutes talking about it.)

It has been a slow year for Apple, which has only released three new products since last October: Logic Pro X, and refreshes of the Retina MacBook Pro and MacBook Air lines. But even that doesn’t begin to lay out the reasons why there is so much anticipation of this keynote.

Speaking generally, the tech media tends to try so hard to avoid conveying a bias for Apple, they end up often being biased for the companies that compete with Apple. They also have a very short memory, when products that they hailed as being the next Apple-killer, like the Palm Pre, or the Microsoft Surface, or the latest update to Android that 90% of its install base will never get to see, wind up flopping. But the one thing the tech media does routinely expect from Apple is a grand show. Yet the reactions always end up following a predictable pattern.

Take the 2010 announcement of the iPad, for example:
1. Months of rumors and anticipation and purported leaks drive up the hype exponentially for the next big product that Apple must be imminently announcing.
2. Finally the new product is announced, then everyone starts reporting on what’s wrong with Apple’s product, and why no one will want it.
3. Then the product eventually goes on sale, and becomes a sales hit, stunning the tech media, who starts to wonder if anyone can compete with it.
4. Eventually, competitors start releasing their own version of the product that they just poo-pooed months earlier. The media declares that each one will be product that will kill Apple, until they each flop in succession.
5. After a year or two, desperate for Apple to release another miraculous product, the rumor mill starts turning again, and the media starts debating whether or not Apple’s most innovative days are behind it.
6. Rinse and repeat.

And this is the pattern that we’re seeing playing out yet again. Because we don’t have any consensus on what will be Apple’s next big foray, the media–and even some Apple board members–are wondering if Apple can’t innovate anymore. (And of course, Steve Jobs’ absence is aggravating those outcries.)

Well, keep in mind that it was over three years from the launch of the iMac–the product that turned Apple around towards its 21st-century success–until the launch of the iPod. And even that product took a few iterations before it went mainstream. And then there was a five-and-a-half year gap from the first iPod until the first iPhone. And the iPhone, too, needed an extra year until its successor, the iPhone 3G (with the App Store) took that product mainstream. And yes, the iPad came just under three years after the iPhone, but keep in mind that Apple had actually started developing the iPad first, before Steve Jobs directed Apple to put that product on the shelf, and apply the multi-touch technology first on the iPhone.

Innovation happens at its own pace. Successful innovation comes from not rushing out a half-baked product. It’s easy to forget that the iPad has only been on the market for 41 months. And Apple is continuing to be wildly successful with iOS as a platform.

So why doesn’t it seem that way? Again, because the tech media is focused on pieces of data like market share. Sure, as a whole, Android phones now have a higher market share than the iPhone. (For tablets, it’s still not even a close race yet.) But that statement overlooks the common flaws of Android: there are hundreds of Android phones that come and go almost on a weekly basis that are making up that market share. These phones each have different shapes, screen sizes, and core features. And the vast majority of Android users are stuck on a version of Android that could be up to three years old, with no way to upgrade. And all of these flaws mean poor user experience, and a poor experience for developers.

iPhone 5 - IOS 7Even so, Apple’s competition has gotten more organized, with Samsung leading the way. That’s why a big focus for Apple this fall will have to be to show the world if they have what it takes to refresh their platform and stay ahead of the competition. The preview of iOS 7 back in June was a first step towards this goal, but we won’t get to really find out how effective that will be until the final iOS 7 ships on some shiny new hardware.

Overhyped as it may be, Tuesday is Apple’s big chance of the year to demonstrate to the tech industry and the tech punditry how they intend to respond to the advances made by their competitors and stay ahead of the curve. And for everyone to see whether Apple can keep innovating its way to continued success.

This entry was posted in Commentary, From the Apple Tree by Douglas Bell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Bell

I live in Washington, D.C., and work as a Broadcast Technician at WAMU 88.5 FM, the local NPR affiliate in the Washington metro area. My primary shift is to engineer the local feed of NPR’s Morning Edition, including local news and weather, long-form features and station breaks… and yes, the shift starts at 5 am, so I’ve got the whole quasi-nocturnal thing going on. I am also the Coordinating Producer for Ken Rudin’s Political Junkie, an independently-produced podcast and public radio program. Extracurricularly, I play cello, and participate in a church choir and a handbell choir. I enjoy discovering new places, and am constantly searching for the perfect cheeseburger. I am also known as a frequent teller of puns.