Apple’s Product Release Cycle Needs Tuning

| Editorial

The iPad was released without a gyroscope or a camera. The iPhone 4, a few months later, had all that cool stuff. The iPad’s iOS is way behind the iPhone. The next iPad release is a puzzlement. The MacBook Air remains in limbo. What’s going on?

In earlier times, Apple released new products on a fairly regular, predictable schedule. Macs designed for K-12 were released in the spring when those schools made buying decisions for the fall. Pro-level Macs were released in the fall for college and iPods were released in September for back to school and the holiday season. Lately, however, Apple’s release cycle for some of its products seems arbitrary and counter productive.

All this came up during a conference call with the TMO staff this morning. We started thinking about the release of the iPad in April without a camera and surmised that there were either technical problems with that camera, or Apple was saving all the (FaceTime) glamor for the new iPhone 4 to be released in June. The first thing Ted Landau noted was that if Apple were to keep that schedule intact, then we won’t see hardware updates on the iPad until nine months after the next generation iPhone debuts each June.

This doesn’t even take into account the iOS release cycle, and we’ve seen already how the iPad is lagging.

Some editors agreed with the annual iPad update in April at first, but then we all started thinking that the next update needs to really be at Christmas. The reasons are twofold. First, it keeps the lag between the glitzy iPhone update and the iPad update to a minimum. Secondly, it exploits the holiday buying season.

There are others who might argue that Apple really needs to smooth out its quarterly fluctuations in revenue, and that idea supports the retention an April update cycle for iPad. That gives Apple major updates to the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch in April, June, and September. My feeling is that the satisfaction of the iPad customers, however, takes priority. Right now, waiting nine months for cool new things on the iPhone to percolate into the iPad nine months later doesn’t achieve that goal.

The Macintosh Side

Apple seems to have also dropped into a quandary with the MacBook Air — the last update was in mid-2009. Will the iPad mature quickly enough to supplant the MacBook Air? Has Apple made a decision to discontinue the MacBook Air? After all, it’s stuck on a Core 2 Duo and a maximum of 2 GB of RAM. Perhaps Apple is rethinking the market position of the MacBook Air now that the iPad is a huge success. As for me, I don’t believe the iPad will advance quickly enough to make the MBA OBE (overcome by events). That would mean a MacBook Air update soon, but Apple is sure taking its sweet time.

The Mac Pro is also suffering from protracted delays in updates. The most recent update was July 27, 2010 a longish delay from March 3, 2009. And not a huge update at that.

Of course, we are all well aware of the issues related to the graphics processors on new Macs, and that certainly has to be a contributor. But my feeling is that there has been so much emphasis on the iPad (all good) and the iPhone (mostly good, add a pint of antennagate), that Apple hasn’t been able to remain 100 percent focused on maintaining a healthy Macintosh upgrade cycle.

Apple will never have the perfect product release cycle. Component parts availability, lawsuits, squabbles with partners, internal resource availability, engineering issues, and OS compatibility issues will always conspire to hose up any company’s hardware release cycle. However, to the extent that Apple can control its fate, it would seem that some tinkering is in order, especially with respect to the iPad, MacBook Air and Mac Pro.

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21 Comments Leave Your Own

MOSiX Man

Sorry, John, but whenever I hear someone (whether or not they have the qualifications to really be considered an expert in the field for which they are offering their opinion - I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, there) saying ‘Apple should really be doing things like this, instead of how they’ve been doing them…’, the first thing that comes to mind is ‘Yeah, because obviously they don’t have a good reason for doing things the way they do them. That must be why they are in such dire straits, right now. *snicker*’

Now, if Apple were on top and had become the type of company that would keep making the same mistakes, and doing so really threatened to knock them off the top, then I’d be all for throwing around advice on how to fix Apple. However, despite it’s stratospheric growth, Apple still seems pretty apt to learn from what it deems its mistakes to be and make corrections when necessary.

b9bot

I don’t see anything wrong with Apple’s product release schedules. They release a product when it is ready to be released and not before. They do there releases in an unpredictable way so as to give more impact with there products. It also prevents buyers from waiting on releases if they were predictable so sales would slow more. That’s another reason Apple stopped doing Mac World. People would stop buying until after Mac World knowing new products would be announced and released. Sales would slow or stop. Not what a company wants at all. I think Apple has already tuned there releases in this unpredictable way to keep sales moving all the time.
It’s already tuned the way Apple likes it.

Nemo

John, subject to all of the other considerations that you discuss in your editorial (availability of components, contracts with partners, etc.), I think that Apple is being governed by the principle that it will ship when a product or service is ready and not a moment before and not a moment later.  And part of that principle is not to ship simply for the sake of shipping something that is new, when what is new is not a significant enhancement. 

Applying that principle does, I think, along with the other considerations you mentioned, explain the upgrade cycles for Apple’s products and services, especially the idea that Apple resist shipping until it has an enhancement that will delight its customers by significantly improving their experience with new features or at least an enhancement, such as new Intel processors that are truly an improvement, that keeps the Apple’s products current with the state of the art.

geoduck

One comment about the iPad
It seems to me that Apple has a long history of releasing a new product in what later seems to be an ‘incomplete’ form. They often make sure the device works and then add the features that make it great. The original iPhone was good. The 3G and then 3Gs were great. The iPod was good. A couple of generations later when the iTunes store was up and running and the units had matured it was great. And so on. The iPad is good. Once rev 2 comes out with the camera, and gyros and iOS 4 and all of the other bells and whistles that the iPhone4 has it will be great. IMO this is just following the same pattern of releasing the basic unit and once it’s proven itself adding the trimmings.

When will rev2 iPads be seen? I’d bet on January. Any sooner would mess up Christmas sales and would prompt grumbling from the early adopters.

Nemo

And one more thing.  There has been a change in the law that should allow either Nvidia or AMD or both to reenter the market for graphic chip sets that compete with Intel’s Intergrated Graphics Processors (IGP).  Recently, Intel and the FTC have settled the FTC’s case against Intel for asserting its patents in its processors to foreclose competition in the market for competing integrated graphics and supporting chipsets.  I have not read the entire settlement, but the gist of it seems to be that Intel, for its part, must, inter alia, revise its license agreements with Nvidia, AMD, and anyone else wishing to compete so that they can make graphic chipsets that compete with IGP.  This means that one of the great impediments to Apple adopting the new Intel processors across its product lines, being forced to use the inferior IGP, will be gone once Nvidia restore production of its superior graphic chipsets, and AMD may now also get into the act of competing with IGP.

Mark Hernandez

Instead of this kind of article, try considering “What does Apple know that I don’t know?”  The answer is obvious.

Don’t you think they’ve had flash working on all their devices in their labs a long time ago?  Don’t you think they have FaceTime working internally on the iPad (which is heavy and hard to hold up for a while and would shake a lot and there is no reason to put a camera in it until you have to, competitively speaking.)

Plus, Apple has inside connections with every last ISP, mobile carrier and chip manufacturer on the planet, and has 226 stores with direct contact with customers in the US alone.  Apple knows EXACTLY what is going on and is balancing their world of tradeoffs as best as is possible.

If something isn’t happening to your liking, can you think of a realistic reason why that might be, other than “they don’t know what they are doing.” ??

If they spent $100 million just on their antenna testing facilities, don’t you think they have the most awesome “war room” in existence?

And you want us to believe that you know better?  Really!

Apple is about to surprise everyone in the next week or so, AGAIN, and you think you know how they should play this game better?

<shaking head>

Or did you just write this to get pageviews?

grin

Mark Hernandez
Information Workshop

Mark Hernandez

Sorry, I just have a hard time with the thinking that Apple isn’t doing enough, when there’s probably no other company that does anywhere nears as much.  They need to be cut some slack.  I flew off the handle and the wheels went flying!

Mark

hangtown

I have to admit, I find myself disagreeing with John a bit, but I don’t see why this article is getting such negative comments. I think Apple could definitely stand to get at least the iPad more in line with the iPhone in terms of OS version more quickly than they’re doing. I think that makes sense.

Obviously there are reasons they aren’t doing so yet, but quite frankly, I doubt any of you would complain or feel like Apple messed things up if they had done so when iOS 4 came out for the iPhone.

Lancashire-Witch

Component parts availability, lawsuits, squabbles with partners, internal resource availability, engineering issues, and OS compatibility issues will always conspire to hose up any company?s hardware release cycle.

John, Do you think the recent rapid increase in Apple’s popularity and size could be factors?
For example, I assume the Company has more employees now than at any time in its history.
Planning may have once been within the capabilities of one man, but I’m guessing that’s no longer the case.

John Martellaro

Or did you just write this to get pageviews?

You can probably tell from the tone of the editorial (as many questions & alternatives as proposals) that I write to start a healthy discussion amongst our very intelligent readers.  That’s what just happened.

John Martellaro

Nemo:

And one more thing.? There has been a change in the law that should allow either Nvidia or AMD or both to reenter the market for graphic chip sets that compete with Intel?s Intergrated Graphics Processors (IGP).?

Thanks for that update, sir.

nytesky

Revising the iPad in April every year makes perfect sense. The iPod touch is the closest to the iPhone so the components and manufacturing need the least alterations. The iPad is very different and Apple could use the time to source the components and update iOS to accommodate the new features in an iPad. It also smooths out revenue spikes and spreads out manufacturing ramps.

As for Macs, I think two things are determining when they are updated. First is Intel’s roadmap for chips. Apple knows which chips they want to use, and Intel probably does their best to accommodate them. But that doesn’t always mean they can. Second is rethinking the features that will make a product more compelling. The MBA is squarely in this category because it needs to be somewhere between an iPad and a MacBook with enough differentiation to make it compelling and unique.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they updated the MBA in a way that it is more expensive than an iPad but cheaper than a MacBook Pro. What I’d like to see is an MBA that has a touch screen like an iPad, a pull out keyboard, and running Mac OS X for $999. That would be a great transitional product.

John Martellaro

Lancashire-Witch:

John, Do you think the recent rapid increase in Apple?s popularity and size could be factors?
For example, I assume the Company has more employees now than at any time in its history.
Planning may have once been within the capabilities of one man, but I?m guessing that?s no longer the case.

In an indirect way, yes.  Mr. Jobs enforces a certain kind of lean, “start-up company” but artificial constraint on resources.  It eliminates shoddy, bloated products, but also can cause the kinds of limitations I discussed.

pats

Just to add my two cents.  Apple is now building their own SOCs for the iOS line of computers.  All things being equal, I would release on the iPad first since it has a larger power budget and is a lower volume device this gives time to ramp the chip manufacturing and increase the yield for the iPhone, iPod is a Christmas seller so we align that with the Sept release and we try and balance our monthly production.  I say they are pretty smart.  The semi-conductor industry always suffers for the cyclical purchases.  Apple is working to balance the manufacturing.  If you build everything for the Christmas qtr and you fail you carry a ton of inventory into the new cycle.  By releasing iPAD when they did they could get it out the door before the focus switched to iPhone and iOS 4.  This caused a mismatch between software cycles 3.2 vs 4.0.  It will be interesting to see how they deal with 5.0 next year.  I would expect the iPad will be the first to see the A5 or what-ever they call the follow-on processor.  Apple added grand central dispatch to iOS for a reason.  As far as bits and pieces of hardware, did you ever consider price points and BOM.  Maybe the camera and gyro were left out for reasons.  The gyro is great for camera stabilization oh wait there is no camera in the iPad so I guess we don’t need the gyro.

On the MAC side look at Intel’s chip roadmap and wether they have suitable follow-on chips which have already ramped production.

wab95

John et al:

Just a thought. Apple is undergoing substantial growth, not only in market share, product lines, and therefore customer base (by that I mean not simply numbers - similar to market share - but diversity in that that implies). The Apple of 2002 cannot possibly meet the demand expected of Apple 2010 with the same outcomes and deliveries of 2002, i.e. great products and extremely satisfied, loyal customers.

In my own professional world, we have had a history of turning out great research at a level few competitors can match. This has resulted in the past few years in increasing numbers and size of grants (a good thing in academia); but also has resulted in an increasingly complex operation with multiple studies being executed simultaneously. We are currently launching three new studies - all large scale over multiple years. One byproduct, we have had to expand our research staff substantially. To deliver the same quality of research, which my study sponsors rightfully expect, requires periodic infusion of time on my part to get new hires up to the same performance quality as the veteran staff. Outwardly, it seems that our productivity slows or becomes irregular. In reality, there is a great deal of internal development (not unlike a foetus in first trimester) that is not apparent to the outsider. That in turn is followed by sustained, high quality (or so I’d like to think) output once that infrastructural development is complete. We will not deploy until performance capacity meets our internal expectations, and we are confident about the quality of our deliverables (in our case, research outcomes).

It seems to me that Apple, or any rapidly expanding company or operation, must undergo the same phenomenon; or risk suffering the performance and quality hit that beset Toyota this past year, a company that admitted that it had simply grown too fast, too quickly. If Apple has performance indicators, and they must, it seems that these, more than anything else, will drive their schedules.

geoduck

It seems to me that Apple, or any rapidly expanding company or operation, must undergo the same phenomenon; or risk suffering the performance and quality hit that beset Toyota this past year,

Toyota is a very good example. The core quality has not gone down but they’ve made a number of stupid mistakes and then the press got into a feeding frenzy. The over the top iPhone4-Is-A-Fiasco coverage reminded me a lot of the Prius-As-Death-Trap coverage last year. Both were blown WAY out of proportion to the real scale of the problem.

John Martellaro

Both were blown WAY out of proportion to the real scale of the problem.

Geoduck: I don’t see how the extent of the coverage in, say, air-time minutes) or Webpage words needs to correlate to the extent of the problem by some arbitrary standard.  It sounds like you’re saying that because 0.5 percent of the iPhone 4 users were complaining or affected that the antenna issues needed to be 0.5 percent of news coverage.  (Actually, that’s about right for the TV coverage.)

I watched the Toyota coverage with interest. When an issue seems minor by some technical standard but could potentially affect every customer (who’s to know?) then interest is keen because there’s potential danger.  We want to know what’s been discovered, what Toyota is saying, and we want to follow the course of the problem. Daly updates provide recaps and new events.  All that entails more air-time minutes than Toyota might wish for a problem that affects, once again, a tiny percentage of the customers.

In other words, coverage is based on the keen interest of all the customers concerned, not on the percentage of customers affected.

You may describe that process as blowing the coverage way out of proportion to the problem, but that’s a very hard metric to quantify.

FalKirk

My knee-jerk reaction to this article is that it is premature. The iPad came out in April. Certain hardware elements, like the cameras, were not availabe. Certain software elements, like iOS, were not availabe. The iOS omission is scheduled to be fixed in the Fall. Some hardware elements will be added in the next iteration in April. The iPad is a brand new device and I think it’s fair to say that Apple’s first effort was a great one. Let’s give Apple at least a year and perhaps a bit longer to get it’s release schedule together. I think they’ve earned more patientnce than we’re giving them.

geoduck

Sorry if I wasn’t clear. I wasn’t referring to the quantity of coverage, though that was IMO rather overdone as well. (There were many days when there was as many or more stories on the iPhone4 as the Afghanistan war. I know which one of those I think is more important.)  I meant the tone. It wasn’t so much delivering information on a potential problem with the product as much as fear mongering. It’s what I meant by the feeding frenzy. The antenna issue became ‘antennagate’ and the ‘grip of death’ with all of the evil overtones of abuse and criminality therein. The Prius accelerator issue became ‘why is Toyota lying in order to kill you’. I even felt that at a time when the US auto industry was in trouble that there were those in broadcast media especially that were artificially inflating and hyping the Prius problem in order to take Toyota down a notch. That’s not the media’s job.

I’d agree that it’s hard to quantify but like pornography you can tell when a news outlet is blowing a story. TMO and a few other sites covered the iPhone4 antenna problem well, in a thoughtful manner. They presented the information and both sides in a fairly balanced way. Many other sites and almost all broadcast media blew both stories big time and chose hype over facts. Fortunately it looks like the customers saw through the shrill chatter and continue to buy both products. That suggests to me that the public opinion of most news outlets just took another hit.

Lancashire-Witch

Mr. Jobs enforces a certain kind of lean, ?start-up company? but artificial constraint on resources.


No place for an ex-IBM man!  Perhaps Mr. P thought he could make some changes and showed up in a white shirt & dark suit on his first day.

wab95

You may describe that process as blowing the coverage way out of proportion to the problem, but that?s a very hard metric to quantify.

Been out in the field, but wanted to respond to this. I believe there is an issue of balance in media coverage, which affects not just Apple, Toyota or even (gasp) BP, but all of us. The question, at least in my view, is not what proportion of customers have been affected, but how representative is the coverage. Specifically:

1) How representative is it of the views of the general public, and particularly the typical product user?
2) Are all the issues and viewpoints being aired, and if so, are they in proportion to their distribution in the affected population (in epidemiology this called ‘representativeness’ and its opposite, namely disproportionate representation is called ‘bias’)?
3) Is the emphasis given to the problem proportionate to the magnitude of the problem (not just numbers affected, but potential impact on the at-risk population)? This last quality is perhaps the most challenging, but not beyond the scope of a professional investigator to achieve, and it is their responsibility to at least strive to do so.

If the answer to all three of these questions is ‘yes’, then the coverage is just (‘fair’ is another matter). If not, then acting on biased information can have untoward consequences for at least some, or all, concerned; and that is unjust.

In the current climate, whether it is the iPhone antenna question, Toyota accelerators, or oil in the Gulf, the burden has been and remains on the information consumer to entertain multiple news sources, be open to different opinions (unbiased) and think for themselves. In short, to be mature about consuming information and acting on it.

Climbing off the soap box, and going back to work.

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