Apple’s Product Release Cycle Needs Tuning

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.