The expectations around Apple’s upcoming September 12th event are curious. On one side of the coin Apple is set to double down on the technology packed into last year’s iPhone X handset, with an update to the base mode, a phablet-sized version to increase audience appeal, and a lower-priced model to replace the four year old iPhone 6 design. The other side looks at Apple’s approach of incrementally updating the line up as a way to keep the faithful engaged as it struggles to match up with the rush of innovation seen in Android while taking no risks that may disrupt the sales of the Golden Goose.
The faithful are going to get very excited with the new handsets. Every increased specification, every larger screen, every extra gigabyte of storage will see a cheer that tries to raise the roof of the Steve Jobs Center – as if any of the news will be genuine new to those paying attention.
But annual iPhone sales continue to stay locked into the 200 to 210 million handsets per year window. Apple is not reaching out to new markets with significant success. Can this year change that script? Even if that is possible, would Tim Cook gamble the guaranteed handset sales in his hand for the potential of ‘super cycle’ of iPhones?
Last year’s choice of ‘iPhone X’ as the title of the tenth-anniversary smartphone harkened back to successful products such as OS-X, but also led many to question what would happen with the next handset family. Would it be iPhone 11? iPhone Xi? iPhone X2?
The answer appears to be the old trick of adding an ’S’ to the handset. Starting as far back as the iPhone 3G to the iPhone 3G, denoting updated internals, but not updating the design. Following that the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S continued the tradition, then the 5 and the 5S, the 6 and the 6S. By retaining the design of the iPhone 7, the iPhone 8 broke that chain.
Tim Cook has taken the backwards step, and the iPhone X follow-up will be the iPhone XS – reinforcing the idea of a small update to keep the chip specifications in line with the competition. Curiously the phablet sized version will not be the iPhone XS Plus, but is expected to be the iPhone X Max. While the West gets the ‘plus’ suffix to mean phablet, using ‘max’ is a new trick in the US and Europe, but is a common conceit in BRIC countries. Watch for this naming convention to carry over to marketing strategies.
Design wise don’t expect too much to change from last year’s iPhone X to this year’s iPhone XS. No doubt there’ll be talk of a thinner phone, lighter materials, and possibly ‘more space for the battery’ but in terms of new technology the iPhone XS looks to be fresh out of ideas. While the rest of the industry works on improved fingerprint recognition with easier access (through the display), Apple will continue to rely solely on FaceID.
Last year’s iPhone X did have one new piece of technology that is still to be used. While wireless charging was added to the X (and to the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus) Apple’s full power wireless charging solution – AirPower – is still not available to the public. Thankfully the handsets are Qi compatible but Apple’s proud new world of wireless technology has been vaporware for 12 months. Here’s hoping this launch will see practical implementations available to consumers.
Then there’s the iPhone XS Max. Effectively a larger screen than the iPhone XS, Apple may be adding a few hardware tweaks to the ‘Max’ model to help it stand out, but don’t expect much more than a larger screen and more space for the battery (that will be needed to power the larger screen). One addition may be in the telecoms circuitry. It’s likely that Apple’s first dual-SIM iPhone will be the iPhone XS Max, but availability could be limited to BRIC territories… which helps explain the naming switch from Plus to Max.
The big news of course will the ‘cheapest iPhone X model ever’ as Apple seeks to position its third tier model as a ‘budget’ iPhone X. The 6.1 inch screened model will echo the iPhone XS, but with a cheaper LCD screen. Compared to the iPhone XS and XS Max it will be cheaper, and arguably it will be “better value” than the iPhone 8 that it replaces.
But it is not a successor to the iPhone SE (although don’t discount a specs bump so Apple can retain some presence in the $400 price range). The presumptively named iPhone XR (possibly the iPhone XC) is a successor to the iPhone 8. It biases Apple’s portfolio further towards the high end, driving up average revenue per customer and increasing Apple’s turnover. When your sales are effectively static year on year, making more money per customer is vital to Apple’s bottom line. It can’t continue forever, but maybe Tim Cook will get another year before everyone realises he’s following Ballmer’s playbook.
With minimal updates to the technology in the iPhone line-up, expect Tim Cook and his team to bulk out the presentation with a trip round Apple’s (financially vital) cloud services and growing peripheral business.
The biggest update should be to the Apple Watch. The fourth version of the smartwatch is arguably Apple’s biggest success story of the last few years and one of the few areas that Tim Cook can legitimately claim as his own. The wearable is not standalone and requires connection to an iOS device (helping keep that average revenue per user high) and has evolved into a more fitness focused product and remote control.
Expect the focus to be placed on the connection to Apple Health and the cloud based analysis on the data that can be performed on your own data. Yes there’s a new Podcasts app and some media controls as well, but expect these to stay closely tied to the iOS device paired to the Apple Watch.
The iPad Pro range is expecting an update for the Christmas quarter. It may or may not get a reveal here, and I think its appearance (and that of any macOS based product) will come down to the amount of stage time that the iPhone is going to receive. If Apple is going to explain every little detail of the updated handsets (hoping that the press don’t compare it to the standard load out on a mid- to high-end Android smartphone), then the iPad Pro will be relegated to a smaller October event or a quiet roll out on the Apple website during Q4.
As for the outside bets, there continues to be a lot of chatter around a new MacBook design to match the thinner fashionable designs employed by other manufacturers. That could be a reworked MacBook, or the resuscitation of the MacBook Air brand.
Also on the ‘take a big punt’ docket is an update to the Mac Mini designed for the high demands of graphical work. It would be nice, it would be welcomed, and a genuine update to a beloved classic. Done properly it could be the most surprising “One More Thing…” in the last decade.
I’m not holding my breath for that surprise. Or any other surprise. Tim Cook’s Apple has played it safe and taken baby steps to match the competition for the last few years. It’s not going to think different any time soon.