Apple may or may not release a product called the "iPhone 5S" this year. The presumption, however, fueled by Apple having previously released the 2009 iPhone 3GS-as-in-speed, and the 2011 iPhone 4S-as-in-Siri, is that 2013 will see another S-style update. And that, the perception of the yearly update cycle and its tick-tock nature more so than any specific reality, is problematic and for a number of reasons.
Between 2007 and 2010, Apple released new iPhones in late June or early July, one after the other, like clockwork. In 2011 and 2012, Apple released new iPhones in October and September respectively. While that was an offset from summer to fall, it still kept the iPhone release window to roughly a 3 month period. It made it predictable.
Consumers, even the kind that don't read sites like iMore every day, and don't track every rumor they come across, began to realize when new iPhones would be released. That led to a slowdown in sales for existing iPhone models just prior to the presumed next release. Apple taught people when to buy, an by extension, when not to buy.
Apple also taught competitors how to counter-program the iPhone. It's probably not a coincidence that HTC is releasing their next-generation Android phone, the HTC one, this spring, or that Samsung is holding their Galaxy S4 event this March. While I assume BlackBerry might have preferred their relaunch to have been sooner rather than later, they're also introducing the BlackBerry Z10 in the U.S. this month, far from the long, fall shadow of the iPhone.
Rather than competing for attention with Apple, who continues to dominate the media cycles and best-sellers list during their launch quarter, competitors are waiting until halfway in, when the iPhone is no longer new, and yet still not due for a refresh.
Thanks to Apple's tick-tock product cycle, where a new design is introduced one year, and that design is iteratively updated with new internals the next year, both of those elements -- consumer presumption and competitive counter-programming -- become amplified.
When the impression is that Apple will "only" release an S-class phone in any given year, consumers might be more interested in seeing what else is out there. They might be interested in seeing something different.
While the iPhone 5 was almost entirely new from a manufacturing standpoint, because it has the same general, flat, rounded rectangle design as its predecessor, it was criticized by some consumers, and more than its fair share of tech pundits, for being boring. New unibody construction, a camera that was a feat of optical engineering, a taller, 4-inch display, and LTE -- boring. If marketing the iPhone 5 as re-revolutionary was tough, marketing an almost identical-looking iPhone 5S to the same crowd would inevitably be tougher.
Keeping the same design for two years allows Apple tremendous economies of scale, and instead of funding an entirely new phone every year, they can spend their resources on making the same phone better for the same price. That's theoretically good for everyone.
However, holding to the same design also limits what Apple can do to make the iterative iPhone "better". Making the screen bigger again would require a new casing. Adding extra radios like NFC or wireless charging could require changes to the entire package. Fingerprint scanners could complicate the current mechanisms or require other changes. Anything other than a better camera, more advanced processor, and more encompassing LTE chipset could simply be beyond the constraints of an S-style update. They could have to wait for an iPhone 6, or another, new device.
Competitors, meanwhile, can take their biggest shots at Apple during the S-years, throwing even more against the wall in an effort to see what sticks and what clicks. Whether it's digitizer-based styluses and ridiculously large screens or optical image stabilizers and ridiculously dense displays, anything perceived and sold as different has a better chance of standing out against anything perceived as the same, no matter how it's sold.
2013 could be especially brutal in that regard. In previous years Apple enjoyed tremendous market and media support. Even in the face of major PR stumbles like the iPhone 4 antenna, overall Apple enjoyed mostly positive coverage. iOS 6 maps wasn't recovered from as easily or fully, and now Apple is doomed rhetoric fills Wall Street and its journals of record. Often to a stupefying degree. Whatever iPhone Apple fields this year, no matter how good it might be, in the current climate Apple may have to work harder than ever before to get even a percentage of the positive coverage afforded them in the past.
Competitors are also benefiting from the shift in reality distortion. Google is getting a lot of buzz for Project Glass and the Pixel, and Samsung is enjoying unprecedented mindshare for a mobile company without a fruit in its logo. They're also far, far, far exceeding Apple and everyone else in the market when it comes to ad-spend, and it's working for them. They're shaping perception.
A few years ago Apple convinced the world that technology alone wasn't enough, and that it wasn't about specs but experience. Now specs and feature lists are being hurled at Apple, and they're being accused of losing their sense of innovation, and failing to push the envelop.
The original iPhone didn't have 3G or GPS. The iPhone 3GS didn't have the larger, higher resolution screens of then cutting-edge Android phones. The iPhone 4S lacked Retina. The iPhone 5 lacked NFC. That used to cause some complaints among power users. Now even the idea that an un-announced iPhone 5S might not have a 1080p, 400+ ppi display and biometrics is pointed at by an increasingly mainstream audience as proof positive Apple has lost their way, and that other manufacturers are now leading that way.
In tick years Apple has leapt ahead with technology like Retina display. But in tock years like this one? The fear, the one facing some iPhone users, the one expressed on message boards and social networks, is that in the face of such a presumption, real or imagined, and the onslaught of devices from other manufacturers, the "iPhone 5S", also real or imagined, simply won't be enough.
Markets are fickle and sentiment can gain momentum. Apple's a smart company, though. They're well aware of all of this. They understand the problems that come from predictability and the reality-making power of perception. Last year, when explaining why the iPad 3 was called the new iPad, Apple's senior vice-president of global marketing, Phil Schiller, said it was because Apple "didn't want to be predictable". Apple releasing the iPad 4 only seven months after the iPad 3, and the "pedal to the metal" language that came with it, was an even more dramatic showing of that. If Apple can release two iPads (three if you count the iPad mini) in one year, what else could they do?
Rumors abound of less expensive iPhones, and of large screen iPhones. Apple has already bifurcated their tablet lineup into the 9.7-inch iPad and the 7.9-inch iPad mini. There's a rumor that next full-size iPad, at least, could arrive this spring. If Apple chooses to, they could conceivably release one iPad now and one in fall, to better spread out the schedule. Apple could also do the same thing with the iPhone, have two sizes, 4-inch and 5-inch, and eventually have spring and fall releases for those as well.
And there's that watch thing, which could directly or indirectly increase the perception of overall platform value.
Some of these rumors, like all rumors, are no doubt misinterpretations or completely baseless and believing all of them, especially for this year, would be a mistake. But to dismiss all of them, for all time, just because they don't fit a previous pattern, or because they sound like something Apple would never do, could be just as big a mistake.
The "iPhone 5S" problem is the idea that Apple has become predictable coupled with the perception that the next big thing might just come from somewhere else.
Breaking patterns and challenging expectations is just one way to solve that problem.