Thoughts and Reflections on Apple’s Product Release Cycle

With this week’s release of the iPad 2 (in the USA, at least), I know that many of you will now be sitting at home feeling ever so slightly less satisfied with the original iPad sat on your desk. It’s a strange phenomenon. Your iPad is no less amazing today than it was last week, but it feels that way…

Very few Apple fans can afford to buy each and every new product release, and the feeling of being slightly “out of date” is something that we’ve all come to accept as the norm. This isn’t exactly a bad thing. Let’s face it – a twelve month old iPad is still a long, long way ahead of any other competing device on the market.

But how does Apple’s release cycle operate, and is their approach working?

An Annual Thing…

For a long time, Apple has taken the approach of a yearly update cycle for most products. The iPod line-up is regularly refreshed in September, new iPhones are released around June, and the iPad seems to be settling into a schedule based on a March release.

Desktop and notebook computer updates aren’t quite so predictable, but Apple’s main product lines (the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and iMac) generally see updates every 8-12 months.

I’ve linked here before, but the MacRumours Buyer’s Guide is a great way to see the average release cycles for products, and check whether a particular device is due for an update soon.

This yearly update cycle seems to be engrained into Apple’s DNA, and is something that I don’t expect to see change any time soon.

It’s Not About Upgrading

Whenever a new product is released, many people immediately assume that it’s Apple’s intention to use this as a way to persuade existing customers to upgrade. Although sometimes the case, it’s an exception rather than the norm.

Let’s take the iPad 2 as an example. This is a ridiculously young market, and people are only just starting to appreciate the magic of touch-screen computing done right. Although tablets have been around for several years, the iPad was the first device to offer an OS that was carefully tailored to match the hardware (there was nothing “magical” about Windows XP Tablet Edition, even if it was available five years ago).

Apple’s announcement of having sold 15 million iPads is an impressive number, but it’s nothing compared to the potential this market has over the coming decade. And make no mistake – with the iPad 2, Apple is focused on reaching the hundreds of millions of potential tablet computing users, rather than persuading their existing user base to upgrade.

Their intention isn’t to make your first-gen iPad feel out of date, but rather to make a device that will be irresistible to the millions of computer users that are yet to buy their first tablet.

Lapping the Competition

Personally, I’m of the opinion that a yearly release cycle is more or less perfect. It keeps competitors on their toes, and fuels the Apple iteration machine. Just as competitors shift their “tablet production mode” into second gear, Apple has sped once around the circuit and lapped them with the iPad 2.

But what do you think of this approach? Does a yearly update cycle drive innovation to remain ahead of the market, or does it leave too many customers feeling out-dated straight away? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

And – just as an aside – I don’t have a problem with being slightly out of date. My first-generation iPad still feels completely magical to me, and I look forward to using it until the Retina Display makes its way into an Apple tablet next year…


  • Ed

    I like the yearly cycle because then I have a pretty good idea of when the next version is coming out. For example, I was thinking about getting an iPad for christmas… however knowing that there was probably a new coming Feb/Mar. I decided to wait and I am glad that I waited.

  • http://fairheadcreative.com Adam Fairhead

    Not to mention the fact that yesteryear’s Apple products are normally ahead of products of tomorrow from many other brands, leaving a selection of refurb goods that pose as a real steal.

  • Fabiano Coelho

    Congrats. Nice post.
    I don’t have an ipad and I just choose to get myself a Macbook Air instead.
    :)

  • Dynames

    I think this is a mistake. Other brands give to people the ultimate hardware and software, and keeps the product configuration more than a year. But one year after, the same product has updated parts ( less size, less height, less batery consume ) and less price. When the brand sees that it’s time to make a bigger leap they sells a new product with the best software and hardware. But apple don’t think this way. Apple sells a cheap hardware (iPad 1) and overpriced software (ios) without any current tecnology ( without ports and without camera ) but higher price and stupid reasons (ipad 1 hasn’t got camera because there is no space available ….) Now they come with ipad 2 with a cheap camera, and…..a cute case. Only a “bigger” core but it’s no important because ipad runs App-toys. There is nothing that can make ipad not be done on a pc or mac

    • http://davidappleyard.net David Appleyard

      I don’t think the idea of holding back on cutting-edge technology is unique to Apple, by any means. No technology company ships the absolute latest and greatest piece of kit they can (there’s always something held back for the next revision…)

      And arguing that iOS is “overpriced” is hard, when it comes bundled with the device and all future updates are free.

      The iPad isn’t about doing this that you can’t do on a Mac or PC, it’s about doing them differently and in a more natural way. Even if I take something as simple as Angry Birds – sure, this runs on a Mac now, but it’s a terrible experience compared to using the iPad.

      • dynames

        Play station 3 sounds good for you?
        Now, “doing things in a more natural way” is a lie on Ipad. Is the touchscreen the natural way to do things? Hundred of years the human being has done tools as extensions of his body, but we are take them away for touchscreens?Really?
        If you have got a laptop you dont need an ipad, it is like girls buying shoes: hundreds of pairs! But you need it? NEED is the question. If you don’t need it then why the ipad? It is like a toy for us? within its app-toys ? Is it productivity?

    • http://www.thegraphicmac.com Jim

      That’s about the uninformed and somewhat ignorant comment, Dynames, I’ve seen on this site.

      You logic defies discussion.

      • dynames

        At their own time: playstation3, xbox360, gamecube, megadrive.
        There are so many examples of up-to-date tecnology persistent for years.

  • http://danielmee.tumblr.com Daniel Mee

    My boss finally switched and bought a MacBook Pro. Two weeks later the new version came out and stores started slashing prices by $1000 to move the old model. He was furious and vowed never to buy a mac again.
    I don’t think their cycle is a problem, it’s the lack of knowing a new model is coming out and what exactly you are buying. He said usually what a company would do is have a run out price a couple of months before a new release so customers who bought knew what they were buying.
    I tend to agree with him – you would feel very cheated.

    • http://davidappleyard.net David Appleyard

      When buying a product – a Mac, or anything else – you make a decision. You decide that the price of that product is worth the value that you’ll gain from it.

      With this logic, being bitter about missing out on an upgraded model isn’t something that you should dwell over for too long.

      Look at it this way – if your boss had never known about the update, would he have been completely happy with his purchase and considered it good value for money? My guess would be yes…

  • Eddie Burflor

    I think this has a lot to do with the kinda limited range of hardware apple has to offer in each category. Take Dell for example who has inspiron notebooks from 1-9000 or something, they can always “upgrade” without saying they are upgrading exactly your model.

    Apple is much more transparent – which I like better as a customer, though it may piss off some costumers that they know if their new computer just got upgraded (like the boss mentioned above).

  • Benjamin

    I feel that Apple updates products like the iphone, ipad and ipod too often. They always do incremental updates. It’s a “genious” way to knock money out of people’s pockets. I’m sure that they could put more bells and whistles in their products when they’re released. It’s good that we know when products are likely to be updated, but sometimes it’s too often and not a big difference from previous versions. So why did they make the iPhone 3GS and why are they making the iPad 2? They could have easily skipped the 3GS and go right away for the iPhone 4. And they definitely could’ve put better camera’s in the iPad two and maybe even a retina display. But they didn’t, because that’s what they will give us with the release of iPad 3. It’s because of the money I tell you. Apple can be really greedy. But I still love their products :-)

    • http://hexl.co.uk Adam Hughes

      Just imagine if Apple were too make all those changes to the iPad 2. It wouldn’t be classed as an upgrade, it would be classed as a completely different product which would annoy people even more.

      Also, people going on about the retina display annoy the hell out of me.

      If apple were to put a retina display in the iPad 2 it would have skyrocketed the price. You’re looking at a possible resolution of 2560 x 1920 which is more than the Apple 27-inch Cinema Display.

      This article has some good info and a good discussion about if a retina display is possible

      http://gdgt.com/discuss/if-ipad-2nd-gen-gets-retina-display-bcj/

      • Benjamin

        You shouldn’t say that certain people annoy you. Let’s keep this thread clean and friendly…

        But thanks for the link. My point was not that I WANT a retina display, but that Apple “maybe” could have put a retina display in the ipad 2 (or some higher resolution display). I just said it to make a point.
        And about the price: the iPhone 4 has the same price as the iPhone 3GS, right?

        Well, we’ll see what the future brings…

  • Andy

    This cycle hurts the existing customers. No matter what you say about value if that upgrade hadn’t being done. It’s just not a human tendency to buy a product and next day see it’s cost cut by a half and see an upgraded version of it. Don’t get me wrong here, I absolutely love my Macbook but after a few months I bought it, I saw Apple launching a new Macbook with upgraded features for the same cost and the my expression was like :|

    • http://www.thegraphicmac.com Jim

      I have an original MacPro that runs perfectly. I don’t feel “hurt” because Apple has released several revisions of the MacPro since then. They’re all infinitely faster than mine, but mine still runs the same as the day I bought it – which is much faster than the previous G5 I had.

      I think ego and buyers remorse are in effect – not Apple’s flawed or harmful business strategy.

  • Jonathan

    I think the “I just bought, but now a new version is out” argument is a joke. That is true for almost every product out there. If someone doesn’t do the research to find out that the iPhone 5 is out in June and Buys a white iPhone 4 in May is that an issue with Apple? And instead of complaining about it, what would you suggest doing differently? How does Apple tell the first time buyer “No, its May, you want to wait a month!”. The only compelling argument I’ve seen is is to give the it’s last years model sale just before the release instead of after the upgrade is released.

    That said, I love knowing the Apple has a schedule and i can buy an iPhone in August knowing I will get maximum usage.

  • http://nataliaventre.com Natalia Ventre

    I like that Apple has expected dates for new models, I don’t know if other companies do the same.

    I think that the differences between models are usually not that radical to consider the previous one outdated or useless. It’s a personal issue, not Apple’s fault if someone feels the need to have the last model on the market.

  • http://hexl.co.uk Adam Hughes

    I have no real issue with them updating every year. That’s what drives their innovation and keeps improving their products. It would be nice to be able to upgrade some their things easier though or if they offered a part-exchange program.

    The biggest gripe I have though is that iMovie is not compatible for the original iPad. If other developers start making their best apps ‘only’ work with the iPad 2 then that really shits on the original iPad.

    • http://wa3l.com Wael Al-Sallami

      True, it would also ruin Apple’s “fragmentation” accusations to Google, because they would also be a fragmented platform of sort, which not only “shits on the original iPad”, but will do so on Apple itself!

  • http://wa3l.com Wael Al-Sallami

    Well let’s look at it this way, every major car manufacturer makes a new car each year, you buy the Ferrari 2010, and you see the 2011 version a few months later and you feel out dated with your Ferrari …. did anyone complain about this? heck … think about when you get married, 5 years later and you WILL feel outdated when you see a hot young lady! … that’s life, not an Apple evil strategy.

    And if you ever feel outdated, just sell your iPad/gadget on eBay … or get a divorce for that matters ;)

  • http://classyllama.com Kevin

    I don’t care about feeling “out-dated” because I LOVE to see progress. I hate it when companies slow or reduce their progress just to pull more money out of our pockets… Let’s get somewhere and let’s do it fast. I love Apple for that reason.

  • J.C.

    I think in part you’ve really missed the point beneath it all. Innovation is dependent upon competition, not scheduling or any perception of “magic” (be it the occult type or just prestidigitation). Inevitable in any market or division of world society when on faction constantly is ahead (or percieved to be ahead) of the rest through marketing, it leads to stagnation and becomes less about what people really need or want and more about what they are told they need and want.

    Here’s hoping that competitors rise to address what Apple is missing in its products, and that Apple does likewise with its competitors, rather than just telling people what’s magical and want isn’t… as you have implied. Therein lies the health and continued success of the Apple… thereing lies where innovation truly comes from. Schedules are irrelevant either way.

    • http://davidappleyard.net David Appleyard

      That’s a great point, J.C. Competition is absolutely key, and Apple certainly need other people to keep them on their toes!

  • Flo

    Okay, so when I saw the 2010′s edition of the iPod shuffle, I was simply glad that I bought an “old” one some months before and I didn’t feel to upgrade soon. The one without buttons indeed was kinda magical, impressive … simply a future-like gadget. The new one has … BUTTONS. Aaaah …

    Same with the new 13 inches MacBook Pro – my mid 2010 version’s battery lasts “up to ten hours” – and I really enjoy it. And I would never give this staying power for some of those new and “incredible” processors. My Core2Duo machine just works fine … and I love to play games with it. ;-)

  • http://www.rebatesense.com RebateSense

    I do agree that Apple products give you the best value for the dollar you spend. I do have Unibody MacBook that works fine but still lacks in terms of Thunderbolt and the quad-core processors and such. Was thinking for a while to upgrade but always on the hold to wait for couple more months for this and couple more months for that and it’s been going on for a while now. I know this would be changing and become “sort of” obsolete in a short while and was waiting to see when would be a desparate upgrade time. The same goes for upgrading the OS as well, was about to upgrade to Snow Leopard very lately but was hesitant as Lion is on the horizon. Most of the time Apple products look like moving targets, which is good and bad I guess for 2 different market segments.

  • Jon

    The bottom line is this. Apple moves things forward. Without iOS, there wouldn’t be a standard for other platforms to live up to. Like the part about Windows XP Tablet Edition. Also, just about every review you see about an Android device at some point refers to how it compares to an iPhone or iPad.

    People don’t really take the time to actually read what’s being upgraded anyway. It’s not like every year Apple is doubling or quadrupling the speed and/or capacity of a device. Most of the upgrades are minor at best. The difference of 2.0 GHz and 2.3 GHz while reading emails or browsing Facebook is well.. zero. Computers spend most of their time doing almost nothing. The point is, people freak out over “upgrades” that have very little (if any) impact on what they actually use the device for. I bet you couldn’t tell if I was playing Angry Birds on an iPad or an iPad2 if you could only see the screen. I think I might try that experiment.

  • Bart

    I think the cycle is good for Apple and the market as well, but I felt bad when the latest MBP came out, since I bought a new one just 6 months before…

  • Asger Jensen

    I think that Apple generally is able to walk the fine line of not making last years’ model feel (too) outdated. E.g. if the iPad2 had a retina display it would have been too far ahead of the original not to let those users feel quite a bit left behind.

    I have a spring 2010 Macbook Pro 15 – Will wait till 2012
    I had an iPhone 3GS – Could easily have waited for iPhone 5 (but didn’t ;-)
    I am going to buy iPad2 – Hope i can skip iPad3

    ;-)

  • DigitizedSociety

    In my opinion the yearly update cycle is part of the Apple magic. A) It drives the Apple team to continually innovate and figure out how to make next years product better. B) This cycle keeps their products feeling fresh, not stale. C) It keeps Apple in the public throughout the year as they are constantly having either hardware refreshes or new product designs released.

    Because of the yearly update cycle I know that Macs with multiple thunderbolt ports are just 12 months away.

  • Luke

    there is NO WAAAY that retina displays are coming to the iPad any time soon. Yes it would look incredible. But everything would have to be 4 times as big. Surfing the web would be bad because sites would only take up 1/4 of the screen. Plus all the apps would have to be remade again for retina displays.
    I’m not gonna wait for retina displays, ‘cos they’re not coming in iPad any time soon. (as much as i’d like one)

  • Eugene

    “Although tablets have been around for several years, the iPad was the first device to offer an OS that was carefully tailored to match the hardware (there was nothing “magical” about Windows XP Tablet Edition, even if it was available five years ago).”

    How is that even remotely true? Firstly, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_tablet_computers. Windows XP Tablet Edition was released in 2002, which would make it available 9 years ago. Although, it was a completely underwhelming offering, it DID address tablet-specific functionality which would negate your assertion that it wasn’t tailored to the hardware at hand.

    Secondly, since when was iOS4 tailored to the tablet form-factor? I don’t recall reading that iOS4 was branched for the iPad release. In the current generation of tablet computers, Android 3.0 was truly designed from the ground up for the tablet computer and I believe Samsung, Motorola and a few others were amongst the first to capitalize on that.

    • me

      hmm…so it seems u never tried and ipad OR some android 3 tablet…u just read about them…

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