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Very few Apple fans can afford to buy each and every new product release, and the feeling of being slightly “out of date” is something that we’ve all come to accept as the norm.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…