13-inch MacBook Air (Mid-2011)

13-inch MacBook Air (Mid-2011)

This week the Apple web is alight with speculation that the iPhone 5 is even further away from release than we originally thought, all thanks to a rumour from John Paczkowski over at All Things D. The current iPhone 4 has already been on the market longer than any other iPhone with Apple flouting its almost habitual June schedule of hardware releases.

Instead, as covered by World of Apple, the company has begun a new cycle of combined hardware and software releases in the aim of tying them together.

Apple has three product groups, in terms of hardware: iOS, Mac and iPod. For the last few years each has had a fairly predictable release schedule that went something like iOS developer release in April which ran up to a public release alongside iPhone hardware in June. This was followed by the very regular iPod releases in mid-September. Macs are not so easy to predict as Apple has in the past not always stuck to processor production roadmaps, but we do know that Apple won’t release Macs any later than October and that it will aim to have the most up-to-date models on the market for the Christmas season and its more student friendly notebooks will be ready before the summers end.

But things have changed, take a look at Apple’s product sales charts for the last 24 months or so and you’ll see a recurring pattern, the sale of Apple’s once incredibly popular MP3 player is slowly beginning to sink. Only being held buoyant by reasonably healthy sales of the iPod touch. Apple has also run its ground feature-wise with most of the iPods, at least to the point where changes aren’t going to be headlines the next day.

Quarterly iPod unit sales (Q311)

Quarterly iPod unit sales up to Q311 (Click to enlarge)

Apple’s solution is to shift the normal timeline, the iPods will be refreshed but the usually music focused event in September will be an iOS focused event including the official release date of iOS 5 and the iPhone 5, as well as a refreshed iPod touch. Don’t get me wrong I don’t expect Apple to lose the music feel this event has always had but an updated camera on the iPod nano and a shuffle so small that it can barely be seen do not warrant an entire event in Apple’s eyes.

There is of course an anomaly here: the iPad. By my outlined logic if Apple is releasing a new version of iOS then surely it should have new iPad hardware too? This is a tricky one, if Apple waits until September 2012 to match up the refresh cycle of the iPad then the product will be very old and the tablet market is moving too quick for that. If Apple does a full refresh in September this year then it would turn out as more of an iteration of the current iPad 2 as the technology hasn’t moved forward enough, maybe that could carry it through to September but would it warrant an iPad 3 moniker and after dubbing 2011 the “year of iPad 2”, would it be wise? The iPad is a subject that needs further discussion in the coming weeks.

The only product that is left to discuss here is the Mac, made up of five different products it’s not easy to predict when Apple will refresh them all. Macs are primarily sold more at two times of year, in the run up to December and during what Apple calls the “Back to School” period which includes students across the board returning to education but generally runs from July until September. Apple sells considerably more notebooks than desktops each quarter, increasingly this is being driven by sales of the popular MacBook Air and shows no sign of reversing. Whilst Apple has more recently become proactive in keeping its notebooks with the latest and greatest the desktop machines are often left a few months behind, it’s a sign of the times but it sure does make predicting product releases nigh on impossible in advance.

So before we looked at the pattern of releases Apple has been using for the last few years, so how does it look now?

The big stuff will kick off in June, we’ll see an iOS release announced at WWDC leading up to September with the 3-4 month developer testing cycle, the previously iPod focussed event will be an iOS event eventually putting the spotlight on iPhone, iPad and iPod touch releases. July and October will be the months of Macs, Apple’s lower-end notebooks in July for the students and the higher-end MacBook Pros and iMacs in October to hit the holiday season.

August, November and December will remain product free months as they always have been. January used to be a popular month for releases due to Macworld but looks increasingly less like a favoured month for Apple to release products. The most favourable time for Apple early in the year is late-February, March and April for those mid-cycle Mac releases.

As for the rumoured October release of the next iPhone, it’s unlikely to say the least, but as with all Apple rumours the details and the sourcing were scant. Which means that if the source was a carrier then as with all previous iPhone releases Apple will stagger the shipping dates and whilst the iPhone will be announced in mid-September, shipping at around the same time, some other countries could not see it land until October.