The 'iPhone 5S' problem

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 an iPhone 5s-as-in-something update. Whether it ultimately proves real or not, the perception of a yearly update cycle and its tick-tock nature, is becoming problematic.

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 pushed the date from summer to fall, it still kept the iPhone release window within a roughly a 3 month period. It made it predictable.

Some people like predictability, they like McDonald's, they like to read the spoilers. However, even consumers that don't read sites like iMore every day, and don't track every rumor on the web, 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, and by extension, when not to buy.

Apple also taught competitors how to counter-program the iPhone. It's probably not a coincidence that HTC announced their next-generation Android phone, the HTC one, back in February, 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 spring, 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-seller lists during their launch quarter, competitors are waiting until halfway in, when the iPhone is no longer fresh, 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 problems -- 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 had 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 more aggressive than a better camera, more advanced processor, and more encompassing LTE chipset could simply be beyond the constraints of an S-style update.

In the past, to mitigate against hardware similarity, Apple has turned to software differentiation. Even if it felt arbitrary, the iPhone 3GS had video recording and the iPhone 4S had Siri. An iPhone 5s could also have some other, exclusive flagship software feature.

Competitors, however, are free to 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 incredibly large, ridiculously dense displays, and software that listens for you and watches your every move, 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 received incredibly 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. In this current climate whatever iPhone is fielded this year, no matter how good it might be, Apple may have to work harder than ever before to get even a percentage of the positive coverage they enjoyed in the past.

That shift in reality distortion is benefiting competitors. 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, exceeding Apple and everyone else in the market when it comes to ad-spend. And that's working for them. They're shaping perception.

A few years ago Apple convinced the world that technology alone wasn't enough. That it was experience, not specs, that mattered. 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 LTE. The iPhone 5 skipped 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? Markets are fickle and sentiment can gain momentum. And the fear facing some iPhone users is that, in the face of all this, an "iPhone 5s" simply won't be enough.

Apple's a smart company, though. They understand the problems that come from predictability and the reality-distorting 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". Only 7 months later Apple CEO Tim Cook said they were putting the "pedal to the metal" and announced the iPad 4. They said it, and then they did it. 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. We've heard rumors that the next full-size iPad could arrive as early as this spring. If Apple chooses to, they could conceivably release one iPad now and one in fall, to better spread out the schedule. We've also heard the iPhone 5s could arrive as soon as August. Apple could also do the same thing with the iPhone, have two sizes, 4-inch and 5-inch, and eventually have spring/summer and fall releases for those as well.

And then 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 all, 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. There are signs Apple is already moving to break those patterns and challenge those expectations. That's just one way to solve that problem.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.