Tick-tock... tock?!—The future of iPhone product cycles

Time was you'd get something new, then a better version of it, then something new again. You could count on it, like the tick-tock of some great clock. And you could plan for it—getting every one of them if you wanted to, or alternating between just the new or just the improved, depending on what you felt was the best strategy. But now it's all being burned down. Instead of tick-tock we're faced with the ultimate horror: Rumors of a tick-tock... TOCK.

I'm talking, of course, about Intel and how, after decades of die shrinks followed by architectural improvements, for the first time the company will be following the former with two of the latter. Broadwell. Skylake. Kaby Lake. And we'll have to wait until after that for the next die shrink. The. Worst.

No, wait, I'm actually talking about Apple and how, after almost a decade of new designs followed by new internals, for the first time the company is rumored to be following the former with two of the latter. iPhone 6. iPhone 6s. iPhone 7 or iPhone 6se (or whatever it may be called). And we'll have to wait until after that for the next redesign.

The. Worst.

Why would Apple do this? It flies in the face of the general internet armchair wisdom that the company needs to combat saturation and the general malaise of smartphone modernity not by adding tocks but by removing them — by fielding new design not every second year (much less third) year, but every year.

Donut shaped this year, triangular the next!

For the last few years Apple has been following newly numbered design tick updates with S-variant, feature-enhanced tocks. It started in 2009 with iPhone 3GS and continued through last year's iPhone 6s. To sort-of solve for the lack of design changes in the tock years, the company has added whiz-bang new features, like Siri, Touch ID, and most recently, 3D Touch. More superficially—and hence likely more effectively—Apple has also used the tock years to introduce new finishes, including gold with iPhone 5s and rose gold with iPhone 6s.

That way, even if you have the same design as before, you can make damn sure that the color still shows everyone you have the newer version.

For some, though, it's not enough. For some, even the tick changes are not enough. I wrote about the sentiment in 2012—and, in doing so, got to use one of my favorite titles ever.

Back then people were up in arms about the iPhone 5 looking too much like the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4s. Forget the then-new 4-inch, 16:9 display and the then-new chamfered edges, it was still a rounded rectangle, Apple had clearly lost its ability to innovate, and you know the rest: Apple went out of business. Wait, no, Apple posted record sales and this year returned to a version of that very same design—now beloved and referred to as "iconic"—for the internally-upgraded iPhone SE.

2016 is different from 2012, though. Then, Verizon had just launched the year before and Sprint and T-Mobile were following suit. NTT DoCoMo and China Mobile were still on the horizon. And the even big and bigger iPhones were still two years away. In other words, there was significant growth ahead for the iPhone.

That's in sharp contrast to today, where the iPhone rollout is effectively complete across carriers and regions, and a range of display sizes are all on the market and up to date. China is also showing signs of being more protectionist, and the iPhone less in demand, than anticipated. India hasn't let older iPhones in and newer ones haven't been priced to move. And, globally, what happened to the PC industry is happening to phones—for most people, most of the time, what they currently own is proving good enough that momentum might be swinging away from faster and towards slower upgrade cycles.

All of that hurts iPhone and, since iPhone is Apple's biggest business, hurts Apple. It puts the company under enormous pressure from shareholders, analysts, and media alike.

Hence, the narrative that Apple needs to abandon the tock, ditch the S, and switch to annual redesign. That it needs to embrace change for change's sake—something that many of us who've watched Apple for a long time have previously said would be the real sign that the company was becoming reactionary and getting into real trouble.

Apple could, after all, make a triangular or donut shaped smartphone to win back the coveted analyst and media "innovative" award. Hell, BlackBerry made a Pop-Tart-shaped one and that certainly did the trick. Except many of the same people currently criticizing the lack of design innovation would be first in line to mock it and last in line to cover the bills when it failed. Hard.

Form phone

Rather than a death of innovation in smartphones, what we're witnessing is a maturing of the market. Much like luxury watches don't change design much from one year to the next, or luxury cars, high-end television sets, or pretty much any other established consumer product, smartphones have reached a point where they're now optimal for the tasks literally in-hand.

There could come a time—and indeed perhaps will—when iPhone becomes more fashion-centric. Like Apple Watch bands, we could eventually see seasonal colors, textures, and materials. Given how much I've spent on bands over the last year, I both desire and fear such times, but it would certainly change the attraction game.

What truly matters about iPhone won't ever be dictated by fashion, though. It will, as always, be dictated by technology. Just like Apple doesn't ship chipsets but feature sets, they won't ship technologies until those technologies can be shipped at a level the company believes in. That goes for edge-to-edge displays, virtualized home buttons, and other things I mentioned way back in January of 2015.

Deleting the S—burning down the tock—won't and can't actually make the future come faster. Calling iPhone 5s the iPhone 6 wouldn't have made Apple Pay ready to launch a year earlier, and calling iPhone 6s the iPhone 7 wouldn't have given it an A10 chipset or made this year's camera ship last year.

It also wouldn't affect any of the features many of the same people say Apple has to ship, including better waterproofing, wireless charging, USB-C, quantum dot, and the list goes on. It would simply mean more work for the industrial design team in coming up with new looks for new look's sake, and for every team from chipsets to cameras who could no longer count on a steady target for those S-years, and so risk having their own, currently staggering level of innovation harmed rather than helped.

The next narrative

Intel won't ship a die shrink after Skylake not because the company is a jerk that can't innovate any more, but because the next die shrink is f--cking hard and will take until after Skylake to be ready. Likewise, if Apple doesn't make significant design changes in 2016 it won't be because the company is stupid or doomed, but because the design changes coming next are f--cking hard and will take another year.

Human beings are exactly superficial enough that cosmetic changes can drive more sales than feature enhancements. Glowing Apple logos or metallic purple finishes could well make a tear-drop shaped iPhone fly off the shelves. But those types of gimmicks run even dryer faster. iPhone 12, now a trapezoid in metallic taupe!

I think Apple's job is actually going to be much harder than that.

The days of iPhone finding massive new markets to conquer are, absent life being discovered on Mars, over. Changing designs may, for a while, inflate sales and upgrades for a portion of consumers, but even that would only last so long.

What Apple really needs to do is figure out and effectively communicate a new narrative around iPhone. My hope is that, now that iPhone has been successfully built up as a platform, Apple can use it as a platform to quickly build up everything that comes next.

That will include new products like Apple Watch and Apple TV, but it will also include new services like HomeKit and Apple Pay, but more importantly it will require a new strategy that tells that story in a compelling way. Something that makes consumers see the potential of everything post-iPhone—everything that makes iPhone itself even more valuable.

And, by the same extension, Apple.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

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.

46 Comments
  • I agree that the tick-tock cycle will end. It will be replaced by a tick, tick cycle. IMO, the keys to this are Cloud services (including social and collaboration) best exploited by the newest hardware in each new device -- an expanded [iPhone] Upgrade Program makes acquiring the next device an inexpensive no-brainer decision ... Oh, and these new devices can even make phone calls!
  • Do rational people get upset that Apple keeps the external design of Macs for years before changing it? Nope. They know that there are important technological advances built into each successive Mac model. That is what is important to them. Not that Apple hasn't changed the superficial look of the Mac model from year to year. Yet we have many people, and many tech writers, who consider the yearly changes to the external look of some mobile phones to be "innovation", while not much has really changed inside the phone. But there is no law that says that mobile phones must change the exterior design, colors, or materials, every year. I've checked in all the law books. ;-)) There are practical reasons for keeping a good product design as long as it accommodates the technological advancements. Designing, testing, tooling and production costs for each new product design are very expensive. And those costs get passed along to the consumer. It makes more sense to put that money into making improvements to what goes inside of the phone, rather than changing its outward appearance just for the sake of marketing something "new". For example, Apple's 2015 iPhones (6s and 6s Plus) looked almost exactly like Apple's 2014 iPhones (6 and 6 Plus), but there were huge improvements made. Despite the 6s and 6s Plus not looking any different than "last year's" phones, they still beat the pants off all competitors' mobile phones in performance, reliability, and customer satisfaction. And Apple's 2015 iPhones even perform and rate better than almost all of its competitors' 2016 phones! One month from today, Apple will introduce its 2016 iPhone. Even if the iPhone 7 models look almost the same as the 6s models (which is only rumour at this point), we can be certain that they will be better in almost every way than all of the competitors' 2016 mobile phones. And that is what will be most important to purchasers of the new iPhones!
  • One month from today? Huh?
  • I guess that it is possible that it will be introduced at WWDC, as that's when they used to be announced a few years ago, but it would catch most Apple watchers by surprise.
  • You're going to have to wait until Sept. for the new iPhone. However, you might get a small preview of what the new iPhone can do with iOS 10 and the new OS X (Name your CA landmark).
  • Unfortunately, this is assuming that rational people are the target market of the 'new' Apple. From some of the moves Apple has been making, I'm not sure that's the case any longer.
  • improvements could of made with a software update...
  • Nice article, Rene. All these stock pundits keep asking for innovation but what the heck is left? Tweaking different things, maybe, like adding a 5" phone, a better camera, a better screen, etc. But when the word innovate is used, it's used more in the sense of new and wondrous products, not in improvements. The word "Innovate" is defined as make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products. Apple has done that. What else can they do to innovate as the term is used by the pundits?
  • I was especially struck by the description of the disappointment people had with iPhone 5 saying that it looked too much like the iPhone 4. They're obviously completely different looking in retrospect. It seems like people say that every year regardless of the changes or lack of same.
  • I'm not sure I agree with basis of the article and that the iPhone market has matured, as there's a whole community out there who could upgrade but havent been convinced into doing so, because of lack of innovation or features apple could build into a new iPhone, eg: Augmented reality: where literally using the camera you would hold up the iPhone to any location and it could display AR on the iPhone screen. 3D display without the glasses: been done - see: http://www.tomsguide.com/us/streamtv-glasses-free-3d-works,news-20270.html Wireless charging and introducing the smart connector to protect against water/dirt Sapphire glass - to protect against drops Introducing a Microsoft continuum like product, great for BYOD
  • Great article René, cheers!
  • Hey, look at that, iMore can have good articles :) Well done!
  • The focus needs to be on making better iphones. How about a good swipe keyboard? How about better siri integration and search results? How about waterproofing? How about fast charging? How about stereo speakers? How a bout a better front facing camera? How about a 1080p screen on the 4.7" iphone? How about better (or removable) apple apps that always end up in an unused folder marked apple stuff? On the aesthetics front, how about smaller bezels? NONE of this requires some technology innovation, but would make for better iphones.
  • Exactly this!
  • I think you hit on the iPhone's key issue in this post, and that's iOS. The phone itself can certainly be improved, but it's iOS that needs the most attention, for the reasons you stated above plus many others. I would add that Rene summed up Apple's bigger problem in his last paragraph when he stated that the company needs to rediscover its narrative. That is at the heart of its current weakness: Without Steve Jobs, it no longer owns its brand.
  • Marked down for saying/wanting "stereo speakers" and "1080p screen."
  • Those are great suggestions. But I feel the "pundits" would say those things aren't innovative and as such even if Apple were to add/upgrade those items, they wouldn't be "innovating"! Those would be worthy of what was typically and "S" version upgrade. That's what all the investment and tech articles are complaining about. That Apple isn't innovating any more. Only improving. To them it's not enough.
  • The only thing I require is improving battery life in iPhones as everything else will happen gradually and most of these stuff, people (especially Android fans) are asking for isn't essential except for waterproofing and fast charging. 1080p is fine until battery life is significantly improved along with colour accuracy to Apple's standards enough for a QHD screen on an iPhone. Sent from the iMore App
  • You just can't comment with out mentioning android.. You are a sad sad person. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Good article Rene! What do you think Apple will do with the naming of the iPhone if they switch off from the S cycle?
  • The same thing car companies do. use the year and iPhone -- 2016 iPhone---2017 iPhone
    Phones are not going to change much just like cars don't. Heck most cars have a 5 year major design life cycle with small changes every year. I think it's rather silly to keep sticking a number after the phone.
  • Great piece Mr Ritchie, I'm looking forward to the next iPhone. I upgrade every 2 yrs and I'll be getting the next model this September. Sent from the iMore App
  • I think this analysis is based on a somewhat faulty assumption. The S-cycle iPhones are absolutely NOT "feature-enhanced" versions. The point of the S iPhones is that they are "fixed," or corrected versions of the original (non-S) design. The iPhone is a very complicated piece of machinery. Creating an entirely new design each year is impossible and creating a new design every two years, while possible is fraught with problems because *every* new design has problems. The S series phones are the same phone as the year previously, but with the Wi-Fi bug fixed, or the casing material changed so it isn't slippery, or the "dust under the screen issue" fixed, etc. If we leave out or remove the S series phones, then every iPhone for every year will have some kind of design problem or bug that will never be fixed being as the S series phones are the "refined" version of the original design. This article seems to further the illusion that most people have that Apple kind of "takes the year off" with the S series phones and that they are only about incremental improvements in processor power, when in fact the increase in processing power is merely the 'gravy' that they pour on top of the S designs to get you to buy them. The point of the designs themselves is that they are a corrected or perfected version of the original design. While there may indeed be disruption in the "tick-tock" model across a boundary where a really significant or revolutionary change in the design occurs (like possibly this rumoured move to a new casing material), it will be temporary. Overall, the tick-tock model is here for good.
  • It may be that the tick-tock cycle isn’t ending but is just having a double tock this year because of extenuating circumstances, and will return to normal afterwards? There are two unofficial rules that have tended to be true about gadgets over the years: the smaller they are the better (especially when they are portable), and the bigger the screen the better. For smartphones these two rules together mean that smaller bezels are better, and currently iPhones have large bezels compared to the opposition. Sorry to be a “bezel freak” but this is where Apple need to improve. It’s necessary due to the basic rules of gadgets! The rumours indicate that Apple are going to address this issue next year with an edge-to-edge OLED display and, in true Apple form, leapfrog the opposition (a bit like they did with the retina screen in the iPhone 4). However, for technological reasons, they can’t do that until next year, so they are sticking to the same design this year rather than redesigning for just one year, or postponing the OLED display until 2018. It’s unfortunate timing given the relative slump in sales recently, but probably the right move in the long term. After that they may well go back to the old tick-tock cycle. I just hope that they have some great surprise feature for this year’s iPhone, because otherwise the slump will only get worse.
  • I am due for an upgrade this fall and am very curious to what the model version this year will be. I am guessing that 7 will be the number followed by the 8 next year with the so called refresh I have been reading about. I have to admit I think I am going to change my every 2 year mode I have been on since '09 and update every 12 months with either an apple or ATT plan and very much looking forward to the plus model.
  • Looking forward to 2017's iPhone X :)
  • I see them either dropping the numbers entirely, something like iPhone X (as pwrof3 said) or they'll build on the numbers (yet again) like iPhone 6X and iPhone 6X Plus. Or maybe they just go with iPhone 7 for the sake of consistency. Wait... or even The new iPhone.
  • Good one Rene. Somehow I believe they are deliberately holding up themselves from re-design as next year it will be 10th Anniversary of iPhone but I would love to see a tick, ___, tick cycle. No need to release a phone every year. It's just plain stupidy IMO. Sent from the iMore App
  • I'm here to comment when I think there is a bad article, but I should also comment on a good one. This was a very well thought-out piece. You're right in saying that Apple trying to find new markets will be tough now that the phone is available on more and more carriers around the globe. Penetrating into current markets with newer designs might be the only way Apple can maintain sales to remain how they are and please stock holders. Which is why I hope they end up going private. The heck with all the scrutiny.
  • Nicely stated. If iPhone 7 doesn't fit my needs, then I will not upgrade. iPhone 6 is just fine. Outside of 4k video I didn’t see anything that would make me want to give up my current device. The smartphone market has been defined. Is there a new "feature" that is critical to my well being? I don't
    see one.
  • Putting waterproofing and screen resolution in the the feature basket then my only real issue with the design of my iPhone 6 nearly 2 years on is the bezel to screen ratio. Sent from the iMore App
  • "Intel won't ship a die shrink after Skylake not because the company is a jerk that can't innovate any more, but because the next die shrink is f