Why Apple Didn’t Release the iPhone 5

I have been fascinated by the various comments from people, Wall Street analysts included, that were disappointed with the new iPhone 4S. These folks have been having dreams of delusion trying to coax Apple to make each new iPhone conform to their imaginations. When I polled a few of them to see what they expected, they mostly tripped over themselves trying to explain their vision for a new iPhone. Common points were things like it should have been thinner, lighter, with a tapered designed to make it sleek and more unique.

I am pretty sure these folks who want this design don’t live in the world of engineering, manufacturing or even have a working understanding of physics. If you look at the iPhone 4 from an engineering stand point, it is already packed with more chips, batteries, antennas, radios, etc in order to give it the kind of features and functions it has today.

Now imagine that Apple decides that these folks are right. They make it slimmer, lighter and taper it at the bottom. That means they must use a smaller battery thus impacting total battery life. And it means they have to put in sub par or smaller antennas and chips on a smaller die, thus less functionality. And they would possibly have to change the kinds of radios they use to fit them in this new design, also affecting the quality of wireless voice and data signals.

Now, if I am a consumer and have the option of having a slimmer, sleeker iPhone but with less battery life, less power and less functionality, versus having Apple give me a similar physical design but with a CPU that is 50% faster than the one in the iPhone 4, a graphics chip with 7X the power of the one in the last phone, and better antenna and radios so that my voice and data connections are solid, the same size battery that is now tweaked with new software to give them even more talk time, music listening time, etc, which iPhone do you think they will choose?

While this is a key reason for Apple to stay with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fixit” strategy for the iPhone 4S, there is another even more practical reason for staying with this design.

You may have noticed reports over the last two weeks from the channel that Apple was selling all of the iPhone 4’s they can make even though people were fully aware that a new iPhone would be coming out this fall. And we know that Apple can’t make these fast enough to even meet current market demand.

One thing it appears Apple concluded was that, after 16 months of making the iPhone 4, they actually do have the manufacturing of this phone down and in fact, are starting to ramp up even more production lines to meet demand. With this in mind, it made perfect sense to re-design it from the inside out, and still keep all of the manufacturing tooling and processes in place so that they could also make the new iPhone 4S in the kind of volume needed to meet market demands.

The manufacturing experts I know tell me that had Apple actually done a radical new design for this phone, they would have had to retool a lot of the production lines and that this would have been very disruptive, in a negative way. What people don’t realize is that this phone is not that easy to manufacture and Apple, in some cases, has to actually invent the manufacturing tools and machines just to make them in the first place.

Now, this does not mean that they could not have a new or even a radically designed iPhone in the future. But the process to ramp up a completely new manufacturing system takes time and is very difficult to do even on an annual basis. So while they are maximizing the current manufacturing lines for all the iPhone 4’s current physical designs, I am certain they are working behind the scenes to create perhaps a new form factor that can still have this level of functionality and designing the manufacturing procedures and machinery even now for when they will need it in the future. I suspect the next iPhone will be specifically designed to support LTE, a technology that is not ready for primetime because of modest US coverage but by late next year should be available in about 85% of the US.

I am also certain that once consumers really understand that this is a completely new phone even though it is in the same design package, they will flock to it in huge numbers. And Apple will not skip a beat.

Consumers Will Be Delighted by the iPhone 4S

But when people want to project their visions and ideas on Apple and hope that Apple responds to them, they need to look at the practical side of creating something as sophisticated as the iPhone. And in the end they need to realize that Apple actually does know what they are doing when it comes to designing the best and most powerful smart phone they can make and delivering something that customers really want and need in an iPhone, instead of delivering the design pipe dreams of over active imaginations.

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Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

13 thoughts on “Why Apple Didn’t Release the iPhone 5”

  1. While all your logic is sound, I’m sure that Apple’s desire to position the iPhone as the conservative, safe phone plays a role.

    Changing the look would’ve connoted that it was merely a “this year’s Apple fashion” thing. Leaving it with the same appearance steers people back to Siri, photos, battery life. In a perverse way, it might be the right way to respond to the dozens of Android devices that clamor for attention.

    1. Yes there are really more good reasons for this strategy on behalf of Apple than we all have time to get into. The bottom line is leaps of innovation on an annual basis are very difficult. Wildstrom articulated this as Apples tick tock model similar to Intel’s.

      The bigger picture though from a consumer psychology standpoint this is very good. Those who buy the 4S will upgrade to the 5S in two years. What this does is give confidence that all who get into the Apple ecosystem if they upgrade every two years, which is the trend for the mass market, will get to use the latest hardware design. The guts may be different but they will not be leapfrogged in industrial design.

      I think that is an important point in that will give some sense of security to those who hate the idea that there is always something better around the corner.

  2. I think there’s also some value in considering the strategy Apple used in switching the Mac line to Intel some years ago. They kept the form factor the same while changing the internals — and I believe this was an intentional choice to avoid unnecessarily changing too many variables when you’re changing one very challenging one. With the iPhone 4s it seems Apple is already making some relatively big under-appreciated changes: the switch to a single Qualcomm chip for all carriers signals a very big change in the market tectonics towards consumers and away from carriers since a consumer’s iPhone can be moved from one carrier to another (according to contract obligations of course). That alone will help Apple maintain their independence from carriers (a feat no Android manufacturer has even attempted yet). And they also appear to be working to move their manufacturing processes away from domination and control by Samsung (and probably away from complete dependence on any one manufacturer) — something else more easily accomplished without the complication of an entirely new form factor.

    It’s also important to note that the problem with 4G is not so much the state of the market as the immaturity of the handset chips available today. Too bulky, too energy consumptive, and no doubt too much cost for no value in many markets. Instead Apple has chosen to hyper-refine the 4 while they wait for the technology to mature.

  3. Exaaaaactly! The only compelling reason for a new form factor would be for a larger screen. But the combination of new cpu/gpu and camera, together with iOS 5, Siri and iCloud, is going to drive the iOS universe forwards. Having a proven design that they can now manufacture for every country and every telco will allow Apple to produce the absolute maximum number of units and push them to whatever market has the demand.

    The artificial telco barriers and lack of production capacity have really been the main limiting factors of the iPhone over the last four years, NOT the lack of shiny new design. This single model of the iPhone overcomes those barriers.

    BTW, I fail to understand the great excitement about tapered edges or curved glass for the very reasons you suggested. Also didn’t Sony work for years to produce flat CRTs so as too minimize reflections?

  4. The fly in the ointment here is America’s 2-year phone contract system. Do I really want to lock myself into a phone with a relatively small screen and no 4G capability into 2013?

  5. @Steve Morgenstern: If Siri works well enough, in two years, paradoxically, iPhones will be getting smaller with smaller screens, not bigger. An iPhone is still huge compared to feature phones (like the RAZR). It is the former owners of featurephones that Apple is selling to (in addition to those who already own 3GS).

  6. Tim I strongly disagree with your post. By this standard the iPhone 1 was not possible. People are right to expect the impossible. What makes Apple so unique is that its management has found solutions to problems that – if not tackled from a new angle would never have been possible.

    1. The point was not that they couldn’t but that there were hard, scientific and engineering tradeoffs that would have been made.

      My guess is the iPhone 5 will knock everyones socks off in every way. On top of that the largest part of the market will be ready for smart phones in this country and perhaps China as well. The timing for a big innovation and global acceptance will be right for the iPhone 5 next year.

  7. Apples biggest mistake is, not making an iphone 5.
    People all over the world have been waiting for more than a year, and this is what they come up with? Disapointing, The iphone 4s got, better antena, camera and processor, and thats it? Look at all the other phones that has come out months before the iPhone 4s, they are still even better than the 4s?

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