One of the confounding things about the latest swath of Apple rumors is that most of the information leaking out isn't even about the 2016 iPhone — the iPhone 7 — but about the one after that.
You know, the one coming out in 2017.
We may now have some insight as to why. A report from the Japanese newspaper Nikkei (that we found via 9to5Mac), suggests that Apple is moving from a "tick-tock" two year refresh cycle to a "tick-tock-tock" cycle.
In other words, Apple will only substantially update its iPhone design every three years, rather than its current every other year cycle.
Now, it's important to understand that this report is coming from a single unnamed source. And in the world of Apple rumors, that's often not a good bet.
Yet every leak we've seen about the iPhone 7 does suggest that the physical changes to the device will be minimal. Yes, the headphone jack is probably dead (RIP), and yes, the larger 5.5-inch iPhone 7 Plus/Pro will almost certainly have dual-cameras. But every purported leak we've seen about the phone chassis itself suggests very minimal changes.
Instead, for months, we've been hearing information about a major redesign happening in 2017. That design will purportedly have an all-glass enclosure and bezel-free edge-to-edge glass (maybe with OLED screens). The screen may even have an embedded home button/finger-print sensor.
Many of these claims aren't coming just from so-called Apple analysts, but from people like John Gruber, who have a better track record than most.
My personal feeling with Apple rumors is that where there is smoke, there is fire. And right now, there is a lot of smoke that suggests two things: First, the iPhone 7 won't be demonstrably different, at least physically, from the iPhone 6S. Second, the 2017 iPhone will be a major redesign.
Which of course begs the question: Will that trend continue?
The case for moving to triennial physical refreshes
Even though I'm not convinced that Apple will actually move from a "tick-tock" to a "tick-tock-tock" design cycle for the iPhone, I do think there is an argument to be made to keep the existing design around longer.
The first is about cost. Each "tock" or "S" series device that uses similar materials to the previous release means that Apple can spend less money in its supply chain costs. Now, the extent of the cost-savings may differ.
For instance, the iPhone 6S has the same physical dimensions as the iPhone 6, but its glass is different and the aluminum used in the case is of a different strength. Still, from a tooling perspective, many of the same parts could conceivably be used for both devices.
The biggest differentiator may simply be the resources required to redesign the iPhone every other year. Moving to every three years could free up Apple's industrial design team to work on other projects. Maybe cars?
Moreover, a triennial design refresh would be more in line with Apple's other products. Take the MacBook line. The MacBook Air has had the same design since late 2010. The MacBook Pro has had the same design since 2012 for the 15-inch model and 2013 for the 13-inch model.
Even the iPad has retained the same design. The current iPad Pro 9.7 has the almost identical design as the iPad Air 2 from 2014, which itself was just a hair thinner than the iPad Air from 2013. Every model of iPad mini has had the same design (screen resolution and Touch ID sensor notwithstanding) since its release in 2012.
The iPod touch and Mac mini have designs that have persisted many years, and models too. It took five years for Apple to update the look of the Apple TV and when it did, the biggest change was that the device became taller.
So if anything, the biennial design refresh of the iPhone has been an anomaly with Apple products.
Moreover, now that the smartphone market is saturated, I wonder if consumers care as much about it being blindingly obvious they are using the latest and greatest device.
The case against a triennial design refresh
Of course, moving to a three year design refresh has its downsides too.
Apple always sells more iPhone devices with a new design than they do with a follow-up. This is true even when the "tock" phone is a bigger jump in specs than the last "tick".
A lot of this is driven by users who want a new design and a phone that looks different. Psychologically, I have to think that plenty of consumers are content to stay with their phone for two years and then upgrade to the model with the new design. Because when your phone looks different, it somehow feels better.
Moreover, most users in the U.S. still buy their phones on two year release cycles. Yes, carriers are increasingly moving to monthly payments (similar to how it has always worked in Europe) and some even push for earlier upgrades, but we've become conditioned to buying a new phone every two years.
There could be concerns that consumers would just move to replacing phones every three years to get the latest design.
The case for the 2017 iPhone being a special situation
I don't feel comfortable speculating about Apple's plans three years down the line, especially when it comes to design. But it is looking like the more significant design refresh is happening in 2017.
So why wait until 2017? Why not just do the new design now?
My pet theory (totally unsubstantiated, I must note) is that for the tenth anniversary of the iPhone, Apple wants to redesign the product in a big way. After all, we're talking about one of the most influential tech products of all time. A product that literally reshaped the mobile industry and turned Apple into the most valuable company on the planet.
What better way to kick-off the next decade of the iPhone than with a huge redesign? You could even reset the naming convention and just call it "The iPhone" again.
Again, I don't think it's yet fair to decisively say that Apple is moving its design decisions to a refresh every three years rather than every two. Especially since this is coming from just one source.
But I do think we'll see something different — and special — with the 2017 iPhone.
Regardless, this is a fun time in Apple rumor-land because leaks are coming out about two totally different phones. One due in three months, another in 15.
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