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Apple Needs to Extend Apple's iPhone Design Cycle

May 9, 2016

If Apple wants to give us the next big thing, then the amount of resources dedicated to the iPhone needs to change. Moving to a three year iPhone design cycle helps them do that.

With the next-generation iPhone only a few months away, more and more leaks seem to be hitting the rumor mill. Today, another leak posted on NoWhereElse shows what’s being claimed to be the “iPhone 7.” If the rumors are true, not only are the dimensions going to be the same, but the phone is going to virtually look the same, apart from having no headphone jack, removing the horizontal antenna lines on the back and the improvement of a dual-lens camera on the larger “iPhone 7 Pro.”

Rumored iPhone 7 back

Rumored iPhone 7 back

Apple fanatics seem to be in serious denial that this is going to be the next iPhone. How could Apple go three years with almost the same exact design? Ever since iPhone 3G, which debuted in 2008, Apple has been putting out an S-cycle followed by a whole new design every two years. It doesn’t make sense, right?

It does, though, and here’s why.

Over the past few years, the smartphone industry has started to mature. Most phones have screen sizes we’re happy with, and almost all of them are fast enough, offering connections to the fastest networks available. The low-hanging fruit, for the most part, has been picked. Sure smartphones will get better and faster, but for the most part, we’ve matured. In the years to come, the iPhone will likely shrink in footprint, see the Home button get removed and possibly see the use of new materials. These are all great things, but it doesn’t fundamentally change much. In the end, it’s a screen that displays a UI and has a camera on the back.

If Apple is truly going to try and create the next wave of great products, then heavily focusing on the iPhone needs to change. Imagine if Apple was as focused on the Mac today as they were 15 years ago. They would have missed the entire mobile revolution. They would have watched someone else create a multi-touch user interface in a device that fits in your pocket. They would’ve become Microsoft.

If Apple doesn’t want to become the next Microsoft, one way they can avoid that is to shift its focus slowly into other areas. If Apple intends to make a great car, a great watch, or a great TV they can’t keep focusing the vast majority of their energy on the iPhone. It’s a recipe for disaster in the long run.

Put another way: The iPhone didn’t become what it is without some sacrifice. In fact, when the iPhone debuted, you know what was delayed? OS X Leopard. You know what else saw slower innovation when the iPhone came out? The iPod. The only way Apple is going to be able to make other great products we love is if they stretch the iPhone cycle so that its designers and engineers can work on other things.

That might be a tough pill to swallow since so many of us rely on our smartphones daily, but it’s the truth. If you want Apple to be in a position to succeed with future products, then at some point they have to adjust their focus and resources. Otherwise, we might only have a great phone.

This isn’t to say the iPhone can’t still be great. I expect it to continue being the best smartphone you can buy. But like the iMac or the MacBook Air, I think its aesthetic design is likely going expand from two years to three years. This will allow Apple to use some of its engineers and designers in other areas where there’s more growth potential. Maybe it’s the Watch, maybe it’s the Car, or maybe it’s something else we have yet to see.

This is exactly the sort of approach that likely happened when Apple was working on the iPhone. People from the iPod division were pulled right at the peak of iPod sales. Imagine that? The iPhone of course went on to become the most successful consumer electronics product in history. Had Apple not done that, we may have had to wait longer to get the iPhone, or we may not have gotten it at all.

In the end, I still believe Apple will focus heavily on making the iPhone as great as possible year after year. I think it will continue to be the most desired smartphone in the world, even if its industrial design language changes from two years to three.

But if you want the next big thing, I don’t think Apple has a choice. Either they stretch the iPhone cycle and give its designers and engineers the opportunity to work on other ideas, or risk missing out on the next big innovation. We’ve seen what happens when companies are too loyal to a wildly successful product (cough, Microsoft). I don’t think Apple wants to be in that position five or ten years from now.