Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) sure had a giant first quarter in 2012, selling 35.1 million iPhones, 11.8 million iPads, 7.7 million iPods and 4 million Macs. What was once a computer company is now a consumer-electronics company, with computers actually contributing a relatively small piece of a pie that’s increasingly dominated by mobile devices.
However, mobile users are notoriously fickle (just look at how quickly they switched and made Apple the market leader), and hungry to upgrade to the latest, greatest and coolest new devices. As the iPhone turns five years old this month, sales of its latest version, the iPhone 4S, are slipping as consumers opt for smartphones with faster, 4G connectivity. At Verizon (NYSE:VZ), the Droid RAZR MAXX, a 4G Android offering from Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) Motorola division, recently overtook the iPhone 4S as the provider’s best-selling smartphone. Still, the iPhone 4S remains tops overall in the U.S. market.
Which leads to the question analysts and investors — not to mention consumers — are asking: What does the Cupertino company have in the product pipeline that could launch a fresh wave of Apple hysteria? Let’s take an educated look.
This is clearly the device everyone is waiting for. Apple being as secretive as it always is, we know very little about the iPhone 5. However, based on rumors, leaks and digging undertaken by the rabid Apple fan websites, here are the current most likely scenarios: release in the September/October time frame, smaller dock connecter and full 4G/LTE support.
The feature getting the most buzz is the possibility of moving from the current 3.5-inch display to a larger size, possibly 4 inches. While helping the iPhone compete against rival smartphones from Samsung and others with displays measuring 4.8 inches, any change to the iPhone display’s aspect ratio could be tough on app developers.
Due to arrive this fall, iOS 6 powers Apple’s mobile devices: the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. The mobile market is seriously heating up with Android’s latest release closing the operating system gap and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) preparing to launch Windows 8 on everything from desktops to smartphones — and, oh yes, on its very own new tablet, the Surface.
So, Apple has a lot riding on iOS 6 when it arrives in the fall. New features include Maps with turn-by turn navigation (replacing Google Maps), beefed up Siri functionality, Facebook integration and a new Passbook feature for organizing gift cards and other e-documents. The good news is that iOS 6 is expected to be a free upgrade, the bad is that the two year-old original iPad won’t be able to run it.
OSX Mountain Lion
Technically, this is Mac OS 10.8 (the eighth iteration Apple’s Mac operating system) and builds on last year’s Lion release. Mountain Lion should have more swiping and other functional cues borrowed from Apple’s mobile devices, along with new capabilities such as iMessage support, more iCloud functionality, notifications and a Dictation feature that makes typing text optional. Priced at $19.99 and due to go on sale this summer.
Apple’s popular consumer desktop systems haven’t received an update since May 2011, so they’re overdue. With Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) Ivy Bridge processors making their way into recently announced MacBook Air and MacBook Pro updates, it’s only a matter of time before the iMac receives a similar refresh.
Not long ago, MacPro users were Apple’s core customers. The company’s most powerful (and expandable) machines were primarily used for video and photo editing, tasks that required significant horsepower. But many professional users have been up in arms and threatening to move to Windows after Apple let the MacPro languish for two years without an update.
Now for the fun stuff — the speculation. We know Apple is working on some top-secret projects in a Cupertino “skunkworks.” We’re just not sure exactly what they are, or if they’ll ever see the light of day. These two are on top of everyone’s list.
An Apple-branded TV has been the pursuit of tech reporters for months. Credible rumors that the so-called iTV has been spotted on Apple’s campus and that telcos have been testing it simply won’t go away. One of Steve Jobs’ last quotes: “I finally cracked it,” was about the TV experience. Last month, Foxconn’s CEO was quoted as saying his company is ramping up to produce the iTV.
But Apple remains stubbornly silent on the subject, pointing to its existing AppleTV set-top streaming device when questioned and coming up with enigmatic statements like Tim Cook’s “We’re going to keep pulling this string and see where it takes us.”
Still, I expect to see an iTV before 2013 is out. Apple has the technology and the content, so expanding into the living room could be the next hit it needs to keep growing. Unfortunately, TVs can be risky business, as Sony (NYSE:SNE) has discovered.
Apple has been biding its time, perfecting the iTV and studying the market, but Microsoft is making inroads with the Xbox 360, while smartphone and tablet rival Samsung has become a top TV manufacturer and is moving into app-running, Internet-connected smart sets. Waiting too long might cede the living room to a competitor, but coming in before the iTV is ready for prime time could result in an embarrassing misfire.
It goes without saying that Apple will likely update the iPad again in 2013 (it’s been following a yearly refresh cycle), and the next version will likely include spec bumps and a case trim to make it thinner. The rumor that refuses to die, however, is the possibility of Apple also introducing a 7-inch iPad (or iPad Mini), possibly in time for this year’s holiday season.
Steve Jobs hated smaller tablets, famously declaring them “dead on arrival.” Tim Cook may think differently, however. Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) moved a lot of 7-inch Kindle Fire tablets over the holidays (although sales have subsequently leveled off), and while Kindle Fire wasn’t the threat to the iPad that some had predicted, you can bet that Apple would rather have those sales.
A smaller, cheaper iPad might offend some design sensibilities, but there’s obviously a market for these devices. It’s not out of the question that Apple would make a move to grab these customers, too. There’s some risk that doing so might cannibalize iPad or even iPod Touch sales (an iPad Mini would fall between the two devices in terms of display size), but if Apple were convinced that the bulk of the customers would have turned to Amazon or Samsung, it would have little to lose by pulling the trigger.
The summer is usually fairly quiet on the Apple product-release front. The WWDC 2012 hardware announcements are likely the last for a few months. But as fall approaches, prepare for an Apple special event announcing the iPhone 5 — and keep watching to see if the iPad Mini or iTV materializes in time for the holidays.