Is the age of Apple over? iPhone speculation and delays

Both of Apple's anticipated smartphone launches may be delayed, but does it matter?

Apple, iOS, iPhone, iPhone 11, iPhone 9, iPhone 12, coronavirus
Daniel L. Lu

Apple’s 2020 iPhone launch plans seem to have been undermined by coronavirus, with both of its anticipated smartphone launches delayed – possibly for months.

Hey Siri, what on earth is happening?

If everything had gone according to plan (it didn’t), Apple was expected to introduce an iPhone 9 in March and the first 5G-enabled iPhone 12 in September.

However, as the human, economic and societal damage wrought by COVID-19 reverberates across a planet on which the leading nations can’t even agree on what to call the disease, Apple may delay both launches. Nativism is clearly making the world more fragile to global challenge.

Apple hasn’t fully committed to a delay; a report on Nikkei says only that it is “considering” the option.

What’s driving the question is executive concern about multiple challenges: logistics, component supply, market weakness, and consumer confidence.

In the background, we’ve heard the company is intensifying its work to manufacture components in multiple countries, breaking its reliance on China. Yet India, where some manufacturing was expected to begin in earnest this year, has also gone into lockdown as the central government attempts to mitigate the human and economic cost of the virus on its people. This has halted production there, creating yet more challenges for Apple's Operations team.

Social isolation means consumer electronics sales are in free fall as the world’s stressed-out shoppers stay home.

Not only are most shops closed (including all of Apple’s own retail stores outside China), but given hundreds of millions of people have had to make income sacrifices, new smartphones aren’t particularly high on the "must-buy" list when people are more concerned about mortgage or rent payments, health and food.

Coronavirus has fractured the social and political landscape, probably forever. We’re seeing a shift in consciousness, and it hurts.

So, is the age of Apple over?

To answer that question, we'll have to see what emerges from the disaster. We may end up with a planet on which people have a deeper understanding of the global interrelationships between everyone who lives here, or we may find ourselves stranded on isolated islands defined by arbitrary national borders.

The truth is we’ll probably have a bit of both, with some nations resolutely locking the gates and hiding behind nationalist doors – though doors offer no protection against flood, famine or disease.

In this patchwork of philosophies, Apple will need to dance delicately. It is, after all, a global company based on a multi-national supply chain.

It is, however, also an American company: Its headquarters are in the U.S.; it supports tens of thousands of U.S. jobs – and the company nearly always introduces new products and services to the U.S. first.

This means that however global the supply chain, the majority of the benefits from that chain go to the Apple's home country.

At the same time, Apple is also a global firm that works to provide some support in all the nations in which it does business.

That’s a perfectly reasonable position for any enterprise to take – indeed, enterprises that lack such values tend to have a tougher time attracting and keeping talented staff. In what feels an increasingly nihilistic age, people seek out employers who showcase values they agree with.

However, the human and economic scars of the on-going pandemic will take time to heal, and we don’t yet know what consensus reality will be shaped like yet.

Why would we? Most of us are still in shock over what's unfolding.

Apple’s challenge will be in defining its business around the primary values of the post-pandemic society, and we have not arrived there yet.

What I think will happen

I think Apple may delay introduction of the iPhone 9, but I’d urge it not to delay the launch too long. People will still need mobile devices, and while the introduction of a lower-cost iPhone may not generate the sales volume the company originally anticipated, it will send a message that the company understands the needs of consumers in a contracted economy.

The situation is more complex with iPhone 12. The big pull of that device (other than the big changes in design) will be 5G networks and services.

However, 5G infrastructure deployment will inevitably slow as carriers instead invest in beefing-up existing services to accommodate growing work-from-home demand. That’s point one. Point two is how interested mass market users will, or won’t, be in high-bandwidth services that demand they invest in additional monthly fees.

I believe demand and deployment of the technology will be muted in comparison to where we expected it to be by the end of the year.

People have bigger things on their minds at present than fast mobile broadband. Everyone is at home, for a start. In other words, 5G is going to be a hard sell.

Meaning and relevance

In the end it’s all about relevance. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs understood relevance.

The iMac – a uniquely designed computer with internet access inside – was the epitome of relevance in consumer electronics. The iBook introduced the world to real mobility. The iPod and iTunes captured the zeitgeist and iPhone changed the world.

The problem when it comes to future iPhone launches is that what the world's becoming is harder to see than before. All we know is that the future has become more uncertain and no one really knows what values and philosophies will define tomorrow.

These challenges make it incredibly difficult to design relevance into the heart of any product, let alone the world’s most sophisticated device.

But we do know that humans have a tendency after disaster to attempt to create meaning. In the UK, that’s why we ended up with the National Health Service following the dark terror of the Second World War.

Apple as a follower strives to do the right thing. That’s commendable. Doing the right thing (if there is a right thing) is the right thing to do. But, as a leader, Apple must dig deeply into its corporate DNA to figure out not what the world needs today, nor what it needs for its business, but what we’ll all need tomorrow.

Delivering this is where its success always lies.

Leadership has consequences. 

Good luck.

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Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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