On walkabout in life and technology

Apple's Scheduled Releases Are a Mistake

I think Apple’s recent move to annual releases for major products like iOS, OS X, iPhone and iPad is a huge mistake. It opens up too many cans of worms and is hurting the company’s public image and stock price.

Let’s face it, researching, designing, testing and manufacturing hardware is hard. It took something like eight years to get the iPad to market. Yet somehow Apple has been able to release a new one each year. I wonder just how they do it and whether Apple can keep this pace up.

And software is even harder, more unreliable, more prone to failure and even more resource intensive. Annual Operating System release cycles seem sustainable while there is low-hanging fruit to be dealt with, but as the Operating System matures it becomes harder to maintain and extend, making an annual release schedule unsustainable.

I think the move to scheduled updates puts too much pressure on the hardware and software engineering teams at Apple to get things done on time versus get things done right. There are going to be new issues or bugs found but no time to address them, features that fail to be ready on time or things that remain incomplete by the time the scheduled date arrives. Think iCloud, Siri, Maps, Retina Mac display burn-in and Thunderbolt unreliability. As a result, the hardware released is of a lower quality with higher failure and return rates and the software buggy, inconsistent or incomplete. And the customer reception is worse.

Apple cannot win this way.

Scheduled releases are also a double-edged sword. It satisfies Wall Street analysts to have a predictable schedule of releases, it seems to calm them and prevent them from spouting the usual made-up rubbish that they used to espouse before Apple moved to scheduled updates. But it also enables them to make up new product rumor rubbish and to speculate that the next release is running late, delayed, problematic and use that to drive the stock price down. It also enables them to look back and claim the last release was insufficient, not innovative enough, or an evidence-free failure, further driving the stock price down.

Apple cannot win the market this way.

And then these scheduled releases also hurt sales (which again helps Wall Street Analysts drive the stock price down). Customers stop buying products in the months leading up to the scheduled release date because they are waiting for the new hotness. And when the new release does come out, Apple runs out of stock so quickly that sales numbers again are compromised. The customers who waited have to wait even longer to acquire their products, express their disappointment loudly and this negative sentiment is inflated by the press.

Apple cannot win hearts this way.

The move to scheduled releases does seem to make sense on the surface though. New products are released just before the most popular buying periods to maximize sales, or when contracts typically run out in the mobile space. Component purchasing, manufacturing, staffing, and transport can all be scheduled and optimized long in advance of these moments. It makes management, operational and economic sense to do this if you ignore the product and design risks.

But I think the negatives outweigh the positives. I think it is better for Apple to release new hardware when it’s engineered properly and tested to Apple’s stringent standards, not on a schedule. I believe Apple should release software as and when the bugs are ironed out and the best user experience achieved. I believe that Apple should go back to iterating and releasing each iteration when it is ready.

Without knowledge of when the next Apple product is going to be released, customers will tend to buy when they can and need new Apple products. Wall Street will still speculate, but there will be less evidence to support their made-up pronouncements. And Apple can focus on iterating and perfecting each product, it’s core strength.

I think Apple should go back to its flexible release schedule and release on quality not time. Maybe it’s time for Apple to Think Different again.

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