Since Apple released the iPhone 3G in 2008, its most popular gadget has been on a predictable two-year refresh cycle: redesign, refine, and repeat. Now, it appears that product cycle may finally be coming to an end.
According to a new Nikkei report, Apple will moving to a three-year iPhone refresh cycle, which means it will take even longer for the iPhone to get new technology and a shiny makeover. Although that’s a major bummer for gadget-obsessed consumers who were hoping for a fresh iPhone this fall, taking a little longer this time around makes sense.
Update: The Wall Street Journal also reports that the 2016 iPhone will likely be 1mm thinner and feature no headphone jack as its two major changes. It will feature a similar iPhone 6 design.
Taken in sum, many of the rumors concerning future iPhones suggest that this year’s phone won’t be much of a departure from the existing iPhone 6S models. Most of the big changes being floated—like an all-glass body (which may or may not be a good thing), the second generation of 3D Touch, and the iPhone’s first OLED display—are slated for a 2017 timeline, according to supply chain and analyst rumors. This hearsay seems to indicate the 2016 iPhone update will have the same all-metal design that originally debuted two years ago.
Weirdly, one of the next iPhone’s rumored features is that it will be missing one: the 3.5mm audio jack. Meanwhile other rumblings say the iPhone 7 (official name still TBD) will also have a Smart Connector, a slightly thinner footprint, and redesigned antennas. Apple may also release a “Pro” model that will effectively be marketing to compensate for the fact that the iPhone 7 will be weak. Likely, this new iPhone Pro will be the focus of Apple’s hardware event in the fall.
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Apple is shaking up the iPhone game. For one, it already torpedoed its usual refresh formula by introducing the baby hands-friendly iPhone SE in March. Moreover, Apple is starting to sober up after nearly a decade of explosive iPhone sales growth. In the past, smartphones added new useful capabilities year-over-year, like better displays and cameras. Now, new concepts have started veering towards arguably gimmicky terrain of VR headsets and modular phones like the LG G5, Project Ara, and the upcoming Moto X. Even when well-executed, these new ideas just don’t attract customers the way that features like, say, a vastly improved camera might.
It also makes sense that Apple would want to save its major rethink on the iPhone for its ten-year anniversary in 2017.
The reasons Apple might slow down go far beyond hardware. Apple has always had new markets to explore. It didn’t even launch the first iPhone in China until late 2009. But now those international markets are saturated with smartphones, too. China doesn’t even think iPhones are that cool anymore, which has put a damper on Apple’s potential profits.
Add the fact that carriers no longer work iPhone sales into contracts, and people are seeing less of a reason to buy a new $700 iPhone every one or even two years. (Unless you’re on an iPhone upgrade plan, which will also be significantly less awesome if Apple truly changes its refresh cycle.) The estimated upgrade period for smartphones is now 29 months, up from 24 months in 2013-2014. So if the average person isn’t going to buy a new phone every other year, why would a company want to sink resources into an outdated upgrade cycle?
Regardless, iPhones (and smartphones in general) will continue to be the most important gadget in our lives. Apple will undoubtedly continue to make amazing devices loved all over the world, it just won’t be fueled by a rabid, global fascination. With mobile VR on the horizon, smartphones are no where near the pinnacle of what they can achieve. Phone makers are just taking smaller steps, year-after-year, instead of gigantic strides.