March 22, 2013

Decoding Apple Announcements

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Apple logoOne thing that I really wish I could ask the Apple executive team is why and when they decide to make announcements. Lots of people have discussed over the years how, when Steve Jobs was still alive and running the company, that it was his capricious nature that made these decisions. With Steve not having been in day to day contact with the company he founded for almost two years now, is it either his legacy that still causes these announcements to come when they do or is there some more methodical reason? My inquiring mind wants to know.

Yesterday evening, two curious announcements were made, very quietly, to the Apple developer blog. It hit a couple of the larger tech blogging sites, but made very little splash. Given what I do for a living, it once again brought the question to my mind of why Apple might be making such announcements at particular times.

Lets look at the text of these announcements:

Make Your Apps Look Great on the Retina Display and iPhone 5

March 21, 2013
Starting May 1, new apps and app updates submitted to the App Store must be built for iOS devices with Retina display and iPhone apps must also support the 4-inch display on iPhone 5.
Seems rather benign, and in truth, it is. Yet why, on a random Tuesday at the end of March, would this appear now? Lets look at some other dates and then play a game to see if we can spot any kind of pattern.

iOS 4 and the iPhone 4 were both released on June 24, 2010. This was the first device Apple sold with a 'retina' screen. iOS 6 was released September 19, 2012 and the iPhone 5 was released a couple days later on the 21st. Between the time that the first retina screen was released and Apple requiring apps to support it was just over 34 months; almost 3 years. The time between the release of the iPhone 5, with its larger screen, and Apple requiring developers to support it was just over 7 months.

More interesting, to me any way, is what happens when you start thinking about later this year when the (presumably) iPhone 5s will be released, likely in September. If history holds true, the 5s will be the same form factor as the 5. The 5 will move down to be the $99 phone and the 4s will move down to be the 'free with contract' phone. The iPhone 4 will likely be retired, unless Apple can figure out some way to make it an even cheaper device for developing nations.

What is interesting to me is that the Apple 3GS, which was retired in September 2012, will probably not get support for iOS 7. If that's true, then only iPhones with retina screens will be supported on iOS 7. It would make sense then that Apple requires retina graphics at that time, yet they did it now, almost halfway in between their regularly announcement cycles.

Lets pause for a moment to discuss the iPhone 5 screen size requirement. Support for its new screen size was added in Xcode 4.5 which was released just prior to the phone itself, to allow developers time to update their apps to support the new screen size prior to the launch of the phone. Lots of developers did this, but many more never did. The reasons some developers gave for not updating their code is quite enlightening. Xcode 4.5 dropped support for the original iPhone, iPhone 3G and the first two generations of iPod Touches, so if you updated to Xcode 4.5 in order to support the iPhone 5's new screen size, you lost support for those 4 older devices.

Apple definitely believes in aggressively, at least when compared to others in their industry, depreciating support for older devices, so it shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone that phones and iPods that were, at that point, 4-5 year old technology, were cut off. But this cutting off came at a time when new devices were being released along with new software; they were not just dropped in the middle of a cycle.

I will admit that completely removing support for something in code is different than a policy change in app store reviews, so don't think I am unaware of a somewhat apples to oranges comparison (come on, you had to see that joke coming). But again, we're looking at the timing of the announcements, not only their content. That's why this is interesting to me.

So what, you say? If we think that the iPhone 3GS is essentially cut off this fall and the retina display requirement is just a foreshadowing of it, then what does the requirement for iPhone 5 screen size mean? Is this just Apple getting tired of developers either being lazy by not updating their code and using a stick to force compliance? Or is this just more capriciousness? Maybe its something else.

Dropping the 3GS means one less actual screen resolution to support. Right now, we're technically at 3 resolutions, the non-retina 3.5" screen, the retina 3.5" screen and the 4" screen. What if this is Apple's subtle signal that there is yet another new screen size coming this fall? What if this is our first real hint from Apple that there is indeed a forthcoming iPhone Plus?

We know that Apple doesn't want to get itself into the Android situation where there are nearly as many screen sizes and resolutions as there are devices. By officially eliminating one resolution and adding another at the same time, maybe this is a way to continue to evolve their product offerings without adding additional complexity to their line.

Consider again the dates. It will be almost 5 months from the May 1 deadline until the probably launch of the iPhone 5s and possible iPhone Plus. If Apple had not made this announcement now but had waited until September, the developers who had not updated their apps to support the iPhone 5 screen resolution would now be complaining that they had not yet completed last year's transition before Apple 'sprung' yet another surprise screen size on them. By making the announcement now, Apple avoids that potential bit of 'bad press' while getting something they really want, more apps with iPhone 5 support.

Then again, maybe I'm just reading too much into these tea leaves. Only September will tell.

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