My name is Todd Haselton, but you’re more likely going to want to call me captain obvious here. First, let me explain my headline. I decided to write this piece because there were thousands of arguments in our comments before today suggesting that Apple would never call the next iPhone the “iPhone 5.” Now, we know that’s going to be the case, thanks to the company’s press invite that went out today. So I’m willing to bet that Apple’s going to call the next generation device the iPhone 5S. Before you try to leap through your computer screen to strangle me for being obvious, let’s take a look at why it actually makes sense. It’s more about the incremental upgrades between carrier contracts, I think, than about redesigning the iPhone each year.
The original iPhone launched in 2007 but, oddly enough, it only supported EDGE data networks. They were super, super slow and it usually took upwards of a minute just to load a full website unless you were on Wi-Fi. So Apple needed to get that fixed and indeed did so with the introduction of the iPhone 3G in 2008. That was the big upgrade. Next, we had an incremental upgrade to the iPhone 3GS in 2009. Most users didn’t need to upgrade just yet. Then, a year later (two years after the iPhone 3G) Apple introduced, yet again, its big upgrade: the iPhone 4. Ah yes, a complete redesign, a better camera and so much more. Then, in 2011, Apple took the wraps off of the iPhone 4S. Yet again, an incremental upgrade. It offered a better camera and Siri support, but plenty of people with the iPhone 4 (myself included at the time), didn’t see a need to upgrade just yet.
Enter the iPhone 5. This is the device that iPhone 4S and iPhone 4 users will want to upgrade to. It’s the big upgrade yet again, the one we saw between the iPhone 3G and the iPhone 4. It’s going to be a complete redesign, just like the iPhone 4 was a redesign of the original iPhone 3G.
So taking all of that into consideration, it makes sense why Apple went with the iPhone 5 moniker. It’s just as big of an upgrade as the iPhone 3G and the iPhone 4 were over the original iPhone and the iPhone 3GS, respectively.
Our Editor-in-Chief Sean Aune thinks it comes down to the manufacturing process. See, it’s cheaper for the company to keep the same body design for two iterations of the phone (3G, 3GS and 4, 4S) than it is to continue to rebuild the device year after year. It’s also probably why the company has so much time to develop brand new hardware designs. Apple isn’t the only company that does this, of course. Look at the Wi-Fi-only Motorola Xoom tablet. It launched with a SIM slot but didn’t offer support for 3G or 4G data networks. Then Motorola used that same body and introduced a new model that actually took advantage of the SIM card slot. Why design and build the tablet twice when you can use the same exact design? It comes down to economics.
Sean can explain further:
As Todd was saying, this is quite possibly about the economics of how much it costs to make molds. In the toy industry, it costs somewhere around $100,000 to make a mold, and that’s for each part of an action figure: left leg, right leg, left arm, right arm and so on. It is an accepted practice in the toy business to try to reuse a mold as many times as possible.
Of course you’re thinking, “But Apple is made of money! How could they be so cheap?” Well, we aren’t talking just the outward appearance of the device here. Think about the ribbon cables as well. If Apple was to change the phone again in a year, that would also mean retooling the machines that assemble those. It would also mean retooling the speakers… the camera placement and a whole host of other little things such as the way the packaging is cut to hold the device in the box.
While consumers may want a fresh design each year, keeping the same basic design for two iterations starts to add up to a lot of cost savings for a company and allows them extra time to do the full retool when it comes time.
Still with me? We know history repeats itself and, as I’ve explained above, so does Apple’s product line. I expect that Apple won’t issue another major upgrade with a complete industrial design until 2014 when it introduces the iPhone 6. Instead, I’m willing to bet we’ll see an incremental upgrade, possibly with a better camera and new software features (just like we saw with the iPhone 4S) in the iPhone 5S next year. I bet the iPhone 5S has the same body as the iPhone 5 will.
So while it might seem obvious to many, I’m willing to bet that this time next year we’ll all be arguing over the name yet again. And when we argue whether or not it will be the iPhone 6 or the iPhone 5S, you can bet I’ll be sticking to this argument.