The Purchase Problem

Whenever you buy a product, you always run the risk of something newer, bigger and better coming along sometime soon. But with Apple products, most of the time you have a general idea when the next big thing will be on the shelves, because they follow a fairly predictable pattern.

But then the expected release date for the iPhone 5 came and went and here we are with no idea when (or if) the iPhone 5 will make an appearance in 2011. Sure, all signs are that it’s coming out in September, but with Apple, no one can ever be sure.

So what do you do if you need a phone now but believe a new one should be out any day now? Let’s talk about that after the break.

Unreliable Predictability

This concept came to me the other day, because of a completely non-iPhone related problem that came up. I’m going on a business trip in a few weeks, and it requires me to travel across the United States and across the border into Canada, where I’ll spend a few days. I’ve got to still accomplish work during this time, but I also want to pack as light as possible. Ideally, I’d have an ultraportable laptop with me at all times, something that can be used easily on an airplane while I sit in a cramped coach seat for 6 hours.

This is also an excuse for me to get an 11-inch MacBook Air, something I’ve wanted since they first were released. But now, buying one is a realistic goal, and I could make that happen before I left if I wanted to. The problem is, the Gold Master of Lion was just released, and all signs point to a new MacBook Air coming out in the next few weeks. Why buy something today when you know a newer and better model will be out soon?

The iPhone Connection

Which brings me to my good friend Chad. He was at the pool with his wife this past weekend, and he hopped in with her phone in his pocket. Since they had to hit the Verizon store anyways, he decided to buy a new phone as well. So there he was, staring at the iPhone 4 and the Droid Incredible 2, and he knew (because we talk, obviously) that a new iPhone was most likely coming out very soon. But he didn’t need one soon, he needed one today. So he bought the Droid for himself and one for his wife, and went on his way.

Because of Apple’s predictable release schedule, everyone knows that a new iPhone should be just around the corner. Yet as predictable as they are, there’s also no certainty in this assumption. Everyone assumed the Verizon iPhone would be announced last summer, and yet it came out last January, a year after they announced the iPad. So now the iPad seems to be coming out in the Spring, iPods in the Fall, and iPhones … when?

How to Fight It

One could make the argument that all you have to do is be patient and these things will take care of themselves, and you would be right. But let’s put this another way: Say that every year, around, say, December 25th, you sat around a tree and collected a few gifts. This happened every year like clockwork, until one day there was no holiday. All of a sudden it was February 5th before everyone sat around the tree, and that was it. Essentially, that’s how this plays out if you’re an Apple loyalist.

So what do you do? Besides be patient, you just take things as they go. Take good care of your iPhone/MacBook Air/iPod and plan on its shelf life to be a few years. For example, I still have my original 30GB iPod Photo, and I use it all the time in my car. Sure, I want an iPod Touch, but I can’t quite justify the price so I’ll just keep using what I have until it needs to be replaced.

That’s really how things should work, after all, it’s just that Apple has convinced us that we need a new gadget every year. Yet that concept doesn’t work for everything in the Apple lineup. I have an iPad, but I didn’t feel the need to buy an iPad 2, it just wasn’t that exciting. My MacBook Pro is doing just fine, and I only want the MacBook Air as a secondary device that I can use for business trips as well as for something that my wife can use with her job.

But the iPhone is something that’s almost intimate. It’s a device that we all hold every day, and most of us rely on it to do business or as our major form of communication. If a new one is coming out, it’s desirable, and Apple knows it. This is the device that they keep selling more and more of every year, and I’d wager a good portion of their sales are from repeat customers.

Final Analysis

I know I’ll be one of the guys who buys a new iPhone when it comes out, and I’m willing to be patient and just wait until it happens. If I were in the position of my buddy Chad though, I’m pretty sure I would’ve bought a Droid as well. Because we know Apple’s release cycle, we also know when it’s not a good time to buy. Chad was between a rock and a hard place and he wasn’t attached to any one ecosystem yet. Had the iPhone 5 been available, he might have gone that direction instead — and he wanted to, at least before we knew for sure that it wasn’t coming out at WWDC. So Apple lost a potential customer, and he’s probably not the only one.

Having a predictable release cycle is both an advantage and a disadvantage for Apple. In the case of the next iPhone, changing the cycle means potentially losing some customers. Sure, they’ll make it up in the long run, but who knows how things would’ve turned out if the iPhone had been announced in June.