September has a special kind of significance, particularly in the northern hemisphere. The ninth month of the year means back to school, the change of seasons, the autumnal equinox. From a young age we’re attuned to these rhythms, and then sometime in adulthood they’re muted by all of the Other Things that occupy our brain space. Unless, you work in tech, love to read about tech, or are employed to write about tech. In that case, September is for tech events—Apple events.
For more than a decade, Apple has hosted a “special event” in September, capitalizing on those fresh-start feelings and presenting its new wares well in advance of the critical holiday buying season. The scene-stealer is supposed to be the iPhone. Over the years, more product categories have crept on stage, like watches and headphones and tablets and a smart speaker. But the iPhone is September, and September is the iPhone.
I probably don’t need to tell you that this year is different. There are no predictable rhythms. We’re fumbling our way through a global pandemic, while millions of people are in economic distress and the American west, Apple’s backyard, is literally burning. Apple executives have already warned that this year’s new iPhone would be delayed by a few weeks, into October. The information, shared on the company’s last earnings call, was both unsurprising and symbolically jarring: A “one more thing” for the pandemic era.
Still … Apple is hosting an event next week. The event will be livestreamed and hosted virtually, like the software conferences we attended on Zoom and WebEx and Teams this spring. The event is unlikely to be centered around new iPhones, but there are other products that Apple will want us to all pay attention to—with whatever sliver of attention we have left.
Watch This Space
The digital invitations sent out by Apple contained the phrase “Time Flies,” a not-so-subtle reference to watches. Bloomberg has also reported that new Apple Watches are in the works.
Yup, watches plural: Expect a new watch that showcases some kind of new technology and sits at the top of the Apple Watch pricing structure; as well as a lower-cost model, which might replace the Apple Watch Series 3. The Apple Watch has, in a relatively short amount of time, become one of the best-selling watches in the world, and is an important part of Apple’s pitch that all of your gadgets should work seamlessly together. But it’s also a popular health tracker, and it’s been rumored that this year’s top model could include a blood oxygen sensor.
A new iPad is also expected to be revealed, a next-generation iPad Air with a design that more closely resembles the iPad Pro. Notable Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has predicted that some kind of 10.8-inch iPad would come to market in the second half of 2020, along with a new iPad mini in the subsequent months.
The big question is how, exactly, Apple will distinguish something like this new, sleek Air from the 11-inch iPad Pro. Reports suggest that Touch ID will get some sort of revamp, whether that’s an in-screen touch sensor or one built into the iPad’s tactile power button. (Ideally, the new iPad would also have a front camera that’s centered when the iPad is in landscape mode, which would make it much better for video chats—but that’s just a feature on my personal wish list and not based on any evidence.)
September is also usually when Apple rolls out final versions of the new software it showed off at WWDC in the spring. At this point, the official release date for iOS 14 is unclear, since new iPhones won’t be launching until October. But millions of people will still upgrade to the latest version of iOS on their “old” phones, so it’s possible that Apple may keep the software release consistent with prior years.
In terms of other hardware we might hear about in the very near future, a potential Tile competitor (“AirTags”) and a newer, less expensive version of HomePod could be revealed this fall, according to MacRumors. Apple also announced an ARM-based Mac Mini earlier this year—a big deal because it signaled a shift away from Intel chips—and said back then this computer would ship before the end of the year. To date, only developers have been able to get their hands on these ARM-based Macs.
The View From Cupertino
Apple’s hardware events are more than just hardware. They’re a platform for Apple to pitch its vision of the future, and that has less to do with screens and specs and more to do with services. It’s one of the fastest growing parts of Apple’s business; last quarter Apple reported double-digit growth in services, up to $13.2 billion from $11.5 billion a year earlier. Services include App Store, iCloud, Apple Music, Apple TV, and more, which means it’s both the connective tissue between all Apple devices, and the content itself. Bloomberg has even reported that Apple is readying its own subscription bundle—a kind of Amazon Prime for the Apple product lover.
But Apple’s services success has come with increased scrutiny. At the end of July, Apple chief executive Tim Cook was part of a group of tech executives who virtually testified in front of a US congressional subcommittee about potentially monopolistic practices. The company is also facing an antitrust probe by the European Commission. And right now it’s engaged in a rather epic battle, with app makers both big and small, over the fees Apple charges developers who want to make, sell, and distribute apps within Apple’s walled garden.
Apple has fared remarkably well during the pandemic, no doubt. It’s not the only tech company to do so, but what’s remarkable is that Apple high-priced hardware and is critically dependent on a complex, global supply chain; whereas some of the other high performers are software-centric. Delayed iPhones excluded, Apple has still managed to ship products, rake in billions from apps, and host events at a somewhat regular cadence during this very strange year. And new iPhones are still on their way. It’s almost like old times. Except, well, not at all.