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Does S stand for Spring?

John Sculley:

“I think they’re going through a very significant change now in terms of product cycles,” Sculley explains. “Traditionally Apple introduces products once a year; now it’s really introducing products twice a year. The complexity of that from a supply chain is immense, and Apple seems to be doing it well. So, I think that people are underestimating just how well Apple is run, and just how successful the company can be when it gets to that twice-a-year product introduction cycle.”

Former Apple CEO John Sculley: Apple is well-run | TUAW – The Unofficial Apple Weblog

Suggesting that Apple is moving to a semi-annual cycle is a very provocative thing to say, but it’s something I’ve also speculated is happening during a Critical Path podcast.  Sculley’s comments prompted me to weigh the possible evidence that this is happening:

  1. All of the major products which Apple sells have been updated in the Fall. This is unprecedented. Not only were product launches scheduled in the spring, historically they had been spread throughout the year. The odds that they happen to coincide by accident are nil. Not only that but the move of iPad and iPhone and iPod and MacBook and iMac to launch all within Fall (once a year) seems risky because it leaves a vast gap for competitors to fill six months hence. Indeed, given the iPhone’s launch predictability, many (most?) competing products already target launching in the Spring.
  2. Launch ramp for iPhone steeper than ever. The number of countries and operators launching the product in the launch quarter is nearly the entire distribution list. This is also the first time this has happened. Not only does it imply a very steep ramp, it indicates no channel fill will be happening past Q1. There will not be incremental sales to unserved customers as the fiscal year wears on. 
  3. Consumer anticipation. This year saw two quarters where sales were soft due to “product transitions” as awareness among the mass market of new product rumors caused growth to dry up. Too many potential buyers are now conditioned to wait for fall to buy iPhones thus sapping demand for half the year. Apple ends up with an inability to meet demand for half the year and a sales lull for the other half. Clearly this is suboptimal.
  4. Hon Hai production has shifted to locations closer to the sources of labor. This may not seem to be relevant but we have to appreciate that Apple makes up nearly half of Hon Hai’s sales volume and hence labor demands. Until this shift, Hon Hai’s production has depended on migrant labor which is difficult to manage. Moving production so that the labor is local means a steadier workforce with better economies from learning curves. However it also requires a more stable order book. Production for Apple has tended to be “bursty” with breakneck round-the-clock crush followed by periods of idle time and re-tooling. This is not only inefficient but it also creates strain and stress and lowers morale.
  5. Capital Expenditures de-coupled from volumes. This is a weak signal at this time and needs confirmation, but capital expenditures seem to be outpacing production. The recent bursts in CapEx may be transient or may have to do with tooling-up Samsung’s replacements but it may also imply a move to a more rapid product cycle. A transition to a new operating model would require significant over-spending in advance of the shift.
  6. Rumors of 5S products in pre-production. This is the least valuable piece of evidence but it might indicate that the “S” variant is targeting spring launch. I should point out that the “facelift” model change is common practice at many phone companies. At Nokia the convention was to launch an “i” variant to a model before a bigger update. Even at Apple, the iPod was going through a re-fresh during February with a “Valentine’s Day” variant being released. Then there’s the case of the white iPhone 4 which seemed to take forever to launch but finally did so into an April time frame. Finally we just saw the iPad retina product go through a six month cycle.

Admittedly, these are circumstantial pieces of evidence but they do corroborate Sculley’s claim of a six month product cycle.  Put another way, if Apple is not switching to a six month cycle then there seems to be a lot of stress for no benefit.

I would also add that this change in cycle time is an enormous undertaking. Since Apple is an integrated company, not only production but marketing, design, hardware and software engineering must be re-configured. To put it in perspective, when Ford changed its operating mode from producing one model to a flexible mass production method pioneered by General Motors, the company had to shut down for production for six months.

The operational aspects are daunting and would affect almost all employees in the company. Therefore if it is happening it’s also possible that there is some knowledge of this change dissipating outside the company, perhaps explaining Sculley’s confidence in the claim.

Looking for more information on the renaissance of production and its the effect on the technology industries? Then come to Asymconf and take part in the debate.