Apple's domino effect: How iOS 7 should kickstart launch season

The company is closing in on its typical (and some promised) launch deadlines but remains quiet on announcing anything, giving developers and enterprises little time to prepare.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

All eyes are fixed on Cupertino to see what it has up its sleeve, yet there's still nothing to report.

The Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, CA, where Apple typically holds its annual developer conference.
Image: James Martin/CNET

February and March could have been the time when Apple announced at least two major products for the desktop and mobile like it did last year. Instead, Samsung took to the stage with its Galaxy S4 launch, and everything else from Mobile World Congress 2013 in Barcelona, the BlackBerry Z10 release, and T-Mobile's contract killing plans — just to name a few — took over the news cycle.

Apple has instead had to put out a bunch of fires, not limited to its China warranty woes, an angry shareholder with a lawsuit to burn, and a spate of embarrassing security flaws for its customer accounts and device lock screens. And yet, it's only six months after a major management reshuffle that saw two executives ousted and one retiree brought back.

One might suggest, "No wonder there hasn't been a product announcement yet." It's a big company, and many things run in tandem. Apple remains deathly quiet on where it's heading next. No particular surprise there, but based on previous timings of announcements, releases, and launches, Apple may be cutting it fine for developers, businesses, and enterprises to prepare for the upcoming updates.

While many expect an imminent announcement of the next iteration of OS X and the next iPad, even the rumor mill has ground to a halt.

Deadlines, deadlines: Where typically, timing is everything

Apple has, at least in recent years, taken timing and scheduling fairly seriously. While its products and services would only be released when ready, past trends appear to dictate a certain schedule in which the market can expect a new iPad in the first half of the year and a new iPhone during the second half.

On February 16, 2012, Apple announced the next iteration of its desktop operating system with a cut-down name, simply OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, reserving the Mac brand for its hardware.

The company said at the time, ahead of its July release — just five months later, giving developers time to prepare for the bevy of new features included in the software — that it would switch to an annual release cycle, similar to that of iOS.

It's now April, and not a hint out of Apple on OS X 10.9, the expected numerical iteration of the next version of the desktop software. That said, it's not yet a year since its release — that would be July — but presumably, the delay means that it's either not ready for developers, or it doesn't include as many new APIs, and therefore Apple doesn't need to give software writers as much time as it did with OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion. After all, it was announced only seven months after OS X 10.7 Lion was released to the public, which also tied with Apple's confirmed annual release schedule in July 2011.

For the iPad, it's a slightly different story. Apple releases its latest iteration of the iPad between March and April, and hasn't deviated in the past three years. But there's a catch. Last November, it threw a spanner in the launch cycle by churning out a minor iteration of the full-sized iPad, and also dishing out the iPad mini.

The future of the iPad (and iPhone) software could rest at the very heart of where OS X takes its next step into the unification of the two on its mobile and desktop platforms.

Mac's iOS-ification: Chicken or egg?

With OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, Apple increasingly added iOS features to the desktop in the form of a notification center and what were, for a time, mobile-only apps. By integrating some of the best features of iOS to the Mac, Apple has begun to unify the two to work closer together. It creates not only a platform and purpose for iCloud for device and content synchronicity, but also a wider ecosystem for Apple users.

The upcoming release of OS X 10.9 rests on how far iOS has progressed during that time. Exactly what comes first boils down to which comes first: The chicken or the egg. Or, rather, iOS 7 or OS X 10.9.

But there's a twist to the tale. According to Apple inside pitcher John Gruber, iOS 7 is "running behind", resulting in OS X 10.9 engineers being pulled from the desktop development to focus on the more lucrative next iteration of the mobile platform that supplies the iPhone.

Because major iOS versions are announced at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), it suggests that iOS 7 may be being prepared for announcement in June, when the global meet-up of Apple developers occurs. This is not to say that iOS 7 will be launched in June, as that will likely come later in the year to fall in line with the need for developers to hook their apps into the new software. It also falls within the expected third-quarter release date timeframe of the next iPhone.

Plus, if iOS 7's development is slower than expected, it gives Apple a little more breathing space to include the more significant iOS-ported features into OS X 10.9 before July — the deadline the company must meet in order to fulfill its promise of an annual desktop software release.

This suggests that iOS 7 will come first and OS X 10.9 later — by weeks, or minutes perhaps, even at the same launch event.

Gruber also pointed to the development of a new "system-wide [user interface] overhaul", which comes only a few weeks after BlackBerry chief executive Thorsten Heins alluded to iOS' outdated and stale user interface.

Because the next iPhone is expected to sport a visually "similar size and shape" to the iPhone 5, according to reports, it would therefore make sense that the "killer" feature would be a software update that overlooks any need to modify the physical design of the device.

WWDC 2013 approaches: Launch season on deck?

It's becoming increasingly difficult to determine when Apple will either say something or do something, by announcing a product or launching it. Plus, with a massive management reshuffle just a few months ago, there's no telling how far behind the company is on its internal schedule.

While the timing for a new iPhone looks unlikely for June, Apple could reveal iOS 7 instead, but launch it later in the year. This would fall in similar fashion to what it did with OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion by leaving a hearty gap between its February announcement and July launch.

iOS 7 is likely to be announced at WWDC 2013 in June, while the next minor incremental update to the iPhone will launch well before the December holiday season in September or October with the latest iOS 7 software installed. This gives mobile developers — and there are a lot more of them than for the Mac — enough time to update their apps and create new ones with the expected wide range of new software hooks and features.

With all eyes pointing to a WWDC 2013 launch of iOS 7, it gives Apple an opportunity to then lay out OS X 10.9 at the same time without spoiling its new features, with the Mac software being a minor update without many new features for developers to play with. This would give them around a month before the July launch deadline to take advantage of the new features.

But this month could still see an iPad announcement, and it shouldn't be ruled out completely. That said, it doesn't make much sense, seeing as the November announcement of the fourth-generation iPad was only a minor update to a tablet that can only be updated so much.

It would make more sense, seeing as there have been practically no rumors in the run-up to an expected April or May event around the iPad, to suggest that any new Apple tablet will arrive later in the year, likely following the release of iOS 7. If sales are slowing down as reports would have us believe, a launch in time for the December holiday season could see a much-needed boost to the iPad division's profits.

It makes no sense for Apple to announce anything until iOS 7 is ready, and everything else seems to hinge on the announcement and launch of its next-generation mobile platform. iOS 7 features will likely feed into OS X 10.9, albeit incrementally, because the next iPhone will likely remain physically the same. Meanwhile, the iPad and iPad mini could be shown off to the world this month or next, but with reports of cutbacks in supply and demand reaching its saturation point, it seems increasingly unlikely.

One thing's for certain: WWDC 2013 in June holds the key to a lot of moving parts at Apple. That's when we can start to expect a flurry of news from the maker of shiny rectangles.

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