There was a time when so much of the progress that came with a new iPhone could be encapsulated in its revolutionary new A-series processor, which added CPU cores, GPUs, or special processing engines to enable the model to be so much faster than its predecessor.
But a week after Apple’s 2022 iPhone launch event, I’m struck by how much the company has had to shift gears due to the slowing pace of chip development.
Apple’s chip designs are a huge advantage for the company, and (as Apple pointed out last week) its advantage over the competition when it comes to smartphone chips is so large that it can afford to slow down the pace of development while remaining miles ahead. It’s also important to note that the last few years have seen two unrelated events that would quite reasonably have slowed the pace a little bit.
First, obviously, the pandemic. I have to think that there was plenty of workplace disruption, both at Apple and with Apple’s partners (like TSMC, the company that makes Apple’s processors), that might have caused some speed bumps.
But second: the arrival of Apple silicon on the Mac. In the last couple of years, Apple has introduced the M1, M1 Pro, M1 Max, M1 Ultra, and M2–with presumably new M2 variants due in the very near future. That had to divert some focus away from the base chip that powers new iPhones.
(I wonder if Apple is also waiting for the new 3nm process that has taken TSMC a little while to get off the drawing board, and if that has forced the company to tread water a little bit in the meantime.)
New! Sort of!
Which leads us to Apple’s conundrum. How do you market new products that aren’t so new?
Last year, Apple started focusing its iPhone speed claims by comparing their phones to “the competition” rather than the previous year’s iPhone models. From a marketing standpoint, this was a brilliant move. Why compete with yourself when you don’t have to? Apple’s processors are years ahead of the competition, so disqualifying older iPhone processors gives Apple much larger numbers to crow about.
This year’s iPhone 14 announcement was extra tricky because there was no “last year’s model” to compare it to. The iPhone 14 uses the same A15 processor Apple used in the iPhone 13–albeit the variant from the iPhone 13 Pro that had an extra GPU core enabled. A casual observer would assume that the announcement was normal, but it was anything but–instead, Apple had to do a lot of sleight of hand in order to make it seem like the iPhone 14 revision was business as usual.
Now, next year things will resume their normal pattern. The iPhone 15 will presumably get this year’s A16 processor, and the iPhone 15 Pro will get next year’s A17. This year, Apple’s going to have to take its lumps–but it’s not going to welcome comparisons to last year’s iPhone if it can avoid it.
The pace of advancement on the Apple Watch has also slowed. Though its system-in-package got updated to the S8, including some fancy new sensors, the CPU at the core of the latest watch models hasn’t changed in three generations. So rather than claim speed boosts, Apple focuses on other areas.
Most interesting to me was the Apple Watch promotional video that Apple ran during its event video last week. In past years, it feels like Apple’s ads have focused on all the new features in this year’s models, but that Apple Watch video spent a pretty good portion of its runtime promoting features introduced in older models–or available to older models as a part of watchOS 9.
Is this a scandal? Not really–after all, most people buying an iPhone or Apple Watch aren’t replacing a device they bought last year. For the vast majority of Apple device buyers, they’re comparing the latest model to the one they bought several years ago. And even with the pace of advancement slowing, there are some big differences between an iPhone 11 and an iPhone 14.
But Apple used to have an easier time showing off the coolness of its latest device updates. When the pace of advancement is moving fast, you don’t have to work as hard to blow people away with the latest and greatest. When things start to slow, you have to get creative and do a lot more work to get your sales pitch across. And last week, Apple was working the hardest it’s had to in quite a while.