Major events continue to be cancelled around the world, due to the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak. The first major event was the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, scheduled to be held in late February. Since then, Google and Facebook announced the cancellation of their developer conferences, and other smaller events have been cancelled as well. Yesterday, the London Book Fair was cancelled. And today, the news says that both Apple and Netflix have pulled out of SXSW, the annual everything festival in Austin, Texas, due to start in about a week.
Sporting events have been cancelled, some will be played in empty stadiums, or “behind closed doors,” and it seems unlikely that the Summer Olympics, scheduled to be held on Tokyo, will not either be cancelled or played without spectators.
Apple’s cancellation of their presence at SXSW, where the company was planning to highlight some new Apple TV+ programming, suggests that the company is already planning to cancel their Worldwide Developer Conference in June, though it’s possible, even likely, that the conference goes on, but as a virtual event. Many developers I know have said that they would regret this, because one of the benefits of the San Francisco meet-up is networking with other developers, and the ability to speak with Apple engineers face to face.
The next question is whether Apple will delay the iPhone 12, and whether other companies will push back release of new devices planned for later this year.
Here in the UK, preparation for the pandemic is moving ahead slowly and methodically, without any panic or seeming confusion at the head of government (in stark contrast to a certain country, where it seems that the disease is thought of, at the highest levels, as a “hoax”). This morning, the head of Public Health England was speaking to a parliamentary committee, suggested that the epidemic in this country would last about six months: two to three months as it ramps up, and another two to three months as it winds down. This is assuming that there are not multiple waves of the illness, of course.
With this in mind, and with China most likely not out of the woods, Apple, and other tech companies, will face two problems. The first is their supply chain. Being so heavily dependent on China for manufacturing – in retrospect, people will point out how foolish this eggs-in-one-basket strategy was – it may be impossible for Apple to have enough devices built to meet potential demand. If any one component cannot be sourced in sufficient quantities, phones, computers, or tablets cannot be finished. And the logistics of shipping devices may be complicated if a lot of workers in different countries are off sick.
And as far as consumers are concerned, if people do stay off from work for several weeks, the economy will take a big hit, and it’s likely that many people won’t be able to afford new iPhones at the end of the year, whether they upgrade annually or every two or three years.
As for the Apple upgrade program, which I have used for the past two iPhone models, here in the UK – unlike in the US – you have to go to an Apple store to hand in your old phone and sign up for a new one. If there is an epidemic, there’s no way I’m going to a crowded Apple store in a closed mall to exchange my phone. I’ll continue to pay for the same model until I’ve paid it off in full. Perhaps they’d change that this year – after all, Apple has just closed some stores in Italy, and they certainly don’t want to put their retail employees at risk.
So what if Apple does delay the iPhone 12? I’ve long felt that the annual upgrade cycle for mobile phones is artificial and unnecessary. In the early days, there were big changes from model to model, but now we see tiny incremental changes, mostly affecting the devices’ cameras. What if Apple decided to move to a two-year cycle, starting with the next model? It would certainly change their revenue model, but would it be that negative? They’d have more time to get things right in their operating systems; while macOS and iOS don’t need to be tied to this annual cycle, they are, causing a lot of frustration when new features don’t work well and when new releases are full of bugs.
Apple’s stock would probably take a hit, but it’s shot up so much recently that I think the market would be fine with a more restrained rate of return. Over the past year, before the coronavirus effect, it had nearly doubled. But this could also be a more responsible way to sell these devices: it would cause less exploitation of mineral deposits, result in less waste, and make the company think differently about responsibly selling electronic devices in an era when we need to pull back due to climate change. If there’s one company who could lead in this area, it’s Apple; in part because they want to be a socially responsible company, and in part because they can afford it.
Delaying the iPhone 12 – and perhaps some other device upgrades – could be a reasonable way to face the pandemic that is upon us, and a responsible way to plan for the future.