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Are Apple, Inc.'s Product Cycles Getting Longer?

By Evan Niu, CFA – Jan 29, 2016 at 10:00AM

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Two product categories may only get upgrades every 18 months from here on out.

Image source: Apple.

There's supposed to be an Apple (AAPL -1.26%) product event right around the corner in March. Naturally, the Apple rumor mill is actively speculating what may or may not be in store, but there are two themes emerging right now.

First is that the Apple Watch 2 may not see a full redesign yet. The Mac maker might only add a few new bands or accessories to keep the lineup fresh, but a brand-new model isn't due out until the fall, according to the latest intel from 9to5Mac. The second notion is that Apple will go ahead and introduce an updated 9.7-inch iPad Air 3, after the company chose not to update it last fall at its iPad event since the iPad Pro was the feature presentation that time around. The refreshed model may get a redesigned speaker system, and Apple is reportedly testing support for Apple Pencil.

What does that all say about Apple's product cycles?

It's worth the wait
If both of those rumors prove true, then Apple may be shifting to roughly 18-month product cycles for certain products. Apple Watch is a brand-new product category, so it has no legacy of annual updates, but for the most part the flagship iPad has gotten some attention every year except for 2015.

This has some potentially important implications about how Apple is approaching tablets and smartwatches. Much digital ink has been spilled over the current state of the iPad business. Last quarter's figures just reinforce the view that people aren't upgrading iPads all that often. iPad unit sales fell 25% last quarter to 16.1 million, continuing the downward trend that started a couple years ago.

The iPad upgrades aren't doing a whole lot to mitigate falling unit sales, and it's unlikely that the iPad Pro will move the needle that much, either. iPad Pro targets the enterprise and creative professionals, and is probably a relatively low volume model compared to the consumer-oriented Mini or Air. Despite the higher price point, there was hardly an ASP uplift last quarter (up a modest $6 sequentially to $439).

In that case, it makes sense to elongate the iPad cycle, since in that way Apple can probably save some developmental resources if it doesn't need to focus on shipping a new one each and every year. iPad product cycles have always been peculiar with regards to the timing and redesign cadence. It's not like the iPhone's well-known tick-tock cycle.

Most of this also likely applies to Apple Watch, which probably has an even lower upgrade priority than the iPad. While new product categories generally improve performance dramatically in the first few iterations, Apple shouldn't feel compelled to rush out a new model until it's ready.

Evan Niu, CFA owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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