The Most Predictable Company in Tech

As grotesquely wrong as people’s predictions about Apple products are, you’d think Apple was crazy unpredictable in everything that it does. But predictability is a huge part of how Apple works. posted on

Image: Jesus Diaz / Gizmodo

“Because we don’t want to be predictable.” That’s the official reason the new iPad was simply called “the new iPad” by Apple yesterday, and not the iPad 3 or (gag) the iPad HD. Thing is, Apple’s actually very predictable.

Not because Apple products are boring or bad or bland—they’re fantastic—but because Apple is a company with deeply ingrained patterns. It’s radically methodical. Occasionally, Apple will break out of those patterns. That’s where the genuine surprises are. But the patterns are there, and they’re totally readable, most of the time. Even people who aren’t totally aware of them feel them on a subconscious level: Everybody knows there’s a big Apple product launch a couple times a year, and it’s kind of like Christmas—a nationwide celebration oriented around consumerism, except that Apple pulls in more money than Jesus. These cycles aren’t merely coincidental though, they’re part and parcel of Apple’s success.

Here are a few of the patterns.

When Stuff Comes Out
Traditionally, devices that begin with a lower case ‘i’ are on the most predictable timetable of anything Apple produces. iPhones 1-4 came out in June or July, every single year. iPads have always come out in March/April, yearly. New iPods in September, for eternity. True, Apple changed the iPhone release cycle slightly this past year, shifting the timetable for the iPhone to October—after breaking it in the first place to release the Verizon iPhone 4 in January—so there’s a question as to whether it’ll resume in June/July or remain Apple’s new fall event. The latter seems more likely, since it effectively puts 6 months on either side of the iPhone and iPad, Apple’s two most popular products, spreading the love and cash around.

It’s a little harder to nail with the computers, because they’re more subject to technological developments that are out of Apple’s hands, like when Intel puts out new processors. More to the point, stuff just moves much faster in mobile right now, so it’s easier/more crucial to keep up yearly product release cycles—not so much with laptops and desktops.

What Stuff Is Called
Apple loves naming conventions. iPhone 3G -> iPhone 3GS. iPhone 4 -> iPhone 4S. iEverything. iBook and PowerBook. MacBook and MacBook Pro. (And MacBook Air.) iMac and Mac Pro. Mac mini and iPod mini. It was a pleasant surprise that Apple ditched a lame suffix for the new iPad, but it also sets a new precedent: Don’t expect the next iPhone to be called anything but the new iPhone. (Besides, what else would it be called? iPhone 5? It’s not the fifth iPhone. iPhone 4G? The 4S just became the 4G with a tricky software update.) Which matches everything else Apple makes. You don’t have a MacBook Pro 7, do you? (Well you sort of might—if you go to a Mac’s System Information app, it’ll tell you what model you have. I’ve got MacBook Pro 8,2. But whatever.)

How Much Stuff Costs
Apple products that are upgrades of existing Apple products are almost aways the exact same price, or cheaper. Apple adds new features, but keeps the price the same. Exceptions have occurred when a product is completely reimagined, but the trend is almost always cheaper. I’ll go out on a limb and guess that the next iPad is $499. And the next iPhone is $199. Even if they’re both a million times better than this year’s.

The Stuff Itself
I’ll also wager that the next iPhone will look different than the current iPhone. And that the next iPad will different than the current (new) one. Why? There’s an established pattern. The iPhone 3G and 3GS look the same. So do the 4 and 4S. It wouldn’t surprise me if the next iPhone and the one after it look the same. Maybe they won’t! And the world will be shocked and delighted. But there’s a good chance they will. It’s in those spaces, the unknowns, that Apple gets to surprise people.

Thing is, technological progress and innovation is very often methodical. It’s a process. There’s a logical way to get from one step to another. I won’t be surprised if the next MacBook Pros are a lot like the current MacBook Airs—but the Airs had to happen first. The current unibody MacBook Pros? Apple figured out how to machine the body when it developed the original Air. Process.

It’s true that Apple in particular is in a weird place, because it’s so intensely scrutinized. Like, the world knew the new iPad would have a 2048 × 1536 retina display, well before there was any evidence it was the case. It’s not even entirely a matter of well-sourced rumors and leaks, the pick-pick-picking at scrap after scrap of info, using the garbled bits to build a messy picture of this thing-to-be until it was unveiled yesterday, with little shock or awe. It was what we knew it would be, save for a detail here or there. This was a little true with even the original iPad. And that’s totally fine.

What’s strange is that as predictable as Apple can be in some ways—very often like it’s manifesting the nervous tics of an obsessive-compulsive—no other company’s managed to outmaneuver it, to skate to where Apple’s puck will be, to use a Gretzky-ism. Nobody’s made a better phone or a better tablet yet. Nobody’s even really making better computers writ large, in my humble estimation. We’re talking about products that are years old, to boot.

If anything, I suppose, the most predictable thing about Apple is that it’s going to keep winning. But I always love a good surprise, too.

(Programming note: This is the last Apple post for at least a few days, we promise.)

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