On Tuesday, Apple is holding a launch event where it will reveal this year’s iPhone lineup.
In most years, Apple announces its iPhones in September, and they go on sale shortly after that. This year is different. Apple instead released new Apple Watches last month and pushed the iPhone announcement to October. The delay is an outgrowth of the Covid-19 pandemic, which disrupted electronics manufacturing and forced most Apple employees to work from home.
Still, this year’s iPhone launch is significant. It is expected to include the first major exterior redesign since 2017, when Apple released the iPhone X with facial recognition. This year’s models will feature iPad-like edges with flatter sides, compared with the gently curving sides of the current iPhones.
Apple is also expected to release four separate iPhones at different screen sizes and prices -- a much wider range of devices than in the past.
Finally, at least some new iPhones will support 5G cellular networks, which promise faster download times (although the networks aren’t fully built out yet in the U.S., which could disappoint some users.)
The last time Apple made such big changes to the iPhone was 2014, when the iPhone 6 came out with bigger screens and two different sizes. That prompted a major upgrade cycle -- a so-called “super-cycle” -- with over 231 million iPhones sold in the next four quarters. That remained the annual unit sales record until Apple stopped reporting unit sales in 2018.
So this year’s changes have investors and analysts predicting a big upgrade cycle that will make Apple an even more valuable company.
“We expect this fall’s launch to be the most significant iPhone event in years,” Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty wrote in a note this week. She’s forecasting Apple to ship about 220 million iPhones in its fiscal 2021, which would be up 22% year-over-year according to the Morgan Stanley model.
Here’s what to look for on Tuesday.
Four iPhones, including a new iPhone Mini
Morgan Stanley analysts are expecting an iPhone lineup of 4 new devices, including:
iPhone 12 Mini, a new device with a 5.4-inch screen. This would be the smallest iPhone since the company debuted full-screen versions (with no blank space at the edges) in 2017, and will probably about the same size as the iPhone 6.
iPhone 12, the standard edition with a 6.1-inch screen, the same size as today’s.
iPhone 12 Pro, also with a 6.1-inch screen but higher specs.
Phone 12 Pro Max, which would have the largest screen ever at 6.7 inches (today’s iPhone 11 Pro Max tops out at 6.5 inches)
Morgan Stanley’s expectations are based on information from Apple’s supply chain of manufacturers in China. That means the actual names, which are controlled by Apple product marketing in California, may end up being different.
Four models would be a dramatic expansion of its lineup, with both a new smaller option and a larger high-end option, giving consumers more choices and potentially spurring people to upgrade.
The phones are expected to be visually different from past years’ models, giving users another reason to upgrade.
In the spring, Apple released a $399 4.7-inch iPhone with a fingerprint sensor, the second-generation iPhone SE, this spring, which is expected to remain the least expensive iPhone after Tuesday’s launch.
“These 4 new models will accompany the 2nd generation iPhone SE launched in spring 2020 to comprise Apple’s most complete lineup of new iPhones ever,” Huberty wrote.
Currently, Apple sells the $699 iPhone 11 with a 6.1-inch screen, a $999 iPhone 11 Pro with a 5.8-inch screen, and a $1099 iPhone 11 Pro Max with a 6.5-inch screen. Apple may continue selling these models -- typically, it knocks $100 off the price of last year’s models and keeps them on store shelves.
Different kinds of 5G
Apple’s tagline for the event is “Hi Speed,” a reference to the faster cellular speeds promised by 5G phones.
Investors and analysts have hoped for years that a 5G iPhone would represent a major upgrade and spur a big wave of sales not only for phone makers like Apple, but also for chip-makers like Qualcomm and carriers like Verizon and T-Mobile, which have bet big on 5G.
But some industry leaders are cautious. For instance, AT&T Communications CEO Jeff McElfresh told CNBC in September that he did not believe it would be a “massive event.”
Some of the impact may be blunted because there are three different varieties of 5G.
The biggest jump in speeds will come from the variety of 5G sometimes called millimeter wave or ultrawide band. But in the United States, millimeter wave is only available in certain markets and has limitations about how far it can be transmitted. While carriers are expanding quickly, the new iPhones may only be able to reach their full potential in a handful of regions.
AT&T and T-Mobile both currently claim “nationwide 5G,” using what’s referred to as low-band networks, which have speeds that are closer to the current fourth-generation LTE networks. That may underwhelm consumers who have been looking for a massive improvement.
Then there’s mid-band 5G, which does promise to be significantly faster and cover wide regions, but is still under construction. T-Mobile said this summer that it hoped to build its mid band network “over the next few years.”
“Not all 5G is created equal, which has led to marketing noise from carriers regarding 5G performance and deployment,” Loup Ventures founder Gene Munster wrote in a newsletter in September. “In the end, both consumers and businesses are left unsure as to the timing of the 5G transformation.”
Consumers won’t know until Tuesday if Apple will support all three versions in all its phones, or if it will offer different models sold in different regions based on which countries have the most developed 5G networks.
Sales will start later than usual
Apple CFO Luca Maestri said this summer that it expected iPhones to go on sale a “few weeks later” than the traditional September launch schedule.
It’s possible that some models will go on sale shortly after the event while others take a longer time to hit store shelves, most likely due to challenges designing and manufacturing ten of millions of devices during a global pandemic. Last year, ten days elapsed between the launch event and the first iPhones that went on sale.
“It remains somewhat speculative when exactly iPhones will be available for sale after this event as Apple typically announces the first day of sale during the event,” Deutsche Bank analyst Jeriel Ong wrote in a note this past week.
Timing matters for investors because Apple’s first fiscal quarter has already started, kicking off on September 27. In past years, some new iPhone models have been on sale for the entire period, but this year that won’t be possible.
The number of weeks in the quarter that the new iPhones are on sale could affect Apple’s performance in the critical holiday quarter, as people around the world buy iPhones and other products as holiday gifts.
iPhone timing can also suggest which models might be in short supply, which investors watch closely to try and predict average selling prices for the quarter, which affects revenue.
“We also note that it is possible that certain models could either be more unit volume constrained or the new iPhone launch could be staggered similar to years past, although this possibility appears to be fading, as we have heard less about the potential for further delays recently,” Ong wrote.
One more thing (or event)
The invitation to Apple’s event suggests it will last two hours, which is a lot of time to discuss phones. In the past, the company has loved to tease “one more thing” at the end of its events before it introduces a whole new product category.
This year, it’s likely to be audio products. Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo predicted earlier this year that Apple is working on wireless over-the ear headphones that would carry its own brand (instead of Beats), and a smaller and less expensive HomePod speaker -- the current version costs $299.
Luxury headphones could entice buyers who have been turned off by the in-ear nature of Apple’s current AirPods but want closer wireless integration with the iPhone.
A less expensive HomePod would make the product category more competitive with Amazon’s Alexa-powered speakers, which often cost less than $100.
Adding more credence to this possibility, Apple stopped selling third-party headphones and speakers on its online store earlier this month, mirroring moves made in past years before introducing new products.
Apple said earlier this year that Mac computers with chips it designed would start to ship before the end of the year. Current Mac computers use Intel chips. But those computers are likely not going to be discussed on Tuesday, according to a report from Bloomberg. Instead, Apple could save that product for a November launch event, which would be Apple’s third of the fall.
In past years, Apple has only held one or two fall launch events. But this year’s launches are different — they’re prerecorded and held virtually due to the pandemic. There is also continuing appetite for Apple launches from customers, media, and fans. Nearly 1.5 million people tuned in to a YouTube livestream last month to watch Apple executives announce new Apple Watches.