If we can predict just one thing for Apple in 2013, it's this: The company will continue to release products. But we're going to predict more than one thing (because we're crazy like that): Apple won't close down the business and give its money back to its shareholders, and it won't stop developing its major product lines. Here's how we think that development could go this year.
The iPad mini 2
History shows that Apple likes to update its flagship iOS products at least once per year. So we both fully expect Apple to unveil an updated iPad mini this year, and probably an updated full-size iPad, as well. However, we don't agree on the specifics:
Lex: I'm convinced by AnandTech that 2013 isn't the iPad mini's year to go Retina. I'm confident we'll see a Retina iPad mini one day—and that I will instantly covet one. But if you look at the history of the iPhone and the full-sized iPad, Apple waits until the third iteration of an iOS device to bring that glorious screen into play.
Dan: People have been overwhelmingly positive about the iPad mini—but, to a person, almost everybody says a Retina display is the one thing it's missing. Sure, no other device has gone Retina this early in its life cycle, but when you have such a clear improvement that could be made, I wonder if Apple can resist?
Lex: Oh, I think Apple wants to get a Retina display in the iPad mini as soon as is Foxconnly possible, but I think the cost is prohibitive. Some people were already surprised that Apple couldn't find a way to sell the iPad mini for a bit less than it does; I suspect that going Retina too soon would be too hard on the mini's margins.
Dan: Cost is the question, certainly, but Apple makes a lot of Retina displays now; they're much better (and presumably more cost efficient) at doing so now than they were when the iPhone 4 came out. So I don't think it's unreasonable. But we'll see.
The full-size iPad
We've already seen two full-size iPads within the last twelve months: the third-generation model, which debuted in March 2012, and its fourth-generation successor, which was announced in October. So, depending on how you're looking at it, we're either due for a new model on a revised six-month revamp schedule, or due for a bit of a breather while the fourth generation runs its course.
Dan: I'm guessing it'll be the latter. People were irked enough when the fourth-generation iPad appeared so quickly on the third-generation iPad's heels, and at this point it's a mature enough product that I can't imagine any revamp would be more than evolutionary. Why rush? The more revolutionary upgrades are due on the software side—the hardware is pretty solid at this point.
Lex: Right. I think that with iPads, Apple needn't worry that customers will perceive the company as lagging behind its tablet competitors on the feature front. But you know where I could be convinced that Apple has to hasten its pace?
Dan: The 100-meter dash?
Lex: I now understand why you and I get along so swimmingly. But no. I think Apple can stick to a yearly schedule for iPad releases, but it may feel obliged to bump up its iPhone release schedule to twice a year.
The iPhone 5S
Just as October follows September, so too do new iPhones follow old ones onto Apple's shelves. It's not a question of whether Apple will release a new iPhone. It's a question of whether it will release only one new iPhone.
Lex: iPhone 3G followed by 3GS. iPhone 4 followed by iPhone 4S. I think an iPhone 5S to follow the 5 is inevitable—but I don't think it'll be the only iPhone Apple unveils this year.
Dan: I agree that the iPhone 5S seems more likely than a brand new iPhone 6. By this point, Apple seems to have established a pretty clear pattern of significant refreshes every other year, with incremental improvements in between. But I'm not sure I can get onboard with your "more than one iPhone" train.
Lex: For some reason—naivete, probably—I'm willing to ascribe some truth to these "cheaper iPhone" rumors. Yes, you can get an iPhone 4 for free today, but you need a two-year contract. I think that Apple wants to do better in the prepaid market, where you own your phone outright with no contractual obligations. Call it the Diet iPhone. Right now, the only way to buy a contract-free iPhone from Apple is to pony up $649 first. If Apple can find a way to build a less expensive iPhone to target that market, one that's especially popular overseas, I don't see why it wouldn't.
Dan: To me, it doesn't fit with Apple's philosophy of building products that it can be proud of. I think providing previous years' iPhones at cheaper prices seems pretty reasonable. I agree the company would like to get into the market of selling phones regardless of carriers, but I think now that it's about to have availability on all the major carriers in the U.S. (now that we know T-Mobile is a few months out), as well as continuing to expand coverage overseas, it's got all the options it needs for the time being.
Lex: Maybe it'll be the Mac mini of iPhones. They provide the phone, you provide the screen. But seriously: My take is that if Apple can manufacture an iPhone with cheaper parts—an older, slower chip, less aluminum, whatever—without sacrificing overall build quality, that it will do so. I know this sounds like heresy, but maybe a cheaper iPhone might even skimp on the Retina display.
Dan: Sure, they could call it the iPhone 3GS. I just don't see Apple going back to non-Retina displays on any of its phones—it wants to push people forward, not back. And in terms of pricing, it wants to push them upwards, not laterally. I think we'll have to agree to disagree on that one.
Lex: I disagree.
Dan: Well played, Friedman. Well played.
Lex: Thanks! Now, as far as the iPhone 5S is concerned, my long-shot bet for what new feature the company could add into an already feature-packed smartphone is: a step tracker. Fitbit and Jawbone and Nike all have accessories that track the steps you take, and that seems like the sort of technology Apple could build right into an iPhone for the health-conscious. You'd place the iPhone in your pocket, and it would log steps walked, miles covered, and perhaps even floors climbed.
Dan: Apple's tried this with Nike+ in the past, and it was lackluster. Improvements can definitely be made there, but I'm not sure that Apple has that much interest in fitness.
Lex: The iPod nano's pedometer gives me hope. Also, I have a treadmill desk.
Dan: So we all know from your email signature. Look, I think we can predict a few iPhone improvements pretty easily: A slightly faster processor, some improvements to the camera, maybe some tweaks to the wireless technologies.
Lex: Wow. Brave Dan. Real brave. I'd say we can also expect iOS 7 to ship this year, given that Apple has updated iOS every year in the history of, well, iOS.
Despite occasional reports to the contrary, Apple hasn't forgotten the Mac. In fact, in mid-2012, CEO Tim Cook made news when he emailed a disappointed customer that the Mac Pro would see a "really great" update this year. We've also already seen recent revamps to the iMac and Mac mini, meaning that there probably won't be more than minor refreshes to those lines. And, of course, the MacBook Pro has just started to dip its toe into the Retina display pool.
Lex: About that Mac Pro update, some additions are obvious: Thunderbolt, Fusion drive support, and the like. But do you think Apple's most powerful Mac will (finally) get a new look?
Dan: I think it's about time. The current Mac Pro housing dates all the way back to the PowerMac G5, which believe it or not, debuted ten years ago. It's time for a change.
Lex: My prediction? Cube.
Dan: You and Picasso.
Lex: On another note, there are MacBook Pros with Retina displays, MacBook Pros without Retina displays, and MacBook Airs without Retina displays. Do you think this is the year Apple's portable line goes Retina-only?
Dan: It might be too early for Apple to rollout Retina displays to the Air—currently, those are still the low-priced alternatives in Apple's MacBook line-up. I'd guess they'd want the MacBook Pros to have that feature to themselves a little bit longer, but I tell you what wouldn't surprise me: The final demise of the old-style MacBook Pros.
Lex: Agreed. And I'll put even odds on a Retina-caliber Air this year, too. Apple just loves Retina that flippin' much. But where that one's a guess, you know what's a certainty for the year in Mac, Dan?
Dan: I get a raise?
Lex: Good one. No, I'm thinking it's a sure bet that we'll see another sequel in Apple's long line of feline-themed OS X upgrades. You'll recall the company first previewed Mountain Lion back in February 2012. Who knows what this year's update will be called?
Dan: Mac OS X 10.9 Cuddly Ocelot.
Lex: Something like that. And I suspect it'll continue to borrow heavily from iOS, embrace iCloud even more fully, and—my wishlist feature—gain some Siri support, too.
Dan: All good predictions. To that, I would hope that iCloud picks up some native collaboration features, to compete with the likes of Google Docs. And if they added true dual-monitor support for full-screen mode, I would come down to Cupertino and give all of the OS X team a hug. Just one hug. Let's not go crazy here.
Apple has a few other product lines, of course: the iPod, the Apple TV, AirPort, and, of course, there's the ever popular "brand new products" category.
Lex: On the Apple TV front, I honestly think Apple's hardware work is close to done. Now, the company needs software (and content) updates more than anything else.
Dan: So you're of the opinion that the company won't make anything more than the set-top boxes it's built to date?
Lex: Well, I didn't quite say that. I'm just saying that the set-top box seems pretty far along technologically at this point. As to whether Apple might release a television set one day—boy, I don't know. The rumor mill is so noisy on this front that it's impossible to ignore, but I'm in the minority that remains unconvinced that this is a market Apple should enter.
Dan: I know I've tried to ignore it. And failed. I agree, I don't think a TV set itself is in the offing for Apple, but I am hoping that it can continue to improve on the Apple TV set-top box. I've got one, and use it pretty frequently, but it could certainly use more content, a faster interface, and a more friendly architecture for developers.
Lex: All that said, I do think we should expect some groundbreaking new product from Apple this year. I'm thinking an app-running dog. Call it the iPug.
Dan: No, I don't think I will.