Could the Coronavirus Delay the Next iPhone?

Coronavirus Could Delay the Next Phase of Technology

Will the next Apple iPhone be delayed?

It’s a question I’ve been getting a lot, lately.

I know it’s weird that people are still concerned about a gadget while the fate of the world ostensibly hangs in the balance, but I get it. Thinking about stuff like this helps take our minds off of the horrifying implications of the first pandemic in generations.

iPhone in surgical mask
 Lifewire / Nusha Ashjaee

Depending on who you ask, the global Coronavirus crisis could be a difficult bump in the road, but one that we’ll soon recover from and barely recall by the fall, or something that will have a devastating ripple effect that will hit everything from the economy (recession looms) to our daily existence (a world without toilet paper) to the technology we rely on every day.

The answer to most of these questions is beyond my ken, but I have been digging into the slow motion collapse of our normal tech event winter and spring and how it might impact design, development, and the product pipeline this fall, especially that of the next iPhone.

Put more simply, I’ve been trying to assess if the anticipated Apple iPhone 12 (if that’s what it’s called) and other products that might be queued up for the fall will be delayed.

iPhone X
Major iPhone launches , like this iPhone X one, typically happen in September. This year? Who knows?. Global News

Fluid is the Word

To describe the situation as fluid would be a massive understatement. Yes, major tech events like Mobile World CongressF8SXSW, and Google I/O have been cancelled over valid Coronavirus concerns, but others are still on the bubble. On March 2, Microsoft updated its Build developer event page with a note about how it’s still monitoring “public health guidance in relation to in-person events," and, thus far, has made no determination on cancelling the event.

Apple, which has yet to even announce a date for its World Wide Developer Conference (it did so last year on March 14), and is not commenting on any future product plans, will likely wait until the end of this month before deciding what to do about the event, which is typically held the first week in June.

Those developer events deal mostly with platforms, APIs, and other software- and developer-specific updates that will help the companies and their partners define the tools and apps they build to work with, for instance, iOS 14, later this year.

Most experts I spoke to think these cancellations are all but inevitable. “I believe any large conference that draws an International audience will be cancelled or postponed through this summer as the medical community deals with containing the COVID-19 virus,” wrote Creative Strategies President and industry analyst Tim Bajarin in an email to me. Bajarin has been watching the tech industry for decades and has a long history of engagement with companies like Apple (he knew Steve Jobs), Samsung, and Microsoft.

Even if virtually all the major tech companies cancel their events for at least the first half of this year, it may not materially impact the delivery of the next major iPhone update, the next Microsoft Surface, and the next Google Pixel.

Microsoft Build 2017 sign
At this writing, Microsoft Build, which is held in Seattle Washington, is still on. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Understanding the Process

Apple is notoriously tight-lipped about its design and development process, but it is safe to assume the next iPhone’s design and feature set has been locked down for months.

Back in 2017, I visited Apple in Cupertino, California, to learn about how it built the iPhone X, a product that cast a new die for all future iPhones and, by removing the home button, represented a significant risk. It was there I learned that Apple locked in all the features at least a full 10 months before delivering the product to consumers. By that measure, Apple is not still figuring out what the iPhone 12 will look like or how it will work and wouldn’t rely on WWDC—whether it is cancelled or not—to help it figure out last minute components.

“At the moment I am hearing from the supply chain that they expect to have most manufacturing facilities at full strength by June," said Bajarin, speaking generally about the tech companies he tracks. “If that is the case, most fall launches of products should go on as scheduled. The caveat is that COVID-19 is contained by then and everybody is back on the manufacturing lines.”

As Apple CEO Tim Cook made clear last month, the Coronavirus’s impact on its Chinese manufacturing operations is winding down as most facilities started returning to normal operations in February. In other words, by the time Apple is ready to start building the new iPhone 12 in, say, June or July, Foxconn will be ready. But there are other factors that could lead to product delays.

'...every significant technology launch and availability will be impacted by at least 90 days.'

The loss of technology, interactive, and development events breaks off what Moor Insights & Strategy President and tech analyst Patrick Moorhead calls “the human element,” where people gather for drinks, coffee and share useful industry information. That kind of data and information download can be incalculable in the formation of a market outlook and even product planning.

Still, these are largely sideshows to the kinds of product juggernauts produced by Apple, Microsoft, and others.

Microsoft insiders tell me, for instance, that, thus far, there have been no changes in any product plans.

Apple isn’t talking publicly about product timelines because it never does. But analysts like Moorhead think that the long-term impact of Coronavirus could be worse than some anticipate. Part of that outlook may be due to how products like the iPhone are made.

Shipping containers
Parts and products have to be shipped. One delayed part could impact the whole production process.  Getty Images

The iPhone is constructed in China, the epicenter of the Coronavirus outbreak, but as I noted above, that situation is already righting itself. However, the iPhone is the sum of many parts, sourced from places like South Korea, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Brazil, England, and more than a dozen other countries.

In order to build the iPhone, the supply chains for all these parts must remain open and steady. That’s not the story of the Coronavirus, where supplies from some hard hit areas are being held back. Some agile companies can reconfigure quickly to source needed supplies from more open channels, but sometimes there’s only one supplier for certain parts.

Based on some of these uncertainties, Moorhead takes a particularly dire view. “I believe every significant technology launch and availability will be impacted by at least 90 days,” Moorhead wrote me in an email exchange.

So What

There are few solid predictions about when this global epidemic will subside. The number of variables is simply too great. Most, though, believe it will subside (possibly becoming a seasonal thing with a readily available yearly vaccine), and then it’s just a question of impact. Apple’s considerable strength and manufacturing expertise may help it overcome Coronavirus’s impact, leading to the on-time delivery of the next iPhone.

But, as I write this, no one knows the fate of WWDC and Tim Cook just encouraged global workers to work from home. Our immediate and, perhaps, long-term, tech future is, unfortunately, in the hands of an unpredictable, global pandemic.

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