Apple Rumored To Begin Trial Production Of iPhone 5S Soon: Farewell Yearly Update Cycle?

A new report today claiming Apple is prepping an iPhone 5S for test production in December and volume manufacturing early in 2013 is spreading like wildfire through the blogosphere. The initial source is Chinese-language publication The Commercial Times, and it’s being spread by Digitimes, the supply chain-focused publication that’s a frequent, and fairly unreliable source of rumor and speculation. But is there any way Apple could really be working towards updating a phone it just released in September?

Assuming, for a second, that these rumors have any truth to them, an iPhone 5S beginning test production in December and ramping up to full shipping volumes early next year would likely hit store shelves right around six months from when the iPhone 5 was released. Is that unprecedented? Hardly. The 4th generation iPad, which Apple unveiled alongside the iPad mini at an event in October, upset the usual pattern Apple maintains of updating its iOS hardware once a year, with annual refreshes essentially hitting like clockwork (with the exception of the iPhone 4S, which went over a year). But the latest iPad breaks with that pattern.

Not only does the newest iPad represent a deviation from the established way of releasing things, suggesting Apple could do the same thing with other products in its lineup, but it also shows what kind of changes we might expect from mid-year overhauls: improved specs, retaining the design, to take advantage of the faster pace of component development and supply pricing changes. Google updated its Nexus lineup of tablets recently, bumping storage while keeping prices the same, and citing better deals on NAND flash as the reason for doing so.

Apple’s competitors in the smartphone market don’t adhere to annual updates; Samsung, HTC and countless other Android OEMs push out new and updated phones with increasing frequency, and even iterate on old models with carrier specific variants and modified versions of the original that promise more connectivity, improved storage and more. Samsung’s Galaxy S line has enjoyed a roughly annual update cycle, but the company has also released countless other Galaxy devices during the same years over the course of which we’ve seen just six iPhones. In the past, the frequency of competitor updates never really affected Apple; now, however, Samsung has risen to become a very strong competitor with growing momentum. The Commercial Times report also indicated that Apple would be introducing new lower-priced options, which could be another sign of the company moving to product releases more like those of its competition.

But mid-cycle upgrades introduce a degree of uncertainty that could have far different effects on a company like Apple than they would on Samsung, which is known for its scattershot approach aimed at targeting every segment of the market. For Apple, whose customers anticipate and plan on yearly updates, changes that come in between could play havoc with expectations, and therefore with buying patterns. Would people wait for the ‘X’ or the ‘XS’ variant, for instance? Would a wait-and-see approach from shoppers hamper sales volumes all year round? Or would the vast majority of shoppers ignore the timeline of updates and simply buy when they needed, the way most seem to with Android devices?

This report isn’t a solid one by any means, given its sources, however, and may in fact just be timed to take advantage of the recent 4th generation iPad’s release to back up its plausibility. But it’s also not completely ridiculous, given industry trends and the pace of the mobile device market. Also, it’s worth noting that an updated iPad is also mentioned (though which version is meant to be changed isn’t clear), which would arrive around a quarter later than the iPhone 5S, indicating at least semi-annual updates for that line would be the rule going forward, too. I’ve mentioned before that Apple might actually benefit from less product line predictability, but again, take this one with ample heaping helpings of salt.