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Apple’s boring hardware updates

Apple now seemingly considers most Mac hardware updates boring enough to skip any potential press event and just feature the new models on the Apple website for a while. Event-worthy Mac updates are now limited to entirely new products or major redesigns.

This makes sense: most people don’t care when a new laptop looks the same as its predecessor and has all of the same general benefits and drawbacks, but has a faster CPU. These core-component updates barely warrant a press release, because for normal usage, the difference is barely noticeable.

When WWDC was announced the other day, some publications reported that this was going to be a software-only event — for the first time since the iPhone’s debut in 2007, a new iPhone would not be announced at WWDC. So far, this rumor is uncontested, and the supporting interpretation of Apple’s own language is sensible.

Suppose that there’s no iPhone 5 this summer. This raises an obvious question: when will the next iPhone be released?

This change in the release schedule certainly explains a lot about some recent inconveniences that we’ve mostly been ignoring because they didn’t fit into our expected Apple-view:

It wouldn’t surprise me if updates to the iPod product line became as un-event-worthy as Mac CPU updates.

But couldn’t this happen to the iPhone and iPad as well?

Not every time, of course. Just like the Macs, what if the iPhone didn’t get massive updates on a regular annual schedule, but only got a significant redesign every few years, with minor mid-cycle updates as needed? Some wouldn’t even be announced at events at all, and others would be quick footnotes during otherwise software-focused events.

The “iPhone 5” might be more like the iPhone 3GS — itself a minor update to an existing design — in that it would essentially be the same design as the iPhone 4, but with a faster CPU based on the iPad 2’s A5, and maybe doubled storage capacity. Or an LTE chipset (which currently has coverage almost nowhere). Or a unified CDMA+GSM version with that great Qualcomm chip for easier supply-chain and retail management.

Would any of those justify an event?

iOS hardware advancement is reaching diminishing returns. Like the MacBook Pro, Apple has refined the iPhone and iPad designs almost to the point that it’s difficult to think of how they’d meaningfully improve them without major underlying changes (such as a breakthrough in storage or battery technology).

But the software is just getting started.

And when iOS itself gets better, everyone benefits. A major OS update can make a much bigger difference in everyday usage than an incremental hardware update. It might even create entirely new markets or give our devices significant new functionality.

So, with this year’s WWDC likely to focus on two major OS releases, Lion and iOS 5, I don’t think I’ll miss the formerly annual hardware update.