Editor’s Desk: Apple’s big 2020 iPhone plans, explosive AirPod growth, Jony Ive

In this week’s Editor’s Desk roundup: Supply line news out of Asia suggests that Apple is anticipating a big 2020. News of increased iPhone manufacturing projections and some interesting info on the AirPods front too. Finally, some ruminations on the end of Jony Ive’s tenure at Apple.

Predicting another big year for iPhone sales

While iPhone sales slid – again – in Apple’s most recently-reported fiscal quarter, the company thinks that 2020 is going to be another big year for iPhone sales, thanks in part to churn caused by the emergence of 5G cell network technology.

At the start of the week a report emerged indicating that Apple is telling suppliers to gear up to move 100 million iPhones in 2020. That’s 20% higher than previous reports indicated.

Apple eschewed 5G for the iPhone 11 series, to the consternation of some pundits and analysts. But the company is rarely first to market with new tech – they’re often content to let other companies fall on the sword of early adoption, following up with products that solve the problems those earlier devices display.

Cell carriers are promising big upscales in performance and features with 5G, but infrastructure rollout is slow and uneven and it’s going to take years before it’s ubiquitous. What’s more, 5G modem technology in phones is not where Apple wants it to be, either. The early phones that support the technology get hot, don’t work as fast as they should and burn through battery life at a prodigious rate.

Apple may have sat out 5G for 2019 models but it’s not sitting on the sidelines. Apple spent $1 billion this past summer to acquire Intel’s smartphone modem technology after the chip maker decided to exit the market thanks to pressure from Qualcomm. It will be a while – perhaps 2022 or later, according to analysts – before Apple’s own modem silicon appears in its iPhones, but in the interim, the company is reportedly sourcing Qualcomm’s best hardware to put in the next iPhone.

AirPods Pro production doubles to meet demand

Last year’s holiday shopping season was frustrating for many folks who wanted to get AirPods for their friends and loved ones but couldn’t find them online or in retail stores – demand far outstripped supply straight through the holidays.

That phenomenon appears poised to repeat itself in 2019, with many shoppers already facing long waits to get their hands on the new AirPods Pro. The AirPods Pro came out at the end of October to rave reviews, with many reviewers loving the custom fit thanks to the flexible, removable silicone cups, and the Active Noise Cancellation (ANC). The $249 price tag doesn’t seem to be too much of an impediment, either.

Apple is reportedly doubling production of AirPods Pro to help keep up with demand, from 1 million to 2 million sets per month as the target, and it’s increased production of the plain old AirPods, too, because consumers like choice and not everyone can afford the more expensive gear. AirPods are definitely the brand to beat, though, with the white wireless earbuds now as iconic as their wired predecessors were, back in the iPod’s heyday.

In fact, Apple’s expected to ship about 60 million AirPods this year alone, according to a recent report. Samsung and a few other brands have emerged as possible AirPods competitors, but Microsoft and Google have delayed their own competitors until 2020, giving Apple a clear run for the Christmas season at least.

The wearables segment of Apple’s balance sheet – comprising Apple accessories like the Apple Watch, AirPods, and Apple’s line of Beats-branded headphones – is already generating more quarterly revenue than iPad sales, accounting for $5.6 billion in sales for Apple’s most recently-reported quarter. Market research firm Gartner predicts the wearables market will expand 34% in 2020 to $22.8 billion. As you can see, Apple dominates the market.

One crazy rumor from the notoriously unreliable DigiTimes suggests that Apple is going to bundle AirPods in with new phones in 2020, and cites other cell phone makers as planning to bundle wireless headphones with their own handsets in 2020 as well. Leave it to Samsung and Xiaomi to figure out creative ways to lose money, but I don’t see that play for Apple: The AirPods are helping to buffer the company’s bottom line quite nicely at a time when it’s been hampered by softening iPhone sales, and there are many indications that we’re past peak smartphone sales in some market segments. File this one under “killing the goose that laid the golden egg.”

Jony Ive’s indelible imprimatur

Apple unceremoniously removed Chief Design Officer Jony Ive from its Leadership page over the Thanksgiving break. It’s no great surprise: The company announced Ive’s pending departure earlier this year. He’s left Apple to start his own design firm, called “LoveFrom,” whose name was inspired by a conversation Ive had with Steve Jobs years ago – Jobs said that when you make something with love and care, you express your gratitude to humanity.

Ive was with Apple for close to 30 years, coming to the company in 1992, long before Steve Jobs’ return. In fact, he languished in the bad old days of “beleaguered” Apple, producing many designs that went nowhere and coming up with spectacular designs for products that Apple fumbled due to combinations of managerial incompetence and simply bad execution.

When Jobs returned to helm Apple in the late 1990s he immediately saw Ive’s potential and let him run with it. And the results were, of course, iconic and spectacular. The original translucent, colored iMacs, the iBooks, then later the austere, slender MacBooks and iMacs, the powerful-looking Mac Pro. iPhones, iPads, iPods. Almost everything Apple produced carried Ive’s indelible imprimatur, and he became Apple’s best spokesperson for its industrial design, frequently appearing in Apple promotional videos to explain the concepts behind his designs.

Ive’s design sensibility has sometimes been at odds with the way we actually use Apple devices, however. The Power Mac G4 Cube was a famous Ive design failure: a small-factor desktop Mac clad in an acrylic enclosure that, while quite pretty, was functionally inadequate, prone to breaking down, and had a tendency to show mold lines in its clear acrylic casing. The turbine-shaped 2013 Mac Pro was another misstep: A clever design optimized for quiet airflow and efficient heat dissipation. And exactly the opposite of what most users of the device wanted: an impenetrable black box that was impossible to upgrade internally, creating a nightmare nest of cables and external breakout boxes in some installations.

More recently his obsessive focus on thinness on the MacBook Pro line led Apple to use a “butterfly” keyboard switch design that became prone to failure that’s become so problematic Apple has issued a blanket service program to replace them when they fail, even out of warranty. That’s caused Apple to take a rare step backwards with the most recent 16-inch MacBook Pro, which is thicker and sports a different keyboard mechanism altogether.

While Ive constantly pushed the envelope on Apple’s industrial designs, eventually Ive’s design focus became Apple itself. Ive also designed the Apple Park campus in Cupertino which Apple moved into in 2017. Once that magnum opus was complete, it seemed like he had little else left to contribute. By then, much of Apple’s industrial design efforts had been relegated to Ive’s underlings Evan Hankey and Alan Dye, who, with Ive’s departure, report directly to Apple COO Jeff Williams.

Wrapping up

Thanksgiving Week is often a time when there’s no news to report. I’m happy to buck that trend this week – there certainly was some interesting tech news to report on.

What crossed your desk this week that caught your eye? These news items, or something else? Let me know in the comments.