In the last decade, every Apple product launch has been a combination of Oscars, Super Bowl, and Detroit Auto Show.
In that period, Apple has either created or driven consumer adoption of music players, smartphones, and tablets. However, with the maturation of all three of these product categories, the product launches, while still wildly anticipated as bellwether events, are becoming less about new and interesting products and features, and more about a company desperately trying to hold on to its valuable franchises.
Last week, Apple unveiled two phones: the iPhone 5C is a slightly cheaper version of the iPhone 5, now available in green, blue, yellow, and red, and the iPhone 5S, a faster version of the iPhone 5 with a better camera and a new fingerprint sensor for security. These are not insignificant upgrades, at least in the iPhone 5S, but they don't seem like features that would drive huge excitement and demand.
If you take a step back, two points become obvious for what is driving Apple development and its marketing machine: the Android ecosystem and developing countries.
Apple is in a war not just with Samsung but with the whole growing army of smartphone manufacturers that are offering devices powered by the Android mobile OS. People with a memory of the 1980s and 1990s know this is the exact battle that Apple waged and lost versus Intel, Microsoft, and the IBM clone manufacturers. While the plotlines are not exactly the same this time around, it does come around to who is offering the best user experience on a mobile device, and part of this is perception. And nothing drives that perception more than consistent, high-profile launches, even if the new iPhones are more incremental than revolutionary.
The iPhone has been a huge success in much of the world but has failed to gain significant traction in developing nations like China due in large part to its high cost. While US carriers subsidize the cost of the iPhone in return for long contracts, this isn't the case everywhere, and a $600 smartphone isn't on everyone's must-have list. The iPhone 5C is supposed to help change that, although it is still pretty pricy at $500 without a contract. It is an important step in what is regarded as Apple's inevitable move to offer a low-cost iPhone, which will satisfy the requirements of another audience: investors and analysts.