By Kurt Wagner, reporter
FORTUNE -- As if a plunging stock price, slowing earnings growth, and customer-service woes in China weren't enough, Apple hasn't released a new product since October, when it released the iPad Mini. In three of the past four years, Apple has held a signature new-product event in March, but not this year. Were the company to wait until June, when it typically unveils new gadgets at its annual conference for developers, it would mark an eight-month gap in major releases, the longest wait Apple has inflicted on its customers in 13 years.
Apple's (AAPL) product launch cycle in recent years has followed a metronome-like precision. September featured events to promote music products and services including the iPod and iTunes. October has been reserved for upgrades to the bedrock Macintosh computer line. The March event has seen a grab-bag of product releases, from a new iPod Shuffle in 2009 to the significantly improved iPad 2 in 2011 and a "new" iPad in 2012. (In 2010, the last year Apple didn't hold an event in March, it unveiled the first iPad in January and a redesigned iPhone 4 in June.) For years Apple announced major products at the Macworld trade show. But it stopped keynoting the independently produced event after 2009, making its March announcements all the more important.
This year, March came and went without a peep from Cupertino, causing concern among avid Apple watchers. "It was a surprise. We had expected them to do something in March like they typically do," says analyst Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray. "We weren't expecting a ton of fireworks, but the fact that it wasn't there was incrementally disappointing." Analysts had speculated that Apple would release an updated iPad mini with a retina display and a music subscription service. The rumored iRadio service has been enough to crater the stock of Internet radio provider Pandora (P), yet Apple hasn't released it.
The long stretch between October's iPad mini announcement and June's Worldwide Developers Conference puts pressure on Apple to hit a homerun this summer. In addition to the iPad mini update and a music subscription service, analyst Munster expects an iPhone 5S in June, as well as a new app store for Apple TV. The App store would be significant because it would most likely signal that an Apple television -- an actual television as opposed to the set-top box known as Apple TV -- could be on track for a December release, he says. "They've probably got to do three out of four of those (new products) for it to be considered a real respectable June event," says Munster.
Apple did not respond to requests for comment.
The cup could be half full for Apple of course, with the long pause presaging a burst of activity. Munster expects the number of Apple announcements to increase as the pace of product upgrade cycles become shorter. Analysts are also anticipating an Apple watch (iWatch?) and a much cheaper version of the iPhone to come out in the next year.
Even so, Apple has traditionally viewed these major events as important stepping-stones in the company's long-term plan. An eight-month silence begs the question: What has Apple been up to?
Ben Baer, Senior Producer - Nov 5, 2009 3:45 PM ET
Gene Munster has seen the future of television and it has an Apple (AAPL) logo on it.
In a note to clients Thursday, Piper Jaffray's senior analyst offered a scenario by which Apple would enter the cut-throat TV market by 2011 with an Apple-branded television set with digital video recording and home media functions (music, movies, games, interactive TV) built-in.
"Yes, TV hardware is a challenging business if you don't change the MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Aug 20, 2009 2:06 PM ET
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