Will We Really See a Hardware-Free WWDC?

Multiple sources are claiming Apple (s aapl) won’t introduce new hardware at this year’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC). Typically, Apple at least unveils a new iPhone at the annual software development-focused event, and has done so since 2007. Might this year mark the first deviation from that schedule?

Three notable sources are saying it will. John Biggs at CrunchGear argues that since the iPhone 4 is still a big seller, Apple will skip this year’s revision (at least for WWDC). Biggs also points to the software focus of the WWDC press release, but readers should note that isn’t an indication of whether or not we’ll see Apple hardware at the event. Apple’s WWDC PR materials typically don’t allude to new iPhones, yet new iPhones arrive just the same.

The other two sources of the no-new-iPhone buzz are much more interesting. First, there’s The Loop’s Jim Dalrymple, who has a long history of guessing correctly when it comes to Apple’s product releases. He argues, with the support of Gartner (s it) analyst Michael Gartenberg (another respected authority in the Apple-watching community) that Apple has no reason to necessarily continue to follow a yearly update cycle, and that in this case, Apple won’t, in fact, do that.

Finally, John Paczkowski of AllThingsD chimes in with possibly the most noteworthy evidence of all. He says he’s “hearing explicitly” (though his sources remain unnamed) that this year, WWDC will be a software-only event. It’s a coincidence of opinion among top tech news outlets that suggests Apple may have a vested interest in letting it be known we won’t see new iPhone hardware at WWDC to lower customer expectations in advance.

But, as mentioned, Apple has never indicated its previous WWDC announcements that new Apple hardware was on the horizon. And there’s another major reason why Apple putting off a release this time around would be dangerous: It stands to leave a lot of potential consumers on the table who might jump to LTE Android devices, many of which are coming to market quite soon. It’s possible Apple could be waiting until later in the year to offer up an iPhone that has LTE support, but deviating from its standard release schedule without comment (and Apple has never been one to give customers ample advance notice of product releases) might still lead to an overall erosion of its user base.

That would be the case with an unusually long wait between, say, MacBook upgrades too, but it’s especially relevant when it comes to smartphones, since many users are just waiting until their contract comes up for renewal before upgrading handsets. Customers who bought AT&T (s t) 3GS devices at launch are due for renewal this year, and many won’t wait an additional six months for Apple to come up with new and improved hardware. LTE-equipped 4G Android devices might appeal to a good chunk of those buyers, especially as the coverage map for Verizon’s (s vz) next-gen network continues to grow.

In the end, I’m going to go ahead and suggest we can indeed continue to expect a new iPhone iteration come June. Gartenberg may be correct in pointing out Apple isn’t technically obliged to stick to a yearly schedule, but that doesn’t mean not doing so won’t have an effect on its business. Apple has gone out of its way over the course of the past four years to establish customer expectations of a yearly hardware refresh. To frustrate those expectations now (specifically with a delay, since an early release would be a different story altogether) would be a serious mistake, and not the kind Apple’s marketing machine is likely to make.