Tech

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

Christmas will be a little disappointing for some Apple fans. And the company's holiday season slip-up may be another sign that its crown as the disciplined king of manufacturing is becoming tarnished. 

Apple Inc. acknowledged on Friday that its much-hyped HomePod voice-activated home speaker won't go on sale next month in the U.S. and two other countries, as the company had announced in June. The company said the product needs more seasoning. "We can't wait for people to experience HomePod," Apple said in a statement, "but we need a little more time before it's ready for our customers."

It has been odd that Apple merely said the HomePod would be ready for sale in "December" but had not provided a more specific date since the summer. Now we know why.

Missing Out
The two market leaders in voice-activated home speakers have about 27 million devices in U.S. homes, up from about 5 million one year ago
Source: Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, survey of 500 U.S. owners of Echo or Google Home devices

A delayed product on its own isn't necessarily a big deal. Sure, Apple misses a shot at 2017 holiday sales for the HomePod, but this is a long game and one holiday season doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things for the world's most valuable public company. The troubling thing, though, is product delays or other problems are no longer unusual for Apple. 

Last year, when Apple released the iPhone 7 lineup, the company acknowledged that it misjudged demand for the larger-screen Plus version of that phone. That meant there weren't enough of the devices for a while, and Apple most likely missed out on some revenue.

And the company has had several manufacturing bottlenecks with its new iPhone X, which is a big reason the phone will be tough to find on store shelves for many months. To be fair, the 10th anniversary iPhone model has some gnarly new technology and parts that are tough to assemble on tight time frames and at high quality. And it's not unusual for Apple to have early troubles making new iPhone models, or at least trouble making enough to meet demand.

Again, the trouble is the number of times there are production problems or supply-demand imbalances, especially when Apple needs the revenue lift from new products more than ever.

A year ago, Apple also pushed back the sales date for its AirPods wireless headphones, and the products were also in short supply for some time afterward. Apple's statement on Friday about the HomePod delay seems to be lifted almost directly from its AirPods delay announcement in October 2016, which said:  “We don't believe in shipping a product before it's ready, and we need a little more time before AirPods are ready for our customers."

That is in the rearview mirror, it seems. Apple doesn't disclose sales figures for AirPods, but the company said sales of its "wearables" -- which include the Apple Watch and AirPods -- rose 75 percent in the September quarter from a year earlier. (This perhaps isn't surprising, given the introduction of several new or revamped products.) 

Pulling the Weight
Apple's products other than the iPhone were responsible for most of the company's revenue growth in its September quarter
Source: Apple

Remember that before Tim Cook was promoted to CEO of Apple, he was the company's maestro of manufacturing. Cook managed Apple's global network of component suppliers and assembly factories and kept everything running smoothly and on schedule. Now, though, Apple's product lineup is more sprawling than even before. And its discipline is showing some signs of wear.

One or two problems with manufacturing or slips in anticipating product demand isn't egregious. But start adding up the number of hiccups Apple has had recently making new products reliably or releasing them on its announced schedule, and it starts to look as if the company's manufacturing mastery is no longer assured. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Shira Ovide in New York at sovide@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net