A new iPhone in fall sets up a record-crushing holiday quarter for Apple

The iPhone 5 could arrive this fall, and specifically in September, according to a new report by Bloomberg. If accurate, the timing of the release could help Apple usher in its biggest holiday quarter yet, which is saying a lot, considering Apple’s holiday quarter is generally its best of the year, even without a new iPhone model.

Apple has long used the fall to introduce new iPod models, which to date has made much sense, since the iPod business all but turned Apple into the consumer electronics industry force that it is today. But iPod sales have either been stagnant or dropping, in sales measured year-over-year, as standalone digital audio players have been cannibalized by smartphones. During Apple’s last fiscal quarter results, iPod sales were revealed to have dropped the most since their introduction, with a 17 percent dip.

The iPod touch continues to show positive growth, and accounts for a growing piece of iPod sales overall, but neither the iPod touch or even the whole iPod category can hold a candle to Apple’s iPhone business. Last quarter, it sold 18.65 million handsets, beating the previous year by more than double. iPhone sales for the quarter also doubled the year before that.

What’s the bottom line? Increasingly, iPods are less important to Apple’s business. They still represent a considerable revenue stream, but the trend indicates that iPhones and iPads will probably occupy a more privileged place in Apple’s future business.

With the update schedule we saw last year, the iPad was introduced in April, and the iPhone 4 came out in June. That’s relatively little time between two major releases. This year, Apple held off on unveiling a new iPhone device, and the iPad could be a big part of why, since a lopsided annual revenue picture isn’t good for investors confidence, nor is having the development timelines for two core hardware products with many similarities so minimally spaced an ideal situation for Apple’s mobile device engineering team.

If Apple’s sales trends continue, in a few years time, you’d have the iPod holding on to a much smaller fraction of Apple’s mobile business, while the iPhone and the iPad make up for a much better piece of the overall picture. The iPod just wouldn’t be able to carry the September time-period nearly as well as it has in the past. Plus, Apple’s more interesting products would both have lost a lot of steam, in terms of novelty value, press coverage and buzz by the time holiday buyers are preparing their shopping lists and news outlets are looking for shiny new tech to recommend.

It’s not quite at the point where iPod releases are uninteresting to buyers, but Apple wouldn’t want to wait for that to happen, and the strong sales success of the iPhone 4, coupled with the expansion of its availability to Verizon customers, and the late addition of the white model, all meant that if there was a year where Apple could afford to miss its fairly rigorous annual refresh, 2011 was it.

Last year, Jon Gruber of Daring Fireball suggested that Apple was planning to release another new iPad incarnation in the fall, which could have been intended in part to put a marquee mobile release closer to the holidays. I think he got the idea right, but the device wrong. Apple does need a new fall star, and that star will be the iPhone.