Over the past decade, Apple has turned the technology world on its head with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. All of these were transformative device to change the landscape of consumer electronics. It has also fueled legendary growth for the company with significant profits every year arriving on products that did not exist the year before.
At some level, however, none of these products were particularly surprising. Rumors of the iPhone swirled for years before it arrived. Likewise, all of us nerds were pining away for the iPad long before Apple bestowed it upon us.
So now that we have all of these devices the question arises, what is next? If Apple wants to continue to grow, it needs to continue to innovate and amaze us. So what is the next innovative product? There are several contenders:
The Apple Television
One popular source of speculation is the idea that Apple will build its own television set. I can see it in my mind’s eye: a monolithic slab of Ivesian industrial design with just the right amount of glass and aluminum and a remote controller with no buttons but a pulsing Apple icon. The trouble is, I’m not sure even I, a veteran of countless Apple launch day lines, would buy one. People don’t buy new TVs like they do iPods or iPhones. Moreover, the TV business is cutthroat and low margin, which is not Apple’s cup of tea. In order to make an Apple television work Apple would have to transform the experience and I’m not sure they can. This would rely on cooperation of networks and content providers, which is outside Apple’s control. In short, the Apple television sounds like small profits and big headaches. Perhaps Apple will prove me wrong but I don’t see that as the next big thing.
Apple has experimented in the past with making printers, external hard drives, cameras, and other consumer electronics. The rub is, the company has done none of that since Steve came back. These again are small margin industries where Apple can’t change the world the same way it did with the iPhone and iPad.
I believe the Apple engineers are in iterate mode improving upon existing technologies for the iPhone and iPad (and to a lesser extent the Mac) so they can remain ahead of the competition. I do not believe they have cooked up some new device that none of us thought of to change the world, again. Put simply, the next Big Thing isn’t a thing at all. Instead, I think it is glue to pull the existing Apple products line together even tighter. It is time for iGlue.
This is no revalation. The Internet is buzzing with talks of the mystereous Apple server farm and iCloud. Apple has built an amazing product family. Now it’s time to work on family relations. Apple needs to turn itself into the digital hub of our lives. We should be able to buy an Apple device, type in account credentials, and have immediate access to all of our digital bits. By this I don’t mean just songs we’ve bought from iTunes. I think it should be documents, pictures, media, and everything else in our home folders. The whole enchilada.
I have talked to Apple employees and they get this. There is no mystery that the world is turning cloud-based and those who ignore this will get left behind. I think this is a challenge for Apple. Clearly, synchronizing and cloud-based solutions are Google’s game, not Apple’s. Can Apple succeed outside of its comfort zone? I think so.
The very public failure that was the MobileMe launch has not faded from anyone’s memory, especially Apple’s. Common wisdom is that Apple can’t “do” the Internet. I think common wisdom is wrong. While Apple has tinkered with the Internet so far, I don’t think Apple has “done” the Internet yet. That is about to change.
With billions sitting in the bank, Apple can build the massive data centers and hire the required talent to make them humm. The only variable left is heart, and I suspect we’ll know just how much Apple’s heart is in the iCloud in the next few months.
So what if Apple brought its considerable resources to bear on the Internet problem? What would we see? I think it is a service that is not as aggressive as Google with new features but really nails those everyday features consumers need with a gorgeous interface and panache. Apple never overreaches with the first steps in a new venture. The MobileMe fiasco will make them even more conservative with a big cloud syncing rollout. So will I get my whole enchilada on day one? Probably not. Nevertheless, I believe the next big thing will be iGlue and when the dust settles, people will stop saying that Apple cannot “do” the Internet.
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