In the past three years, Apple has dared to be dull.
During Apple’s best years, between 2007 and 2010, Apple introduced the first iPhone and the first iPad, two world-changing products that now define the company (and bring in most of its revenue). These products, along with their touch interfaces and apps stores, were a shock to the industry.
That’s great, Apple. But what have you done for me lately?
Here’s one theory about how Apple works: The company finds a horrible content consumption experience. They figure out how the experience can be made wonderful. They work on the products until they’re ready, both from product quality and price perspectives. Then they ship it and spend the next few years refining and perfecting the original vision.
If that oversimplification about how Apple works is accurate, then Apple isn’t really in full control of when its groundbreaking new products ship. They have to wait for technology, such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), or for various industries to come around to making a critical mass of content deals.
In the past three years, every Apple announcement has been preceded by speculation and rumor that Apple would at long last announce an iWatch, an iTV set and other products that would signal a radical new product category for Apple. And every announcement ended in disappointment. Every announcement was about refinement of old products, rather than bold launches of new products.
Will Apple ever enter new markets again, including the ones perennially rumored?
I say they will. The fact that they haven’t shipped the long-rumored iWatch or iTV, for example, makes perfect sense from a readiness perspective.
In fact, I think the next three years will be twice as awesome as the iPhone-iPad years, in the sense that Apple will break into four new businesses. Why? Because the technology and content deals will fall into place during this time.
Here’s what I think is going to happen.
There should be zero doubt that Apple will ship a wristwatch, and almost certainly this year. The technologies that Apple has been waiting for include BLE, curved glass that can be manufactured at Apple scale and better batteries and power management.
Have no illusion that Apple’s iWatch will resemble in any way Samsung’s horrible Galaxy Gear (now shattering records for store returns).
The iWatch will be a small, light and sleek iPhone peripheral, showing notifications and enabling control of some phone functions. It will connect to the phone via BLE and use the phone’s Internet connection.
An Apple patent that surfaced this week exposesApple’s methods for exploiting BLE. Specifically, the patent describes a system for one device to wake up another, exchange data, then shut down, aggressively conserving battery power. This is exactly the kind of functionality that wasn’t possible before BLE, and which is necessary for an Apple-quality smartwatch.
Curved glass that Apple can use — and it’s important to know that this is manufacturing technology above all — won’t be ready for prime time by Corning until next year. Curved glass is necessary for Apple’s iWatch because it’s the only way to achieve a display of reasonable size without Galaxy Gear type bulkiness. (I believe one killer advantage Apple will have is that the watch will be small, sleek and stylish enough for non-geek women to wear — they’ll have half the market to themselves.)
Apple’s TV set won’t be a TV set. It will be a computer designed to be used from 10 feet away. Yes, it will be cool, and I want one, etc. But what Apple is really waiting for, in addition to the price of manufacturing for 4K displays to drop, is the content deals necessary to make both the iTV and the future version of Apple TV really compelling.
The challenge is live TV and content licensing deals. If you want to watch Mad Men on Apple TV, for example, you’ve got to wait a day, then rent it on iTunes. What Apple needs is a critical mass of partnerships and licensing deals that enable the company to offer these kinds of shows live and free, after a subscription to Apple has been paid for.
Stated another way, the missing element for Apple to win the TV market isn’t hardware. Apple’s advantage will come in the form of solving the content delivery problem, as well as the user interface problem.
Today, people are abandoning TV because it’s a rotten deal. If you want to watch one TV series, you’ve got to pay for a gazillion shows you don’t want as well. (Kind of like music was before Apple forced the industry to sell single songs for 99 cents rather than whole albums for $18.) As the TV content creators and studios slowly lose their grip on audiences, they’ll be pliable enough to cut such deals with Apple. In fact, it’s only a matter of time until Apple is the leading way for TV show creators to make money from subscription revenue. Why? Because they’ll always charge top dollar in exchange for the highest-quality TV experience as their competitors race each other to the margin and revenue bottom.
And all TV interfaces are horrible. Even Apple TV’s user interface is a cumbersome kludge. Apple will have to innovate their way to that magical TV place everybody is screaming for, where you can watch whatever you want whenever you want, and without slogging though every show ever created.
The iTV will just be the frosting on Apple’s coming TV cake, and the whole thing will be delicious because hardware, content and interface are what Apple does best.
iOS for Cars
Apple signaled at its recent developers conference that iOS, as well as Apple Maps, iTunes Radio and Siri, were all headed into car dashboards. This isn’t even a secret, and major car makers like Chevy. Honda, Kia, Hyundai, Ferrari and Volvo are all eagerly building iOS into their dashboard. We’ll see the new implementations next year.
What Apple is waiting for here is the long design and development cycles common to the car industry — measured in years, not month.
They’re also waiting on more partnerships. A short list of carmakers will happily add iOS to a small range of models. However, it’s going to take critical demand and conscious consumer demand for iOS to spread to more makes and models.
I think that within three years, iOS will be a standard feature or a popular option in a very wide range of cars.
And finally, I think it’s possible that Apple will roll out a desktop version of iOS and iPad, one with a giant screen too large to carry around.
You’ll note that all four of these big new businesses — iWatch, iTV, iOS for Cards and the Desktop iPad — will all take advantage of the backend software and services that already exist and which Apple continues to refine, namely iOS, the App Store and iCloud. And all of them will be controllable and augmented by iPhone and iPad.
The point of all this is not to predict what has already been predicted, or start rumors about things already rumored. Instead, the point is that Apple appears to be on a three-years-on, three-years-off cycle of explosive entry into new markets, followed by the boring perfection of what has already shipped.
Best of all, the three years of boring is about to be replaced with three years of awesome — starting next year. This is going to be fun.