Apple's next big thing

Apple's next big thing

From Apple II to Mac to iPad to... what exactly?

Last week, during their Q2 2012 financial results conference call, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that, in terms of sales, the iPad achieved in just 2 years what took the iPhone 3 years, the iPod 5 years, and the Mac 20+ years.

I'll let that the idea of that jump-to-warp-speed acceleration curve sink in for a moment while I digress into nostalgia.

Apple made mainstream the personal computer with the Apple II, the graphical interface with the Mac, and the multitouch interface with the iPhone and iPad. Decade after decade they made computing ever more personal, from clunky command line to intermediated mouse, to intimate touch. That is the single, relentless theme of Apple's existence.

They wove branches around the trunk of that theme as well, of course. Cameras and printers that didn't set the world on fire. Set top boxes that faded away or remain just a hobby. Social networks that have been anything but. Yet a few of those branches have been every bit as compelling as the main theme. The iPod popularized digital audio players and iTunes, digital audio. Apple Stores redefined the retail experience and the brick-and-mortar consumer electronic profit potential. The App Store revolutionized software delivery and the idea of mobile devices as platform ecosystems.

By any measure, Apple has had an unprecedented string of successes that not only dented the gadget universe, but knocked it sharply on its ass.

Now back to that acceleration curve. As mind-boggling as Apple's past successes have been, they also sharply bring this question into focus -- what's next?

Steve Jobs' biography raised television, textbooks, and photography as areas of interest. Apple has already dabbled in television with their aforementioned hobby, the Apple TV. They've stuck their toe into the textbook space with their recent Education Event and iBooks Author initiative. And, hey... they make iPhoto and Aperture.

There have been persistent rumors of an Apple television set proper, something that Steve Jobs may have said he'd cracked the interface for, and something Apple might have already prototyped to some degree in their labs. It remains to be seen if Apple will ever decide to release their own television set, however. And if Apple does release it, it's doubtful it could match or exceed the sales of the iPad, that it could it do in one year what the iPad did in 2. It could absolutely change the rules, the way the Apple II did, the Mac did, and the iPhone/iPad did, and disrupt the current television industry to the degree that it soon begins to redefine it, but it wouldn't redefine computing itself again.

An Apple television wouldn't be part of Apple's relentless theme to further democratize and popularize computing. It could further socialize it, since television is more familial than personal, but it would simply be another branch, perhaps lucrative as the iPod, or perhaps just a hobby like the Apple TV. It wouldn't be a leap beyond the iPhone or iPad.

Same with photography. Apple has already played the iPhone card, and that's a great play in the point-and-shoot, mobile photography space. High end (DSLR) isn't mainstream and supporting services is another sub-plot, not a theme.

Same with textbooks. Again, Apple has played that card with the iPad and everything else will just enhance that existing disruption.

So what does that leave? iCars, iWatches, iRobots? Unlike many of their competitors, Apple doesn't just drop nukes on the future and hope to hit something, sometime. They fire cruise missiles and carefully adjust the course until they hit just exactly what they want to hit, just exactly when they want to hit it. That's why, despite their tendency towards patterns and cycles, they remain hard to predict.

The Apple II was released in 1977. The Mac some 7 years later in 1984. The iPhone and iPad some 20+ years later in 2007 and 2010. As much as the sales curve is accelerating, the big leaps in product category for the devices that serve Apple's main theme have slowed considerably.

That's why the branches are so important, and that's why there will continue to be iPods and iTunes, Apple Retail and Apple TVs. There will be products besides a personal computer and a mobile device, that mainstream consumers will still buy by the hundreds of millions, and are ripe for an Apple style revolution.

Apple will still pursue their main theme, and will follow the iPhone and iPad the same way they followed the Mac, but there will be a lot more iPods and iTunes along the way.

Perhaps Apple will get into mobile payments and further expand the reach of the iTunes checkout system (sure, Apple could buy Square and Foursquare -- and why not Squarespace -- while they're at it?). They could finally overcome the cataclysmic myopia of Hollywood by either funding creators directly and serving up more Dr. Horrible style made-for-digital content, or simply buy a studio like Sony did and force Hollywood, kicking and screaming, into the future (is Pixar for re-sale?). There are many, many opportunities ancillary to Apple's existing businesses over-ripe-to-the-point-of-rotting for innovation.

So, while every pundit and their analyst seems eager to rumor up Apple's next big thing while simultaneously dismissing all current things as "iterative", I'm eager to see all of it. From Mountain Lion and iOS 6 at WWDC 2012 to the 2012 iPhone this fall and the next new iPad beyond it.

Nothing Apple does exists in a vacuum. Sure, at some point in the future, when technology makes it possible, Apple might just re-revolutize personal computing again. Maybe they'll make it wearable or implantable. Maybe they'll make it more human, with a natural language and thought interface disruption that does to multitouch what multitouch did to mouse and mouse did to command line and command line did to punchcard.

Or maybe, just like the computer became the network, the device may become the ecosystem, and each element from hardware to software to service will drag each other inexorably forward. Maybe Siri and iCloud are the first indicators of that.

What better way to serve Apple's theme but for the next big thing to be a relentless stream of small things?

Image credit: iDoodle by Jason Harrison

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

More Posts



← Previously

How to use iCloud like a Dropbox or Google Drive-style cloud store

Next up →

Iris App for iPad review: a fun way to browse Instagram on your iPad

Reader comments

Apple's next big thing


Re: "television is more familial than personal"
This is why Google TV failed. TV isn't just a bigger screen for browsing, email, and apps. The WebTV guys discovered that in the '90s, but apparently Google didn't know or care about it.
Re: "Nothing Apple does exists in a vacuum."
Exactly. Apple devices co-exist and thrive in Apple's vast ecosystem. And the ecosystem adds enormous value to Apple's devices. This is why the copycats fail. Because the me-too devices do exist in a vacuum.

Google TV wasnt an actual TV unit, It was kinda like the Apple TV which is not a TV either.
The next big thing from Apple will be an actual TV. And it will be more than integrate email and internet into TV. Its something huge. Its about your freedom of what you can watch without having to pay top dollars to cable comnapines. Steve Jobs cracked the code and we will see the results within the next 15 months. This will be the downfall of major cable and satelitte companies, mark my words!

apple never invented any of the said things but main-streamed it...they should get credit for that but not credit for inventing said devices seem to take too much credit for everything,example the retina display,apple did not invent it yet they seem to get the credit and not the companies that actually spent millions on r&d to make it possible.

It's not important that someone invent something in making a hugely popular consumer product. It's important to make a product that appeals widely. I don't see anyone claiming Apple invented stuff and honestly even if they do so fricken what? I mean we all get that advertisers will boast. People boast about their products. They say things like "Number 1" or "9 ut of 10 dentists." Normal people know that it's hyperbole. It's what you expect. Nobody thinks anyone is polling every dentist on dentine or tic tacs or whatever. Toyota didn't invent the car but they make hugely popular autoproducts. Microsoft didn't invent the OS but their OS is hugely popular. "Inventing" isn't that special unless you somehow corner the market.
I also don't see a problem with people who "take credit." If someone heaps credit on them i'm not sure what you expect them to do. At each every turn jump up and declare, "we didn't invent it?" I think that's crazy because again, it's obvious, and second, it's not important who invented something. Being the first product doesn't mean that is the most appealing product to people.

One thing is for certain: whatever Apple decides to do next, it will be wildly lacking specs and too over-priced.

It's not all about hardware... I'd buy a smaller sword for battle of it also comes with a ninja.

The brilliance of Apple, and Jobs in particular, was realising which products would be in dmand before the product had been invented. That's why none of us can guess what will be the next big thing, because it's something that we cannot yet conceptualise.

For me TV and photography are next. TV due to the clear signs we have seen in the past months. Photography, because apple has 2 great programs, and apple likes to integrate harware and software (they are great at it too), so what better than a DSRL??? You say that "High end (DSLR) isn’t mainstream...". I disagree. Whatever touristic place you travel, people have a DSRL. For 800 dollars (or even less I think...) you can buy one, whearas before it would have cost 2000. It is absolutely mainstream. I bought one, and I don't have a clue about photography. And if a company like apple comes and brings a DSRL to the market, it will be even more mainstream product...

Apple recently purchased the domain from FABULOUS.COM
I think since they can't use iTV , they will most likely call their next product iTube.

Building out a new wireless network is very expensive, and more importantly, where is the bandwidth coming from for a new network? This would be a really stupid idea for apple.