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