30 years ago Apple announced the Mac. Back in 1977 they'd helped spearhead the personal computer revolution with the Apple II, putting a command-line interface into homes and onto desks in a way that had never been possible before. In 1984 the Mac did the same for graphical interfaces, harnessing the power of the mouse, pointer, and windows to make computers even easier to use. In 2001 Apple expanded into music, unleashing the iPod + iTunes, and kicking off the mobile entertainment revolution. 2007 marked perhaps the most important announcement in Apple's history, when they took elements of their existing businesses, personal and mobile, and revolutionized the phone with the iPhone. 2010 saw Apple bridge the gap between iPhone and Mac, and once again made the computer even more personal, with the iPad. Any of those would have been the achievement of a lifetime. All of them, the achievement of Apple so far. But after over 30 years of making the computer even more personal and mobile, what on earth could follow? What else in our digital world, what of the magnitude of the computer or the phone, could Apple revolutionize next?
The computer was new. Apple had to tell people they needed it and that they needed the Mac. The phone wasn't new. People knew they needed it. Apple had to tell them they deserved better — they deserved an iPhone. The iPad was somewhere in between. Apple had to make the case that for most people, for most things, the iPad was and is better than a traditional computer or phone. Today, many would say they couldn't live — at least not happily and productively — without a computer or tablet. Almost everyone would say they couldn't live without a phone. What else in our lives is that important? What else is ripe for the kind of improvements Apple could bring?
Wearables in general, and watches in particular, have been heavily rumored for the last year or so. It's a direction the market is going, but not one that's yet had a compelling case made for it. Is it simply too early? Apple entered the phone market when Treo, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and Nokia communicator had matured enough to make us both excited about their potential and miserable about their state of implementation. The smartwatch space is still in its very early stages. The medical angle is interesting, but would anyone ever need an Apple watch as much or more than they need a computer, tablet, or phone? Could it ever be as big a business for Apple?
Likewise televisions. Long rumored, we'll expect one when and if we see one. But is there any revolution Apple could bring to television that requires Apple actually make the set as well? The Apple TV model has thus far let Apple assault input 2 or 3 — after the TV interface and likely the cable/satellite box and maybe a game console as well. An actual display would give them input 0, but the core go-to-market conditions Steve Jobs explained years ago haven't changed, and any interception Apple might want to make could arguably be served by a beefier Apple TV rather than a panel. Sure, a 4K Thunderbolt Display could kill two very high end birds with one product stone, but that's not a mainstream solution. Also, like the watch, it's likely also not a big business.
Could Apple revolutionize the car? They'll not start construction of an Apple roadster any time soon, but they are doing iOS in the Car. A bi-directional AirPlay-like system, it will let Apple project their interface onto other manufacturers' screens. Personally, I'd love to see iOS in the Car become iOS on the Camera, iOS in the Home, and more! Apple as it exists today would never scatter focus by becoming a general purpose consumer electronics company like Samsung, Hitachi, LG, General Electric, etc. and they'd never license out their software like Google or Microsoft. Projecting their experience and services, however, could be a great way to keep control without losing focus. Still, how big a business?
Could Siri and what's happening with sensors be part of it? An internet of Apple things that see to our needs, perhaps even predicting them well before they become needful? That's not a single product, mind you, but a web of them, and would its value ever be direct, or always supplemental?
That's the challenge facing not only Apple, but every major technology company. The personalization of computing has no obvious, immediate, giant, next leaps to make. Unless and until a watch or wearable can replace my computer, tablet, and phone for most things, most of the time, unless and until an implant can hook me directly into the iCloud — and, frankly, since the surveillance revelations who still wants that? — it's really tough to see one product that will make as big a splash as the Mac or iPhone.
What's easier to see is an array of smaller products and services making a sizable, if more widely dispersed impact. Just like evolution, taken year after year, can equal or surpass any singular revolution, an array of smaller products and services that improve the overall value of ecosystem and experience can be just as important. Wearables factor in there. iOS projection factors in there. iBeacon factors in there. And together, they all become greater than the sum of their parts.
If Apple could make a leap in services as big as they did in software with the NeXT acquisition or iOS launch, perhaps it would be considered it every bit as revolutionary — though I'm not sure mainstream culture would agree. Absent that, I don't know when we'll see 1984 or 2007 again. I do know we'll see 1985-2006 and 2008-2013 consistently, relentlessly, until we do.
Typing this on my Retina MacBook Pro, watching notifications fly by on my iPhone 5s, I'm fine with that. Hell, I'm ecstatic. But I do admit, I desperately want to to see another moment like the Mac or the iPhone again. I want to see Tim Cook or Phil Schiller or Jony Ive pause during the keynote. I want to feel my pulse race, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up on end, the anticipation hang there for an infinite moment...
"Today Apple revolutionizes—"
What exactly? If you were controlling the product roadmap, if you were writing the Keynote script, how would you fill in the blank? What's big enough to you, important enough to you, broken enough to you that you just can't wait to see Apple make it their next big thing?
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Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.