The winner takes it (almost) all

Will it be virtual or augmented reality? Will it be "Project Titan", which everyone seems to presume will be some type of Apple Car? Could it be something entirely new that once again redefines what Apple is and what it means to the next generation of customers? These are the big questions.

Looking at the role both iPod and iPhone have played in Apple's success over the last decade and a half, it's easy to draw the conclusion that Apple needs to transition to another breakthrough, smash-hit product that leads, and ultimately defines, a new market.

Notice I didn't include "dominates" in that short list, though.

For Apple, success has never required market dominance.

Let's be clear: for Apple, success has never required market dominance. The Mac has made countless billions in revenue despite only owning a single digit of PC market share. iPod did dominate the portable music player market, of course, but one of the most valuable businesses of all time, the iPhone, does not.

So, success for Apple with what comes next doesn't have to be a repeat of the iPhone or even the iPod. But here's a bigger questions: Does Apple's future success need to be bound to any single product going forward?

Product categories and devices is how we got here, but Apple has been strategic in building an ecosystem around those products. It's an ecosystem Apple has been refining for over a decade as well, and it's where the company's strength now lies. It's also an ecosystem that will be core to anything Apple does in the future, including new product categories, all tied together through design and function.

Ecosystem is the true expression of Apple's DNA.

Ecosystem is the true expression of Apple's DNA. I'll be bold enough to say that, rather than dominating new markets, it'll be the the value of the combined offering that will define success for Apple going forward.

It will also build quite a barrier to competition across the board—once you get a single Apple product, adding additional products becomes easier and more compelling.

As history has shown, even a secondary position for Apple can be large and stable enough to make adoption low-risk for customers, and profitable for Apple. Watch is a perfectly good example of a product that leverages the rest of Apple, but where the company needs not be the dominant or even among the the top three vendors for it to be both successful and profitable.

The factors that led to the unprecedented success of iPod and iPhone may never be repeated. But Apple doesn't need them to be. Rather than one $50 billion business, five $10 billion dollar businesses will work just fine — even if they're new to Apple, even if they're services-based. And if they all tie into the Apple ecosystem, they'll be more than fine.

Based on Apple's recent releases, including Watch and Music, the company may already know this. So the next question becomes: How does Apple communicate it?