Where does Apple's future lie?

Apple is finding itself in a bit of a rut right now. Simple refreshes of their products, falling share prices and public opinion waning all amount to a company in trouble. Well at least they would if they didn’t have over $140 billion in the bank and a very loyal user base.

Apple is a big deal still, obviously. The arts and entertainment industries love the iMac and Macbook hardware; the iPod is still one of the most wanted Mp3 players on the market; iPhone sales alone are enough to make Microsoft and BlackBerry (formerly RIM) jealous and the tablet revolution was giving a right kick up the jacksie with the introduction of the iPad. But for all their might and magic, what can Apple offer the technological community and the consumer now, that someone else can do for cheaper and sometime better?

A company in transition

For Apple to get to where it is now, they had to overcome some major hurdles. The main one being near bankruptcy in 1997, where they were bailed out by Microsoft in a not completely selfless gesture (Microsoft didn’t want to be seen as creating a monopoly, so invested $150 million). Had this not happened, even under Steve Jobs’ stewardship, we would likely not have seen the iPod, iPhone, iPad or iMac.

I have to be honest, in writing this editorial, this was the first time I had seen Steve Jobs at the Macworld Expo talk about the Microsoft investment deal. And apart from a very preachy bit around the 10 minute mark about what Apple means to people, it was a very honest and open account of the relationship that Apple and Microsoft needed to have, for both to succeed. Short of saying “we needed their money,” Jobs couldn’t have been more succinct. It was a joy to watch.

Since his passing in 2011, Apple has done what any company would; hire a successor and do a bit of reshuffling at executive level. But Steve Jobs was Apple through and through. His influence on the hardware they pushed out from 1997, following Microsoft’s investment, was always going to be sorely missed. Forget talk of product road maps and business continuity plans following his death; when Steve Jobs died, a big part of Apple and its influence in the market died with him.

It hasn’t been easy for Tim Cook; the man had massive shoes to fill. That alone has given him a by ball with investors and consumers; at least until the unveiling of the iPhone 5. It wasn’t as widely accepted as previous versions of the handset. Consumer opinion was mixed and while reviews were positive, it was the same old iPhone experience in a slightly bigger form factor. The introduction of the iPad Mini can’t have helped matters, with it cutting into Apple’s very healthy profit margin, investors started to feel less confident in Apple as a brand. That just leaves the oft rumoured iPhone Mini, but whether it ever comes to grace the stores or our pockets is yet to be seen.

So, where does Apple go from here? For that you need to look at what they’ve done in the more recent past.

Apple’s mobile legacy

Many companies have tried and failed to emulate Apple’s success in the mobile space. From Mp3 players to tablets, Apple’s blueprint has been emulated, copied or stolen, but the fact is that no one company has captured the mobile generation like Apple did.

They started with the iPod, a revolutionary device that was both simple to use and unique in look. With it’s easy to user interface and Apple’s excellent build quality, taking not just your music with you, but maybe ALL your music with you became a very real possibility. Since then the iPod has grown into a device, shy of a cellular modem, which can easily compete with the iPhone and iPad in terms of power and features.

With the iPod came iTunes, a one stop shop for synchronising your digital audio to the iPod. What started out as a simple synchronisation tool has grown into a huge online presence, a one stop shop offering music, podcasts, films, TV shows, apps and ebooks for any and all iDevice users (if your device supports the content that is). As Apple added more mobile devices to its product catalogue, support was added for the iPhone and iPad range of devices. All in all, iTunes was revolutionary as it has shaped the way we access and purchase our digital media, prompting retailers to rethink their digital media strategy.

While touch based mobile phones existed, running Windows Mobile, from HTC and HP, they weren’t really the nicest devices to use. The OS was clunky and tired, and the phones themselves were usually chunky and dour to look at. Then the iPhone arrived, bringing with it a sense of style, functionality and quality never before seen from a phone. Now users had the ability to call, text, email, use social networking (in its infancy mind you), listen to music, watch videos, play games and download apps (when the App Store launched of course) all in one, fit-in-your-pocket device. Today, over one third of the smartphone market is controlled by an iPhone and Apple should be lauded and loathed, both for bringing such a revolutionary device to market and for giving us the hipster generation that use it, in equal measure.

Finally, we have the iPad. While it didn’t create as big an impact on the market as the iPod and iPhone, the iPad can still be classed as a device worthy of the revolutionary tag. Tablets may have existed, running on Windows XP, but the fact that the iPad brought the established functionality of the iPhone and iPod to a larger form factor device, along with the same content being available and transferable between devices, it all added up to a winner for Apple.

While some people will say that iCloud and Retina displays, along with OS X and the Mac hardware should be classed as revolutionary, I don’t think they are. Why? Let me explain.

Revolutionary or simply evolutionary?

There can be no doubt that Apple revolutionised the market with the mobile iDevices. But in more recent times it almost feels like they are going through the motions, refreshing hardware and software without really offering something new, different or unique.

I’d like to clarify my thoughts on iCloud, Retina displays, OS X and the Mac hardware not being revolutionary.

Cloud computing has existed in many forms; it’s not a new thing offered by Apple. Webmail such as Hotmail is the perfect example of cloud computing being available for years, without the user classing it as being in the cloud. The same can be said for services like Megaupload who offered online storage and archiving for users who wished to avail of the services. None of these would have been branded as cloud computing, at least not by the general public, until the term started to get thrown about in more recent years. Yes, the cloud symbol has been used to describe the Internet as far back as 1994, but that just means we as people are utilising the services offered due to the technology evolving since the early 90’s.

The same argument can be applied to the Retina display, in the iPhone, iPad and Macbook. Screen resolutions have been growing year on year. The fact that 4K displays and TV’s are starting to come to market (albeit at a hefty premium), the 15”, 2880 x 1800 resolution, screen in Macbook Pro the just seems like a stopgap. How many 19” TV’s are capable of Full HD, and have been for a couple of years now? It’s just the way the technology has evolved. Yes, its scalability is a wonder to behold, but it again doesn’t make it revolutionary. And just because Apple slap their own resolution on the screen does not (repeat, does not) make it revolutionary.

I know I’m being ignorant to the bigger picture here, but my personal view of revolutionary products are ones that completely change the market for the better (or sometimes worse). Not wanting to bring up Microsoft on purpose, but Windows 95 did that; computing was never the same after the release of Windows 95. Apple themselves did it, twice! First with the iPod, but in reality it was its iTunes software that turned the medium of digital music into a very commercial product. It’s a template that has been copied by everyone from Amazon to Netflix.

Second, they did it with the iPhone. As I’ve already said, there were phones out there that offered the same functionality as the iPhone, but what the iPhone did was bring the smartphone out of the workplace and bring it into the home. And with the addition of the App Store, Apple really and truly revolutionised the way we use phones and get digital content for them.

So that’s what I feel is revolutionary. A product that may build upon what is already there, but one that completely changes the market and the buyer’s perception of how to it. Apple may as well copyright the phrase “There’s an app for that,” as anyone that decides to buy a smartphone for the first time, or switch devices will compare and contrast the apps they use to the apps available on the stores that Apple, Google, Microsoft and Blackberry offer. And that’s why I don’t class OS X and the iMac and Macbook hardware as revolutionary. They just haven’t caused a massive shift with the consumer to warrant the term. But this, again, is only my humble opinion.

So, what can Apple do to break the mould again?

Take a chance

Taking a chance is what Apple did with the iPad. The tablet wasn’t a new device and following the reveal of the original iPad, cries of “giant iPhone” were circulating the internet. But for some reason, Apple seemed to kick start what has become a very tablet driven market. Hell, I work with a guy and I spotted the case of a tablet on his desk and casually asked what tablet it was. He responded “Oh no, it’s not a tablet, it’s an iPad 2.” What the difference is I will never quite fathom out, but it’s hard to discount Apple’s ability to take a seemingly lacklustre device and make it a global success.

I’m not going to pretend to know what I am talking about, as I don’t know where Apple should take their products next. But I can remember when the third generation iPad was being teased and readied and I watched the following video.

The video above is the perfect example of revolutionary. The snap actions, coupled with the NFC functionality would completely change how we would interact with each other and each other’s device. The on desk projected interface is a marvel, if a little Star Trek and LCARS-esque. And while this functionality exists as a device already, building it into an iDevice could prove to be a key selling point. Holographic displays do exist, but they would be nowhere near the level shown in this video. Unless someone at Samsung is holding out on the tech! But even compared to the current line of iPads, the display on the mocked up device in the video is amazing. Look at it, there is little to no bezel! Why can’t Apple do that now?

Apple is by no means a company in trouble, but when your stock drops by $200, people will question what’s to come. With the competition from medium and high end Android mobile devices, Windows Phone and Windows 8 tablets starting to claw some market share their way and Blackberry looking like it will have a mini resurgence, Apple need to lay down the gauntlet again, like it did with the iPhone and the iPad. They need to take risks, to come out with a product that people will turn their heads in an owl-like fashion when walking past one in the street. No mean feat, but having done it multiple times already, how hard can it be to do again?

To echo what Steve Jobs said, for Apple to win, Microsoft (and now Google) don’t need to lose. And right now, Tim Cook and the people in charge at Apple seem to be going down the same path that got Apple in trouble in the first place. The same trouble that caused Microsoft to bail them out, prompt Steve Jobs to make his speech, and ultimately bring on the advent of the iPod, iPhone and iPad. But, if down again, do the current crop of Apple execs have the power, resources, influence and means to get back up again?

It's not that Apple is suddenly making bad products, far from it, it's that other companies are now matching and even besting Apple at their own game. So the question remains, does Apple have something up their sleeve to keep their revenue growing or are they starting to be a victim of their own success?

We’ll let you be the judge of that.

Images courtesy of ExtremeTech, MyDigitalLife, Sparkle Tech News, Technology for Girls, Forbes and Apple

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