Apple seems to be under a lot of pressure lately, probably more than ever. The feeling is that, with Apple, it’s never enough. No matter how healthy the company is. No matter how extraordinary sales are. No matter how great its products are. Wall Street on one side, analysts and the tech press on the other, nobody’s ever satisfied.
Since Steve Jobs’s passing, Apple has done an excellent job at refining existing products, not to mention the introduction of a new one — the iPad mini. Innovation is a term that is always associated with Apple, and with good reason, considering how many things have changed in the tech world in the last 12 years thanks to products like the iPod (2001), the iPhone (2007) and the iPad (2010). From what I’ve been reading on the Web over the last few months, many people seem to argue that the time has come for Apple to show it can ‘survive’ on its own, without the genius and the vision of Steve Jobs to lead the way. The perfect way to show that is with the introduction of the ‘Next Big Thing’, because apparently iterative improvements of existing products are not enough, no matter how successful they are.
Paradoxical suggestions: “Innovate!”, “Do what others are doing!”
So, on one hand, Apple ‘must’ release something innovative and disruptive, another breakthrough in modern technology and design. On the other, Apple ‘must’ follow in the competition’s steps, for example by producing a cheap iPhone for the emerging markets. According to some, Apple should produce its own ‘phablet’ (my hatred for this term is incommensurable), to better compete against Samsung’s offerings. Others think that the Next Big Thing will have something to do with wearable technology, in the form of a smartwatch.
If Apple is really in the process of manufacturing a cheaper iPhone, I guess it’s because of its interest in expanding its presence in China, above all. But leaving this example aside for a moment, I hope that some people realise that “Do what others are doing” is not part of how Apple behaves. Another thing Apple has repeatedly shown in the past is that it’s not particularly interested in entering all markets. Remember when Apple should have produced a netbook because netbooks were the future of portability? (Or, more accurately, because a lot of people said so, thinking it was the best course of action, completely misunderstanding how Apple thinks and acts).
No, Apple either creates a market, or enters an existing one only if it can significantly contribute to (or utterly revolutionise) that particular market. Innovation and following in others’ steps are two opposing directions in Apple’s book, in my opinion.
So, what now?
Apart from a very selected few inside Apple, no one really knows if Apple’s working on its Next Big Thing and what it’s going to be. Here’s where I start thinking out loud.
A new Mac? — A few months ago, Tim Cook said that the Mac Pro line was not over yet, that we should expect something new this year. But even taking an all-new Mac Pro into account, that can’t exactly be considered a revolutionary product. What could Apple do in the traditional computer department to create an entirely new — and in some ways revolutionary — Mac model? It must have been more than a year ago when I saw a patent application from Apple depicting some kind of hybrid Mac that could be operated traditionally, with a keyboard and a mouse/trackpad, but also supported a Multi-touch interface. In the patent images, it looked like an iMac whose screen could be made to slide towards the user and angled in such a way that the user could interact with the screen as if it were a giant iPad. While this looks doable (and certainly Apple could produce an elegant-enough solution), I can’t see an immediate practicality in such an idea. It could make for a cool-looking gimmick, but I don’t think we can call it a powerful, breakthrough innovation. (Unless, of course, Apple comes up with a compelling, unique application for such a machine.)
Form-factor-wise, Apple seems to have all bases covered. Great laptops, a cheap desktop solution (Mac mini), a less-cheap but still-affordable desktop solution (iMac) and the old-fashioned, expandable tower format (Mac Pro), so it’s hard to imagine a completely new product that is not some kind of derivative idea from one of the current Macs.
A new portable device? — Here things get interesting. I don’t think it’ll be a new phablet, it doesn’t ring as Apple’s style to me. A bigger iPhone? Perhaps. Everyone speculating about such a device seems very much focused on the screen resolution and density math. I wonder if they also considered usability. Perhaps people ‘demand’ bigger phones, considering how well Samsung’s and other big Android smartphones are selling. But Apple also cares about its users in another way: by putting in their hands a device that’s a pleasure to use. A 5-inch iPhone, in this regard, might be a challenge.
Anyway, my speculation here is about the ‘Next Big Thing’, an all-new revolutionary product. A bigger iPhone is probably nice to have in the product line, but again, it hardly qualifies as revolutionary. Some seem to believe that Apple will produce a smartwatch. Maybe I’m not imaginative enough, but a smartwatch doesn’t really strike me as a product (or market) Apple is after. Unless it features something really unprecedented, some kind of unexpected integration with Apple’s ecosystem, some kind of application nobody thought of before that suddenly creates an obvious need for such a device, I deem a smartwatch an unlikely candidate for the next big thing made by Apple.
Conquering the living-room — A lot of people have been speculating about a new Apple TV completely rethought — as in, a new revolutionary TV set. Personally, I don’t think Apple has to manufacture some sort of giant iMac-looking device to revolutionise television, if that’s really Apple’s intent and next move. Maybe when Jobs revealed to Isaacson that he “nailed” TV, he was thinking about some kind of software product or service offering, rather than a particular piece of hardware.
Another way to enter the living-room could be through a whole new, dedicated game console. That would be an interesting take. Imagine a mutated Apple TV on steroids, a device you not only use to watch shows and stream multimedia content, but also to play games. And I’m not talking iOS titles on the big screen, something that’s already attainable by connecting an iPad to a TV set. I’m thinking ‘new Apple gaming platform’. Apple is slowly but surely becoming a threat to consoles, as Valve’s Gabe Newell recently observed, so why not give them the proverbial coup de grâce with its very own console? Yes, maybe it’s a crazy thought, but not crazier than a smartwatch.
The realm of the unexpected
Then, of course, Apple could be working on introducing something no one has thought of yet, some product or idea whose innovation and usefulness will seem so obvious that many will slap their foreheads and say Why didn’t I think of that!? Apple’s mission has always been to make people’s lives easier, and in this department there’s still a lot of room for novelty and progress. Apple’s Next Big Thing doesn’t necessarily have to be big since day one, like the iPhone was. It might be something that subtly makes its way into people’s lives and becomes a long-standing hit, like the iPod has been for a decade. It’s hard to figure out at the moment, exactly because it seems as if Apple has already a product in place for the most varied of today’s needs. But in devising the Next Big Thing, Apple will probably target tomorrow’s needs — that is, by creating new ones.