Apple Predictions & Development Pace

Apple’s pace of development is a curious thing. At times like the iPad launch, Apple seems completely ahead of the game. At other times their rate of advancement seems frustratingly slow. Apple will lead the way on faster WiFi standards, better displays, better battery life, voice control, or even new device classes, but not issue fairly basic updates to iOS’s home screen or photo viewer for years. At first blush this seems inconsistent.

Increasingly I realize that Apple is great at issuing things at such a pace that everyday people will actually use them. Geeks and tech bloggers are perpetually complaining about Apple’s “lack of innovation”; about how other devices have NFC, eye-tracking, larger displays, higher resolution cameras, etc. I wonder, though, is this what innovation means? In the largest sense, is the meaning of innovation to create things in as much variety as possible, and to let the immediate mood of the market determine which were good ideas and which were bad? Or is true innovation to have a vision and to follow that vision even if it takes time?

There’s nothing wrong with giving consumers what they ask for, but to do so reduces dreamers to manufacturers. If the customer already knows the solution then the innovation (if any) was done by the customer, not the maker. Manufacturing is a perfectly respectable way to make money, but let’s not confuse it with innovation, despite the occasional (and counterintuitive) appearance of being technologically ahead.

Apple clearly understands it’s possible to move too quickly and not invest enough in the things you’ve created; to issue them, and if there’s not immediate uptake, to declare them a failure. And thus, Apple has an eye for the long play. Apple TV, FaceTime, Siri, iCloud, (Apple) Maps, Passbook—all of these things are long plays. None of them were immediately popular, and some of them still aren’t, but Apple is convinced they will be. They see themselves as innovators and tastemakers, working to be ahead of the market, not playing catch-up to it. The approach is never “this chip is cheap now, let’s put one in our latest phone and see what happens.” (And really, why do such a thing when you can let others do it for you?) The question for Apple is: “are we ready to put our weight behind this?” And if the answer is “no”, that almost always means the feature or device is not shipping. The rare exception is an experiment like the Apple TV, but notice that even these exceptions are handled in a unique way: the Apple TV experiment is long-running because the question is not “do people want this?”, it’s “what should our play in this space be?"

So, starting from the perspective that Apple is taking the long view, these are my expectations for Apple over the next 1-2 years:

  • Apple TV will finally come into its own. We’ll finally see the Apple TV SDK opened up. I’ve been predicting games on Apple TV for quite some time—they’ll make a killing playing to the same market that Nintendo played to with the launch of the Wii in 2006 (it doesn’t hurt, either, that Nintendo seems to be making some missteps lately). My biggest hesitation has always been controllers—I didn’t feel like Apple would want to get into the hardware controller game but none of the alternatives (using your iPhone as a controller, etc.) seemed good enough. Apple brilliantly solved this problem by releasing the MFi controller spec, getting experienced game controller makers to build these devices for them. The best controllers will be sold in Apple stores. Hardcore gamers will view the platform as underpowered but (continue to) fail to realize the importance of casual gamers. Developers will (excepting control changes) trivially port games from iOS allowing the platform to launch with a plethora of titles. Local storage is a must (though we’ll probably see lots of apps syncing save data via iCloud), which (AFAIK) demands we’ll see new Apple TV hardware. Game Center will come to Apple TV. Switching Apple IDs will probably become more convenient. We’ve seen lots of new Apple TV content providers lately, but soon we’ll see this open wide. I suspect we’ll see a new framework for indexing content (to provide a centralized listing of live content), and we’ll see a centralized location to manage channel subscriptions. Also Siri and FaceTime on the Apple TV (more on this in a sec)—watch for the new Apple TV to have camera and microphone.
  • FaceTime will become increasingly important. FaceTime was introduced in 2010 but wasn’t pushed too strongly by Apple for the first several years. Now, in late 2013, we’re seeing ads. Despite some recent quality-related foibles, the general understanding should be that the technological infrastructure is stable and it’s time to leverage it. 2014 will be the year that grandma starts video calling you from her living room (the future is finally here). This is a particularly good example of Apple understanding the pace of technological introduction that works. We’ve had video chat for ages now, finally, finally, it’s going to become a real thing real people do. One area in particular to keep an eye on will be business. More and more offices have Apple TVs because AirPlay is incredibly convenient for presenting. The recent Apple TV update featuring a “conference room mode” (which does nothing more than provide a slightly more work-friendly alternative to the default Apple TV home screen), is the slightest nod of recognition towards Apple TV in the workplace. While there are some difficulties like camera positioning, isn’t conference calling (via FaceTime) the logical next step? Targeting of individual conference rooms (rather than a certain person’s Apple ID) is an interesting challenge, so watch for a change to call targeting as a signal of confirmation. Apple would not aim to replace dedicated telepresence solutions at Fortune 500 companies but they would aim to replace basic uses at smaller companies. Interop is definitely a concern.
  • While this generation of new iPhones will appear to be an incremental update, we’ll remember it mostly because of Bluetooth. Yes, Bluetooth. Apple’s introduction of the iBeacons API on iOS 7, an implementation of the Bluetooth low energy (LE) spec, will fuel a new age of (local) integration and context. We’re going to see lots more small devices communicating with our phones and our phones will have a lot more information about their location and environment. I think most of us are unsure what to expect in the short-term because the possibilities are so incredibly broad, and I can’t even begin to speculate on how much clarity Apple has in the space, but I think we now know why Apple never introduced NFC capability—it was too specialized. Bluetooth LE will perform the functions of NFC and much, much more. With this in mind we should consider the much-rumored fingerprint reader on the iPhone 5S—why does Apple think you might want more security on your phone? Because your phone is going to be making payments and unlocking your front door. Do you really want anything less than a fingerprint scanner? Accepting that mobile payment is coming (and Apple would be the company to make it happen), this will be the year that Passbook starts to shine. Also, while the C in iPhone 5C probably officially stands for “color”, we should think of it as standing for “China”. All signs point to Apple’s increasing understanding of the importance of the Chinese market, from integration with Chinese social media services, and discussions with Chinese cellular carriers to hosting a special media event in Beijing tomorrow, paralleling the U.S. event. The lower-cost 5C will make the iPhone’s entry into the Chinese market (and other emerging markets) much easier without devaluing the flagship iPhone device.
  • I have a lot of thoughts about the much-rumored iWatch, but I think I’ll save them for another post. I’m highly skeptical that we’ll see anything of that nature announced tomorrow.