Where next for Apple?
10th Sep 2012 | 09:15
Apple is now the world's most valuable company. So what next?
Where next for Apple?
Thanks to the enormous success of the iPod, the iPad, the iPhone and the Mac, Apple is now at the most momentous point in its 28-year history. It's incredibly rich - richer than Microsoft and Google, and richer than some European countries.
Still not convinced of its richness? Then how about this: at one point in summer 2011, it sat on more cash than the entire US government. Today, Apple has more than $100 billion in the bank and plenty of plans for the future. That's quite some war chest.
The question is, what's it going to do with all that money? If you were Apple CEO Tim Cook right now, what would you choose to spend it on? We've come up with some ideas of our own…
TV and Film
Before his death in October 2011, the late CEO Steve Jobs carefully laid out plans for a slew of new products that would keep the company ahead of the game for the next four years.
But one of them is worthy of special attention, because it proves that Steve and Apple were both excited about creating disruptive products that would change entire markets, just as the company had with the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.
In one interview with his biographer Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs said: "I'd like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synced with all your devices and iCloud… it will have the simplest user interface you can imagine. I finally cracked it."
Since then, the rumours surrounding the potential launch of such a TV - dubbed iTV - have reached fever pitch: TV makers from Samsung to Sharp have been named as possible partners, while in May, Apple's chief hardware maker confirmed (then almost immediately denied) that it was in the frame too.
Most pundits believe that the TV - if it exists - will combine the features of Apple's existing 'hobby' set-top box, the £99 Apple TV, with controls that combine Siri-like voice integration with Microsoft Kinect-style motion capture, so you can change channels or change the volume using simple mid-air gestures.
Both Apple and Steve Jobs' interest in this area is perhaps not surprising. Apple already has much of the know-how, an established track record producing innovative, high-quality displays and, of course, has the iTunes Store and iCloud, which give it the ability to serve up huge amounts of TV and movie content via broadband.
The idea of creating an integrated television set is also not that surprising: many TV makers – including Panasonic, Samsung and Sony - already give owners of their integrated 'SmartTVs' access to programmes, movies and interactive content via broadband internet connections. What will make Apple's own version different will be its integration with the Apple products you already own, along with a seamless, easy-to-use UI, based around iOS.
But there's arguably another bigger play Apple can make here, and you only have to look at Sony to see how it could work: it has its own record label (Sony Music Entertainment), its own movie studio (Sony Pictures), its own animation studio (Sony Pictures Animation) and a growing interest in TV broadcasting through Sony Pictures Television in the United States and elsewhere. It also makes a lot of broadcasting hardware, of course, but you can see where we're going here.
If Steve Jobs was still alive you could easily imagine that some kind of tie-up or even takeover of Disney could be on the cards. When we wrote about the launch of iCloud and Apple's plans for its huge datacentre in Maiden, North Carolina, we also pointed to numerous rumours that Apple was already paving the way to become a major TV content provider.
These moves appear to have gathered pace in recent months. In March, Business Insider reported that Apple was continuing to negotiate hard with programme makers and US cable TV providers to get programme content onto the Apple TV platform.
Then Business Insider speculated that this would enable Apple to create channels for broadcasters inside the Apple TV user interface - something that already appears to be happening with ongoing talks about Apple and Disney over sports network ESPN. Apple certainly has deep enough pockets to make it even more attractive to programme makers.
Ever since Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, pundits have been speculating, if not predicting, that Apple will want to launch its own mobile network at some point.
It's not hard to see why: using an iPhone or iPad on some mobile networks in the US can be a miserable experience, with patchy coverage and low data limits. Even in the UK, mobile networks have been covering the amount of mobile data you can consume before exorbitant charges kick in.
There has to be a better way, and Apple could be the company to provide it. It certainly has an interest in doing so: both the iPhone 4S and new iPad offer built-in support for LTE (aka 4G) networks, although coverage worldwide is not great or, if you're in the UK right now, non-existent.
Apple is also at its best when it delivers the complete end-to-end solution; right now it has to rely on carriers to support its iPhone user experience and very often they're just not up to the task. Apple could theoretically bid for of the radio spectrum that will become available once the last analogue TV broadcasts are shut down later this year.
The catch, of course, is that Apple would have to have the support infrastructure - mobile telephone masts and all the rest - in place to be able to do this, couldn't piggyback on an existing infrastructure. A good start here would be to buy one of the US carriers. Sprint is the most likely candidate, with its existing 3G network and WiMax 4G business, in the shape of Clearwire, which reaches 120 million people.
Apple could spin off a data service of its own, providing a dedicated 4G offering for iPhone users while keeping Sprint's existing customer base. It's an idea that's certainly worth thinking about: imagine how easy it would be walking into an Apple Store to buy an iPhone and signing up to AppleNet!
Exciting though the prospect may be, the potential to enjoy even more programme content through Apple TV and other Apple devices only really tells half the story.
It's in the mobile gaming space where Apple has had the biggest impact: Nintendo's been repeatedly hammered by Apple in this field and even posted its first ever loss in April, due to lacklustre sales of the 3DS and rapidly declining interest in the Wii.
Even Sony is struggling in the face of the Apple onslaught, with the launch of the PlayStation Vita receiving both a lukewarm welcome and, thus far, unconvincing sales to boot. In both cases, it's the enduring appeal of affordable titles like Angry Birds on iOS among casual gamers that are partly to blame for the relative lack of success in portable gaming for Sony and Nintendo.
There's also the undeniable fact that with the iPhone and iPad Apple is giving users a killer combination of features, along with a seamless user experience and huge increases in display resolution and processor power.
If you own an iPad, you already know that it's easy to play games on the device through your TV using the Apple Display Connector. But the next logical step could see Apple embark on a TV-centred games console of its own - something that could either be delivered through gameplaying capabilities inside the Apple TV set or via a separate box.
Another alternative would be to partner with a streaming games company such as OnLive or Gaikai, which runs the game in a datacentre and then streams the video to a dumb terminal under your TV. This would suit Apple's iCloud strategy while also removing the need for powerful hardware in the box itself.
There was a brief flurry of excitement in March this year when it was rumoured that Apple CEO Tim Cook had been to visit the HQ of Valve - makers of online gaming platform Steam - although this was swiftly denied.
However rumours persist that Valve is indeed working on a games console at its labs. But even if the story turns out to be totally wrong, you can bet that Apple is at least toying with the idea - no matter how hard it would want to avoid resurrecting memories of its last disastrous foray into gaming. Remember the Bandai Pippin?
Is an Apple iCar on the way?
Anyone who has used Find My iPhone will know that iOS has the ability to pinpoint a location using a combination of mobile phone technology, Wi-Fi and built-in mapping software. Apple - and many third-party developers - use this information to tag your photos with geolocation data, and serve up all kinds of location-based services - like where your nearest Apple Store is, for example.
This tracking technology isn't without controversy, of course (especially when it turns out companies are gathering information about you without you even knowing), but it may be particularly useful to Apple, since it gives the company a toehold into whole new areas of technology that it may wish to explore in future.
Last October, it acquired Swedish 3D-mapping company C3 Technologies, enabling Apple to combine its know-how with that of two previous mapping acquisitions, Placebase and Poly 9. Apple is ostensibly doing this to reduce its reliance on Google Maps - which it's expected to ditch in its iOS 6 update, due later this year.
Having a maps program of its own would also enable Apple to directly challenge third-party sat-nav makers like TomTom, which is increasingly doing deals with car manufacturers seeking to improve their own in-house sat-nav systems. The ability to offer its own mapping technology to third parties - especially car makers - could really be of interest to Apple.
The huge success of the iPod and iPhone, and car makers' willingness to integrate support for them in their models, suggests Apple could be pushing at an already open door when it comes to providing easy-to-use navigation and entertainment functions, just as Microsoft did with its tie-up with BMW for its iDrive system.
There is also a chance that, given Apple's voluminous wallet, it could go much, much further. In Apple's own backyard, California, there are already a few enterprising car makers working on the Next Big Thing, thanks to the state's insistence on increasing the numbers of zero emission vehicles on its streets and freeways.
It wouldn't surprise us in the least to learn that Apple has at least a watching brief on Tesla Motors - the producer of the first fully luxury electric sports-car. Read the spec list of its Model S saloon (www.teslamotors.com/models/features) and you could almost be ticking off a wishlist for goodies you'd expect to see in your next iPad or MacBook Air: a high-res touchscreen; Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and USB connectivity; broadband internet access; mapping software; an entertainment system; and, of course, sophisticated power management and batteries - lots of them.
Now the ability to build fast, efficient, user-friendly computers and the ability to build sprightly electric saloons may look like they should come from two very different disciplines (they do) but the lines of distinction are also quickly becoming blurred.
We're all familiar with the notion of a car's on-board computer and engine management systems being important to how it runs. And we know that Apple could easily acquire the technology, expertise and patents it would need to create its own electric car fleet if it wanted to. And imagine a car whose entertainment and sat-nav system is synced with all of your iOS devices via iCloud…
It might sound unlikely to you right now, but Apple board member Mickey Drexler recently stated that it was Steve Jobs' dream to build the iCar. Look at what Google's doing with its experiments on self-driving cars that use its mapping and computing know-how; and who could ever imagine that a little record label that made its name signing the Sex Pistols would one day end up running trains and a fleet of transatlantic aircraft, or think about putting its high-paying customers into space?
So far we've concentrated on will-they-won't-they intangibles surrounding certain kinds of content and services, but it's obvious that one of Apple's many virtues is that it's very careful about how it spends its money. In recent years it has indeed acquired companies and services - such as Lala and Chomp - that complement the services it offers to Apple users already.
But it has also been buying up all kinds of hardware providers too - most notably semiconductor makers PA Semi and Anobit. This makes total sense: by reducing its reliance on third-party manufacturers, Apple can shield itself against potential shortages and other disruptions for essential components for devices like the iPad and iPhone. It also puts it in a much stronger negotiating position when it's dealing with the other tech giants it still relies on, such as Intel.
Buying up nascent hardware companies also gives it the freedom it needs to stay ahead of increasingly fierce competition. It's easy to imagine a scenario where Apple might want to buy up innovative hardware makers like Corning, which makes Gorilla Glass for the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, or Liquidmetal, whose metal alloys are already used by Apple for the SIM-extraction tool and, potentially, for cases for the future generations of MacBooks, iPads and iPhones.
Even if it can't buy the manufacturing capability outright, waving a large cheque book around could certainly bestow exclusivity or even dedicated manufacturing plants. It's already rumoured to have invested billions of dollars in Sharp to secure LCD displays for iPads and other devices, and regularly buys up huge chunks of the world's NAND flash production, much of it from Samsung.
Given its wider consumer electronics and other ambitions - along with the woeful state of many CE companies' balance sheets - Apple could even embark on a wilder land grab if it wanted to: after four consecutive years of multi-billion-dollar losses, Sony could certainly benefit from a massive cash injection right now.
But at its current valuation of around $40 billion (down from $100 billion in 2000), Apple could easily afford to swoop in and gain access to all of Sony's technology, manufacturing plants, movie and TV interests, high-street stores - and the PlayStation brand. The more cynical industry watchers might suggest Tim Cook wait a year and pick it up for even less…
One of the most satisfying things about being a top dog at Apple has to be seeing the fervour with which the company's fans - you and us - embrace everything the company does so enthusiastically.
The obvious corollary of this is there must come a point where you start to think that almost anything you do will draw a legion of fans, provided the same high-quality rules, attention to detail and customer service apply.
The Virgin brand is a case in point: it may have started out as a record label, but these days its name is attached to everything from mobile phone networks to broadband and TV services, rail services, airlines, holidays and even space tourism.
So what's to stop Apple doing something similar? We already know that Apple has applied to build a new UFO-like campus in Cupertino and that it now runs a restaurant just for Apple employees. Why not take these things to their (il)logical conclusion?
The party city of Las Vegas could certainly stand to add a steel and glass iHotel, complete with blue-shirted waiters and bar staff and Mac-like slot machines. And we'd jump on an Apple Airlines aeroplane, complete with an iPad-based in-flight entertainment system, in a heartbeat.
You can also already buy eau de MacBook cologne if you want to. Maybe Apple should launch a nationwide chain of high-quality fast-food joints, its own heady range of apple-based alcoholic beverages or its own private hospitals - although its slogan 'an Apple a day keeps the doctor away' might not go down too well with patients waiting major operations.
What we'd really like to see though is for Apple to launch its own Eve-style personal robots, based on the ones Pixar created for smash-hit movie Wall-E. It would not only be incredibly useful, but it would also seamlessly switch to Sarcasm mode whenever anyone questioned your choice of computing platform!
Likeliness: Low - We can dream, can't we?