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On moderating expectations for Apple's 2012


Just after the year-end retrospectives clear newsrooms, speculators begin pounding away at the forecasts for the coming year. Every year we see wide-eyed imaginings about what Apple "could" do in the coming year, and every year someone comes out with a list that sounds just as outlandish as the "too cheap to meter" claims about nuclear power from the 1950s.

Time Techland's Tim Bajarin looks at "five industries Apple can disrupt in the near future," and the piece is typical of the overly-optimistic expectations people always seem to sprout this time of year. I'll skip over the first section related to TVs, because it's the only halfway-plausible section of the piece, and dive right into the "meal in a pill" musings that follow.

"Imagine if Apple began working with the auto companies directly and, in extreme circumstances, was perhaps able to get a 7-inch iPad into these cars," Bajarin muses, managing in one sentence to combine speculation about an industry Apple's shown no interest in entering with speculation about a product Apple's shown no interest in building. He imagines iOS device integration with car systems that would allow for Siri-activated access to things like navigation, media, text messages -- basically all the things Siri already does, but tied into the car's display.

The question for this auto integration scheme -- and a question I'll ask twice more later on -- is why Apple should bother. "People don't replace their TVs all that often" has been a major strike against speculation that Apple will produce its own TV set, and that counterargument rings even truer for cars. Apple could theoretically produce a head unit or other bit of hardware with auto integration that could be deployed across multiple auto makes and models, but the question remains: how would Apple benefit from this? Where's the money in it?

The first followup question one must always ask after "Wouldn't it be cool if," is, "How much money could Apple actually make doing this?" If the answer to that second question is, "Hmm, probably not all that much, now that I think about it," then you can safely discount the possibility of Apple entering that industry.

That goes double for the next industry in Time's list: wristwatches. "If Apple used the Nano to mirror some of the functionality of my iPhone in a watch format, the company could potentially redefine the role of the watch," Bajarin says. The problem is, the wristwatch's role has already been re-defined for the majority of consumers: it's been put on the same pile as the typewriter, slide rule, and floppy disk. Even people I know who are wristwatch enthusiasts have admitted that if you have any kind of cell phone you don't really need a watch. "I don't need to pull my watch out of my pocket to tell the time," you might say in defense of the wristwatch; "I don't need a bulky bit of rubber and metal attached to my wrist to tell the time," is my response.

Bajarin correctly points out that some nano users have been using the latest iPod nano as a watch, but most of the reviews I've seen of the so-called "iWatch" point out that while it's technically possible to do this, it doesn't work all that well -- not even as well as a conventional watch. As for the idea of putting Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or some other connectivity between a wrist-worn nano and an iPhone, this is once again an idea that sounds good on paper but very likely sounds terrible in Apple's accounting ledgers. iPod sales have been declining for years, and the iPod touch already makes up the majority of the iPod's increasingly slim share of Apple's profits. While it certainly sounds cool, iPod-iPhone connectivity is a very niche-sounding feature in an already niche product like the iPod nano.

Apple's trend over the past few years has been to shy away from heavily promoting its outlier products like the shuffle, nano, and Classic while devoting much more focus to its wide-appeal, general-purpose products like the iPhone and iPad. That's with good reason: general-purpose products have greater appeal to a greater number of consumers, and therefore Apple can make more money selling them. The intersection between "wristwatch wearer" and "iPhone owner" and "iPod nano fan" and "gee wouldn't it be great if all these things talked to each other" speculator has to be very small -- and too small for Apple to want to bother with addressing that market.

Another market Apple's shown no interest in is home appliances, but that doesn't stop visions of iFridges dancing through people's heads. "If Apple applied their iOS software to appliances and married it to iCloud, they could turn pretty much any screen integrated into things like refrigerators, ovens or even cabinets into application-specific smart screens," Bajarin writes. This is another case of something that sounds cool at first, like something right out of a sci-fi movie or one of those concept videos of the "near future" that outfits like Microsoft like to crank out every decade or so.

It's easy to picture a scenario where you walk into your house, say "Lights," and a Siri-powered "home assistant" turns them on for you. Or better yet, iOS-powered appliances in your home converse with the ones in your car, monitoring your location as you drive home from work, and when you're five minutes away they turn on the lights, set the A/C to 72 degrees, start the coffee pot, fire up the TV, fetch your pipe and slippers, and so forth. That's the house of the future that we've been promised for at least sixty years, and I can already hear the jaunty piano soundtrack in the accompanying concept video.

What's not so easy to picture is Apple willingly involving itself with any of that. Unless it plans on branching out into building its own refrigerators, dishwashers, HVAC units and toasters, Apple's iOS definitely isn't going to show up in home appliances. You're not going to see Frigidaire running a licensed build of iOS 6 on a touchscreen refrigerator door, nor is a Kenmore dishwasher going to have iOS powering a multitouch interface where you pick your rinse cycle then knock out a quick game of Jetpack Joyride. You know why not? Because Apple's never going to license iOS to other manufacturers, period. "Never say never," the saying goes, but I'm saying it anyway.

Just like with cars and watches, you have to follow the money trail to divine the level of interest Apple might have in the home appliance industry. And just like with cars and watches, I just don't see toaster ovens or thermostats as a lucrative market for Apple.

Though it's nice to play around with these Jetsons-like images of a fully Apple-powered home, the reality of Apple's 2012 is going to be far more "boring" than the iCar, the iWatch, and the iHouse. Here's what you can really expect from Apple in the year to come, roughly in the order you can expect to see them:

  • A faster iPad, possibly with a double-resolution display
  • Faster versions of its current Macs, and maybe a 15" MacBook Air
  • A faster iPhone
  • iOS 6, with evolutionary improvements to iOS 5
  • An A5 or A6-powered high definition version of the current Apple TV -- or, far less likely, an actual Apple TV set
  • Iterative improvements to Siri, iCloud, and iTunes services throughout the year

Yawn, right? Where's the disruptive product, the wave of the future, the thing that makes us feel like Star Trek's universe has come 300 years early? If it exists at all, it's probably deep within Apple's labs, in prototype form, and a hell of a lot more exciting than anything on Bajarin's list -- or mine.

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