Saturday, January 17, 2009

Things #2: The future of Apple.

Ok, let's get the elephant in the room out of the way: Steve Jobs is taking time out for medical treatment, and plans to return to Apple in the summer. Too many words have been written on this, and I don't need to add to them.

Instead, this is the post that I've been gestating since before MacWorld, but wanted to delay lest I look like another wishful thinker pushing his own fantasy technology list. That's not my intention, so forgive me if I lapse into indulgent fandom now and then. What I hope to do is to rehearse a few possibilities in the hope that we can be better prepared should the future actually work out even vaguely similarly.

Steve Jobs aside, it's clear that Apple has since the turn of the century been putting in place the technological pieces necessary to dominate the next fifteen to twenty years of consumer computing, just as Microsoft dominated the last, and IBM the twenty before that.

This architecture wasn't all planned at the beginning, but then these things never are: They grow organically and benefit from the mistakes (and greed) of others, as much as the genius and opportunism of the prime movers. Thus Microsoft was able to blindside hardware-focused IBM, turn its command line advantage into a GUI one, and then hold onto it through successive generations of upgrade. Pretty much all of these software upgrades required hardware upgrades too, but they were relatively painless and distributed over the 3-5 year buying cycles of most corporations. For consumers the deal was harder but pretty inevitable: you buy what industry uses.

This remained true until the skyrocketing demands and specialised requirements of consumer apps (home media, digital appliances, gaming) began to direct the market. In each of these areas specialised technology starts to look like the way forward and then there's little to be gained from buying the same tech as the Fortune 500. The Internet was a great leveller too: it's remarkable now to recall the difficulty and cost of cross-platform work back in the late 80s and early 90s. Now it's truly trivial, and matters much less that you're running distinct platforms.

So just at the moment that a generic single OS running on existing hardware starts to look less important, and just as a simplified, largely consistent and usable interface gets more critical, Apple positions itself with a solid OS that's up to the tasks that consumers want to throw at it, and none of the architectural baggage of backward compatibility with four or five generations of PC software. This is good, and while it may not have been entirely part of Apple's gameplan, neither was it entirely the result of Microsoft's mistakes.

Track forward by 3 years or so and Apple is also in the consumer electronics game, with what's beginning to look like a fairly major hit on its hands. The upshot of this is that Apple is shipping vastly more devices with an embedded OS than it is traditional computers by about 2003. That's quite a game changer for the whole company, and for the corporate culture, and by my reading nowhere more so than in the mind of Steve Jobs, who has been pretty focused on the desktop up until this point. Remember, he's the guy who killed the Newton. Three years later they're building Apple TV and the iPhone platform, leveraging the work done on Mac OS X for sure, but fundamentally thinking about platforms in a way that's new both for Apple and for the mobile industry.

It's this platform focus that's central to Apple's future, and hence to all of us who live and work with digital technology. While it's fun to speculate about specific devices or software functions that Apple might choose to introduce, it's a largely futile exercise and matters much less than the overall emerging strategy. A few aspects of this seem fairly clear now and I'll talk about those in a later post.


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