An Optimist’s and a Pessimist’s Case for Apple in 2014

Forecasting today’s biggest business and tech trends.
May 23 2014 10:16 AM

Two Bites of the Apple

Three years into Tim Cook’s reign, are we bullish or bearish on the house Steve Jobs built?

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Impressive as the iPhone’s trajectory still is, however, it’s a single product. Apple courts a great deal of danger relying on just one line for over half of its revenues.

Or does it? We can think of the iPhone as Apple’s leading product, or we can think of iOS as Apple’s leading product. True, Apple makes its money selling hardware. But selling hardware depends on having a strong ecosystem to support it. And iOS is stronger than ever, with over 1 million apps available (and growing quickly). iPhones and iPads have delivered iOS into the hands of hundreds of millions of customers, and in so doing, they’ve creating a ready and willing customer base for any iOS-based products Apple releases in the future.

We can expect, as rumored, that Apple will give iOS a starring role at this year’s WWDC. Apple will introduce a new look and feel for iOS 8. It’ll reveal Healthbook, a total health- and fitness-tracking app that paves the way for iOS-based wearables. It’ll show off split-screen multitasking for the iPad, a productivity tool that makes iOS more suitable for business use. (The enterprise market for iOS is potentially enormous.)

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If Apple launches a wearable product this year, that wearable will almost assuredly be running iOS 8. That’s enormously important. Google Glass got off to a rocky start in large part because there were only a handful of Glass apps available for the device. Apple won’t make that mistake. Its iWatch will, from day one, be backed by over a million apps already available. It’ll also have plenty of iWatch-specific apps already in development, or on the way shortly, and will be capable of integration with other iDevices.

And iOS is about more than just apps. Critics have noted that iTunes is in trouble. Many of them have ascribed its declining share of the media business to the rise of subscription services like Pandora, Spotify, and Netflix. Indeed, that’s how many of them have interpreted the need for the Beats deal. But the real story is that iOS and its App Store have supplanted iTunes. In the future, we might purchase or subscribe to shows, music, movies, and books through apps, or as apps, and not through specialized storefronts.

Neither Netflix nor Amazon, neither Microsoft nor Google have come to dominate the entertainment landscape definitively. Movies, music, television, games—all of these things are theoretically ripe for Apple’s taking. Walter Isaacson, the man who wrote the book on Steve Jobs, thinks Apple is positioning Jimmy Iovine to launch a war for the future of all media. It’s a war Apple could fight credibly, and maybe win.

The Final Analysis

Whatever happens over the next few weeks, or even the next year, Apple will be just fine. In the past, Apple needed dazzling new devices every few years to phase out the old ones, and to expand into new use cases and new markets. That’s less the case today. Apple has learned to build on previous success, not to start from scratch every time.

The iPhone and the iPad, and all the apps developers have made for them, have built a powerful ecosystem in iOS. In the coming year, and in the years beyond, Apple’s future will depend on how necessary it can make iOS to every aspect of our lives. For Apple to succeed, it’ll have to position iOS as more than just a place for games, a place for media, a place for daily distractions. It’ll need to make iOS indispensable. It’ll need to differentiate iOS from Android and other would-be competitors.

Apple will always be a hardware company, but we need to look beyond the hardware. If you want to understand Apple’s future, don’t focus on any one device. Focus on the platform that unites them all.

Jon Nathanson is a technology columnist, startup investor, and strategy consultant in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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