Sunday, January 31, 2010

What's Next From Cupertino?

As part of their internal communication strategy, Apple likes to hold town hall meetings to distribute strategic thoughts to its employees when times of change are imminent.  This is not only an outstanding way for Steve to keep his employees on the same page with regard to where they're headed, it can sometimes be a great foundation from which the rest of us can begin to ponder the types of products that are wrapped in chicken wire and duct tape in the vault that must be Apple's R&D lab(s).  

As a result of the latest rally, we know that Apple is focused on Google and Adobe as stakeholders in the marketplace.  In some ways, these are competitors, and in others, they're partners, but we know they're on the scope.  Regardless, I think the big take-aways from the meeting should be what we know about what's on the horizon for the Cupertino giant.  

Expect a bigger-than-normal step up from Apple in terms of iPhone software and the frequency with which it's released.  Apple software is, by nature, generally closed.  Arguably their most significant competitor in the mobile marketplace, Google, has taken a different route:  Google builds software that's accessible to the masses.  Both companies are pumping out updates, but for very different reasons.  Android fits with Google because the more platforms they release to use Android, the more of the advertising market they stand to gain.  Apple just wants to sell something with it's own name that works.  Both are a means to an end, but for very different reasons.  

Either way, Apple understands who their competition is in this market, and they're focusing on speeding up the process they use to deliver revolutionary utility.  And they think they can do it with hardware and software.  

As iPhone climbs the mountain of Apple revenue generation, folks lose sight of the foundation of Apple's business (for now).  Mac sales haven't quite put up the numbers that iPhone have, in terms of units or market share, but from Apple's perspective the slow and steady climb to the top may ultimately win the race.  Mac (including iMac, MacBook, Mac Mini, and Mac Pro) sales have steadily grown, with the MacBook line accounting for the largest gains.  With each update of the iMac and MacBook, Apple reinvigorates sales; This year will see even more significant changes to these products. 

Changes to Mac haven't always proven positive, though.  The latest 27" iMacs have been plagued with display issues, tarnishing Apple's reputation for building and selling products that "work right out of the box."  Let's hope that the changes we may see in 2010 prove ready for prime time.  

There are as many guesses out there about what 2010 will bring as there are possibilities, but here are some debatable guesses as to the potential for some of the more common additions:

  • Blu-Ray:  Keep dreaming.  Although they have a reputation for bringing revolutionary products to market, Apple isn't in the habit of pushing out technology that isn't neat and simple.  Blu-Ray is anything but.  The software to implement it, even in simple systems, isn't organized enough for Apple to take advantage of.  Don't expect it this year.  
  • iTunes:  Apple's acquisition of Lala is significant, but we're still trying to figure out what it means for the way they sell music.  Stay tuned for some 2010 updates to iTunes and the business model, but at this point, your guess is as good as mine.  
  • iPhone on Verizon:  I'm guessing that this will happen, but not in 2010.  There are mixed reviews about when Apple's exclusivity agreement with AT&T actually ends.  Even if it ends this year, I think some technologists out there underestimate a) the challenges of implementing an iPhone on a different type of network (requiring a full re-work of iPhone hardware) and b) the jump that Android has on Verizon customers. I think this change is inevitable, but Apple isn't really in a hurry to make this happen.  
  • Flash Support on iPhone and iPad:  Again, keep dreaming.  Whether Adobe will admit it or not, the days of Flash are numbered.  Apple knows what causes their systems to crash, and from their perspective, Flash is almost always the culprit.  HTML5, however, has promise, and the guys at Apple (and all of their competitors) understand that.  But the move to HTML5 is more gradual.  If we see mobile products running it this year, I'll be surprised.  
When it comes to the guesses, I always hesitate to take a firm stance.  However, I do think we'll see big hardware and software movement for the iPhone and Mac lines this year.  Regardless, 2010 will prove to be an exciting year for the mobile and computer markets, and the most devoted of nerd-dom will standby for the next big thing.  

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Death of the "Early Adopters"

Today's big Apple iPad release has made big headlines. Somewhere around 95% of the stories picked up by my Google Reader were either related to or directly covered the release event. Searches in Google News revealed countless articles, some from mainstream media, that described the hype that Apple has used to garner support and attention for their newest creation. The event wasn't unlike releases for the iPhone or updates to the iPod Touch or Nano. But something struck me: There I was, staring at my computer screen in the middle of the work day, feasting on the wealth of information that was hitting the social media web about the iPad, and I wasn't even close to being a lone wolf out there.

Just a few years ago, Apple released products much in the same way it does today. They built the hype, and the press and early adopters showed up en-mass to lay eyes on the newest baby of the secretive company. Today, as I watched live streams of video and blog feeds reveal each detail as the words came from the mouth of Steve Jobs, I heard the announcer on TWiT say that they had over 100,000 viewers tuned in. One hundred thousand. And I couldn't help but wonder: Am I no longer alone as a self-proclaimed "early adopter"?

If Apple and their army of engineers and marketeers were able to captivate more than a stadium's-worth of global tech nerds (in the middle of the East Coast workday, nonetheless), then they've really done something remarkable. They've grown a population of curious, tech-minded people out of what once was a small, rather niche group of people. They've succeeded in the number one job of marketers: They've fundamentally changed the culture of an entire global population.

Fanboys still exist. We're those who went to sleep last night with visions of dual-camera-equipped, sub-pound-weight, 10" HD-capable tablets dancing in our heads. We're those who go to the Apple Store for no other reason than to check in with our fellow Apple fans. We're those who will buy anything that Steve tells us is "amazing". But I'm not talking about fanboys. I'm talking about your average Joe.

Fanboys and tech nerds alone can't generate 100,000 hits on a website or $50.6B in revenue. We can't carry that kind of momentum because we lack the mass. This tells me that ordinary people are interested in the next big thing. Microsoft hasn't accomplished this. In fact, no one else has. Dare I say, even Google hasn't accomplished this.

Apple has re-defined the term "early adopter". They've transformed us into people with high expectations and nearly empty wallets. And we line up by the thousands to get a peek at Jonathan Ive's latest and greatest. It's no longer special to know (or to care) about what's coming next. My hat's off to them. They've done it again. They're creating massive markets where one didn't exist just months (or arguably days) before.

So they killed the early adopter by transforming all of us. And they've created a generation of early adopters. All at the expense of those of us who remember what life was like before 100,000 people cared about the next big thing in consumer technology.

Monday, January 25, 2010