Thank goodness Apple didn’t announce more devices. It would’ve ruined everything.
To judge by its two most recent public events, Apple has three big priorities right now: Its supersized iPhones, the forthcoming Apple Watch and Apple Pay, its new mobile payments system that just launched. If nothing else, that became utterly clear last Thursday when CEO Tim Cook and other executives spent the first 30 minutes of its iPad presentation reiterating announcements they’d already made a month earlier.
Of course, Apple is a company in transition. After more than two years on what looked like autopilot following the death of co-founder Steve Jobs, Apple under Cook is branching out in a variety of new directions. It’s perfectly natural that it would focus on its most important efforts.
But that also leaves a lot of loose ends dangling around the periphery of Apple’s empire. Despite rumors and hopes that the company might announce a new Apple TV, MacBook Air with “retina” display, 12.9-inch iPad and sixth-generation iPod touch, all were conspicuously missing.
It’s easy to cast them as collateral damage in Apple’s campaign to reinvent itself from mere gadget maker to architect of connected life. But there’s plenty of reason to think the company has grander plans than that.
Well, for most of them, at least.
Patience, Apple TV
The Apple TV (rear), crowded in by the Roku 2 and Chromecast.
Two years ago, one of the first comments Tim Cook made as a newly minted Apple CEO was about how he loved his Apple TV and hoped to expand on it someday. Now the 7-year-old Apple TV has finally sloughed off its status as hobby and became a money maker, selling 20 million units and funneling more than a billion dollars into the company’s pockets.
That’s plenty of incentive for Apple to refresh its only TV gadget. And yet, no new product update came this year, which seems to defy logic. Streaming media has become so hot, channels like HBO and CBS are bypassing cable bundles by offering online-only services. Meanwhile, a new set-top box just hit the scene—from Google, Apple’s main competitor, no less.
But if Apple has been quiet about the set-top box, that doesn’t mean it has ignored it.
In 2012, Cook said, “[I] always thought there was something there, and that if we kept following our intuition and kept pulling that string, we might find something larger.” That larger thing appears to be Apple’s new smart home system. Clues in the iOS 8 mobile software (Apple TV is technically an iOS device) point to the streaming box working with HomeKit as a remotely controllable hub.
Smart home features in the device would require some hardware changes, like antennae for Zigbee or Z-wave, short-range wireless signals often used in connected home products. Changes in the Apple TV’s remote control might also be in order, possibly delaying the device.
Apple’s Craig Federighi and his spectacular coiff go over a list of HomeKit partners in June, at the Worldwide Developers Conference
A bolstered Apple TV could thus serve as Apple’s Trojan Horse for smuggling smart-home features into people’s homes. If they already have a control console or hub, even skeptics might be inclined to try out a product or two that hooks into it.
The company could further boost appeal by giving the Apple TV access to an App Store. Currently, users get a few dozen pre-selected streaming channels. But they can’t download Spotify, Pandora or Rdio, much less game apps or alternate streaming services, the way they can on Google or Amazon TV streaming gadgets.
The thought of Apple opening that up would have been laughable a year ago. But now it has loosened developer restrictions for iPhone apps, making the prospect of it opening up Apple TV apps more credible. I’ve spoken with various developers who told me they couldn’t wait to make iOS apps for the big screen. So if the company is putting some finishing touches on a software developer kit alongside its work on HomeKit integration, plenty of services will be available to tempt customers.
In other words, this already decent set-top player could be on the verge of becoming awesome.
No “Retina” MacBook Air For You! (For Now)
After Apple released a marginally better MacBook Air earlier this year, anticipation was high that it was saving the best for last—namely, a new update with a high-resolution “retina” display. After all, the beefier MacBook Pro got one this summer.
Instead, the new, more powerful iMacs got Apple’s high-resolution IPS screen—and not just any old retina display, but its next-generation “5K” version, with 5120 x 2880 resolution. Apple also announced some much-needed upgrades for the Mac Mini, including a faster processor, faster Wi-Fi, speedy PCie-based flash storage and a price cut of $100.
What did the MacBook Air get last week? Bupkis.
But before hopefuls despair, they should know that Apple is probably holding things up for customers’ own good. These high-resolution retina displays draw a lot of power, so putting them on a laptop hyped for its battery life could potentially be a disaster.
So if you’re holding out for a MacBook Air with a retina display, take heart: Apple loves to tinker with energy optimization, so the extra time is likely going into slaying that battery dilemma.
The Monster iPad Cometh
The iPad’s market share has been plummeting recently, in part because people just don’t upgrade their tablets as often as they do phones. Case in point: The 3-year-old iPad 2 is still the most common Apple tablet in use today.
Source: <a href=”http://info.localytics.com/blog/iphone-5-and-ipad-2-still-dominates”>Localytics</a>
With consumer sales flattening out, the logical course of action is to go after business customers.
Indeed, the office may be the tablet’s greatest hope. Plenty of workers have already swapped their laptops for iPads, as tablets are more convenient on showroom floors, at construction sites and in other field or travel situations. For more incentive, Apple partnered with IBM a few months ago to offer business apps, cloud services, support and device management.
The 12.9-inch iPad was supposed to be another carrot to dangle in front of business users, completing a troika of tablet updates. Too bad it never made it to the stage.
Something’s still missing, no?
Had it joined the updated iPad Air 2 and (very) slightly tweaked iPad mini 3, Apple would have had a three-part strategy locked in: One lightweight, world-mode tablet for globe-hopping executives (potentially as a laptop stand-in), another tiny version fit for the small carry-ons of frequent travelers, and the largest version for folks missing those larger laptop screens. And they will all transition easily between computers and phones, thanks to the newest software.
Ultimately production issues, not lack of faith, may have hampered the biggest iPad of them all. Apple reportedly focused its mighty supply chain on its new larger iPhones, relegating the tablet to a later launch date—probably in early 2015 with the Apple Watch.
Whither The iPod Touch?
Fall used to be iPod touch season. It was the perfect schedule, as it gave people plenty of time to add the product to their holiday wish lists.
But not this time around. Apple delivered a minor low-end summer update, but no 6th-generation model. Some think it may still come, only early next year, which makes sense if the iPod touch suffers from the same production issues plaguing the mongo iPad.
But releasing it after the holidays would set it on a strange timetable. To get back on track, Apple would have to skip a year, or launch two new versions in the same year.
The company may be in the midst of figuring out those complexities right now. Or, given its other ambitions, it might have other intentions. Here’s a somewhat depressing thought: The company retired the last of its 3.5-inch displays last month. It also killed its iPod Classic. For now, no one outside of Apple knows if it’s done pruning its product lineup yet.
Even if it’s not, that doesn’t mean death is imminent for the iPod touch. In fact, it could linger for a while. There’s even a chance that it may get the bigger screens of the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, which would certainly simplify Apple’s manufacturing pipeline. Either way, it may point to the company’s lack of interest in advancing any more handhelds with 4-inch screens.
One More Thing: Apple Meets The SIMs
One of the most intriguing things to come out of Apple was something else it neglected to mention: The company built its own SIM, a tiny identification card inside phones and some tablets that allows them to work on cellular networks.
Apple’s SIM is its first, notes GigaOm, and it’s going into some of the LTE-equipped versions of its new iPad Air 2. The new tablet supports global LTE bands, plus older 3G, and it appears this card is how it will connect to those networks (starting with the U.S. and the U.K.).
iPad customers usually pick a cellular provider at the time of purchase (unless it’s a Wi-Fi only model), and there they remain. But the Apple SIM can be programmed (and then re-programmed) to work on different networks. This means that people could buy the tablet first, and then choose carriers later.
There’s speculation that the Apple SIM may be the company’s first step to becoming a cellular operator. That’s pretty far-fetched. Much more likely is that Apple saw adaptable SIM cards appealing to international users and business travelers, Apple’s new target audience for its iPads.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, with so few product announcements last Thursday, Apple’s presentation seemed a bit dull. But it wasn’t a sign of complacence. Far from it. It’s clear that the work is only just beginning. So far, Apple has had a tough time maintaining equilibrium as it figures out what to let go, what to keep and how to establish entirely new product categories—some of which it has never tried before.
It’s a balancing act, and the company has already been thrown off-kilter a bit. Over the next year, we’ll see how strong its footing in these areas really is.