Since Steve Jobs died certain tech journalists haven't stopped asking what will become of Apple. Events like the iPhone 5 release predictably bring the questions to a robotic whine of rote, dim soothsaying. The fabled few years of ‘pipeline’ Jobs gave unto them shall sustain them short-term, sure, but what happens after that? How will they keep innovating, disrupting, innorupting?
They won’t. And they don’t need to.
Apple’s innovative, ‘disruptive’ genius may well have died with Steve Jobs. It was a great loss, personally more than anything. But Apple doesn’t live off innovation. Innovation isn’t a business model. (Everyone doing Internet startups please take note.) Innovation is a design practice, a way of making products with new technology, which isn’t necessarily the same as making money with it.
Apple makes money on digital hardware, only made desirable by software and services. Given that our society has just lived through the emergence of the entire sphere of digital human production, they needed to innovate to create products, because they were many times making the first product of a kind that was any good. That was Steve's job. He could track, and sometimes lead, the emergence of said sphere of human digital production.
I use that cumbersome phrase for lack of a better option. Because digital media isn’t an industry. It’s not of the industrial era. It is the next era.
That’s obvious to many, and only important to say here because of what it says about Apple. To break out my SAT analogies, they are to the Information Age what Ford was to the Industrial Era. That may also be obvious to many, but is important here because of what it says about Apple’s relevance in the aftermath of Jobs’s death, and I would argue the likely death of their capacity to innovate in anything like the way they have. They’ve created the car; now they just have to sell it.
The next ‘car’ is mobile devices.
Apple invented the modern mobile device, or at least won the market to a level that lets them write its history. The iPhone and the iPad are the prototype for all future mobile devices. Multi-touch, the centralization of functions in one device that multi-touch allows, an extensible platform for ‘apps’ that further supports that: these were not the baseline of features for mobile devices prior to the iPhone.
More importantly, in addition to bringing these products to life, they did so with such an enormous lead in the technology and design that they had essentially no competition for more than a year after launch. Between that and the lessons learned from Microsoft two decades ago, they completely dominated the market in a way that no one will undo soon.
Granted, it will diversify. The Samsung ruling is a setback to Android’s encroachment, but that robot will march forward with new programming soon. Windows Phone 7 seems like it will be a real contender. Microsoft is an old hand at clawing its way into an existing market, so assuming their desktop revenues taper off manageably I expect they’ll be important in the new mobile economy. But how long that will take is an open question.
So Apple owns mobile devices for the foreseeable future. That should be obvious. That’s not my core argument though. I’m arguing that mobile devices are not just some new type of personal computer, a new product on the market. They are an entirely new media and appliance category, a meta-market that replaces a swath of old markets. They are the new phone, the new book, the new notebook, the new calendar, calculator, GameBoy, pedometer, newspaper, magazine, remote control, and camera. They are also the new TV.
If Apple controls that, they don’t need to innovate, just iterate. Make it lighter, faster, prettier, maybe cheaper, ultimately just newer. Every year. They could do it for decades.
Obviously things will advance: Digital interactions will increasingly be integrated functions of physical appliances. Heads-up displays and wearables will eventually provide a new interaction model and so will demand a new round of innovation, which is already underway. At Google, and so probably at Apple too, where the Jobs-built and Jobs-empowered bench of designers can probably handle it without the man himself. (Provided some decisive voice emerges who can keep any committees at bay. I'm accepting offers, and I say make AR RayBan Wayfarers in white and black. : )
But even if they can’t—or they make the call that Augmented Reality is a flying car—they can live on selling iPhones and iPads for as long as people will be using multi-touch portable devices. And, barring that flying car taking off, there’s nothing that can replace them in this era.