The history of Apple’s success can be framed in terms of broadening the relevance of technology to increasingly larger populations with easier interfaces. It drove computing into American homes with the Apple II, broadened its approachability with the Macintosh, and moved beyond the orbit of its own computer owners with the iPod. While Apple has long and accurately characterized its products as integrations of hardware and software (and, more recently, services), Apple devices have been the vessel through which consumers have acquired the combination. The company has had limited interest in supporting its software or services beyond its own devices.
But, as the saying goes, what got you to here isn’t necessarily what will get you to where you need to go. With the iPhone, Apple crossed a threshold — a personal device theoretically relevant to anyone who can purchase and power an electronic device; it’s hard to conceive of something with a broader market. “Worse” for a company that has made its money selling devices, the iPhone and Android competitors it influenced have proven incredibly good at taking on the functions of other devices, decimating Apple’s own iPod business and even significantly softening the iPad business. Apple’s other post-iPhone, platform-driven devices — Apple TV and Apple Watch — support apps but are heavily skewed in the specific app categories of video and health.
Consider it expanding its influence or straying from its history, but Apple increasingly finds itself moving beyond the confines of its devices. This hasn’t happened in terms of Microsoft-like platform licensing, but rather as extending nuggets of its technology into other products. At some level, this has been going on for many years with its “MFI” certification process for iOS accessories. However, the company has recently expanded its reach into categories it has little interest in entering with HomeKit certification. And it has revisited its interest in influencing networked home audio even more recently with AirPlay 2 even as it has announced its own connected home speaker in HomePod.
Perhaps the biggest revelation that Apple is willing to sit out the integration benefits of a potential device market came with CEO Tim Cook’s hinting that the company will integrate its intelligent car technology into offerings from other car makers. This isn’t wholly surprising, as even autonomous car pioneer Google has given up its pursuit of its own vehicles. Indeed, one may look at Apple’s approach here as an extension of Apple’s CarPlay efforts, but at one point, CarPlay seemed as if it might be to an Apple car what the Motorola ROKR was to the iPhone.
Of course, Apple surely has more hardware up its sleeve. HomePod represents what is, for the moment, a new kind of platform for the company. It is one free of traditional apps but with expandable functionality via Siri. That has interesting long-term, post-smartphone implications. We can also expect Apple to become more aggressive in pursuing enterprise markets and expanding its services business. It’s surely not done exploring new frontiers, with the likes of ARKit and machine learning. And the introduction of ever more premium devices, such as a an iPad Pro or a potentially $1,200 iPhone 8, is always helpful for boosting device margins.
But as the smartphone market matures, it’s getting more difficult for Apple to launch a “big bang” category that exposes it to a previously untapped audience via an iconic device.