Steve Jobs fueled the mania for Apple’s product releases in two important ways. First, he brought showmanship to the events, a combination of prestidigitation and circus blarney that Apple’s new leadership can’t match. Second, and more importantly, on more than one occasion Jobs delivered products that truly changed our world. As a result, Apple product announcements are preceded by dozens of frothy articles explaining why this or that predicted feature will alter—sorry, revolutionize—our lives.
I’m as interested as anyone else in what my next iPhone is going to be like—especially if the new one is going to come in pink, which would thrill my daughter. And I’d love to see Apple deliver a great version of Apple TV after so many false starts. But on September 9 between 1 and 4 p.m. EST, I won’t be tuned into Apple’s product announcement. It’s just not that important. Here are three reasons why:
Apple Is Building Upon The Technology Platform Created By The iPhone And The App Store–Not Creating A New One
The iPod, iPhone, and iPad, along with the App Store, took us from the world of personal computing into the world of mobile computing—a transformation as significant as the move away from mainframe computing that Jobs helped engineer in the late 1970s and early ’80s with the Apple II and the Mac.
It took about a quarter century to move away from the centrality of the personal computer–and who knows, it may take just as long for the tech world to deliver something as transformational as the smartphone. That personal, portable supercomputer birthed a digital quilt of software, devices, and services (held together by a powerful telecommunications network) that falls over so much of our lives, so much of the time. One of the most compelling features of this quilt is that we shape it ourselves, choosing from an ever-expanding world of options. Our quilt gets more colorful and powerful as we add in the apps that please us most, do the most for us, and work well with the other vital pieces of our quilt. In the world of personal computing, our pickings were slim. Now we get to design our digital experience.
Software developers continue to create whole new behaviors for a smartphone-centric world. Slack, for example, is a communal way of working that wouldn’t have been nearly as compelling in a desktop-bound world. The on-demand economy pioneered by Uber makes no sense in a PC world. The Internet of Things increasingly depends on mobility and the interconnection of smart sensors that can track movement. And this is just the beginning: There is so much more to discover about the ways in which a smartphone-enabled mobile world can improve our lives.
It’s true that smartphones are improving at a faster rate than PCs did—the volume sold is so great that it inspires a pace of software improvement that is simply dizzying when compared to the slower evolution of the PC. This may mean that we won’t have to wait a quarter century for the next radical shift in our fundamental consumer technology infrastructure. But there isn’t any technology trend out there today that seems likely to fundamentally transform our lives in the next three or four years. The best we can hope for on Wednesday—and what we’re very likely to get—are incremental hardware and software improvements that make this mobile platform of ours a little more enjoyable. Even a new version of Apple TV is essentially an extension of the iOS platform.
The Big Gains Over The Next Few Years Will Come From Software–But The Value And Beauty Of Software Takes Time To Reveal Itself
Part of the drama of the iPod/iPhone/iPad debut events came from the fact that Apple put revolutionary objects in our hands. The creation of the App Store was just as significant as those devices, but it isn’t remembered in the same way, because it’s not physically tangible.
The devices we have now—laptops, smartphones, tablets—are all we need to manage our digital quilt. There has been some very nice hardware to come along since the iPad, like the Nest thermostat, but it adds to the quilt rather than transforms it. Furthermore, the reason Nest’s thermostat has succeeded is because its software has steadily improved to fit into our complex quilt. That’s something many other devices, including the Apple Watch and Amazon’s Echo, have yet to do.
Software will drive improvements to our digital experience, but software has never engendered the kind of euphoria that greeted the iPhone. It’s ephemeral and more complex than hardware. And now, more than ever, it can take years for the full implications of a particular piece of software to be clear. When you popped a CD of software into your Mac a dozen years ago, the complete application was right there for you to figure out. Now, however, our digital experience is much more complex. The apps we rely on are far richer than traditional software. These apps don’t just make your device do something; they are network-based services that are only fully useful when users interact with it over a live network.
Think of the difference between Spotify and Waze, or Apple Music and Uber. The music services’ apps simply summon a stream of song data to your device on demand. Waze depends upon not just maps, but on live data provided by other Waze users updated continuously over the network. Uber has turned out to be so powerful that it is not so much an app as a managed, digital, end-to-end marketplace for arranging and paying for transportation services on demand. All of these networked services employ “software,” but the code that constitutes the app on your device is only one element of it. There is also a supporting infrastructure of servers and hosting software and telecom gear and bandwidth that is part of the mix, not to mention subscription fees, which have become the new way of paying for the intelligence that you get via your mobile device.
The evolution of this quilt is the key work of today’s programmers. It’s a complex, interdependent progression involving many companies, both established and just starting up. The improvements Apple introduces to its iOS and the new features it adds to its phones tomorrow won’t be transformational on their own.
It will become harder and harder for Apple to maintain its position as leader of the technological revolution. Historically, tech companies have been unable to maintain leadership after a paradigm shift. The mainframe companies, including IBM, ceded their lead to Microsoft, which ruled the personal computer world despite Apple’s pioneering role. And Microsoft ceded its lead to Apple, which now reaps the profits of the mobile platform.
If you look around the tech landscape now, the most interesting potential shifts are being developed outside of Cupertino. Bitcoin might introduce massive changes in our economic lives. Bio-engineering could lead to a brand new type of computing. Ubiquitous sensors could propel a machine-to-machine grid of computing that might require entirely different kinds of input devices. Perhaps the next big shift will be to a world without devices at all, where we conjure screens on tables and walls and windows and in thin air. If so, augmented reality, which is being experimented with by Google and many other companies, may be huge. Or perhaps virtual reality will alter everything—if so, Facebook, which made a remarkably successful shift from a desktop service to a mobile service, is in a terrific position now that it owns Oculus. Apple, meanwhile, still defines itself as a company that designs brilliant devices meshing ingenious software and reliable hardware. So while it’s impossible to say where the next great shift will occur, the odds are it will come from somewhere other than Cupertino. (Of course, Apple has beaten those odds in the past—even the wisest tech pundits couldn’t have predicted in 1998 that Apple would be the company to introduce, and lead, a new kind of computing.)
This isn’t necessarily bad news for Apple, or its investors. The longer the iPhone serves as the primary component of this digital quilt, the longer Apple can suck up the majority of the tech industry’s profits. Pundits have predicted for years that smartphones would become commoditized, and so far they’ve been wrong. And Apple has plenty of room for growth into cars, wearables, media, and places we can’t even imagine yet. Its leadership seems strong, and it has done a good job of staying focused and lean, even as it has become a company twice the size of the one Steve Jobs left behind. It may be true that you need a Jobs or a Bill Gates to lead an industry-shaking transformation, and it may be true that Tim Cook is not that leader. But Cook has skills that Jobs didn’t possess, ones that might well be good for the long-term health of a less revolutionary company. All things considered, Apple has managed its transition away from its charismatic founder as well as can be expected. The company has the potential to play a significant role for decades, even if it doesn’t lead the next monumental shift.
So, chill out. Skip Wednesday’s event. You’ll survive–and you’re unlikely to miss a revolution.