Apple is a fashion brand with a brain. People may eventually lose interest in Jony Ive’s sleek aluminum and glass designs. To the less discerning, any 4x5 grid of app icons will look the same — whether it’s running on iOS, Android or QNX. And at some point (simply by virtue of scale), other platform vendors will be able to hold up $1 billion developer payout checks.
The core features that used to differentiate iOS from the competition are being copied at an ever-faster pace. The razor-thin margins and flattening growth curves across the traditional consumer electronics and software industries are pushing competitors to combine efforts in order to slow Apple’s momentum.
In short, for Apple to retain the innovation pole position, moving faster simply isn’t enough. With that in mind, earlier today I posted the following on Twitter:
Apple has two major blindspots, which my guess is that they’ll tackle with iOS 5. If I’m right, the game will change — again.
Many asked whether I was referring to notifications, background tasks or iTunes in the Cloud. I was not. While each of these is among a series of incremental improvements that will eventually make their way into iOS, they do not represent strategic blind spots for Apple.
Instead, I’d suggest that Apple’s two blind spots are identity and connectedness.
Back to The Future
The smartphone is the most intelligent device that is always with me. But it’s actually still quite dumb about me. It knows my location, the people whose phone calls are important enough that I always accept them, the music that I listen to repeatedly, and the applications that are part of my daily routine. “Who I am” is, in part, the summation of those activities, choices and patterns. My smartphone is present, if not a vehicle, for most of those things. Yet, because there is no software concierge observing, filtering, and recommending, the smartphone remains an object of largely untapped potential.
Now some of you may be thinking: “Isn’t that what Facebook and countless other social/mobile/local/platform companies are doing?” Certainly these companies are addressing fragments of the opportunity, with one crucial distinction. How many of those companies do you trust to deliver this value to you just because it makes the product better, and not to sell you (and your data) to the higher bidding marketer?
Identity is not analogous to social networking (the parlor game of accumulating “friends” and companies vying to exploit the commercial opportunities within those relationships). Identity is deep personalization and the near-complete elimination of interface.
Getting identity right calls for looking through the social bubble. On the other side is a possibility that looks like Siri today, and may evolve into the 21st century Knowledge Navigator.
Connectedness is more than the holy grail of a thin client smartened-up by the cloud. It is extending the mobile ecosystem beyond apps and content.
A few weeks ago, I disagreed with an article, “Apple is Said to Consider Expanding AirPlay for Streaming Video,” by @netgarden. The article argued that “For Apple, AirPlay is a way to expand into the living room without having to introduce new products.” But that approach is anathema to Apple, which prefers to exercise heavy control over participants in its ecosystem.
Apple displays an almost debilitating paranoia about third parties controlling elements that it deems strategically important. This is evident in iWork, iBooks, WebKit, its retail stores. But it is epitomized by Apple’s twin commercial juggernauts iTunes and the AppStore. John Siracusa made a similar point recently on 5by5 Studio’s Hypercritical podcast.
Voltaire was Right
Apple is as vulnerable as any other company to believing the future is a straight line extrapolation of the present. But eventually the knock-offs will be good enough to fool most people. Solely focusing on incremental improvement is like polishing diamonds. And perfect is the enemy of the good.
Identity and connectedness are about turning consumer technology into a self-reinforcing ecosystem that is broader than apps and content. By delivering the devices that “understand” you and that put you in greater control of the technology around you, Apple can neutralize its risk of being disintermediated by cheaper, faster, or flashier competitors.
This shift will not be fully realized in 2011. It represents a change of emphasis. However, I do believe that companies focused on beating Apple to market with faster processors, greater quantities of applications, and in general more stuff are bound to find themselves side-swiped by a future in which none of that matters.