Thinking about Apple’s Next New Product Category

on December 22, 2016
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Many tech news publications do “year in review” and preview pieces at this time of year. One of the questions I always get asked is what new hardware products Apple might launch in the coming year. Some things – notably the iPhone – are so predictable in their annual schedule at this point they’re barely worth commenting on, while others like the iPad and Apple Watch seem to be settling into something of a pattern too. The most interesting question is often what completely new products Apple might release. With that in mind, here are some thoughts about the new products I think we might see from Apple over not just the next year but the next couple of years.

Additional wearables

I love my Apple Watch – I’ve used one version or another all day, every day, since it first came out. It’s made a meaningful difference in my ability to manage incoming notifications, my health, and my general information consumption. Over the past week, I’ve also been using AirPods a lot and those too are, for the most part, great little devices. However, there are some limitations to both of these products which make me think we might see additional wearables from Apple.

One of the biggest limitations of the Apple Watch now that it’s usable in the pool and has GPS functionality, it’s not appropriate to be worn during certain sporting activities. If you play basketball, soccer, football, lacrosse, or any other contact sport, wearing a watch (of any kind) would be either unwise or dangerous for the watch and player safety. If you get a lot of your exercise through these sports, the calories you burn and time spent exercising can’t be captured by the Watch and, therefore, simply go unrecognized by the Activity app. In the past, I’ve used Fitbit devices which I could slip into a pocket while playing and would track such activity for me. So one obvious device for Apple to launch is a companion of sorts to the Watch which would clip onto clothing or slide into a pocket in order to track such activity, syncing with the Apple Watch when you put it back on.

Others might prefer to have just one of these devices instead of a Watch, if they have never worn a watch of any kind – whether or not someone has traditionally worn a watch seems to be one of the biggest predictors of how they respond to the Apple Watch, in my experience. Some other device worn on the body to track activity and potentially buzz for notifications might be an interesting alternative. If it also came with audio controls as a companion to AirPods, that would make it particularly interesting – I’m finding that using Siri to control playback isn’t always the best fit.

Siri speakers

In my experience, the biggest advantage home speakers like Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home have over Siri on any of the devices where it’s available isn’t functionality of the assistant itself but the size and configuration of the devices on which it operates. Those devices were, without exception, designed first and foremost with something other than microphone performance in mind. They’re mostly intended to be as small as possible, with smooth lines, large displays, and other features which hampers the ability to deliver high-performing far-field voice recognition. As such, if Apple really wants to improve Siri performance, especially in the home, the solution probably isn’t in software but in hardware and that’s where a Siri speaker comes in.

The next question is exactly what such a speaker would involve. Echo and Home are both very similar speakers, but they’re standalone – other than the mobile app used to set them up, they connect to WiFi in the home and operate independently. Google Home does work with Google Cast but, other than that, it is essentially disconnected from any other device in the home. It feels like an Apple home speaker would be more integrated into the ecosystem of devices in the home, becoming one of several outputs for audio, for example, and potentially working together with the Apple TV and/or other devices for whole-home audio. One can also imagine using Siri on phones to trigger music playing on the speaker, for example. Or even using the Siri speaker to trigger playing a TV show on the Apple TV for a child in the other room. I can also imagine using several of these speakers independently to recreate a sort of Sonos whole-home audio system.

HomeKit hardware

Another interesting category is first-party HomeKit hardware. To be honest, I think this category was more likely a year ago, when HomeKit was still struggling to get off the ground, versus today’s much healthier ecosystem. But I still think it’s possible Apple might eventually introduce its own hardware to work as part of the HomeKit system, especially in categories where design and ease of use on third party devices is poor or in areas where the devices would make a meaningful contribution to other aspects of the Apple ecosystem. For example, sensors placed around the home could help trigger lighting and other home automation features through HomeKit.

Having said all this, I continue to believe the smart home space is essentially stuck at the early adopter phase when it comes to these one-off purchases as opposed to managed services. With that in mind, it’s harder to see how Apple could launch products in this category and have a really significant impact on the market unless it also provides some kind of installation and management support. That would obviously be a departure for Apple, whose premise for much of its hardware has always been it just works. But smart home gear is inherently different in nature from standalone hardware products because it needs to be integrated into the home. That means dealing with wiring and other potentially dangerous and intimidating challenges that don’t apply when it comes to phones or laptops.

Augmented reality

Tim Cook has made increasingly enthusiastic remarks about augmented reality over the last couple of years and it seems likely Apple has some kind of play in AR up its sleeve. However, the biggest question is whether it sees the iPhone or some other device as the center of these experiences. We’ve already seen some basic AR features as part of iPhone apps, from an early version of Yelp which superimposed locations of restaurants on a live view of the environment to the more sophisticated merging of the real and virtual worlds in the Pokemon Go app. With dual cameras and the ability to sense depth, the iPhone is certainly capable of more sophisticated augmented reality applications than ever before.

But there are still some categories of augmented reality where a head-mounted device of some kind can provide more advanced functionality and, critically, free your hands to interact with the environment. This could certainly be used for gaming but also be used for educational and other scenarios, too. Apple is reportedly working on at least some head-worn AR devices, though we don’t know yet whether any of these will make it to market. However, it feels like 2017 could well be the year where we see the first mass-market AR devices launch, testing the market for such devices and potentially laying the groundwork for an Apple entry later.

Timing

If I had to guess, I’d say the Siri speaker and additional wearables are the most likely entrants in 2017, while AR feels at least a year or two away. I’m still not 100% convinced Apple should be in the first party home automation hardware business at all. And of course, I’ve said nothing about cars, which seem less likely as a future hardware category today than they did this time last year and, at any rate, would be multiple years away. It’s entirely possible we won’t see a major new hardware product category from Apple at all in 2017 but I suspect we’ll see at least one at some point.