Whither Apple?

About a month back, I wrote a column called “Whither Windows 10,” where I pondered where Microsoft was going with their big new product. Little did I think that, less than a month later, I would feel compelled to write a similar headline for a story on Apple.

Of course, the circumstances are much different. A month ago, Microsoft was about to publicly unveil a number of details about their new OS and had scheduled a press event to do so.

With Apple, of course, no official secrets get revealed until they are intended to be—at an official product launch. But over the last few days, the rumor mill (and press) has been rife with some of the most intriguing discussions about Apple and its future we’ve seen in a very long time.

An Apple car? Seriously?

An Apple Watch that may not offer what the company originally envisioned?

To be fair, Apple is the source of more rumor-based reporting (much of which turns out to be only semi-accurate, or downright inaccurate) than any company in the world. As not only the world’s largest company by market capitalization but also one of the world’s most influential in terms of driving major technology, business and even fashion trends, it’s no surprise everyone seems to want to break the news on what Apple has coming next.

Still, the degree of speculation that seems to be going on right now is at a level of hysteria I haven’t seen in over 25 years of following the company. To be honest, it makes me wonder what exactly is going on.

Even fans of the company have to acknowledge Apple is somewhat notorious for its ability to manipulate the media. While we may not be back in the days of Steve Jobs offering exclusives to Time or Newsweek for cover stories on their new products, the company is famous for getting incredible press coverage even when it does modest speed bumps on an iPad, a Mac or an iPhone.

People love reading about what Apple is planning to do next and the company (and the press) know it and use it to their advantage. If the company hadn’t just completed the most successful and profitable quarter in history, there’s a part of me that wonders if there wasn’t some degree of intentional distraction-creating leaks going on—as if there was some concern about what was coming.

For the record, I’ve said publicly I’m not convinced the Apple Watch will have the same level of impact as the iPad and I’ve even talked about the challenges any wearable vendors would face with the FDA (and its equivalents around the world) if a device’s sensors stepped over the line into a diagnostic medical device. In addition, while the iPhone 6 will continue to sell well for the foreseeable future, I believe the entire mid to higher-end smartphone market will be facing challenges relatively soon. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the least bit concerned about Apple continuing to do incredibly well, but no company can continue on an amazing rate of growth forever. Not even Apple.[pullquote]I think Apple is at a crossroads. There are a number of interesting paths they can choose to take as they move into what I believe will be their next era.[/pullquote]

As for a car, count me in the doubters camp. While there’s no question Apple has the money to do anything they want (why not airplanes or hotels or clothing or hospitals or literally, anything you can imagine?), the hassles and additional challenges associated with the automotive industry don’t seem to be a good match for Apple’s strengths or interests. Training service stations how to fix your cars? Building and keeping years of extra parts available for repairs? Building devices with low profit margins that have average lifetimes over 10 years? Call me crazy, but it doesn’t seem like a good fit.

Facing the end of the 30+ year growth cycle that traditional computing devices (PCs, tablets, and now smartphones) have enjoyed does present a challenge for Apple and all of its largest competitors. As a result, perhaps it’s not surprising to start seeing some rampant speculation on where companies like Apple are headed. In fact, I’m sure this won’t be the last of it. There are some hard questions many vendors need to answer about their future growth opportunities.

While the company is far from being in crisis, I think Apple is at a crossroads. There are a number of interesting paths they can choose to take as they move into what I believe will be their next era. Who knows, maybe it is cars. Regardless, I think 2015 will end up being a pivotal year, as we start to get glimpses into the Apple to come.

Published by

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

49 thoughts on “Whither Apple?”

  1. “As for a car, count me in the doubters camp.”

    Thank you.

    The instant credence such an absurd rumor gets really irritates me. Is there no functional reasoning apparatus left in traditional media?

    Tim Cook is also on record saying Apple won’t go the route of some companies thinking they can build anything, but instead it will maintain laser focus on a few products.

    This would destroy any notion of focus, aiming for a high capital, highly regulated, low margin business that has completely differently business model than anything Apple does.

    It seems like a mistake for Apple run by any sane individual. I think Tim Cook is a very sane man.

    1. As I said, we seem to be at an interesting point with Apple and looks like we are about to see a lot of rampant speculation.

    2. Quite right. There is absolutely no possibility that Apple is going to attempt to manufacture anything like a traditional car. And most of the serious press knows that and isn’t implying otherwise.

      From that certainty, there extends a continuum of increasingly possible car-related projects Apple could be working on.

      Cars are far more complex than they need to be today, and if you listen to Asymcar, a common theme is that they over-serve many transportation needs. Innovation and disruption could come from a re-think and simplification of what exists today, especially for city dwellers who don’t need a 5,000lb box to drive around, but that 5,000lb box remains the most appealing choice for many when considerations of taste and fashion are factored in.

      The traditional music-listening paradigm before the iPod was a stereo system, with components, a cabinet, space-consuming media, and large separate speakers that a discerning listener would need to place carefully and obtrusively away from the corners of a room. Since the iPod this has almost disappeared, and today’s listening paradigm is a portable device with one’s personal, possibly fussy, choice of headphones attached. The iPod and iTunes catalyzed this change: miniaturized the footprint and the cost of our music-listening infrastructure and increased its flexibility.

      Cars are similarly over-sized, over-weight, over-specified and inefficient for most of the needs they address. If Apple thinks they could do something like this for cars, then it would be an opportunity large enough to be worth investigating.

      I could imagine a greatly simplified, modular-constructed, electric-powered small car that would have relatively few parts, that could be designed to provide efficient city transportation at a reasonable cost. Knowing that people like Ive would be involved (and Cue would surely have decision-making influence), it would not be a boring transportation pod but would have to be a re-invention of sorts, perhaps resulting in a great-looking, fun-to-drive, medium-range, quick, efficient, small, flexible-interior-space device with state-of-the-art active safety features and, say, a ten-to-fifteen-year time horizon.

      Will Apple ever produce something like this? It’s probably unlikely, considering all the various impediments to success, but it seems possible.

      Might they be working on the first phases of R&D for something like this? That doesn’t seem at all un-reasonable, and it would explain the rumors.

      1. Well said. Viewing this through the lens of Would-Apple-Make-a-Car-Like-the-Auto-Industry-Does-Now, is foolish. Of course they would not. Apple would only do this if they can offer something better, something simpler, which would almost certainly be very different from current autos. Reminds me of the iPhone, when people said Apple couldn’t/wouldn’t make a phone. Well, Apple didn’t actually make a phone, they put a Mac in your pocket.

  2. Apple car, if they come up with one, will go the way of Apple’s Newton. May be they are working on electronic components in cars rather than reinventing cars. Car manufacturing is a totally different ball game. A lot of rumor went around about Apple making television. Apple car might go the way of its television.

  3. Of course Apple is working on a car internally, for many excellent reasons: protective patents, technology push, talent engagement, corporate challenge, component invention, software development. Will Apple produce a car? I doubt it.

    Communication will trump location.

    1. Completely agree…but I think we’re entering an era where everything Apple even thinks about is going to get lots of discussion.

      1. Absolutely. Update: Alex Lindsay on MacBreak Weekly just now commented that his buddies at Apple report that they see insanely great inventions that never make it out of the lab. A car is no stretch.

        1. It is very hard for the unimaginative to imagine what the imaginative are imagining. As an admitted unimaginative, I leave the imagining to the imaginative. Imagine that.

          1. Obviously. But it matters which when. Dinosaurs with better brains rather than with bigger bodies.

          2. For me, the interesting news of the past few days has been Apple’s collection of talent: Anand Lal Shimpi & Chris Been. What will be their purpose? Are there more to come? Is this a wind of change for Apple into something new in media? Does it tie into Steve’s comment that they’d cracked the TV— Apple TV question, which we have heard nothing about since?

            Maybe it is just tied into ‘categories within their current set of products’ extending them even further into our imaginations.
            Namaste and care,

        2. I’ll take the WSJ over Alex Lindsay any day. And they have a good track record when it comes to Apple news / rumors. If you read the WSJ report, the guy who was the lead engineer for iPod / iPhone (Steve Zadesky I think is his name), he’s been give the green light to assemble a 1000-person team for this new automotive project. And this happened some time last year.

          So this is far from being a hobby stage. They’re definitely working on something in the automotive side of things. Until then I’m just going to enjoy whatever products Apple has right now because I think it’ll be awhile before we see the fruits of this.

          1. I thought all the watch rumors, 100 person team, etc, were wrong or just “leaks” to wind up the competition, although my obviously limited imagination still sees this as a “bag of hurt”.

  4. Jobs’ skill set is all about focusing on a single thing until the product, project, task at hand is done at a level of perfection that few people strive for. What made Cook a great supply chain manager is his ability to keep track of several complex moving parts at the same time, making sure that they are all working together like precision clockwork. Cook will gravitate towards what his skills are suited for; Apple’s product line will diversify to an extent never dreamed of under Jobs. (Whether cars will be one of those new products, who knows?) Apple will still be a haven for Jobsian serial laser focusers, but they will all be working under Cook’s careful orchestration. This is how Apple will extend the growth that everyone is saying has to inevitably peter out.

  5. There is no reason Apple couldn’t make/own the brains of a car.
    That can be fitted into any car and run all the systems.
    Fly-by-wire if you like…
    All the database, compute, power management, ABS – and communications and entertainment.
    These could/should all be an integrated system.
    And it would absolutely make sense for a computer company to get involved/take over this aspect of auto design/manufacture.
    Particularly if smart/self-driving cars are the next big thing.

    1. This is where I’ve arrived as well.

      I can imagine they might have initially wanted to just simply beam iOS to a car’s larger screen. Thought it would be quick and easy. Instead it’s taking years and years. It naturally leads them to investigate why.

      And what they find is CarPlay is a solution to the wrong problem. It’s a band-aid for a bone disease. The problem to be solved is a broken technology layer much earlier in the funnel.

      But instead of making a car and maybe selling a Honda Civic-like 300,000+ cars, they make a technology platform all cars could use — approx. 75 million vehicles annually. And Apple can leave all the legacy, profit-stripping cruft to the car manufacturers.

      Now, if the auto industry doesn’t buy in to Apple’s vision, then maybe Apple takes that work and makes a car or buys a BMW/Mini and/or Tesla.

      1. Somewhat analogous to Apple’s venture into phones — first, integrating iTunes onto existing (Motorola) phones, then (Apple’s engineers) realizing that they could do way better than what they were having to deal with.

        1. Edit: I just read your comment below, Scott: “CarPlay is the new Motorola Rokr”. So yeah, that’s what I meant.

      2. Beemer would be too entrenched in its own hubris, just like their drivers. If a U.S. Company doesn’t take up the challenge, VW might. Musk may or may not come to the party. It could make them a major player eventually but their distribution is still tiny. It would be like Apple going with a small regional carrier originally with the iPhone I think.

  6. Given all the wild rumours that keep flying about Apple, I think it’s important to reject those that stem from unreliable sources, but at the same time, to carefully consider those that can be confirmed.

    Recently, I’m leaning towards considering new hires as clues worth seriously thinking about.


    Sure sounds suspicious that a former CEO of Mercedes Benz R&D would now be working on Macs.

          1. Well, apparently not. Just because the person is from the auto industry doesn’t mean they are making a car any more than Iovine meant they were starting a record label or Arhendts meant they were getting into clothing. Apple has made a foray into the auto industry already with CarPlay. I don’t know that this hire is related to that, but it does indicate Apple has other interests in the auto industry than making a car.


          2. Apple didn’t just hire Iovine, did they? Apple didn’t acquire Burberrys, did they? You’re not making much sense by making these comparisons.

          3. I think your choice of examples is exceptionally bad, but I think I get your point that hiring an Auto executive should not be immediately interpreted as proof that Apple is going to make cars.

            That’s not what I was saying.

            I do think though is that this hire merits serious consideration.

    1. I agree. The hirings seem to go beyond Apple and auto manufacturers just pulling from the same talent pool of mechanical engineers. The quantity and skill level indicates a physical product is in the works and a desire to understand how an industry works. They aren’t being hired to work on iPads.

      And given the timing of the stories — Friday, after markets closed and with a Monday holiday — seems like it’s plausible this information was a controlled leak by Apple and filled in by some independent reporting.

      There’s smoke. I don’t think it means minivans, but it means something. CarPlay always seemed too small for Apple. CarPlay is the new Motorola Rokr.

      Maybe when Jobs said PCs are trucks, he meant it literally.

      1. Yes. And at the same time, I respect the comments from those who think that a car is not in Apple’s DNA.

        The thing is, the Apple today is no longer Jobs’ Apple. It is now Tim Cook’s Apple. And the strengths of the company are no longer restricted to software and computer hardware, but also include sophisticated supply chain management, aluminum carving, semiconductor design and I’m sure a lot more.

        The question in 2015 is, will Apple start utilizing these strengths for new products outside of their comfort zone. I sense that Tim Cook is willing to do just that b

        1. Agree completely. Tim Cook, is the perfect CEO to take the institutional skill set that Steve Jobs nurtured and apply it to a wider range of products and markets.

          They’re reported to have talked with Magna Steyr, a contract manufacturer who includes Mercedes (G-Class) and BMW (MINI) among its clients. Apple need not own auto assembly plants, it’ll just be like the iPhone production model.

          1. If Chrysler is desperate enough or has any imagination, they could partner with apple and go from Cingular to at least equal first carrier.

        2. If they produce an iTransport, it will no closer resemble or behave like a car, than the iPhone was a phone. From a computer in your pocket, to you in a computer. The watch is also an app. My limited imagination can’t see personal transport as an app in a new platform, but maybe they can.

          1. Maybe.

            However, the one thing that I contemplating is that Tim Cook’s Apple may break out of “computing” and into physical goods. That is, I believe, what Tim Cook is particularly good at.

    2. Especially when a former (?) apple enemy and pusher of Flash appears from the darkness to demo the watch which was just a rumor till that point.
      Interesting times.

  7. Apple is certainly in the car game. Whether it will be the cars themselves or the gizmos that form part of the dashboard only those working on it know. At least leave the future sayers to themselves.

    Anyway if it is to be the cars then who says they would be sold and not rented. After all, it is all possible when speculating.

  8. “Training service stations how to fix your cars?”
    –EVs require far less service the Conventional ICEs.

    “Building and keeping years of extra parts available for repairs?”
    ––All that is needed is an inventory for all parts, corresponding CAD data, a capacious hard drive, and a 3D printer. Items needed: a computer + 3D printer (which I’m sure apple has). Nuff said.

    “Building devices with low profit margins that have average lifetimes over 10 years?”
    ––different business model for different products. They will increase their profit margins not by selling a new car every year, but by selling upgrade packages to older vehicles prior to form factor upgrades. For example, i have a 2009 Tesla model S but i want a 2015 with all the bells and whistles without having to buy another Tesla; so, Tesla offers me an upgrade package where they take my old model S into one of its shop, and rigs it to the equivalence of their newest model. Different price and upgrade packaging depending on how old my car is from the current model year. If the form factor for the model S changes in 2016, then i am limited to that model year. I can upgrade my 2009 to a 2010, or a 2009 to a 2015; one-model-yr $2,500, 2-model-yr upgrade $5,000, and so on. This not only retains customers, but effectively removes a profit ceiling from all vehicles new and old, because the price of upgrades aren’t fixed.

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