Messages From The Future: The Decline of Apple

I’m sure you’ve had your own debates with the “Apple is about to die” crowd. I’ve had those too. Except that being from the future, of course I’m the only one who actually knows what I’m talking about. And yet even though the future is not always rosy for Apple, even though some of these people sometimes have a point, they still piss me off just like they did the first time I was here.

Usually the argument centers around the tired meme that Apple has nothing significantly visionary or profitable to jump to that comes close to the potential of the iPhone, which of course supposedly means that Apple is going to die under its size and obsessive and unsustainable inclination to polish and “perfect” in the face of speedier, less precious, competition.

But that is so not how it goes down.

The other day Marco Arment read about Viv the AI virtual assistant , still being developed by creators of Siri. This, in particular, he told me years from now, after we’d met online which hasn’t happened yet (Hi Marco – you dropped it in the potato salad – remember I said that), coupled with highly cited reports of the AI efforts of Google and Facebook, inspired his first post on the topic of this possible kink in Apple’s armor. It was about then that he, and a handful of others, came to their conclusion; one that was not too far off from what actually happened.

Though it wasn’t quite as simple as “Apple showing worryingly few signs of meaningful improvement or investment in…big-data services and AI…”, nor as some had suggested, “When the interface becomes invisible and data based, Apple dies”.

Actually interfaces remained visible, tactile and exceptionally alive and well in the future. AI (via natural language interfacing) did not herald the death of the visual or tactile interface.  We used each for different things and in different places. Trust me – there are still a million reasons you’ll want to see and touch your interfaces, and maybe more importantly, a million places in which you still don’t want to sound like a dork talking to your virtual assistant.  Even in the future.

But there was some truth floating within the “big-data services” thread.

But there was more going on here than the advance of AI. There was also the ongoing fragmentation of your platforms.

Apple mastered the hardware/software marriage. With rare exception, Apple exceeded in virtually any device category they ventured into. So you might argue that so long as there were devices to build and software to make for it, even if it was indeed powered by advanced AI, Apple, with resources beyond any other company, stood a chance. But there was more going on here than the advance of AI.

There was also the ongoing fragmentation of your platforms.

20 years ago most of you still had one computer: a desktop. 15 years ago you probably had two, including a laptop.  10 years ago you added a smartphone and a “smart” TV. 5 years ago you added a tablet. Last year you added a watch. Now you have six computing devices plus peripherals and are only a few years from adding the first real VR platforms (incidentally real VR catches all the currently uncertain silicon valley trenders, and mobile hypeists off-guard. VR is so not this unbelievably temporary, phone-based, turn-your-head-to-look-another-direction ridiculousness. What a joke. That’s the equivalent of the 1998-chose-your-ending interactive CD-ROM, or red and blue 3D glasses. Trust me, speaking from the future – your phone didn’t become much “VR” anything. Took a lot more hardware. If you’re investing, focus on in-home solutions and content creators, that’s where it all went down in the future. Another post.)

And do you think this platform fragmentation will stop? (Spoiler: it doesn’t.) Having to remember to put your device in your pocket is totally kludgy, you can see that even now, right? That you have to manage where all your various form factors are and independently charge, set up, maintain and connect them all, is grossly unwieldy, right?

You should know this, because it has been commonly theorized by now, that computers will continue to get cheaper and more powerful so as to become ubiquitous. In everything. Not just the so called internet of things, but the interconnection of EVERYTHING. And indeed, that happened. Exponentially. And yet few were ready. Businesses were disrupted and died.

Computers became part of almost everything. Seriously, for example, computers were in fish. And for that matter your toilet became a massively parallel processing platform…

Seriously, for example, computers were in fish. And for that matter your toilet became a massively parallel processing platform… I’m not kidding, 1.84 YottaFLOP power flushers.  Everything that touched it, and went into it, was measured, DNA-decoded, and analyzed in a million ways.  And this, more than any other advance in medicine, lead to quantum advances in health care and longevity. Who knew. There was a toilet company on Forbes Top 100 US Companies list.  No, really.  Though Apple never made a toilet.

Aside from your watch (and a headset which eventually you didn’t need anyway), you didn’t carry anything. Everything was a potential display, even the air, when it was dark enough. My Apple Watch was still the last and only device I carried with me (I posted about this before – it is laughable that people today think Apple Watch has no future. Oh man, just you wait.) But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This platform fragmentation, and not just AI, and not the feared loss of interface, was what ultimately changed things for Apple. Suddenly – there were thousands of device form factors everywhere. A virtual fabric. Rampant commoditization. Experience democratization.

In hindsight, it became clear that what Apple required to be at its best was a market limitation in consumer’s access to devices. Limited form factors, limited production and distribution. These limitations, which were common during the PC and mobile eras, allowed Apple to qualitatively differentiate itself. To polish and make something insanely great – in contrast to the others. To design a noticeably superior experience.

But the more the device ecosystem fragmented, the harder it became for Apple to offer uniquely valuable and consistent experiences on top of all those infinitely unique functions and form factors. It just became unmanageable. I mean Apple had an impact for sure. Companies knew design mattered. And Apple went down in history as the company that made all that so.

Your six devices became upwards of fifteen devices, at which point I think most of us just stopped counting. And the number kept growing so fast. The car was a big one. Yeah, Apple did a car. A few actually. The car was perfect for Apple then because there were still significant market limitations in that category. And Apple could focus on the qualitative experience. Later, as the dust settled, the watch, being the last device we needed to carry with us, also served as a different kind of market limitation – a focal point for Apple’s strengths.

the idea of a “device” of any specific, personalized sort had begun to lose meaning

But as device fragmentation continued to explode, as the hardware market massively commoditized, the idea of a “device” of any specific, personalized sort had begun to lose meaning. In the future, the term “device” sounds much the way “mainframe” or “instamatic” might sound to you today. Quaint, old; it’s just not a relevant concept anymore. Everything was a device. Focus instead shifted to the services that moved with you. Which was part of Apple’s problem.

Like Facebook, Apple, the wealthiest company in the world at the time, did a good job buying its way into various service categories (including AI), and innovating on some. Apple had a huge finance division, they had media and content production, utilities, but then so did other companies by then. Ultimately, none of it was in Apple’s sweet spot.

Without discrete devices, it was services and systems that became consumers’ constant. I hope you can see that when this happens, it fundamentally changes Apple’s proposition, the so-called perfect marriage of hardware and software itself becomes an antiquated paradigm.

No, Apple did NOT die, but became some significant degree less a focal point for all of us. And yet… maybe now armed with this knowledge, they can change how things played out.

In the meantime I’m watching the toilet sector. And I plan to invest heavily.