Apple’s Roadmap for iOS

Guessing at a company’s roadmap is always a dangerous venture.  In the case of Apple today and their iOS family of products, it feels less like predicting a roadmap and more like computing a trajectory.  Apple has some serious, game changing strategy already in motion and seeing where they intend to take it seems pretty reliable.  I know that many industry pundits have covered this ground as it has been a very popular topic as of late, but I wanted to add my own voice and viewpoint to the discussion.

Over the past several years Apple has been making a lot of seemingly disconnected and questionable decisions around their purchases, research and product releases.  Each piece, seen individually, makes little sense to the outside observer.  Taken together, however, we are piecing together a picture of what appears to be grand design and careful planning.

Rapidly Apple’s fortunes have shifted from its traditional desktop market (Mac OSX) to its portable device market (iOS.)  This began, innocuously, with the iPod and slowly turned into the iPhone, iPad and, most recently, the AppleTV.  The AppleTV is the really interesting player here as this device in its first iteration was based on OSX but in its second iteration became an iOS product.  Apple actually morphed a product from one line into the other.  Very telling.

The most interesting piece of the iOS puzzle, to me, is the App Store.  The App Store seems like little more than a neat way to funnel end user funds into Apple’s ample pockets and, on the surface, it certainly was a huge success in that area.  However, the App Store represents far more than a simple attempt at increasing profit margins.  No the App Store has brought a paradigm shift to the way that end users acquire, install and manage applications.  This shift is nothing new to the technical world of Linux desktop users who have long had simple software acquisition systems that the App Store mimics but the App Store brings the ease of use of Linux’s package management to the mainstream market and does so with a revenue model that does wonders for Apple at the same time.

The App Store makes the entire process of discovering and acquiring new software nearly painless for their customers which encourages those customers to buy more apps, more often.  Traditionally computer owners buy software very infrequently.  Even with the ease of Internet downloads the rate at which software is purchased is relatively low due to complexity caused by differences between download sites, concerns over compatibility, concerns over security and quality and the need to establish a transactional relationship with the software company to facilitate payment.  The App Store solves all of those issues and also makes finding new software much easier as there is a central repository which can be searched.  By doing this, Apple’s customers are purchasing software at an incredible pace.

Apple has many reasons to look more favorably upon its iOS product family than its more traditional products.  The old Mac lineup is, in reality, just another PC in a commodity market.  While OSX has some interesting features compared to Windows it is hardly a majorly differentiated product and with Linux rapidly cutting into the PC market in the netbook and alternative computing device space there is less and less room for OSX to play in.  The iOS devices, running on Apple’s own A4 processor, offer Apple the unique opportunity to engineer their products from the ground up as a completely controlled vertical stack – they control every significant piece of hardware and software giving them unprecedented control.  This control can be leveraged into awesome stability and integration as well as profit as few outside vendors are looking for their piece of the pie.

A fully integrated hardware and operating system stack also gives Apple’s development partners an opportunity to leverage their skills to the fullest – just as video game console developers know that underpowered consoles will often outperform desktop PCs simply because the developers have an opportunity to really tweak the code just for that one, stable device.  iOS offers this in a different environment.  Unlike developing for Android or Windows Phones, iOS offers a highly stable and well known ecosystem for developers to code against allowing them to leverage more of the platform with less effort.

The iOS devices, being based on a highly efficient operating system and being built on a very low power consumption platform designed for mobility, offer significant “green” advantages over many traditional devices.  This could be Apple’s new niche.  The power user market is all but lost and Apple quietly bowed out of their long-forgotten server market this past January.  This takes Apple to the other side of the spectrum entirely, but one where Apple seems to really understand what is needed and what their market wants.  Rather than being niche, Apple is poised to be a dominant player, and there is no denying that lower power consumption “green” devices will only continue to be important in the future.

In short order, Apple is going to be in a position to control an entire ecosystem ranging from mobile computing platforms, mobile telephony, fixed television-attached media devices and, with only minor effort, desktop computing.  Desktop computing may seem like an odd place for the iOS system to go, but if we really think about what Apple is developing here, it makes perfect sense.  The transition won’t be overnight, but it is sure to come.

The first step of the transition is hard to see but it involved the AppleTV.  The AppleTV 2.0 is an iOS device that is non-mobile working its way into peoples’ homes.  Currently it is designed to function purely as a media center device, but all of the iOS functionality is there, dormant, waiting for the day when Apple decides to release an app interface and AppleTV App Store loaded with apps controlled via wireless remote, BlueTooth keyboard or whatever input device Apple decides to provide for the AppleTV.  The only things keeping the AppleTV from becoming a full fledged iOS-based desktop today is a lack of USB into which to attach keyboard and mouse and Apple’s reluctance to provide a desktop environment and App Store for the AppleTV.  The foundation is there and ready to be activated.

In reality, we are early on in the iOS lifecycle and while the platform that Apple has chosen is very mature for mobile devices it is extremely underpowered for a desktop experience.  Each generation brings more computing power to the platform, however, and in very short order a desktop based on a later revision Apple processor and iOS may easily exceed the average user’s desktop expectations.  Most home users find their desktops today to be significantly overpowered for their basic needs of email, web browsing, watching Netflix and YouTube, etc.  These are tasks for which many people are switching to their iPads already.  In another generation or two of processors we may see an AppleTV-like device that draws only four or five watts of power able to adequately power the average user’s desktop computing needs.

The second step is in the newly added App Store appearing in Mac OSX.  The addition of the App Store to the Mac platform means that the beginning of the transition is underway.  Incumbent Mac users are now being introduced to the concept of finding software, acquiring it and installing it all through a simple, integrated system just as iPhone and iPad users have been using for years now.  Had the App Store and all of its cost and limitations been introduced to users and developers on the Mac first it would have likely been shunned and faded away without real comment.  But today the Mac landscape is far different.

The plan, as I see it, with the Mac platformed App Store is to begin centralizing critical apps for the Mac ecosystem into the App Store.  Over the next two to three years this process is likely to see all major apps move in this direction leaving only smaller, less popular apps out to be handled through the traditional purchase and install system.  Once a critical mass of apps has been reached and the iOS hardware platform has matured to a point where the speed is adequate for daily desktop computing tasks Apple will flip the switch and change out the Mac OSX desktop for a new iOS desktop that is either a sister of the AppleTV or, potentially, they will simply use the AppleTV device itself encouraging Apple users to see the world of desktop computing and media delivery as one – not as unlikely as some might think given the combination of the two so common on iOS mobile devices today.

An iOS desktop could be very attractive to home users.  Many businesses might be willing to jump at the chance to move to well polished, low power consumption devices for their non-power user staff.  Those needing more power might look to use them as little more than thin clients as well.  There are many options around such a low cost device – low cost to purchase and low cost to operate.  As many companies are already forced to implement iOS management for their existing iPad and iPhone devices, adding in iOS desktop devices might be a trivial matter.  Apple has conquered many of the hurdles that it faced with Mac OSX for the iOS platform before they’ve even announced plans to make such a desktop device.

The laptop space, where Apple has a strong foothold today, is possibly the easiest platform to migrate.  The iPad is almost a full fledged laptop today.  All Apple needs to do is to add a hinge and a keyboard and they would have a device that works like an iPad but looks like the Macbook Air.  An easy transition likely to be heralded by Apple and its users alike.

Apple excels at subversive technology.  The iPod and iPhone, and to some extent now the iPad, snuck into the market as media players or phones but emerged as highly mobile computing devices used for all sort of tasks and spurred on by the success of social media.  But they sneakily did one more thing – in only a few years time the iPod Touch went from being a MP3 player and email device to being one of the most popular mobile video game platforms making Nintendo shake and basically removing Sony from the game altogether.  No one bought the iPod Touch with the intent of making it their new, primary video game device, but it happened and the iPod is an excellent video game platform that is only just beginning to see its own potential.  The iPad is following close in its stead.  It is not necessarily that the iOS platforms are the best possible mobile video game devices but that they are purchased for other purposes and are “good enough” for most of the gaming population.  What the Wii wanted to be for consoles, the device that brought non-gamers into the gaming fold, the iPod truly did for mobile gaming.

The AppleTV is now perfectly poised to do the same thing that the iPod did for mobile gaming for the console market.  As more and more game makers focus on the iOS platform it will become increasingly apparent that the AppleTV, sitting already attached to many television monitors all over the world, is a video game console already purchased and ready to go.  What the Wii did in the last generation for the console the AppleTV is ready to do for the next.  Nintendo already proved that the largest segment of the video gaming market is primarily casual gamers who are not significantly concerned with having the latest, most powerful platform or the best games.

The AppleTV could provide an even less expensive gaming console with more features than the Wii that is far more attractive for developers who can utilize the same resources that they use to make games for all of Apple’s other iOS platforms.  Almost overnight, Apple has made the basis for a video gaming ecosystem that can rival nearly any in existence today.  And, of course, in time the AppleTV platform will get more and more powerful – slowly catching up to the more expensive video game consoles making it increasingly eligible as a serious platform contender for hard core console gamers.

Apple has a lot of pokers in the iOS fire but, if executed correctly, the potential is immense.

It will take a few years for Apple to completely phase out the long standing Mac family and users will be resistant, if only for nostalgic reasons, and Apple has a few versions of Mac OSX up their sleeves yet, but I believe that the march towards a unified platform under the iOS banner is inevitable.  iOS represents the future, not only for Apple but for much of the industry.  Lower power consumption, ease of use and a minimum of different parts between many different devices.  I, for one, am very excited to see what Apple can do with such a tightly integrated ecosystem and believe that Apple has more opportunity to do great things with iOS than it ever did with the Mac platform.  This could truly be a dawning of great things for Apple and a paradigm shift for end users.

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