The Apple of the future

During the last several weeks, I’ve been rewatching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine from start to finish. While the TV show has held up well for the most part in the 15 years since it premiered, I was struck by a peculiar thought when I recently watched a time travel episode that saw several characters transported to Earth in the year 2024. Technology that was—from the perspective of TV show writers in 1995—futuristic ended up looking, well, primitive compared to what we take for granted today. That’s how much things have changed in just over a decade.

It’s not that surprising, either. Our vision of the future is constantly in flux, informed by our perception of the present. In the 1950s, the future was full of jet packs and flying cars. In the 1990s, we thought everything in 2024 would be LEDs and CRT monitors.

So I’m guessing that Forrester Research’s recent report painting a picture of the Apple of 2013 will look just as archaic five years from now. The 14-page document lays out one possible future for the company, extrapolated from Apple’s recent developments and current direction. I’m not saying that there isn’t some accuracy in what the analysts predict, but let’s put it this way: if it was so easy to figure out what Apple will do in the future, then we probably wouldn’t all be so in awe of what Steve Jobs and company manage to accomplish on a regular basis.

Also, we would all be filthy stinking rich.

Of course, we at Macworld have done our own fair-share of peering into the crystal ball. Late last year I was asked for some prognostications about 2008, and I obliged. While two out of the three have already come true (and the third looks to be fulfilled in the next couple weeks), they’re not exactly what you might call “bold predictions.” Actually, they’re about one step above guessing that Steve Jobs is going to wear a black turtleneck and jeans to the next keynote event. I know: my powers of clairvoyance often amaze even myself.

Forrester’s somewhat more ambitious report describes several “pillars” of what they see as Apple’s 2013 existence, most of which focus on the idea of the digital home—a wheel of networked devices with Apple at its hub. Steve has spoken of the digital hub for years now and the philosophy has informed Apple’s forays into music, video, photos, and the Web.

But the report seems to largely make two kinds of predictions: those that are, to us who follow Apple closely anyway, blindingly obvious (the iTunes Store evolving to handle other sorts of contents, or the Apple TV gaining more features) and those that veer more towards the ridiculous end of the spectrum (Apple moving into the home installation market or starting to make digital picture frames and clock radios).

In terms of a future full of Apple devices, look at the moves Apple has made into the home so far. Its attempt at creating an iPod speaker system, the iPod Hi-Fi, never managed to rise above the crowd of competing devices, and even Steve Jobs conceded that the first version of the Apple TV was a failure. And I disagree with Forrester’s assessment that Apple will incorporate Blu-ray or a DVR into the Apple TV because I think Steve Jobs views the future of television as video you download from the iTunes Store—no extra media or cables required.

But more generally, think of the design trends of the Mac mini, Airport Extreme, and Apple TV: small boxes that aren’t covered with buttons or distracting lights and are designed to be stacked out of sight. Filling your home with a network of digital picture frames and clock radios doesn’t seem to me to be the Apple way.

Forrester also suggests that providing an in-house installation team is the logical extension of Apple’s Genius Bar customer support, which I find difficult to believe. Again, it’s a matter of simplicity: Apple has always made a point of creating technology that is easy for everyone to set up. Think of the original iMac (take it out of the box, plug it in, turn it on) or the fact that you can activate your iPhone via iTunes. The whole point of Apple’s technology is that you don’t need anybody to help you, because it would be like asking someone to help you turn on your TV or open your window.

I keep coming back to this—Steve Jobs’s Thoreau-esque tendency towards simplification. Where Forrester sees a proliferation of “clock radio” and digital picture frame devices, I can’t help but think that Jobsian approach is more about technology not being ostentatious. This picture of Steve from 1982 sums it up for me. While I’m sure his life is hardly as uncluttered now as it was then, Steve hasn’t abandoned his tenets of simplicity and elegance. Apple continues to be about creating technology that’s so easy you don’t even notice you’re using it.

Forrester’s report—like any prognostication really—is somewhere between right and wrong. Predicting the future is not an exact science—heck, it’s not any kind of science. In a world where the weatherman often can’t give a simple yes or no answer to a question like “Is it going to rain tomorrow?” the idea of guessing what a company—a notoriously unpredictable company, at that—will look like five years from now is an exercise in futility.

Could Apple do the things that Forrester suggests? Almost certainly: in fact, many of the things that the report predicts are well within the company’s reach today. But when it comes to Apple, the interesting questions never begin with “could they…”, but rather with “would they…”. Apple likes to choose its battles carefully, and it likes to make things that delight and surprise people. Would anyone in 2002 have predicted that Apple would make the iPhone—much less the subtle nuances of how it works or what it would look like? I doubt it. So, don’t be too surprised when the next big thing out of Apple is something that nobody predicted. After all, that’s just the way we like it.

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