Where does Apple go from here?

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Hear the one about two guys who started a computer company in their garage? Of course you have: Today, one such company is estimated to be the most valuable one in the world (or pretty close to it, depending on the fluctuations of the stock market). And there’s a good reason for that, as I discovered recently on an Acela from New York to Boston: If you were an alien who just landed on our planet and somehow hopped on that train, you’d assume that all humans constantly consult some sort of oracle emblazoned with a fruit logo.

The history of Apple has been well chronicled, and the story of the two Steves has taken on mythic proportions. But the story has only just begun as far as I’m concerned. Apple’s value is now north of half-a-trillion dollars. (To paraphrase the late Senator Everett Dirksen, a trillion here and a trillion there and pretty soon you’re talking serious money.) So, as Jed Bartlet, might say, the question for Apple is: What’s next?

If you’re screaming “television sets!”, calm down. Yes, even you, Wall Street Analyst Who Shall Not Be Named. The entire television-set business is worth about $30 billion. That’s it. Even assuming Apple takes all of that, it’s hardly the type of revenue that Apple needs to fuel the future. That’s the kind of money the company keeps under the mattress for a rainy day purchase or two.

I don’t like to predict what Apple might or might not do on any given Tuesday. In fact, those that do make such predictions are almost always more wrong than right. I will venture to say that Apple must seek new opportunities in other markets. What I do know is that, in the past, Apple invented new places for itself to go that we didn’t even know existed, which is what makes predictions so difficult and why prognosticators often turn out to be wrong.

It is said that after conquering all of the then-known world, Alexander the Great wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer. In a world where the Apple ecosystem has permeated the hearts, minds and wallets of people everywhere, what happens when everyone has an iPhone or iPad? How many product revisions will consumers continue to purchase? How many new product categories can be created that can spur growth as iPad did?

It wasn’t that long ago that a popular mantra in business was that no one got fired for buying IBM. A decade ago, Microsoft was viewed as nearly invincible in the digital age. Today’s technology industry is moving at a pace never seen before. Companies with literally no revenue and fewer than a dozen employees are bought for a billion dollars or more. It is in this world that Apple must look to a future of continued relevance and strive for the—ahem—“NeXT” big thing.

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