What opportunities are there for Apple during the pandemic?

Tim Cook talked up Apple’s ability to innovate during a pandemic, so what else might the company come up with to help ease our quarantined lives?

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As a rule, Apple is a company that is judicious about what opportunities it takes, and which ones it leaves to others. The company is famous for saying “no” to way more ideas than it says “yes” to, with the understanding that this process makes the products it does choose to build that much better.

But that doesn’t mean that the company never misses a trick. On the contrary, there are more than a few markets where an Apple presence would be a welcome one, especially in places where the company can lend its considerable heft to providing either a strong example, or meaningful competition.

And, as Tim Cook pointed out during last week’s financial results call, the current world situation has opened the door to new challenges and new opportunities, as we’re forced to innovate to find solutions to the problems we all face today. Given that situation, it seems like there are definitely some pandemic-influenced areas where Apple could make a significant difference.

Bringing new meaning to the TV “remote”

Working, going to school, socializing: all of these things have gone remote in the past seven months. Calls via Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime have become the norm for seeing other people, and while it might be a poor substitute for real face-to-face contact, it’s what we’ve got.

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Video conferencing with FaceTime and other software is now the norm. Is this an area where Apple sees opportunity?

While I’ve advocated in the past that Apple could stand to improve FaceTime from a software perspective, there’s also an argument for the company expanding its video conferencing capabilities in terms of hardware as well. Having partaken in more Zoom calls than I can count over the past half a year, one thing that I see a lot of people struggling with is video conferencing in a setting when there are more people than fit comfortably around a single device, whether it be an iPad or even a 27-inch iMac.

So perhaps it would help if the company could find a way to implement video conferencing capabilities to a device with an even larger display: the Apple TV. While Apple certainly wouldn’t be the first company to try and bring video conferencing to the living room, it does have a number of advantages that it could leverage: not only its own FaceTime technology, but also an existing app platform which could easily provide access to other third-party apps, like Zoom or Google Meet.

This would, of course, require some sort of camera capability for the Apple TV, either by adding a functional USB port to the device, or by wirelessly connecting to the camera on an external device like an iPhone or iPad. But a HomePod or HomePod mini might make an ideal speaker and microphone assembly for such a purpose.

Home is where the kit is

With all of us spending more time in our homes, many of us—especially the tech enthusiasts—have been investing in and experimenting with smart home technology. After all, if home is where we’re forced to be, we might as well make it as pleasant an experience as possible.

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Apple has HomeKit, but the company could instantly take a leadership role in smarthome tech with its own devices.

Personally, spending all this time with smart home tech has led me to one inescapable conclusion: much of it could be a lot better. There are numerous standards, which range from different software compatibility issues to requiring hardware base stations that have to be connected to your network. While Apple’s foray into HomeKit aimed to provide a centralized system for dealing with smart home tech, it has remained a mixed bag, with many devices having uneven support for the framework.

Though I hope that Apple’s participation in the Project Connected Home over IP will lead to better unity among smart home devices, one way the company could help improve the market is leading by example. With Apple’s signature melding of software, hardware, and services, it’s positioned perfectly to design smart home devices that demonstrate the best of what the technology could offer. Selling, say, a smart plug, a wireless video camera, and perhaps even a smart door lock that it could offer as a complete connected home solution would not only allow it to put its message of privacy and security front and center, but also pave the way for third-party device makers.

Pandemic potpourri

There are plenty of other ventures I’d like to see Apple engage in to help us cope with our new reality: everything from—as my colleague Jason Snell has suggested—a VPN service to help us secure our home networks all the way to some more practical use for all that augmented reality tech it keeps talking up: say, a way to enhance our ability to feel like we’re in a shared place with people who are far away.

But new products don’t happen quickly, and while seven months of a pandemic might seem like ages to us, it’s a pretty short timeframe for a company like Apple, especially given that it too has to adapt to a different reality of working environments.

That said, don’t give up hope. In addition to Tim Cook's bullish feeling last week, on innovation in the time of coronavirus, my poring over Apple's latest financial statement yielded one interesting (to me, anyway) data point: Apple spent 20 percent more on its research and development in fiscal year 2020 than it did in the year prior. Clearly the wheels at Cupertino are turning...even if, for now, they aren’t at Cupertino.

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