What’s Next for Apple?

Not too long ago, I was often the only person in a café using a Mac notebook computer.

These days, hipster coffee houses like Baked can sometimes feel like sit-down Apple Stores, with table after table of blank faces lit by the cool luminescence of MacBook screens.

(I’m actually uncomfortable with the Apple logo’s newfound ubiquity. I’ve taken to covering it with sticker-based artwork from Gelaskins.com.)

Since it introduced the iMac in 1998, Apple’s rise to predominance in the world of technology has been meteoric.

The company’s former CEO and legendary co-founder, Steve Jobs, is largely credited with Apple’s growth and success.

His vision drove the original iMac to market, and then the company’s subsequent watershed products: the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad.

These new devices in turn drove the company’s success and literally turned the computer technology industry upside down.

But with Jobs now having stepped down for health reasons, no landmark new hardware product on the horizon, and competitors nipping at the company’s heels, what does the future hold for Apple?

The better part of the answer to that question can be found in the company’s new CEO, Tim Cook.

Where as Jobs was a visionary leader, a sort of philosopher king, Cook is more about cool confidence and smooth sailing.

The two have been long-time collaborators, having worked together to rebuild Apple since the first iMac hit the scene. In a sense, they were a sort of yin and yang.

Jobs was clearly the showman and his focus was on product.

Cooks was the operations man. He focused on how Apple, as a company, worked.

So he’s been handling the more mundane stuff like supply chains, warehouses, and factories for Apple.

This sounds boring, but it’s been an essential element in Apple’s success: he’s been working to reduce waste and increase efficiency throughout Apple’s operations.

If Jobs has been all about what a product is, Cook’s input has been on how it works and ties into a larger system.

So as Apple’s new product trend flatlines, Cook is probably a good follow-up to Jobs.

He’ll likely emphasize and improve that cohesive user experience that Apple’s product line revolves around.

Apple has demonstrated that technology is not only about the device, but about how we can enjoy using it.

It’s one of the key reasons that the iPhone and iPad are so popular: there’s a supporting software and service ecosystem that makes them relatively easy to use.

Take iTunes.

It’s not just an app.

It’s a method for researching, acquiring, managing, distributing and consuming movies, music, and television shows across Apple’s entire product line.

I’d wager that Cook has had a tremendous amount of influence over the operational nature of the ecosystem that underlies Apple’s products.

And that will continue to be his focus. And it will become Apple’s.

The introduction of iCloud (Apple’s internet-based document syncing service) this fall will be the first step into this expanding vision.

Apple wants to provide us a method for managing not just media, but all of our digital assets across all of our devices.

But that’s super boring stuff.

And worse, it won’t drive sales.

Consumers buy cool stuff, not abstract services.

While Cook’s Apple will probably be about the way things work, the company has to also continue to focus on producing and selling the things themselves.

The risk under Cook is that Apple may fail to feed that innovative flame that burned white hot under Steve Jobs.

In fact, it’s already cooling, the competition is catching up.

Android phones are neck-and-neck with the iPhone now.

Some notebook manufacturers are getting close to matching the combination of sex appeal and raw power that is the latest MacBook Air.

The iPad, of course, still clearly dominates the tablet market, but for how much longer? (Only so long as Apple can manage to litigate the tar out of its competitors, it seems.)

The risk right now is that, without Jobs, the company may forget how to produce kick-ass stuff.

Cook will likely successfully shepherd the company and its operations into the future. But Apple’s disruptive approach to technology may be diminished under his more cautious eye.

It’s unlikely there’ll be a time in the near future when I’m the only person in a café with a Mac notebook.

But we may again reach a day when the ubiquity of the Apple logo dies off enough that I can peel off these gelaskins.

Originally published in the Yukon News on September 30, 2011.