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Apple Innovation in Content Consumption Technology

A fascinating blog article came out a few days ago in CultOfMac titled, surprisingly, Why Apple is Done Inventing New Devices.  Not the title you'd expect from a very pro-Apple blog focused exclusively on Apple devices.

I happen to think that the article's conclusions are all wrong.  But the article is still a must-read.

The article makes two basic points.  First, Apple reinvented itself in the last 90's not as a computing company but as a "content consumption technology" company.  Just as Microsoft defines itself around software, Google around advertising, etc., Apple at the time defined itself around content consumption, and this drove the development of the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad and so on. 

Second, the author claims that because of this, Apple is done creating new devices:  "...that’s why Apple is done creating whole new platforms. There will be nothing in the coming decade equivalent in newness to the iPod, iPhone and iPad."  He goes on to say that Apple may come out with a TV, but that now that Apple's delivered its existing product line, we don't need any new technology to consume content.

The first point is brilliantly expressed.  This second point, I believe, is all wrong.

In a minute I'll speculate about content consumption technologies still to be invented or productized effectively, and show that Apple and others are working on them now.  But first, it's important to understand what really makes Apple great in content consumption innovation.  The CultOfMac article makes the point but doesn't really understand how deep it goes.

Seeing the future of content consumption technology

At the end of the summer in 1985, just about 26 years ago to the day, I was at dinner with Bill Gates.  (No, he didn't invite me out to pick my brain. I was a summer programmer at Microsoft, and he had us all over to his house.)  He was talking about what was then a radical idea - the move of movie and music content to computers.  At the time he thought the future was CDROMs.

Now, it's important to recognize the context of the discussion.  The Internet was not yet supporting browsing. E-mail was running half on real-time networks such as ARPAnet and TELENET and half over phone-line USENET connections.  Software was distributed over 3.5" disks, and CDs were just starting to replace records and cassettes for music.  It was a radical thought in 1985 that media would move to computers.  Music fans were concerned that digitizing music would hurt quality, computer storage was nowhere near what was needed for video, and there was no reliable distribution.  But Bill Gates was investing heavily in digital media, and believed that CDROMs were the future.

A few years later the Internet as most people know it would start to take off.  Music and movies went digital and on-line. Microsoft hit a low point when it became clear that they hadn't sufficiently predicted the Internet, and they had to play catch-up.

My point is this:  One of the world's brilliant thinkers had correctly predicted the computerization of media consumption, and had simply failed to predict the changes in technology that would revolutionize how that media consumption would happen.

Five years or so later Creative and others pegged the idea of devices for digital media consumption.  But they implemented the infrastructure wrong and didn't understand the effect of the Internet on music distribution and purchasing.  Again, they had correctly predicted the move of digital content consumption to dedicated devices, but had failed to predict the other changes in technology that would revolutionize how media delivery and purchasing would happen.

But a few years after that Apple got both right, and the iPod revolutionized the world of media consumption.

Without belaboring the point, I think that the same is true of the iPhone and the iPad.  I was a proud smartphone user before anyone heard of smartphones, back when the Nokia Communicator series was the only game in town.  But while Nokia was working on phone-as-computer, Apple jumped to phone-as-media-device.  And we all know about various attempts at tablet computers, all of which focused on being full-scale computers and not on media consumption. But Apple focused on media consumption and seems to have gotten the iPad right.

Bottom line, it's really hard to see the future of content consumption technology.  Lots of smart people have seen some of the picture but not all of it, and meanwhile, Steve Jobs and Apple repeatedly been able to see the whole picture of content consumption, from purchasing to hearing, from music and movies to apps and streaming, and assemble technology that works together.

So when someone says he thinks that existing technology answers all the needs of content consumption, he's making a big mistake, a mistake that lots of smart people before him have made, but a mistake nonetheless.  Technology for content consumption is no more likely to be static with iPhones and iPads than it was with computer screens and CDROMs.

What the future of content consumption technology might hold

So what might the future of content consumption technology hold in store?  Here are just a few thoughts:

1) Eyeglass-based heads-up displays.  These have been worked on for years, and not yet gotten right. It's harder than it seems - the images on the two lenses have to be 100% in sync or it'll confuse our brains and give us headaches.  But lots of companies are working on it and we expect some decent products will reach market in the upcoming 2 years.  And Apple's clearly researching the area, as we can see from this patent application.  Wouldn't a high-quality eyeglass display be a good way to watch movies?

2) Devices with projectors:  Pico-projector technology is getting better, and is very close to ready to be embedded in cellphones and other portable devices.  Apple's known to be working on this one too.  The strongest companies actually creating this technology is Texas Instruments, MicroVision, FoxLink, STMicroElectronics and bTendo.  People talk about it mainly for business users making presentations, but wouldn't this be a good way to watch movies as well?

3) Next: Holographic displays? Wristwatch displays?  ...

Bottom line, Apple's success is being able to see new ways that we can consume media content. What really makes them Apple is that they can (1) see new ways to consume content when the rest of the world thinks that there are no more advances to make, and (2) put together the pieces to truly address the needs of content-consuming users.

One thing's for sure: The innovations aren't slowing down......

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