Monday, May 5, 2014

The Calm Before 2014's Tech Storm: Apple Will Bring the Rain

There's a lot on Apple's plate that should make for big, wild 2014 that will settle the innovation question. The iPhone will get a bigger screen, possibly made of sapphire glass. The iWatch likely will hit, possibly overrunning the competition in the category. OS X will be due for a refresh, as will the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and the iPad. And Apple TV may finally come into its own. 

There's a lot shaping up for Apple this year, and it's going to be wild. In fact, there's so much going on at Infinite Loop in Cupertino these days that it makes me believe that 2014 will be the first post-Steve Jobs year when Apple -- in the eyes of the broader tech world -- stops dancing around and finally brings the rain.

For starters, the profit-generating juggernaut that goes by the name of "iPhone" will ship in a new form factor with a bigger screen. This will hit just when a huge number of Apple-loving consumers are shifting the bulk of their Internet activity to their mobile device, which means they'll upgrade in droves.
Apple doesn't even have to entice big-screen Android users to make iPhone 6 the fastest and best-selling mobile device ever.

Apple can pump up iPhone sales in the U.S. next year by 30 percent with a bigger iPhone, suggested Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty, and this is if 80 percent of iPhones sold go to upgrading customers.

It gets better. The sapphire glass manufacturer in Arizona appears to be shipping product to China, which means the displays of the big new iPhone 6 really could be made of sapphire glass. If sapphire is as scratch-resistant as they say -- better than Gorilla Glass -- this is a big leap forward over the competition. Huge, in fact.

This is important for a couple of key reasons: First, Apple invested heavily in GT Advanced Technologies, reportedly footing the bill for hundreds of sapphire furnaces capable of churning out screens. Second, Apple has snapped up sapphire glass supplies. Unless the competition is actively investing in sapphire production, Apple might build a significant lead. Either way, you can bet that we'll be seeing some sort of cool promotional video at iPhone 6 launch time. 

While we're at it, here's something I haven't heard anywhere else: When the iPhone 6 ships with a bigger, easier-to-use screen, it'll give Apple's App Store and iTunes ecosystem another boost, too -- simply through a better customer experience.

So the Apple Money Machine -- the iPhone -- will rev up to the red line this year and coast through 2015 ... that's it?

No way.

Enter the iWatch
 While everyone has been talking up the mythical iWatch as competitors deliver new smartwatches and exercise bands, Apple has remained behind closed doors. Instead of getting here first, Apple has quietly been hiring medical, exercise and engineering talent, as well as patenting potential innovations that could be applied to an iWatch.

Will Apple actually deliver a wrist-worn device this year? It's hard to imagine that it will sit out 2014. Apple CEO Tim Cook has hinted at new product categories, and an iWatch seems to be a slam dunk.
There's more, though. Longtime fitness partner Nike just dropped Fuelband manufacturing in favor of working on software only. This is a big signal that Nike knows the iWatch is on the way this year and is making a business adjustment for it.

The New Mac Experience This Fall 
 The PC-decline-defying MacBook Air just got a teeny processor update. That's not a big deal now -- it just makes room for a more expensive MacBook Air with Retina Display to have a profitable spot come fall.

More to the point, the MacBook Pro is ready for an update, too, but the key action will likely center around the redesign of Mac OS X. While iOS got its refresh last year, OS X 10.10 is ready for 2014.
One report now suggests that OS X 10.10 will take center stage at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in June.

September is the traditional time of year that Apple releases new iPads. Bare minimum, we can expect an A8 generation of Apple's own processors, which should bring better performance and battery life. I would not be surprised if Apple finally came up with a new keyboard or keyboard/case option, both because there is an industry demand for it and because there've been multiple rumblings about it.

Meanwhile, while Microsoft Research has posted a video of an augmented mechanical keyboard that can sense gestures both on and above the device, AppleInsider found an AppleU.S. patent application for a multifunctional keyboard assembly, too.

Will the keyboard tech show up in Macs this year? In a keyboard available for pairing with an iPad? If so, this is like extra frosting on a cake.

What About the Apple TV? 
 While rumors of a full-size Apple-created HDTV have faded away, pretty much everyone expects a major Apple TV set-top box update. Not only did Cook publicly remove the Apple TV from "hobby" status this year in a quarterly financial report, but Apple also threw down the gauntlet with its own Amazon Fire TV unit. 

The Fire TV lets you search for content with your voice, and the remote control is smart enough to let you play Android-based games on your HDTV. Plus, Amazon is actively building its own ecosystem of content and games, even going so far to develop a game and create a dedicated console-style game controller. 

Will Apple sit on its hands here? Doesn't seem likely. 
 Apple can jump out ahead with a wicked-fast new processor, Siri integration, and by opening up the Apple TV to developers for new apps. If Apple delivers on its own gaming controller specifications -- with or without third-party controllers -- then the company can make a stronger move to capture game time in the living room.

All of these moves are totally doable for Apple this year. Might we get a taste at WWDC in June? I hope so, but rumors are trending toward an OS X fixation. A new Apple TV world in time for fall programming and holiday sales could technically work better anyway. Wild card? Some sort of broadcast or cable-TV content deal.

Apple Is 'On the Prowl' 
 As revealed at Apple's quarterly conference call with investors last month, Apple bought 24 companies in 18 months -- several of which are secret, and therefore important to new products or services.
"Obviously," Cook noted, "We're on the prowl."

What might these new companies offer Apple? If it is attempting to keep their identities a secret, it's for a good reason -- one that usually leads to a new product or service.

Speaking of financial reports -- until now, Apple has weathered months of getting beat up by Wall Street analysts for a slowing rate of growth in both its iPhone and iPad sales. It has started to manage Wall Street expectations more proactively by doing things like increasing its dividend payments and buying back much of its own stock. 

Plus, Apple will issue a 7-for-1 stock split that should drop the price of a single share to under US$100, making it more accessible to a broader range of buyers -- and potentially get Apple added to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. 

The point? 
 As Apple starts releasing a large batch of products and upgrades this year -- and as relatively new ones like CarPlay start hitting the streets -- public perception will rocket even higher. What might that stock split mean then? I don't play on Wall Street, but I have some guesses. 

Any way I look at it -- and this is even if Apple does not release any new game changer product category that is off the radar -- Apple seems to be orchestrating a huge 2014.

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