Apple's next big thing might not be the stuff of rumors

Apple and rumors go hand in hand. Back when I first started writing about Apple, I worked for a website called Spymac that purported to have "top secret" information about the next big things. (We didn't.) Think Secret ended up getting sued after leaking details of the original Mac mini and iWork. 9to5Mac's Mark Gurman publishes remarkably accurate reports that light up the Internet. And Crazy Apple Rumors still mocks us all.

So it's no surprise that we're already on to the next one. This is how it goes in Appleland: The iPod begat iPhone rumors; iPhone begat iSlate rumors; the iPad begat iWatch rumors. But connecting the dots to the next new product category might not be so easy with Apple Watch. Sure, it's possible we may all be driving around in Apple Cars in five years, but it's equally likely that Apple's next great innovation isn't a fancy new gadget dressed in space gray aluminum or gold. In fact it might not be a piece of hardware at all.

For the past several months, Apple has been building a system of software and services that position the iPhone as the centerpiece of its universe, much like the Mac once was. The Watch is just one small piece of its overall plan--and one that we all saw coming--but Apple's next move might not be so tangible. Before we see a TV or a car or even a drone coming out of Cupertino, I think we're first going to see a dramatic augmentation of the Apple advantage that tightens the ecosystem that connects our iPhones and Apple Watches with every other screen and device in our lives.

Kit and caboodle

Since iOS 8 made its debut, Apple has been laying the groundwork for a landscape of integrated technologies. HomeKit communicates with the connected devices in our homes. HealthKit lets doctors and patients use apps and devices to share vital statistics. ResearchKit allows medical professionals to collect and study data from larger groups than ever.

With its custom heart-rate sensor and fitness-tracking capabilities, Apple Watch is the first designed-in-Cupertino device to truly take advantage of any of them, and it may be the last. It's been reported that Apple's health ambitions for the first-generation Apple Watch were much bigger, and if you listen to Tim Cook, health is clearly a major component of Apple's grand plan, telling Jim Cramer last week that the market is "probably significantly underestimated."

But I don't expect to see a full line of Apple health products anytime soon. As Apple Watch evolves, it will surely gain more sensors and a greater ability to understand our bodies, but perhaps more importantly, Apple is making it clear that it wants to become a significant player in the overall health community, and not just as a gadget maker.

It's not as much about Apple Watch's health tracking capabilities as it is about the iPhone and iOS. To truly gain traction there needs to be a central, secure location where patients and doctors can easily access and share information. Your Health app might be filled with a lot of blank pages right now, but as Apple expands the reach of HealthKit and forges more partnerships with medical providers, it's going to become an indispensable part of our lives. The ability to carry a complete dossier of medical information into a doctor's office could be a tremendous boon to the iPhone, with the potential to transform a trillion dollar industry.

Such an undertaking isn't going to happen overnight. Even with an app already in place, it's going to require a significant focus and investment from Apple as it continues to leverage the power of iOS and the iPhone to create a seamless, integrated world that actually helps us live longer and healthier.

Internet of screens

Apple already owns the screens in our pockets and on our desks (and soon the ones on our wrists), but there are still two major screens it doesn't completely control: navigation and television. Rumors popped up this week that Apple would unveil a subscription streaming TV service at WWDC. It's unclear what channels the service will initially include, but more intriguing than cord-cutting is the prospect of elevating Apple TV to something that needs to be in people's homes. A TV service would go a long way toward creating a tighter level of integration between all of our devices, both by adding value and creating a dependency.

With a fresh price cut to $69, Apple TV isn't exactly a cash cow, but that's not the point. Apple doesn't need to make gobs of money by selling the receiver or even the subscription service--it's about lock-in and visibility. Once Apple TV becomes more than an on-demand device, the ecosystem becomes exponentially more valuable. We can watch live TV on our iPhones and iPads, get reminders about upcoming events on our Watches, and use Siri to control it all. And when we flip on the biggest screen in the house, Apple will be there.

And then there's HomeKit. The latest Apple TV software beta release "can be used for testing AirPlay and HomeKit with your iOS apps," helping enable communication between your iPhone and Apple Watch, and all of the HomeKit-compatible cameras, locks, and light bulbs in your house. Again, I don't expect Apple to make any of its own devices in this space (apart from the occasional acquisition), but the integration is important. By tying together all of the gadgets and screens in our homes with iOS and iCloud, Apple becomes a sort of personal Internet utility, ready to push the content we need to the screen we're using, whether it's a message or a movie.

Revved and ready

Whether or not Jony Ive is actually working on a mass-market automobile, CarPlay is a major component of Apple's integration plan. Like health, it's slow going--it'll take time before a measurable percentage of cars on the road are even capable of hooking up to our iPhones, but once they are, it will further integrate our devices, transferring phone calls, maps and, yes, Beats playlists from our iPhones to our dashboards.

Maintaining a fluid, seamless experience across all of our devices is Apple's final frontier. Ever since Front Row created a universal platform for all of our media on our Macs, Apple has dreamed of an integrated solution that follows us from screen to screen, giving us what we need when we need it. Imagine a world where our iPhone knows we're at the doctor's office and automatically queues up the health data it has collected over the past six months. Or our Apple Watch alerts us when our favorite team is locked up in a close game, signaling our Apple TV to tune to the channel.

At the close of Apple events, Tim Cook likes to use the phrase, "Only Apple." It's not about making a $17,000 smartwatch or even selling 75 million iPhones in a quarter. It's about integration, something not even Google is in the position to properly pull off. No other company has built such a tight, coordinated ecosystem of apps and devices, and Apple is on the verge of linking them all in magical, seamless ways.

It just might not make for sexy rumors. But then again, there's always Apple Car.


Michael Simon

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