Apple Turns 35: Where Does It Go From Here?

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April 1 marks the 35th birthday of Apple Computer, Inc., and though the name has changed (it dropped “Computer” in 2007), the company has undergone major organizational upheaval, and Apple isn’t doing the same kind of business it was in 1977, the company is still a leader when it comes to innovation. Can we expect that to continue for another 35 years?

Apple Made the PC; Apple Killed the PC

When News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch launched The Daily, the iPad-specific daily newspaper, he said in an interview that Steve Jobs was responsible for the invention of the personal computer, then the laptop, and now the ongoing destruction of both. Murdoch may not be entirely right about the specifics here (no doubt Steve Wozniak would argue that he should at least share credit for the “invention” of the PC, though the MITS Altair and Tandy tape-based computers predated any Apple efforts), but he’s right that Apple was instrumental in the early popularization and spread of personal computing. And he’s also correct that Apple’s iPhone and iPad are strong catalysts in how the very notion of computing is being re-shaped right now.

Post-PC (Sooner or Later)

Steve Jobs recently coined a term that describes the new phase of computing ushered in by smartphones, tablets and other connected devices: post-PC. The use of the term spawned countless debates about whether or not we can claim to be actually living in a post-PC era yet, or about whether Jobs can use that term to describe the use of devices that are still, in many ways, very dependent on PCs for syncing and media management. But whatever your opinion on whether we’re or not we’re truly entering the post-PC era, it’s clearly the direction in which we’re headed, judging by the iPad’s continued success, the ongoing worldwide growth of smartphones, and efforts by all of Apple’s competitors to successfully break into the tablet market.

The Cloud: Apple’s Biggest Challenge

As the post-PC market evolves, Apple faces possibly its greatest challenge yet: deploying strong cloud-based service offerings. Amazon just this week introduced its Cloud Player and Cloud Drive, beating Apple to the punch with a cloud-based music “locker” type offering that the Mac-maker has apparently been trying to negotiate with record labels. Google is also ahead of Apple in terms of cloud services, thanks to its free Google sync services including Gmail, Google Docs, Google Reader and many others. These provide single sign-in setup for Android device owners, whereas iPhone and iPad owners currently have to pay for MobileMe to get many of the same features on their devices.

Apple also has yet to reveal any firm plans or intentions to offer any kind of streaming subscription for music or other media, despite many reports of the company’s attempts to set up partnerships that would make such services a reality. Streaming media services are on the rise, both in terms of number and subscribers, and Apple risks being left behind as major players like Amazon and Google begin moving in that direction.

The Revolution Co.

Apple throws the word “revolutionary” around quite a bit (almost as much as PR folks, in fact), but it would be a mistake to dismiss this as mere marketing hyperbole. The company has consistently introduced products that change the face of the consumer electronics industry, and few, if any, could’ve predicted their arrival beforehand. That means that, to some degree, trying to pin down Apple’s future plans will always be a slippery task.

Of course, it’s almost impossible to discount the role of Steve Jobs, who, no matter what your personal opinion regarding his medical prognosis, cannot lead the company forever. Will Apple lose the ability to be a motivating force for market upheaval when he’s gone? I say no, because Apple has a corporate culture based, from the top-down, on fostering innovation and creativity. Maintaining that at such a high rate of success for 35 years is not something any one person can manage through force of will alone. Apple’s executive team works together to do this, and will continue to do so.


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