I've been thinking about what could be next for Apple now that the iPhone is an immense business generating huge revenue on one hand and that the growth of that revenue has slowed on the other.
If you've been paying attention you'd have seen that there's some unrest in the financial markets, who are largely clueless about Apple and how they operate, about what the slow down in growth means.
If you've a long memory, you'll remember how Apple took their best selling iPod device ever, the iPod mini, and instead of milking it year after year, just out-and-out replaced it with the iPod nano, a complete revamp of the iPod, switching to colour displays and flash storage.
Never a company to shy away from the future they took it upon themselves to disrupt their own successful business before someone else could.
One thing you can bank on is that internally Apple are well aware of the potential for an issue, have been for some time, and that an absence of external activity in no way indicates a lack of internal hustle.
Now that the stage has been set, on with the rampant speculation...
I'm going to posit a change to iOS-based mobile devices*.
First I'll make two points which I think are relevant....
1. One of the best and largely unsung elements of Apple's iPhone sales policy and relationships with carriers, is that you can easily buy an unlocked device direct from Apple. Even if you choose to get one from a carrier with a contract attached, they allow no carrier-installed software services or branding, no commission for sales people and no way for the carrier to exploit you any more than the standard contract model allows.
This is in direct contrast to Google's approach to Android where they made the deliberate choice to gain users and market share at the expense of allowing the carriers to control software, updates and services.
Summary: iPhone breaks the power of the carriers, they get away with it because of the sheer amount of demand for the device.
2. One of the key concepts of software engineering, referenced right at the front of the seminal SICP is the concept of abstraction.
In terms of software development this largely mean looking for repeating functions in the code and abstracting them to a single place and then calling it from there. Reduce the size of your view controller by removing, for example, transition code to a separate object you can reuse. The concept of abstraction and reusability is key to modern, object-oriented, programming. It pleases the OCD part of my soul too.
Summary: Abstraction of repeated functions to a single place is the core of efficiency.
How shall we apply these two lessons to the iOS mobile product line? Especially in a time where that line is likely to diversify into devices with radically different use cases and form factors, the much-touted wearables etc...?
Take the iPhone. Remove the cellular hardware, SIM tray. recalculate the power requirements, reduce the size of the battery, make the case match the current iPads. What do you have?
The iPod touch.
Kill the iPod touch brand. Remove the Wifi functions as well, repeat the battery recalculation based on the reduced power needs, reduce the battery size again enough to reduce size and cost but not too much so the average charge lasts 2x.
Madness! How can you have a phone without a cellular connection?! All thats left is Bluetooth LE?!
The iPhone is dead! Vive la iPhone Neue!
Take the iPad. Repeat the experiment. Make it thinner, but longer lasting.
Who'd buy that?! No WiFi?! No cellular option?!
What's that on your wrist? An iOS based device with time, notifications for message services, health monitoring functions and Bluetooth LE. No WiFi. Lasts a week on a single charge.
But it's useless?! There's no internet connection!
What do these devices share? Well they all have a screen, but they differ in size because of form factor and use cases. They all have a battery of there own, but only to power there specific services. They all have a single communication conduit, we removed duplication there. They all have an A-series CPU, distributing computation around them seems sensible.
But still compared to the previous model, they're crippled. Useless.
That's because there's another device that you can't see. It's in my pocket, a small 2" diameter, 1" thick matt plastic disk, like a small hockey puck. With a subtle gloss apple logo on top.
Let's call it, for want of a better word, iHub. Let's imagine it has no display, no lights, no switches and as a result it has a crazy long battery life. It has a SIM slot, it has Bluetooth LE and it has WiFi. Not to create networks though, that's too power hungry, just to connect to those it finds.
Now notice that all those iOS devices I have are connected to it by a efficient Bluetooth LE connection. We've abstracted the duplicate, energy draining network connectivity work to the iHub. Equally the iHub doesn't have to support a brightly glowing touchscreen.
The iHub connects to the 4G network, the WiFi at home, work or Starbucks and passes on requests, phone calls and data back and forth between the devices and the carrier and the internet!
Both hub and device have batteries that last far longer than the previous versions.
Want a new phone? No problem, you just buy a new device, no contract and no having to talk to a carrier, and connect it to your hub.
iPad is stolen? It's useless with out connection to your personal iHub, it's locked with TouchID and wiping/reinstalling is protected via AppleID.
A new exciting iDevice ships? Your connect it to your iHub and it's ready to go. iHub sits in your pocket or bag, quietly connecting your devices to each other and to the internet.
The iHub itself? The replacement cycle is way longer as there little features to change, except maybe a new cellular mode and they take years to spread or a new WiFi standard, of which we've had 5 in 13 years. It's cheaper as it doesn't need to include the cost of the latest screen tech. And you buy it unlocked from Apple anyway so all you need is a SIM and they'll sell/post you on of those too.
Remember how Microsoft launched the Zune to grab a share of the iPod market? They failed because they focused on the wrong thing, it wasn't about a music player, it was about liberating people to listen to all of there music everywhere.
Likewise the iPhone isn't about being a better phone. It's about giving you access to the things you need in the most convenient way. It's a pocket computer with a telephone function, not a telephone with an email function.
The way forward is to kill the iPhone in it's current form, refactor the iPad to match, recognise the iPod touch will be redundant and provide a hub so that any device can focus on being all it can be an nothing it need not be.
For most companies this would be a terrifying rejection of it's largest revenue stream. I can't think of another company as well positioned to pull it off as Apple.
*Apple TV is the one non-mobile iOS device. For now.