11 October, 2011 - 11:18 By News Desk

After Steve – the next four years

The sad passing of Steve Jobs has led many to speculate about what will come next. I blogged about the future for Apple a while ago, looking at their alarming new tendency to use the courts to win instead of relying on better design.

It is worth another look at their future now, this time looking at what technology potential could be best exploited by Apple. Jobs apparently left his input to plans for the next four years, but the new leadership still has to make their own way, and plans inevitably change in any case.

So where might they go next? I haven’t tried to find commentary on the plans so that I can keep this blog fresh. But half the fun of futurology is sometimes getting it right when others get it wrong anyway. So regardless of what plans they actually have, here is my guess of what they will actually do.

Four years can be a long or a short time. The first iphone looks similar to the latest, the differences being pretty cosmetic with only a few new features. Then again, since the first iphone, we have also seen a whole generation of pads as well as ebook readers, and speculation on the death of the laptop and PC.

Actually, full replacement is very rare compared to partial substitution and I think it is pretty safe to say that the future will have a wide range of displays. We will have personal video visors, ebooks, pads, coffee table tablets, smart desk and wall surfaces, smart TVs, e-paper magazine inserts, even smart clothes, adverts, posters, coupons and smart windows. All of these will be with us in the next four years. Hopefully, East of England companies will provide technology support for many of these ideas.

Video visors will enable augmented reality applications, bringing the convergence of the real and virtual worlds across the board and a zillion new applications and services. To do so properly, the visors really need to be immersive and semi-transparent, so that they can be worn all day but still be able to overlay 3D computer generated date onto the field of view. A big task, but feasible, maybe even inevitable.

Augmented reality offers an infinite scope for redesigning our visual interaction with everything, and it is here that we could really use the design skills that Apple has demonstrated over the years. When the common approach to potential infinity is to give as much as of it as is possible, Apple and particularly Jobs understood that less is more.

It is better to do just what you need, but do it elegantly and intuitively. Letting users read IMs or texts or emails, admire virtual architecture, check out other people’s avatars, browse the web, follow navigation and use hundreds of other apps and yet to be able to cope with the load and still not distract the user so much that they walk under a car will take some doing.

Today’s pads and ebook readers will evolve to converge with magazines that include e-ink displays connected to the web. An ipad is a lot smaller than a typical magazine, so large format pads are needed to fill that market properly. These will lie around on tables and fill multiple roles in the office or home, and will be better for games and web or TV viewing than smaller pads, but are less appropriate for use on the move, where smaller pads would still be better.

There is still room for the iphone sized pad too. The same styles that work on iphone and ipad might well scale well to these other formats, and we are familiar with them so that makes market capture easier.

Wall displays that can act as paintings, fish tanks or windows when not being used for TV or web apps may also become popular, especially for city apartments where virtual size or environment enhancement would be valuable.

I imagine that a lot of the users of today’s large screen standalone Apples would be typical customers for such gadgets, where they can change their homes to different environments every day. Wall displays will also allow home workers to make a cleaner psychological gap between their work and home life by changing rooms between office and home style at the flick of a switch.

Apple have made lots of noise about their intentions in TV but their actions so far have been a little disappointing. But then, so have all the efforts so far to bring internet based TV into the home on a widespread basis. So far it has been a non-event. With some well targeted effort, they could make much better in-roads here and we could see the way we access and watch TV change a lot. Internet TV should really be low hanging fruit to Apple.

Apple are conspicuous by their current absence in the fight for control over social networking. Today they seem content to host social apps on their gadgets. But Apple can’t afford to ignore Amazon and Google and Facebook and ebay, all of whom will make their own styles of services or gadgets and use their client bases to attack other territories.

The ongoing convergence in the next four years will see huge battles between these giants and some interesting collaborations and acquisitions. Apple are a big and highly skilled player, but so are the others. Although the overall race is to build the biggest and most lucrative walled gardens, social networking is one of the prime starting points and Google and Facebook both are strong here.

Apple needs to penetrate this field soon. Doing so might involve better apps for their iphones, such as either radiating social networking data directly over nearby areas or using precise location with user databases. The latter plays into Facebook’s and Google’s hands.

The former would enable Apple to use the gadget base as a springboard into social and political networking that bypasses the competition instead of helping them.

The final major play may be in e-cash. Already iphones can be used with short range radio (NFC) to make financial transactions. This isn’t a new market by any means, but there are lots of variations on ecash that don’t exist in practice yet. These will enable Apple to make significant market capture by identifying those opportunities that people really want among the millions that could be built.

Examples such as smart vouchers that are worth different amounts at different times of the day, or pocket money that can only be spent in certain product areas are among the possibilities. The mundane stuff like electronic ticketing and micropayments will still occupy most of the effort of course.

This kind of payment technology could be linked to make innovative social exchanges, so that people can trade electronic licenses for music or video or ebooks informally with others as they walk down a street. This could be another major step in the transformation of these businesses, and even the whole of retail.

Direct social networking can also link people into buying communities on the go, so today’s flash mobs could become tomorrow’s flash markets. Great oaks from little acorns grow. Just we haven’t seen an acorn that looks like this before.

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