Where next for Apple?

The iCar

BMW iDrive

Anyone who has used Find My iPhone will know that iOS has the ability to pinpoint a location using a combination of mobile phone technology, Wi-Fi and built-in mapping software. Apple - and many third-party developers - use this information to tag your photos with geolocation data, and serve up all kinds of location-based services - like where your nearest Apple Store is, for example.

This tracking technology isn't without controversy, of course (especially when it turns out companies are gathering information about you without you even knowing), but it may be particularly useful to Apple, since it gives the company a toehold into whole new areas of technology that it may wish to explore in future.

Last October, it acquired Swedish 3D-mapping company C3 Technologies, enabling Apple to combine its know-how with that of two previous mapping acquisitions, Placebase and Poly 9. Apple is ostensibly doing this to reduce its reliance on Google Maps - which it's expected to ditch in its iOS 6 update, due later this year.

Having a maps program of its own would also enable Apple to directly challenge third-party sat-nav makers like TomTom, which is increasingly doing deals with car manufacturers seeking to improve their own in-house sat-nav systems. The ability to offer its own mapping technology to third parties - especially car makers - could really be of interest to Apple.

The huge success of the iPod and iPhone, and car makers' willingness to integrate support for them in their models, suggests Apple could be pushing at an already open door when it comes to providing easy-to-use navigation and entertainment functions, just as Microsoft did with its tie-up with BMW for its iDrive system.

There is also a chance that, given Apple's voluminous wallet, it could go much, much further. In Apple's own backyard, California, there are already a few enterprising car makers working on the Next Big Thing, thanks to the state's insistence on increasing the numbers of zero emission vehicles on its streets and freeways.

It wouldn't surprise us in the least to learn that Apple has at least a watching brief on Tesla Motors - the producer of the first fully luxury electric sports-car. Read the spec list of its Model S saloon (www.teslamotors.com/models/features) and you could almost be ticking off a wishlist for goodies you'd expect to see in your next iPad or MacBook Air: a high-res touchscreen; Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and USB connectivity; broadband internet access; mapping software; an entertainment system; and, of course, sophisticated power management and batteries - lots of them.

Now the ability to build fast, efficient, user-friendly computers and the ability to build sprightly electric saloons may look like they should come from two very different disciplines (they do) but the lines of distinction are also quickly becoming blurred.

We're all familiar with the notion of a car's on-board computer and engine management systems being important to how it runs. And we know that Apple could easily acquire the technology, expertise and patents it would need to create its own electric car fleet if it wanted to. And imagine a car whose entertainment and sat-nav system is synced with all of your iOS devices via iCloud…

It might sound unlikely to you right now, but Apple board member Mickey Drexler recently stated that it was Steve Jobs' dream to build the iCar. Look at what Google's doing with its experiments on self-driving cars that use its mapping and computing know-how; and who could ever imagine that a little record label that made its name signing the Sex Pistols would one day end up running trains and a fleet of transatlantic aircraft, or think about putting its high-paying customers into space?

Likeliness: Medium-Low


So far we've concentrated on will-they-won't-they intangibles surrounding certain kinds of content and services, but it's obvious that one of Apple's many virtues is that it's very careful about how it spends its money. In recent years it has indeed acquired companies and services - such as Lala and Chomp - that complement the services it offers to Apple users already.

But it has also been buying up all kinds of hardware providers too - most notably semiconductor makers PA Semi and Anobit. This makes total sense: by reducing its reliance on third-party manufacturers, Apple can shield itself against potential shortages and other disruptions for essential components for devices like the iPad and iPhone. It also puts it in a much stronger negotiating position when it's dealing with the other tech giants it still relies on, such as Intel.

Buying up nascent hardware companies also gives it the freedom it needs to stay ahead of increasingly fierce competition. It's easy to imagine a scenario where Apple might want to buy up innovative hardware makers like Corning, which makes Gorilla Glass for the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, or Liquidmetal, whose metal alloys are already used by Apple for the SIM-extraction tool and, potentially, for cases for the future generations of MacBooks, iPads and iPhones.

Even if it can't buy the manufacturing capability outright, waving a large cheque book around could certainly bestow exclusivity or even dedicated manufacturing plants. It's already rumoured to have invested billions of dollars in Sharp to secure LCD displays for iPads and other devices, and regularly buys up huge chunks of the world's NAND flash production, much of it from Samsung.

Given its wider consumer electronics and other ambitions - along with the woeful state of many CE companies' balance sheets - Apple could even embark on a wilder land grab if it wanted to: after four consecutive years of multi-billion-dollar losses, Sony could certainly benefit from a massive cash injection right now.

But at its current valuation of around $40 billion (down from $100 billion in 2000), Apple could easily afford to swoop in and gain access to all of Sony's technology, manufacturing plants, movie and TV interests, high-street stores - and the PlayStation brand. The more cynical industry watchers might suggest Tim Cook wait a year and pick it up for even less…

Likeliness: Medium

Brand extensions

One of the most satisfying things about being a top dog at Apple has to be seeing the fervour with which the company's fans - you and us - embrace everything the company does so enthusiastically.

The obvious corollary of this is there must come a point where you start to think that almost anything you do will draw a legion of fans, provided the same high-quality rules, attention to detail and customer service apply.

The Virgin brand is a case in point: it may have started out as a record label, but these days its name is attached to everything from mobile phone networks to broadband and TV services, rail services, airlines, holidays and even space tourism.

So what's to stop Apple doing something similar? We already know that Apple has applied to build a new UFO-like campus in Cupertino and that it now runs a restaurant just for Apple employees. Why not take these things to their (il)logical conclusion?

The party city of Las Vegas could certainly stand to add a steel and glass iHotel, complete with blue-shirted waiters and bar staff and Mac-like slot machines. And we'd jump on an Apple Airlines aeroplane, complete with an iPad-based in-flight entertainment system, in a heartbeat.

You can also already buy eau de MacBook cologne if you want to. Maybe Apple should launch a nationwide chain of high-quality fast-food joints, its own heady range of apple-based alcoholic beverages or its own private hospitals - although its slogan 'an Apple a day keeps the doctor away' might not go down too well with patients waiting major operations.

What we'd really like to see though is for Apple to launch its own Eve-style personal robots, based on the ones Pixar created for smash-hit movie Wall-E. It would not only be incredibly useful, but it would also seamlessly switch to Sarcasm mode whenever anyone questioned your choice of computing platform!

Likeliness: Low - We can dream, can't we?