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Editorial: Where does Apple take iOS next?

This summer, Apple is expected to unveil iOS 7 and new devices to run it, with rumors ranging from new form factors (including an "iWatch") to revisions of the existing iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.

iPad mini

What's Apple most likely to do?

The safest bet on the future of Apple's iOS hardware: a continuation of what it has been doing. That is, conservative but significant updates of the company's existing devices.

This assuredly includes a new iPad 5 with the slim, light form factor and reduced display margin of the existing iPad mini released last fall. Better audio, better WiFi, more storage and faster chips are also all safe bets for the next generation iPhones and iPads.

It's not much of a guess to say Apple will deliver at least a doubling of Ax chip performance across the board for its existing iOS product lines. Apple (and all of its fellow ARM-licensees) essentially double SoC performance in their chip designs every year, and GPU speeds have been accelerating even faster.

Apple's A-series chips

Recall that the iPhone 4S was over twice as fast as the 4, despite being yawned at as "boring" by many of the same crowd that cheered for Samsung's Galaxy S4, which itself is also "only" twice as fast as the model it replaced.

Every iPhone has also shipped with software capable of taking real advantage of that new processing power. This is particularly evident in the Camera app, where the 4 debuted HDR, the 4S made it much faster and added additional processing features, and the 5 added Panoramas and further accelerated and embellished image and video processing.

How about bolder changes in product categories?

Beyond the expected faster hardware and new software features to take advantage of it, Apple is also rumored to be working on a lower priced iPhone and possibly one with a larger screen.

It wouldn't take much to make the iPhone 4S cheaper; chips, screens and other components are always dropping in price as manufacturing refinements help bring down production costs. Apple is also investing up to $9 billion this year in production upgrades to accelerate this trend.

Creating a larger screen iPhone would definitely appeal to a certain demographic, but it's not clear what additional new revenues this might generate. On the other hand, it would definitely create the appearance that Apple is copying Samsung and other Android makers, even if there's nothing really novel or proprietary about increasing screen sizes.

But what about entirely new form factors, such as a rumored watch running iOS? On one hand, the concept of wearable iOS devices (like a watch that provides a connected, secondary screen that's easy to consult for checking messages and other notifications while your phone remains in your pocket) are both sensible and have some precedent behind them.

Zombie watch

Apple's "fat" 6th generation iPod nano toyed with watch features over two years, and the company even offered a variety of custom watch faces (below) for it up until last fall, when it killed the product and replaced it with a "stick" iPod nano that resembled a smaller iPod touch, albeit without the apps and other features of iOS.

iPod nano

Apple may have terminated the nano-watch concept simply because it wasn't popular enough, but dead products have returned to life as iOS devices at least twice before.

Steve Jobs killed Apple's first pad, the five year old Newton MessagePad in 1998. Its death was attributed to various things, including its limited popularity and a dramatic grudge against John Sculley (although Jobs didn't also cancel Sculley's QuickTime or PowerBook out of similar, supposed bitterness).

Stylus-based tablets

In reality, the MessagePad and its Newton OS were moderately successful, and had even attracted third party licensees, including Motorola, which sold a wireless version of it named the Marco. Maintaining the unique Newton platform had become an expensive distraction for Apple however, so Jobs terminated it to focus attention on Mac OS, in particular the transition to Mac OS X based on technology from NeXT.

Twelve years later, Apple had not only turned the Mac into a serious business but had spun off iOS to power its new smartphone, enabling Jobs to successfully reintroduce the iPad as a new ARM-based tablet running the company's modern mobile platform.

During that period, Apple again partnered with Motorola to announce its ROKR phone capable of working like an iPod to play iTunes songs. After it failed to take off, Apple launched its own iPhone two years later, based on a new, mobile version of OS X that came to be called iOS.

So it certainly wouldn't be unthinkable for Apple to introduce a new iOS watch product one year after taking its embedded iPod nano watch off the market (although this time, it doesn't seem likely Apple will be partnering with Motorola in any fashion to do so!)

Mitigating the risks of failure and distraction

At the same time, there're are a couple significant problems looming for iWatch. The first one is that Apple still doesn't like distractions. Unlike its peers, it doesn't ship hundreds of different products to see which ones might garner any attention. Apple is incredibly selective about introducing new models of its products.

Additionally, unlike the smartphone or tablet markets, there's currently no overwhelming sense that a new watch would necessarily sell in mass quantities. More than just being a distraction, if Apple were to launch an "iWatch" with great fanfare only to see it flop, it would have a tremendously negative impact on the company's image.

While Apple has suffered through a series of tepid or negatively received launches of free services (including MobileMe, Ping and Maps), it has experienced very few hardware flops since the G4 Cube and Xserve (2007's iPod HiFi is a notable one, and actually more of a fizzled dud than serious flop). That makes introducing a new category of iOS hardware a rather risky proposition.

iPod HiFi

Lowered expectations

There are two alternatives available for branching out into new hardware, and Apple has already performed both with relative success. One is to soft launch a new product (like an iWatch or other wearable devices) as a "hobby," as it did with Apple TV.

Apple's chief executive Tim Cook speaks of Apple TV as "a string it keeps pulling to see where it leads," indicating that its a strategic direction without a clear business model. It initially didn't sell that well, and while sales have improved dramatically, it's still treated as a "hobby" despite having leading market share.

Apple TV

This was certainly a lot savvier than Google's arrogant launch of Google TV, which had Eric Schmidt grandly projecting in 2011 that it would be installed in half of all shipping televisions by the next summer. Instead, the product spectacularly flopped, and a large part of its flatulently embarrassing deflation was related to all the hot air pumped into its launch theatrics.

Google can shrug off such failure thanks only to flawgic, which credits the company with "at least boldly trying" every time it throws in the towel on a very expensive experiment. Apple can't do that and still continue to collect the revenues and profits it's grown accustom to earning.

Launching something like a watch as an experimental hobby is nearly what Apple did with the previous generation of iPod nano, so it wouldn't be unthinkable for the company to relaunch a new product almost as an accessory, without creating massive expectations that might likely fail to materialize. But there's also an even safer path for new hardware, which Apple has also already explored.