Have you heard? At the end of the month Apple is going to announce a space-age, handheld device. Scratch that, it’s actually a GPS-enabled helmet that lets you fly wherever Steve Jobs wants you to fly. No, wait—it’s really a tablet. A revolutionary, game changer of a tablet computer that will be able to surf the Internet, make phone calls, drive the car, wash the dishes and open mail. Wirelessly. While levitating.
‘Tis the season for unbridled excitement, courtesy of the Cult of Apple. The faithful masses of Steve Jobs’s revolutionary company are notorious for whipping themselves into a frenzy before each and every announcement that Apple makes. Well every announcement except for ones where the CEO mysteriously leaves the company for a vague medical reason that turns out to be for an organ transplant. Those just don't rank.
For Apple acolytes, the company is akin to a religion. These are folks who will sleep in a line outside for days before Macworld so they can secure a spot to view the latest and greatest product reveal. Their devotion is easy to poke fun of—indeed, in my previous life as a financial reporter, I often did—but at the end of the day, all the snarky comments and bad metaphors about Appleheads can’t erase the fact that the company delivers what people want.
Which is why the latest announcement has rumor message boards crackling and legitimate media outlets drooling with excitement. Apple has a storied, not to mention highly successful, past of rewriting consumer technology rules. There was the Mac, iTunes, the iPhone—not to mention many of its software products, which designers routinely herald as best-of-breed. But there is one thing that Apple’s portfolio lacks: a category killer that seamlessly meshes together every wireless technology whim from the Internet to television to email to e-books.
Indeed, every company would kill to have such a product. Some have come close to knitting together a few of the disparate pieces: Game consoles, for example, have tapped into digital downloads quite nicely, although the infrastructure pipelines for such activities are arguably ill-equipped for the demands of high-definition. But no company has effectively pulled off a wireless mash up to satiate consumers’ myriad needs. For Apple to do this would be a major coup.
Of course, there’s the physical consumer interface of such a dream product, and then there’s the background infrastructure bits. How would it all work? Who would the partners be? Can Apple engender enough excitement with a mere product launch to get technology partners to line up like little obedient ducks? That, presumably, is the reason for Apple’s curtain raising at the end of the month and an actual shipment date several months later.
As the date approaches for Steve Jobs to stroll out on stage in his trademark black turtleneck and jeans (how is it that this guy doesn’t own another outfit, btw?), the pent-up excitement and blind proclamations of Apple’s genius will likely grow louder. It’s understandable. I mean, who wouldn’t want a game-changer? As the country picks itself up from the recessionary bootstraps, what better jolt of confidence than an American company leading the innovation charge? And an innovation that could lead to an uptick in consumer spending, which accounts for the lion share of GDP? What's better than that? If the landscape is going to be redrawn, you can bet that Apple will be playing a part. On this front, you have to applaud Apple’s ingenuity. It’s not Dell, a bland manufacturer of boxes, devoid of any innovation. Apple actually shifts how people around the world utilize technology. If it indeed happens again, it could produce a lovely daisy chain of beneficiaries.
All that said, it’s worth tempering all the budding optimism surrounding the coming announcement with a smidgen of perspective. Don’t forget that Apple is also the company that produced the Newton handheld and the Cube. Not exactly what you'd call category killers.