In October 2005, then Chief Technical Officer Ray Ozzie authored a memo to Microsoft staff titled "The Internet Services Disruption."Â While overtly attempting to marshal the company to move aggressively towards integration and online services, two key subtexts of Ozzie's memo were:
- If we don't do this, someone else (probably Google) will.
- Startups and open source projects are threats, but they can't [yet] scale the way Microsoft can.
Ozzie saw that the essential impulse that had driven Microsoft to a decade of dominance under Gates was wounded and flagging after the Justice Department's antitrust scrutiny and a series of missteps that had left Microsoft scrambling to create web services that could compete with Google's offerings.
Jump forward to 2013 and Ozzie's memo looks like Apple's roadmap for the past decade.Â Apple, much more so than Microsoft, has been able to integrate content delivery, third party applications and services, and mobile and desktop computing.Â Sure, Apple CEO Tim Cook (along with his predecessor Steve Jobs) would tell you that Apple's success stems from their drive to provide simple, refined solutions that make their customers' lives better.Â Gates, Ozzie, Ballmer (on a good day), Zuckerberg, Schmidt, Page, Brin and a host of others would say something similar about their own companiesâ(TM) motivations. The real underlying drive for Apple, however, is the same impulse that drove Gates and Microsoft to such success in the nineties. It is the same flame that Ozzie (now departed from Microsoft) was trying to rekindle in 2005 and that Google has recently embraced. Apple, above all, wants to consolidate control.
Viewing Apple's maneuvers over the past several years in this context, even their often-questioned decisions to neglect the professional and enterprise markets and transition away from Google's superior mapping solution make sense. There are times when Apple's interests seem aligned with those of its customers (e.g., wrangling better licensing terms from the recording industry by publicly vilifying the industry's insistence on digital rights management), and Apple never fails to highlight those instances in its public relations copy. But there are also many occasions where Apple has clearly calculated that forcing its users and third party developers through difficulty (the omission of a file browser in iOS, preventing side-loading applications, breaking its promise to publish the FaceTime specification, etc.) are worthwhile in order to shore up its own control.
Apple's consistent behavior also provides insight as to where they're headed. While they may not reveal all of the following initiatives at WWDC, all of them will surely be in evidence, even if they're only beginning to sew seeds.
The Mac As A Locked-Down Platform
The success of iOS and the App Store model assured the Mac's transition to a locked-down platform years ago. There's simply too much money to be made by capturing a percentage of all third-party software developers' revenue on the platform. While with iOS, Apple was able to introduce a new platform that was relatively locked down from the beginning, locking down the Macintosh after decades of having an open software distribution model needed to be done gradually.
Apple has already taken the initial steps of creating the Mac App Store (OS 10.6), introducing Gatekeeper (OS 10.8, retroactively added to OS 10.7.5), and shipping closed hardware (e.g., MacBook Air, Retina MacBook, 21.5" iMac). One of Apple's other bold moves, however, was to allow its most expandable and user-serviceable system - the Mac Pro - to wither without major upgrades for years. This means that Apple's power users are starved for new power systems, and will be more likely to adopt a locked-down redesign, even if it means that they'll sacrifice hardware and software flexibility.
Looking first at the software side, at some point, whether it is in 10.9 or a later OS X edition (perhaps OS 11, or whatever they call 10.10 - X11, perhaps?), the Gatekeeper setting will vanish and Apple will only allow applications to be installed from the Mac App store. They can pull this off by making the locked version of OS X irresistible: new Macs sold after the OS release will have no option but to run the updated OS, and Apple can make the upgrade free, as they did with iOS updates beginning with iOS 4. They can also switch all their Internet Recovery servers over to the new build of Mac OS X, so Macs attempting to reinstall Mac OS X through the internet will have to upgrade.
Apple can also leverage its plethora of iCloud features to force an OS X upgrade. Want to continue using Photo Stream, iTunes Match (or the new iTunes Radio), Documents in the Cloud, etc.? Upgrade to the latest [free] OS X or lose connectivity. Additionally, Apple can introduce new iCloud features like roaming user accounts (log into any Mac with your Apple ID and have full access to all your apps, settings, and data) to encourage users to migrate.
While there will inevitably be an outcry by some, Apple will attempt to mute it in predictable ways:
- x% of Mac users never switch off Gatekeeper
- Gatekeeper has helped keep the Mac secure
- it's free, and no one is forcing users to upgrade (for now)
- the new structure is the only way Apple can provide roaming user access to all apps, settings, etc. from any Mac
- if your favorite app isn't available on the Mac App store, get the developer/publisher to put it on there
- you can still use Boot Camp and/or (Apple's or Apple-approved VM solution) to run non-Mac OSes
Microsoft and Adobe's cloud initiatives in part suggest that they fear locked-down OS X is imminent. They'll try to resist putting Office and Creative Cloud/Suite in the Mac App store as long as they can, and have lowered the initial cash outlay required for users to switch. (Already subscribed to Office 365 or Creative Cloud? Move to Windows and continue to enjoy the same programs you're already using. And remember, the new OS X doesn't have Office/Creative Cloud.)
Apple also realizes that users' allegiance to Microsoft and Adobe apps is a hurdle they'll have to clear. For their part, they could simultaneously reduce dependence on Office and lower the high price of entry for Macs by coming out with a new version of iWork (which hasn't received a major upgrade since 2009) that boasts strong Office compatibility and a low (perhaps free) price point. With Microsoft planning to include Outlook on Windows RT soon and Google Docs always lurking as a free alternative, Apple will need to push productivity options on iOS and a locked-down Mac platform. They can also crib features from other suites (and perhaps Ozzie's memo - Keynote broadcast to the web?).
Regarding the Adobe applications, by improving features in iPhoto and other iLife applications (along with online services linked to Photo Stream), Apple can obviate most consumer's need for additional image editing applications. As Google powerfully demonstrated at its I/O conference this year, it's possible to automate photo editing and presentation and get better results than most users are capable of with Photoshop. Some users want better tools, but most would prefer to not do any work at all.
To dovetail with new iOS file browser/sharing features, the Finder on the Mac could be further simplified, removing low level access to system files. Additional features could be added to iCloud's Documents in the Cloud functionality to remove users' dependence on Dropbox.
On the hardware side, the Mac Pro will probably debut at WWDC sporting Thunderbolt 2 and a relatively closed chassis (with availability later this year, after OS 10.9 ships). Apple will likely emphasize Thunderbolt as the expansion option for the Mac Pro, perhaps with a design for encapsulated "modules" that can be easily added on (e.g., for storage, audio and graphics processing, etc.).
As 802.11ac will be a selling point of all the new Macs (Pros and Airs), Apple will show off a new Airport Extreme base station (perhaps with USB 3).
Apple will also likely reveal its wristwatch initiative. It needs to have a wearable computing device to capture mind share (the mainstream press will in the same breath mention "Apple's and Google's wearable computing devices"), and it can solve some of the grating authentication issues that currently burden users while putting forward a device with a lower nerd-factor than Google Glass. The largest question about the watch initiative is what, if any, functionality beyond a simple timepiece it will have when apart from other Apple devices?
Apple's premier television services aren't ready for prime time yet. They still have a lot of work to do to push stubborn content owners to provide permissive licenses, so they'll focus on limited new development options for Apple TV to put pressure on the television and movie industries. Patiently, they'll keep inching closer over the next year towards a radically different television model, with Apple-curated content (everything on demand, live television, restrictions on digital on-screen graphics, advertisement supported, pay-per-view, and subscription services all integrated, etc.).
The Big Picture
The established truth that Apple has demonstrated again and again is that consumers care about consumption and sometimes creation, but not computing. If the average user has an option to think less about computing (how does this system work?, what software should I use?, how do I connect to the internet?, how do I manage my data?) and focus more on consumption (and to some extent, creation), they will gladly pay more money, forfeit privacy, and give up control. Apple today, as Ozzie did in 2005, knows that larger companies with a vast constellation of integrated hardware, software, and services can create an inescapable inertia for their customers that makes it impossible for smaller companies, even those with better individual services, to gain marketshare.
Short-lived backlash is tolerable for Apple, especially when the stakes are as high as they are now. The question at the moment is not if Apple will take the next major steps to consolidate its control, but when it will do so and how long consumers will tolerate ceding their independence. At the moment, it looks like the answers are "soon" and "for quite a while."