Apple had an event today to announce the iPhone 7, the Apple Watch Series 2, and the exclusive arrival of Super Mario. But let's focus less on the specifics of the hardware and more on what these products are saying about where Apple is directing its energies.
APPLE IS EYING THE OUTDOORS MARKET
The Watch Series 2 has four outstanding features aimed solidly at the Outside magazine demographic: A new constellation/star map program, greatly improved water resistance with a "swimproof" outer shell, GPS and a hiking app. The positioning is clear: strap this to your wrist and you'll be able to have an excellent outdoorsy experience.
It's a smart move: according to the Outdoor Industry Association, people spend $120 billion annually on outdoors gear. Water sports leads the spending with people dropping $19.4 billion on equipment, and camping is number two with $18.6 billion. Why wouldn't Apple want to grab some of that market?
Apple's also doing its part to increase its stake in the fitness wearables market. IDC estimates that it's number 2 behind Fitbit. Apple's competitive advantage over Fitbit will be that its fitness wearable also doubles as a whole lot of other things, and that it's well-integrated in a fully-realized app and hardware ecosystem.
Although Under Armour is trying really hard to create a similarly robust fitness hardware-software ecosystem with its buys of MapMyRun and My Fitness Pal, its UA Band is a harder sell to a customer who wants a fitness device that can also send texts and remotely operate a phone camera. (Handy for those post-Tough Mudder selfies when you want people to see how filthy you got head-to-toe.)
APPLE IS MOVING INTO ITS POST-HARDWARE PHASE
It's an odd thing to write on a day when Apple just announced new phones and new watches, but hear me out. What's notable about this passel of announcements is how many of them depend on partnership with another company: Niantic Labs (Pokemon Go), Nintendo (Super Mario Run), Hermes (fancy Watch bands), Nike (the Apple Watch Nike+).
This is a sign that Apple's recognizing the shift in hardware sales. Remember, worldwide PC sales are on a slowing-down trend and tablet sales are flat. Computers are essentially commodity products now. So sell a specific experience, one made possible only via exclusive partnerships that provide complementary elements: the phone plus the game; the watch plus the luxury band; the watch plus the fitness features.
This is how you get people to want hardware: because it is the gateway to a constellation of complementary experiences.
(This doesn't just work on tangible goods. The very beginning of the Apple presentation had Tim Cook singing along with The Late Late Show's James Corden in The Late Late Show's recurring feature, "Carpool Karaoke." And at the end of the bit, viewers were advised that all-new episodes of "Carpool Karaoke" would be coming exclusively to Apple Music. It's a sign that exclusive deals are this decade's version of the platform wars.)
APPLE IS HOPING TO DO FOR SMART HOMES WHAT IT DID FOR SMART PHONES: DEFINE THE IDEAL USER EXPERIENCE
At CES 2016, the model for most smart home features, from humidifiers to shades to garage door openers to lights to pantries, had three components: A smartphone (supplied by the user), a device that collects data and communicates with the smartphone (supplied by the vendor) and a proprietary app which allows the user to control the device (also supplied by the vendor).
This model means your phone can quickly be overrun with multiple apps, each of which need to be monkeyed with if you want to automate your home.
Apple's HomeKit and the accompanying Home app allows users to control multiple aspects of a smart home from one application, from any device in their Apple ecosystem, and it has built-in support from over 100 smart-home vendor.
It is streamlining the smart home management process and -- this is crucial -- it is defining what the management process should look like. Users will look at how they can easily set up their smart home systems on a room-by-room basis or a time-of-day basis, and they will expect every future aspect of home automation to fit into that convenient model.
APPLE WANTS TO BECOME THE VENDOR OF CHOICE FOR THE SOCIAL CROWD
Phil Schiller's rapturous nerding out over the cameras on the iPhone 7 and the cameo by Instagram's head of design, Ian Spalter, signal that Apple is very aware of where social interaction and ad dollars are going.
Digital ad spending is estimated at $50 billion this year, and forecast to rise to $75 billion by 2018, according to digital agency Zenith. Instagram's ad spending is estimated to reach into the billions this year, with even stronger growth next year, thanks to a strong base (400 million) of younger users who hit the service several times a day.
If Apple can be the vehicle by which the Instagram generation creates their content, more so the better.
ARE WE OKAY WITH THE AIRPODS? EARLY SIGNS SUGGEST SOME ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Not that Apple is doing everything right. The AirPods -- the two wireless earbuds that will cost $159 a pair and work only with the iPhone 7 -- suggest that the people who thought up this idea and brought it to life are perhaps not in tune with the average consumer.
For one, the AirPods only have about five hours of use before they'll need to be recharged, so it's not enough to get a cubicle worker through a typical workday or an endurance athlete through an all-day training session.
Second, there's the matter of how we're talking about two tiny, pricey earbuds that have to be carefully stowed in a container every time, then removed for use.
Yes, you should treat your nice things with care, but digging in my bag for my free-with-iPhone-purchase earbuds and putting them on takes less than a minute and I can do it one-handed. (I don't have tangles in my cords thanks to a $10 pair of Cordskinz.)
I want all my earbud options to be that easy and that indestructible. I don't want to have to pay more for something that will take more time and care to use for a smaller period of time.
Nobody is making anyone buy AirPods. The iPhone 7 will also come with earbuds that have an Lightning connector at the end, so hardcore earbud users will still enjoy that option up to the moment they want to charge their phone and listen to something on it at the same time. And there are two different adapters for those of us who are wedded to headphones that do not end in Lightning connectors -- as is the case with many headphones.
But the idea of AirPods, while not necessarily terrible, seems to prize "because it's new" over "because this is the best solution to the proble,."
And let's be clear: sometimes corded earbuds or headphones are a problem. There's a whole host of fitness machines out there that leave one at risk of garrotting-by-earbuds. Bluetooth headphones can be very useful.
THE BIG, OVERARCHING POINT: APPLE WANTS YOU TO THINK OF TECH AS THE PLUS-ONE IN YOUR LIFE, NOT ON YOUR JOB
Sure, there were a few minutes spent on Apple's initiative to get kids coding and yes, it's very nice iWork is now getting the same kind of social collaboration tools Google apps and Office 365 have. Those items took ten minutes of a 120-minute presentation. That should tell you where Apple wants your attention.
Apple emphasized how its tech can go everywhere you do, from the pool to the campsite, from your commute to your vacation. The overriding message with every feature rolled out on the watch and the phone was this: Our stuff will help 'you do you,' only better.
If hardware specs were rolled out -- and they were -- then they were deployed to demonstrate how a faster processor or a better camera lens worked as a helpful little tool to make your pictures look more beautiful or your music play more smoothly.
It's telling there was no mention of any laptop or desktop computer at any point in the presentation. In fact, the word "computer" was completely missing from the event. What was present instead was a new perspective: You have one life, and our devices are coming along for the ride.