Steve Jobs has finally decided that his health won’t permit him to head Apple, and has passed control to Tom Cook, the Apple COO who has been the administrative head since Jobs took a leave early this year. I met Steve twice in my career, once very early in Apple’s rise and again after he’d brought the company back from the brink. There was no mistaking his innovative flair, then or now. While I’m sure that Apple management can run the company, I’m far less certain that they can run the market. Steve could, and did.
The move comes at a very critical time for Apple. While the company has been the almost-single-handed driver of the mobile revolution, the product cycles in that space are getting shorter and it’s harder to say what the next generation of devices might be. A smartphone is a logical extension of a standard phone, and one that exploits the broadband mobile connectivity that was already in place. A tablet is in many ways an extension of a smartphone. What extends the tablet? What is the Next Big Thing? The answer is the cloud, the mobile/behavioral ecosystem that will create the electronic virtual world we’ll all live in, in parallel with the real world. For Apple, it’s the iCloud, a course Steve Jobs has already charted.
Google knows that, of course, and they see a similar vision. One could argue that they see it even more clearly than Apple, in fact, because Apple’s culture has always been just a tad elitist and thus egocentric. Android and the MMI deal are Google’s appliance play, and ChromeOS is for now carrying the flag of the cloud, in the form of hosting the thinnest of all possible clients. ChromeOS, in my view, is just a placeholder for an eventual shift toward a more Android-centric future, but one that focuses on exploiting Android as a cloud conduit just as Apple wants iOS to be.
The thing is, the secret sauce of the future is the mobile/behavioral stuff, and that is something that neither Apple nor Google have any particular incumbency in. Nobody does, in fact. My work with operators suggests that they understand that there’s a lot to be done, and a lot of money to be made, in the mobile/behavioral symbiosis, but the problem they have is that this particular area of service innovation is even more vague than content monetization, and they can’t get anyone on the vendor side to talk effectively about content. What hope do they have for mobile? If you’re a vendor and if you want to own the market of the future, this is the problem you need to solve for your customers.
Interestingly, Alcatel-Lucent has just issued a press release calling for more thoughtful use of mobile assets in customer care, and when you read into the details you see some of the elements of a mobile/behavioral solution at a more general level. The Alcatel-Lucent mantra is “contact me, connect me, know me” and that is pretty much what I believe to be the key to mobile/behavioral opportunity. You have to be able to reach the customer proactively with social/behavioral changes to their virtual world, to connect them to the other partners (human or cloud-machine) in that world, and you have to know a lot about their interests, desires, and prohibitions to make inferences about what’s best for them at that moment in time. I’d like to see Alcatel-Lucent take this story more into the general consumer market. I’d also like to see some competitors push the story even further.