Is Apple Out of Ideas?

Apple is done. Or rather, they’ve done it. They’re on their way to perfecting the vision laid out 30 years ago at the twin dawn of the personal computer and the Internet: wireless, glowing screens of infinite potential. By the company’s own description, the goal was to fine-tune and perfect, to “create a breakthrough, innovative product and then, through the years, relentlessly keep updating it with the latest technology,” glossed Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at Apple at last week’s unveiling of the iPad Mini.

It was a fair statement of Apple’s astounding success since Steve Jobs returned in 1997. But in the context of the debut of the iPad Mini—which Jobs is purported to have loathed, and which was created only to keep up with the technological Joneses—it raised a concern: “relentlessly keep updating,” yes, but what about that “breakthrough product”? The last 15 years have seen three real breakthroughs—iPod, iPhone, iPad—followed by progress, not in kind but in degree: more memory, sharper screens, faster networks, longer batteries, better cameras. An iPhone that’s slightly thinner, taller, and faster; a paperback-sized iPad; a new (skinnier!) desktop. But there is heartache in this achievement. Apple can surely hold on to its lead for at least a few years with incremental improvements alone. (Don’t sell your stock.) But at the moment even the most sensitive Apple Kremlinologists are coming up quiet about any new breakthrough machine on the horizon. An Apple-branded TV? Hardly the tool of the next century.

What would that new category be anyway? The vast majority of Silicon Valley ideas are fantastically banal (my favorite recent piece of hype: a service that will “reinvent what it means to get ice cream from a truck”). The next major shifts—on a scale that does justice to the original Mac operating system or the iPhone’s multi-touch—still sound like science fiction. Google’s Glass, which gets rid of the screen and the device in favor of a projection in front of your eyes, might be one clue. We’re also waiting for computational leaps so large that the machines begin to get smarter on their own accord.

But those will be years, or decades, in the making. In the meantime, the Apple product line is a lesson in modifiers—the “Mini,” the “Retina,” the “5.” That reality was represented so clearly in a visual the company presented at the iPad Mini’s debut: the image was from Darwin. But in place of the loping apes that progressively stand up to become us, Apple had inserted a lineup of iMac computers, from the candy-colored doorstop that shook Apple out of its corporate slumber in 1998 to the current slice of aluminum on a stick. Evolution. But not revolution.