Apple points to services as its next big push

Less than a day after Apple announced its first annual decline of quarterly profits in a decade, the company has announced the dates and details for its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). The announcement wasn't entirely unexpected, as Apple often announces its developer event sometime in the spring and typically holds the event in early June. Tickets for the event typically sell out quickly after registration opens (last year WWDC sold out in less than two hours).

The WWDC announcement provides an interesting set of companion information to some of the comments that Apple CEO Tim Cook made during the call yesterday afternoon. Here's what we can read into both.

Apple's plans for products and services

Cook declined to provide any solid information about future Apple products during the call, noting only that Apple is working hard on new products and services.

Our teams are hard at work at some amazing new hardware, software, and services that we can't wait to introduce this fall and throughout 2014.

That quote, along with guidance for Apple's next quarter, has widely been interpreted to mean that we won't see any new products released until this fall. A fall release would keep to an annual refresh of the iPhone and iPod lines and it would reorient the iPad release cycle to a yearly refresh alongside them (last year, Apple released new full-size iPads in both the spring and fall). It would also jive with rumors that Apple has fallen behind in its development of iOS 7 following the ouster of Scott Forstall last year.

One of the more interesting aspects of that quote, however, is that Cook distinctly included services along with traditional products (devices, OSes, and apps). This could be a reference to a long-rumored iTunes streaming radio service to compete with services like Spotify.

It could also mean an expansion of iCloud. Despite technical issues and developer complaints, Apple customers are signing up for iCloud in record numbers. According to Cook, iCloud now has 300 million users, and 20% of them joined within the past three months. iCloud is largely designed as a personal sync system rather than a collaboration service like Dropbox and Google Drive -- something that has made them very attractive to business users despite the technical and legal concerns that they can pose in the workplace.

But Apple has made some stabs at making iCloud less of a "me" tool. Last fall, it extended iCloud's Photostream feature ability to share photos with other iCloud users and it does have some general sharing capabilities including the ability to share calendars. In previous incarnations, iCloud also included a Dropbox-like storage space called the iDisk. It's possible that Apple is planning to build out iCloud's feature set and one of the best ways to do that would be by boosting iCloud's collaborative potential (and possibly simplifying its current app-centric file system, but I really don't see Apple tackling that).

Services are also getting top billing at WWDC and were a focus of new Apple exec Kevin Lynch while he was at Adobe. Apple divides the 100+ labs and training sessions that occur over the week of WWDC into tracks that highlight major themes. This year "Services" is the second track listed on Apple's WWDC site (between staple tracks like Frameworks and Tools).

Apple's description of the track focuses on the existing services in iOS 6, but it also implies that Apple will be adding some services, though without providing any details.

See how you can easily extend your app’s functionality by leveraging a variety of powerful services provided for iOS and Mac apps. Enhance your revenue stream by using In-App Purchase to build a virtual storefront that lets users purchase gold coins in a game, subscribe to a monthly magazine, download new content hosted on Apple servers, and much more. Whatever your business model, StoreKit opens new possibilities for monetizing your services and content. Generate passes for Passbook, so your users have the information they need at their fingertips. Learn about the latest developments in iCloud to give users access to their data from any device. Integrate with social networks like Twitter and Facebook to keep users and their friends connected.

Apple does, however, seem to be hyping monetization when talking about services, which could mean that the company is planning to expand further into the mobile payments market - one area where Apple seems to be lagging other mobile companies.

Apple and the enterprise

Beyond services, one of the more intriguing parts of Apple's earnings call was enterprise adoption of the iPad. Responding to a question, Cook volunteered a couple of tantalizing data points.

As a matter of fact, just to quote you some numbers, iPad now is being used in 95% of the Fortune 500 and what’s even more impressive probably is on the global 500 companies, we’re now in 89%.

What struck me while listening to the call was that Cook's reference to the Fortune 500 was subtly different than what he and Apple have said previously. Apple traditionally includes both wide-scale adoption and pilot programs when referencing iPad use among Fortune 500 companies. That lets Apple use a slightly higher figure even though the number of iPads involved in a pilot is usually pretty small and there's no firm guarantee that they'll ultimately choose to roll out or support the devices. It's possible that this was simply a slip of the tongue, but if it isn't, it implies the iPad has established a more solid presence in corporate America.

The number of Global 500 companies is also significant. When debating Apple's relevance in business markets (as well as consumer and even education markets), many pundits suggest that Apple's relative strength in the U.S. is unique from the broader worldwide markets and that Android is much more deeply entrenched in other countries and regions. A significant presence among the Global 500 implies that the iPad has, or is developing, as much a place in the global business world as in America.

A final point to consider about Apple and the enterprise is that Cook seems much more interested in the enterprise market than Jobs. That doesn't mean that Apple will magically start behaving like a more traditional enterprise vendor, but it may mean that Cook is willing to ensure good enterprise integration and experiences. That could be a very good thing for Apple and for IT departments that need to support Apple products. It also raises the possibility that Apple could target enterprise users more directly with iOS features, enterprise app support, and even business-oriented services.

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