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Apple in 2013: It's about platforms, not products

For a gadget freak like me, by far the most interesting comment in Apple's quarterly earnings call earlier this week was when CEO Tim Cook said that Apple has great products coming this autumn and into 2014. After all, this was the first March in more than a decade when Apple didn't have a major new product release, and although iPhone and iPad sales are up year over year, profits are declining.

But don't take Cook's quote to mean that Apple is going to be napping for the next six months, or even that Apple is so hard at work on the iTV and iWatch that we won't hear from the company until autumn. I suspect that Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference this June will remind us what gadget freaks like to forget: Apple is a company that’s all about platforms, not about products.

What makes the iPhone great

What made the iPod and iPhone a huge success? It's not the features, it's not the hardware, and it's not the industrial design. Apple is good at all of those things, but it's made some real blunders in the past. The first iPhone couldn't run any apps. The iPhone 4 suffered from serious antenna issues, and the 4S tracked well behind competitors when it came to the screen sizes consumers wanted. Yet Apple's sales continue to boom.

The reason isn't reality distortion; much as Apple haters don't like to admit it, consumers aren't entirely irrational. The reason is Apple's ecosystem: The platform. For the iPod, it was iTunes. For the iPhone, it's iOS. iOS is an easy-to-use grid of icons, sure, but it's also, more importantly, a clean, reliable store with quality control, an excellent set of APIs, commerce that actually gets developers paid, a comprehensive set of media deals, a stable system that responds to users predictably and a steady march of new features, even for existing devices.

Looking at Apple's sales figures makes this even clearer. Apple is selling more iPhones than ever, but profit is going down. Why? I assume it's because Apple is selling more iPhone 4 models at relatively cheaper prices. Why? Because Apple phone buyers don't want LTE or a bigger screen as much as they want iOS: The platform, not the product.

Building on the platform

iOS is the oldest successful mobile platform on the market today, and it could probably use a refresh. That's dangerous, of course; Apple can't break compatibility with all the third-party apps that make iOS so attractive. But in the days since iOS was first built, there's been a personalisation revolution in smartphones. The "app phone" is becoming the "you phone."

Android's widgets were the first evidence of this trend; it was heightened by Microsoft's people-centric live tiles, and then by Google Now, which personalises your phone based on your actions. As more people understand what smartphones are for, we're moving beyond "I can run apps on my phone!" and closer to "my phone helps me express my particular desires."

iOS hasn't tracked that trend very well. The best Apple has been able to do is the richer notification centre introduced with iOS 5 in 2011. The potential interface revolution started by Siri also seems to have temporarily stalled. As Android and Windows Phone really stretch their legs and experiment, Apple finds itself in the unusual position of being the most conservative player.

That's where Apple needs to move this year. Apple doesn't need a new phone to boost sales between now and October. The iPhone 5 already has a fast processor and a comprehensive set of sensors. Apple needs a new iOS that can once again claim to be the smartphone OS for nearly everyone.

Apple also really needs to work out some deep problems with iCloud. iCloud was supposed to be a central storage point for iOS and Mac OS users' data, but Apple bloggers like John Gruber have explained extensively how it isn't working for a lot of developers.

I'm not going to talk much about Mac OS, but that's also marching ahead. I've thought for years that if Apple could turn back time, it would have written iOS rather than Mac OS, and that the past several versions of Mac OS have been heading towards a slow convergence: I think we'll see even more of that in Mac OS X 10.9.

I'm not going to spin out a list of potential new iOS features right here, though I'd love to see you suggest some in the comments section below. But if there's news coming out of Apple over the next six months (spoiler – there will be), it's going to be about refreshing the platform, not the products. And whether you're an Apple fan or an Apple hater, understand that it's the platform that sells the products – not the other way around.