Apple's always been a particular kind of company, obsessed with experiences, and controlling them end to end. But they've always been centred around the traditional desktop. Until Apple bought Lala. Is Apple taking the internet seriously now?
By "taking the internet seriously", we mean, in one sense, getting more serious about "the cloud", which is a digital yuppy euphemism for "stuff stored on honking servers out there somewhere that you access over the internet". A few things - a few acquisitions, really - make us think Apple is eyeballing the internet in a new way as means of service. And we don't mean in the sorta way they run MobileMe, which was at first a flop, and now, decent if it were free like all the Google stuff is and not $119 a year.
• The biggest piece is Lala. It remains to be seen how radically Apple uses it to transform iTunes, but the potential for a complete upheaval of the current iTunes model is enormous. Right now, you buy stuff on iTunes, download it to your hard drive, and sync it to your iThing through a rubbery white cable. A LalaTunes would be re-oriented around the web: You buy and manage songs over the web, and could stream your library directly anywhere - like to other computers or your phone. You can buy the streaming rights to a song forever for 10 cents rather than download it. And if this new, de-centralised iTunes is indeed embedded all over the web, it would become the de facto way to listen to music on the internet, the same way Google is just how you search.
• Apple tried to buy AdMob, before Google did. AdMob is a mobile advertising company, formerly one of the biggest. They sell ads on the internet for mobile phones. Apple might've wanted it as a defensive move to keep it away from Google, but just as likely, Apple wanted a slice of the mobile advertising revenue that's simply going to explode over the next couple of years, much of which is being sold for the iPhone.
• A somewhat shakier rumour is that Apple is thinking about buying iCall, not just for the fitting name, but because they're a VoIP company. If Apple's really diving into the internet stuff, an internet calling service makes some sense. Also, though unrelated, it's interesting that after Apple blocked the app Podcaster for being iTunesy, it later released the functionality it provided, and Apple's complaint about Google Voice and other GV apps were that they "duplicated" functionality.
Apple's dabbled in internet services for a long time - you know, .Mac and MobileMe, with its storage and syncing and photo services - but in the future, you'll probably mark the iPhone as when the internet really started to matter, despite the fact that Microsoft's Steve Ballmer wasn't horribly off base when he said "the internet is not designed for iPhone". The phone is evolving to rise to the challenge, from both inside out and outside in. Remember how limited the iPhone felt before apps? Before it became a real internet thing?
The defining conflict of personal computing for the last two decades has been Apple vs Microsoft, Mac vs PC. Today, it's a three-way battle: Apple vs Microsoft vs Google. Steve Ballmer's been mocked for years over his obsession with Google, manifested through Microsoft's blind pursuit of search marketshare, but his single-mindedness looks far less loony today. It's funny, actually, that Microsoft has been entirely absent from Apple's recent collisions, which have all been with Google: Maps, voice, mobile advertising, music, executives, phones, etc. Microsoft doesn't even enter the picture here, at least from Apple's perspective. And these fights are all about the internet or mobile services.
Which is illuminating. Microsoft has had their lunch chewed, swallowed and spit back into their faces on mobile, on digital music and on, um, the internet. They let all of those things, which they were in a serious position to dominate, pass them by. Windows Mobile is hosed. Zune HD is amazing, but far too late. Google owns over 70 per cent of the search market, and people are still abandoning Internet Explorer in droves after Microsoft let it rot for years. Microsoft, with its OS on 90 per cent of the world's computers, obviously has much more to lose than Apple if the OS becomes truly irrelevant.
Apple probably doesn't want to be Microsoft. Complacency breeds extinction. And it's clear that things are continually shifting away from the traditional desktop (or laptop) to the internet. I'm not saying Apple's abandoning OS X and MacBooks and we're going to all wake up in the puffy cloud tomorrow, but anybody who thinks things aren't going in this new terminal-client direction, where OSes and hardware don't matter is blind or stupid or in denial. I mean, it's already here in some ways. (Uh, just look at Google.) A model that stays tethered to the traditional desktop is like tying a weight around your ankle and trying to fly by flapping your arms.
An Apple that's seriously focused on the internet could be a curious thing. Apple's all about ecosystems that flow and work together. Would it be a walled garden in the clouds? Or would it be open, you know, like people seem to think the internet should be? (I think of how Nintendo transitioned Mario from 2D to 3D with Super Mario 64. It was totally Mario, but something completely new.)
Whatever the case, it's hard to imagine Apple not taking the internet and internet-based services more seriously than ever - butting heads again and again with Google, the new Microsoft (of the internet) shows at least that much. We'll have to wait and see what that really means, though.