So what do the next seven months hold in store for Tim Cook and his dedicated conjurers of electronic magic? Will the much-fabled TV finally appear? Is there any hope of an iPad Pro? Or does Apple have another 'one more thing' up its well-tailored sleeves? Well, in the time honoured Macworld tradition, we sort the wheat from the chaff in the land of speculation and industry expertise, to bring you what we think the Apple landscape will look like as 2016 arrives.
Apple in 2015: The story so far
Apple's 2015: Apple Watch
It had been nearly five years since Apple had launched a truly new product. When Steve Jobs held the first iPad up for the world to see in 2010, the technology company was on something of a roll – the iPhone was setting the benchmark for smartphones, laptop design had been shaken out of its plastic complacency by the MacBook Air, and personal music players were already beaten into weak submission by the all conquering iPod range.
Then came the Apple Watch, first unveiled in September 2014 and finally released on 24 April 2015. But Apple's newest creation enters a marketplace that feels far more competitive than back then, and the Watch needs to prove its worth against the growing range of rival alternatives.
So far, if reports are to be believed (Apple hasn't released official figures yet), the Apple Watch is succeeding, selling more units within its first few days than all of the Android Wear devices sold to date. Apple of course has a history of entering a market late but, through superior design and software, quickly becoming the dominant player. If it can repeat these past successes then wearables look set to be the breakout technology this year.
Apple's 2015: New MacBook
Apple's special event on 9 March 2015 was predominantly dedicated to the Apple Watch, but there was a surprise second unveiling of an all-new MacBook, too. This new MacBook is Apple's thinnest laptop to date, with a fanless design and a Retina display. There's also that single USB-C port that's caused a bit of a stir (find out more in our Why people need to stop panicking about the MacBook's USB-C port article). And of course, it's also available in colours that match Apple's iPhone and iPad range: silver, space grey and gold.
Also read: 8 laptops that rival Apple's new MacBook
Apple's 2015: Photos for Mac
2015 also saw Apple release a brand new Photos app for iOS and OS X, replacing both iPhoto and Aperture in the desktop environment. This new creation has been designed from the ground up with the cloud at its heart, and dovetails into iCloud Drive. Find out more in our Photos for Mac review.
Apple TV rumours 2015
One device that was conspicuous by its absence at the various 2014 and early 2015 product launch events was the Apple TV. The small black box has seen very little advancement in the past few years, with only a bump up to 1080p as the significant improvement of note. Speculation has been rife that an actual HD, or even 4K, television set would be released by Apple, mainly fuelled by the Steve Jobs biography, in which he stated how the company had finally ‘cracked’ TV. No such unit has arrived, and focus is definitely shifting away from an integrated device and back to the smart TV boxes that are growing in number and popularity.
Rival companies have not wasted this opportunity to capitalise on Apple’s hesitation, and the choice to customers is now copious. (Find out about all of the biggest Apple TV rivals here). All of these innovations have left Apple looking somewhat behind the times, with hardware that hasn’t been updated almost two years, and a paucity of channels available to UK customers. Rumours persist though, that the reason for the minimal advances is that Apple is planning a complete redesign of the Apple TV, one that might put it right to the front of the pack once more.
By far the biggest problem to overcome is that of content. With the appetite for streamed content growing steadily thanks to Netflix, iPlayer and YouTube, media companies are taking note. In fact, the latest rumours, which point to a WWDC 2015 launch for the new Apple TV in June, say that Apple is working on its very own Netflix rival.
However, securing the kind of favourable deals Apple has traditionally enjoyed could be difficult, as you can imagine that some companies will demand exclusivity clauses in their contracts, forbidding rivals to feature on the same platform. Add to that the fact that Netflix and Amazon have started producing their own, exclusive, award winning content, while Apple TV still hasn’t even got the basic content of UK, free-to-air, catchup TV such as BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, or 4OD, and things look pretty bleak.
If Apple TV is going to become a significant offering in the home entertainment market, then it needs more than just a snazzy new interface. One clue to the direction it might head in is the emergence of Apple’s HomeKit tools, which allow developers to build home automation apps for various Apple products. As the Apple TV is an always on, low power, internet connected device, that never leaves the house, it would be the perfect hub for collating and reporting data to your iPhone or iPad, or controlling temperature and lighting devices such as the Philips Hue Lux bulbs, or Nest thermostat.
There has also been speculation that the next generation Apple TV might feature a PVR-style hard drive, turning the device into a more complete home entertainment system, and harking back to the initial models. Of course, this would require live TV capabilities, something lacking at the moment, and adding these features would raise the price significantly, while increasing the size of the device - something adverse to the usual Apple mantra of smaller and thinner.
While the Apple TV might seem like a forgotten son at times, it’s worth noting that the company has sold more than twenty million units, making Apple over a billion dollars in 2013 alone. This might be small change when compared to iPads and iPhones, but it’s still a highly profitable area. Sadly this success might mean Apple continues to let the device tick over quietly in the background. At the moment it’s a great way to integrate iOS and OS X devices into your TV - play games, display photos, watch videos - and that might just be enough.
PREDICTION: We hope to see some change in the Apple TV at WWDC 2015. For a long time we’ve been longing for more channels, but also gaming, and other apps. There have been rumours that Apple will open up the App Store to the Apple TV, which could answer our prayers and bring new sources of content to the device. We anticipate a spec bump, possibly moving up to an A7 chip and more RAM so it can smoothly incorporate the Home Hub functions and fulfil its rumoured new role as the hub of all your HomeKit enabled devices. But we’d be (pleasantly) surprised to see a major redesign.
iTunes Radio/Beats Music rumours 2015
The Wall Street Journal revealed in October 2014 that sales on iTunes, the world’s number one music retailer, had dropped by between 13-14% since the start of 2014. The main reason cited was the rise of free or cheap streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, and even YouTube. With this trend set to continue it raises the prospect of Apple aggressively pursuing the rumoured rebranding and relaunching of its own iTunes Radio subscription service, and maybe finally releasing it in the UK.
Adding fuel to this particular fire is the $3 billion purchase of Beats Electronic earlier in 2014. Alongside the now ubiquitous headphones that the company is known for, it also has the Beats Music subscription service that many are expecting to be folded into iTunes to bolster the streaming options. This area is set to get even more competitive now that Spotify has announced its plans to lower the cost of accessing its music library in the US, with a $10p/m Premium plan that allows you to add additional family members for just $5 extra. Various industry sources have been reporting since that Apple is in negotiations with the music publishers to lower the subscription cost of its service to under $10. For British customers this all seems something of a moot point, as iTunes Radio and Beats Music have yet to debut in these sceptered isles. But as music streaming begins to gain the upper hand in this battle for the ears of the world, can Apple really hold back when Spotify extends it customer base?
PREDICTION: Apple needs to move fast as the music landscape is changing rapidly. We expect to see the newly rebranded Beats Music appear as an iTunes Music subscription service in the UK by the summer. Whether it is as poorly received as the U2 album remains to be seen.
Apple Hi-Res Audio rumours 2015
When the iPhone 6 was launched there were many audiophiles who hoped that it would include the ability to play Hi-Res audio files. Technically it does, as the DAC (digital audio convertor) included in the handset can handle 24-bit/96kHz audio, but it can not output it through the headphone socket. Mashable ran a series of tests to examine the possibilities on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, concluding that to listen to Hi-Res audio you’d need to output the signal from the Lightning connector. Thankfully, this isn't quite as bad as it sounds, due to the fact that at the last WWDC Apple announced new specifications in its MFI (Made for iPhone) program that allows headphones to use the Lightning connector. At the time there was much speculation that this would pave the way for an imminent Beats Headphone set sporting a lightning connection and heralding in the new era of Hi-Res iTunes. This might still happen, but so far Sony and Philips have been the first to announce new headphones utilising this feature - the Sony MDR-1ADAC (£249), and the Philips Fidelio M2L (£TBC) - both of which come with built-in 24-bit DAC technology. It can only be a matter of time then before we see the emergence of a Beats version in theApple store.
Of course headphones are one thing, but to play Hi-Res (or HD) audio customers will need Hi-Res tracks. Currently the iTunes store only sells 16-bit/44.1kHz tracks, which is lower than the 24-bit/96kHz quality that would bring the audio above that of a CD. Apple does have a large stockpile of Hi-Res music, as it requests these files from publishers so that it can create the Mastered for iTunes versions of albums, but up until now there has been no sign off it making these tracks available for purchase.
Companies such as HDTracks have filled this gap in the market up until now, offering a variety of formats for your HD delectation that can be downloaded to your desktop and then imported to iTunes. Whether Apple will follow suit is still unclear, as it will no doubt require agreement from the music publishers, and with negotiations reportedly already on-going for the iTunes Music subscription service, it might be a bit too much too soon for the notoriously cautious industry.
It's not out of the question, though, as in a recent interview with Time magazine U2 frontman Bono said that the band were working with Apple on a project that 'will prove so irresistibly exciting to music fans that it will tempt them again into buying music'.
PREDICTION: With music sales beginning to slump Apple needs to inject something new into iTunes. The subscription service is one, Hi-Res audio is another. Expect this area to become very interesting before the end of the year.
iPad Pro rumours 2015
While sales of iPhones are still going gangbusters, the iPad, after its explosive start, has seen a steady decline in the past few sales quarters, dropping almost two million units since the same time last year.
Analysts argue that this is could be due to uncertainty about how often customers will choose to upgrade them. With a phone there are generally two-year contracts, after which iPhone users tend to move up to the newer model, but iPads have no such incentive.
The 2012 iPad 4 has a retina display, fast hardware, a lightning connector, and can complete pretty much any task you throw at it; so unless weight is a real issue there's not much reason to spend money on replacing it. The iPad Mini caused a surge of interest, quickly followed by the more impressive Mini 2 with its retina screen and high-level internals, but even that is tapering off, possibly now due to the larger phones beginning to cannibalise sales. In a recent interview with the New York Times, technology analyst JP Gownder stated that while the thinner and lighter iPad Air 2 could stimulate growth among professionals, "an iPad with an even bigger screen would have driven more new demand".
Microsoft has already been active in the larger tablet space, with its PC/Tablet hybrid Surface Pro 3 gaining very positive reviews and gleaning the company the best part of a billion dollars in revenue over the last quarter. Of course that device is really a PC with tablet facilities, and so would be better measured against the MacBook Air and now the new MacBook, but does illustrate that there is a market for touch-based productivity machines. Samsung also threw its hat in the ring earlier in 2014 with the release of the Galaxy Note Pro 12.2, and again saw a generally favourable response. These two products have been steady, if not spectacular, but we can’t help think if Apple was to create its mythical twelve-inch iPad Plus, it would have a strong contender for the enterprise and professional market.
Speculation of a 12.9in iPad Pro has been consistent across the tech press, although recently things have gone a little quiet. Bloomberg did state that this new category device would finally make its appearance in 2015, so the idea is still circulating, albeit in a less enthusiastic fashion. How such a device would function is another area of hot debate. One thing most people agree on is that it will be aimed at professionals and enterprise rather than consumers. Apple and IBM agreed a deal last year to create one hundred custom-built enterprise apps for iPads and iPhones, and to optimise IBM’s cloud services for iOS. This could significantly improve the penetration into enterprise that so far the iPad has struggled to secure. A larger, pro device, might make this transition a more alluring one for businesses at large, with its productivity capabilities increased. It’s also worth noting that back in March Apple was granted a patent for an advanced stylus that featured an extendable, and possibly interchangeable, nib. This kind of tool could also open up possibilities in professional design, or other industries that require detailed recording of bespoke information.
Some suggest that the new iPad should become an OS X/iOS hybrid device that allows multiple apps on screen at once and extended functionality. This would make the iPad Pro (when paired with a Bluetooth keyboard) a real alternative to the MacBook. With the current iPad Air bearing a 2K screen there is also a theory that a bigger offering would possibly step up to 4K as a way of maintaining the crystal clear displays, which have become the hallmark of high-end iPads. The current A8X chip found in the iPad Air 2 is certainly a hugely powerful processor, which should be able to deal with the kind of computational challenges required to push that many pixels if need be.
Achieving a hybrid device though this is no small task, and while the newly introduced Handoff and Continuity functions in iOS and OS X bring the two platforms closer together, both are still running separate versions of apps on their systems. Bridging that gap might be a challenge too far in the next year, especially when focus has been trained on the introduction of the Apple Watch. We also know that Tim Cook isn’t the biggest fan of the converged device, comparing tablet-laptops hybrids like the Surface with a "toaster fridge" and suggesting such a device wouldn’t work as well as the two devices separately. A purely iOS 12.9in iPad would still find its place though, as the increased space would allow photography, video, and office apps to really shine.
PREDICTION: Rumours have been persistent for this device, and with iPad sales slowing it would make sense to introduce a new model, especially one aimed at the enterprise market. We think 2015 could see the arrival of a larger iPad, but it will be iOS based rather than an OS X hybrid.
iPhone 7 rumours 2015
Believe it or not, the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus are already eight months old, so rumours are well underway about the nature of these record-breaking models’ successors. In previous years Apple has been consistent in its approach to upgrading the iPhone. 2014 saw a redesign of the casing, and the introduction of the first Apple Phablet, so we’d expect the 2015 models to keep that exterior and instead increase the performance by upgrading key components.
One potential change is that of replacing the gorilla glass screen with sapphire. We already know that the Apple Watch will feature this highly scratch-resistant material (except for the Watch Sport that will use Ion-X glass), but scaling this up to the kind of numbers required for iPhone launches is questionable. Apple did acquire a sapphire plant in Arizona, with the intention of working with GT Advanced Technologies, who specialise in the manufacture of the jewel. This agreement soured though when GTAT declared bankruptcy in October, and the plant now lies dormant while Apple decides how to proceed with its sapphire production.
In standard fashion we’d expect the new iPhone models to have upgraded chips - with the A9 set to take over from the very impressive A8 - and the cameras, which are such strong selling points for iPhones - will no doubt include the latest dusting of Apple magic to makes images even more vibrant. There are also rumours of wireless charging capabilities (much like the Apple Watch), and even a reversible USB charger that can be inserted any way round, just like the Lightning connector.
PREDICTION: Expect mainly internal upgrades to the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, and that they'll sell in quite incredible quantities. We hope that Apple decides to update one of the smaller iPhones in 2015 - we always thought the 4in screen was the perfect size.
iOS 9 rumours 2015
We shouldn't have long to wait for our first glimpse at iOS 9, though we don't expect it to arrive on our iPads and iPhones until September. Expect to see iOS 9 on 8 June at Apple's kickoff keynote for WWDC 2015.
We look at the rumours and our hopes for iOS 9 in a separate article: iOS 9 release date rumours and features wishlist
OS X 10.11 rumours 2015
Yosemite was a substantial upgrade to OS X, one that saw Apple continue its convergence between mobile and desktop environments. Handoff and Continuity made sharing features (such as phone calls, messages, and documents) between the two platforms seamless; while the new design borrowed much from the flat landscape of iOS 7 and 8. With Apple now on a yearly upgrade cycle for OS X we should expect to see these new functions refined over the year, along with deeper integration of the new iCloud Drive service.
OS X 10.11 should be unveiled alongside iOS 9 in June at WWDC 2015. Stay up to date with the rumours here.
iPad Air 3 & iPad mini 4 rumours 2015
Of course, we're also expecting to see new iPads from Apple this year, and not just the aforementioned iPad Pro. Since launching the first iPad in 2011, the company has updated it every year since, so an iPad Air 3 is on the cards, as is the next generation of iPad mini.
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