Apple is rightly renowned as a brave champion of innovative, intelligent designs that subtly change the way the world works and enjoys itself: “igniting the PC revolution in the 1970s”, “reinventing” it in the 80s, not doing really very much in the 90s, but “spearheading” just about anything you can think of in the first few years of the 21st century – according to the blurb on the bottom of every Apple corporate press release, that is. The company isn’t wrong to make these bombastic claims: the Apple II, Mac and iPod really have made a difference.

In April we asked Macworld readers what they would like Apple to invent next. 1,183 replied, with 18 per cent favouring a home-cinema system. iCinema would merge the splendour of the 30-inch LCD display with a domestic DVD-R SuperDrive and Sky+/TiVo-like digital video recorder. But could Apple really muscle in on this ultra-competitive market?

7 per cent fancied an Apple personal-transport device – after all, wasn’t Apple CEO Steve Jobs a major investor in the Segway Human Transporter? Sadly, I can see the consequences immediately – with Jonathan Ive rivalling Clive Sinclair in the public imagination. The C5 G5 iWalk would be hailed as faster than the Intel-brained Segway HT+, only for independent tests to prove Apple’s boasts hollow. Apple would make a last brave attempt to save its “Mobility Engine” by dismissing the “Mph Myth”, but to no avail as the world turned its back in disgust when it learned that the iWalk’s batteries could not easily be replaced. The final embarrassment would come when former US vice president and current Apple board member Al Gore tragically lived up to his surname in a horrible accident on
De Anza Boulevard, Cupertino. The remaining iWalk units would then trundle slowly into the nearest landfill.

More realistically, nearly a third of Macworld readers wanted Apple to create its own mobile phone. With its industrial-design chic and technical savvy at making difficult concepts appear quite simple, this market seems perfect for Apple. But the hurdles for joining such a market are so high that even Microsoft hasn’t bothered buying any of the major players.

Instead, Apple has courted the market by doing deals with its most innovative creators. In July 2002, Apple showed off its iSync technology working with phones from Sony Ericsson. Now, it has announced a joint venture with its long-term tech partner Motorola – out of the Apple dog-house after its trailing PowerPC G4 processor speeds – to get iTunes music on the latter’s next-generation mobiles. Apart from the usual shaking of hands and slapping of backs, detail was not forthcoming.

How much music will you be able to fit in the MotoPodMobile? Apple CEO Steve Jobs suggested a rather paltry dozen tracks – about one CD’s worth; certainly under 50MB of compressed AAC or MP3 files. 500MB seems to be the upper-limit of not-too-distant speculation, with the iTunes phones eventually taking on the low-end flash-memory digital-music players rather than the disk-based iPod. Even the mini’s 4GB (1,000 songs) will dwarf the mobile capacity, which would max out at about 125 songs (fewer than ten average-length CDs).

Why doesn’t Apple just make its own phone out of the iPod? It isn’t in Apple’s game-plan to make non-computing multi-function devices. Despite the temptation to combine a fork with a spoon, Apple is brave enough to admit that sporks really don’t work very well. An iPod/PDA/phone isn’t technically realistic right now if form factor and cost are to be kept consistent with a volume-selling device. In the future – as hard-drive capacities increase at the same time as sizes get smaller and prices drop further – such a spork will no doubt hit all the sweet spots. Apple is sensible to let established players experiment with the idea now – while making sure they’re using its core technologies.

In June it was reported that ringtones are now outselling singles in the UK; there’s even an official top-20 chart recognized by the British Phonographic Industry and compiled by accounting firm KPMG. Ringtone sales from Britain’s
45 million mobile-phone users were worth £90 million in 2003, outstripping the 38.5 million units of CD singles sold. You can see why the music industry will quickly get behind the idea of iTunes on a mobile.

Apple can’t just make a nice phone by adding a keypad to an iPod mini, and watch the money roll in. The big money in mobile telecoms is made from service contracts. By persuading Motorola to let it ring money out of its service customers via iTunes, Apple has completed quite a coup.

Why Motorola? With Sony now slugging it out with Apple in the iPod and iTunes battlegrounds, another link-up with Sony Ericsson is unlikely. But if Apple is serious about dominating the legal music-download market it must expand mobile mates. Moto has just 16 per cent of global handset sales. Nokia’s (albeit sliding) 30 per cent share should have Apple Finland sending out the invites soon.

Steve Jobs claims that 1.5 billion mobile-phone subscribers are expected worldwide by the end of 2004. Apple’s claimed 25 per cent share of worldwide digital-music players and 70 per cent share of the legal download market is impressive, but the market is still relatively tiny – with under 4 million such devices in existence, rising to 90 million by 2008. Forecasters expect there to be 2 billion mobile phones by that time.

The market is too lucrative to leave alone, but too hot to take-over. Just as Apple is profiting from its successful foray into the music industry’s coffers, so it hopes to cream some of the cash that pours from the mobile-phone market.

As computers, home-entertainment and mobile telephony merge into Steve Jobs’ “digital lifestyle”, so Apple survives by adapting through innovation, smart design and shrewd business partnerships. Of course, Microsoft, Sony and other tech giants will still make most of the money, but Apple’s PR department won’t stop extolling the company’s virtues as it continues “its unique journey through technical milestones and trail-blazing products, reinventing music with iTunes in 2000s, creating a new world of mobile telephony in the 2010s, and finally solving the world’s personal-transport problems probably sometime in the not-too-distant future”. MW