Here’s what Apple is most likely to release next

A smartwatch is a hugely risky proposition for Apple, but the bigger risk is failing to release category-defining new products. (This smartwatch is by Pebble.)
A smartwatch is a hugely risky proposition for Apple, but the bigger risk is failing to release category-defining new products. (This smartwatch is by Pebble.)
Image: AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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Predicting what products Apple will roll out next is a cottage industry so robust it has its own ecosystem of devoted news sites, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t signal in all the rumor noise. Here, based on the leaks that have come out already, are the products that are most likely to constitute the “surprises” that CEO Tim Cook alluded to in yesterday’s earnings call.

1. An iWatch

Smartwatches are all the rage with manufacturers—including Samsung. They’ve been around for years, but until now they haven’t been all that useful. Indeed, they still aren’t. A product that consumers seem to be clamoring for, but no one’s done right, yet? It has Apple written all over it, and there are rumors that the company already has a design in testing.

One problem with an iWatch: As the first all-new product category released since Steve Jobs’s passing, its success or failure is all important for the future of Apple and Tim Cook as its CEO. If the iWatch bombs—and I suspect people won’t like it—it will be a major blow.

Guesstimated release: Mid-2014

2. Streaming music service

Apple may have dominated the early days of digital music, but buying music is so 2011. As all-you-can-eat streaming competitors like Spotify expand by leaps and bounds, it makes sense for Apple, which already has deals with all the major labels, to move into this area next. Indeed, a streaming deal with Universal Music Group and Warner appears imminent.

Guesstimated release: Late-2013

3. Apple is not going to release a TV

Apple analyst Gene Munster has been persistently flogging this rumor. But please let it die already. The illogic of Apple entering a cut-throat commodity business that is already seeing consolidation should be obvious, but in case it isn’t, think about what the company is doing in TV: making a better set-top box.

4. A bunch of retina-whatever iPads, notebooks etc. that no one will get particularly excited about

Putting better screens on existing products—especially when those screens already exist on other products, is just the sort of incremental updates to Apple’s products that are so straightforward that analysts put out calendars noting when they’re likely to arrive.

5. Some complete wildcard

Cook is hard to read, because we have yet to see how he hints at or doesn’t hint at a truly new product category. But unless he thinks he’s just going to ride Apple into the sunset, you can bet he’s got something in the works that no one, not even the rumormongers, has thought of yet.

Apple has previously hired engineers who are experts in wearable computing. If the company releases a competitor to Google Glass, it might look like an also-ran, but that doesn’t it mean it won’t be the iPhone to what were the smartphones of the time—mostly BlackBerrys with tiny keyboards. In other words, maybe Apple can out-design Google or—given Google’s fetish for “open,” disorganized app stores—just build a more usable ecosystem for wearable devices.