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What Will Be Apple's Next Big Thing?


What can Cupertino introduce to keep us excited about its line of products?

For better or worse, Apple (AAPL) has painted itself into a corner.

Aside from its Mac line of computers, the company's three flagship devices -- the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad -- have been implicitly designed to encompass every facet of our lives. Communication, social media, travel, commerce, entertainment, work. When everyone has access to the entire history of human thought wedged in their pockets, it's pretty hard to expand on that. Even the introduction of the iPad was anticlimactic following three generations of the versatile iPhone.

Short of a brain implant that calls up information as easily as a memory -- iThought, perhaps? -- Apple has a limited number of gadgets to really excite us at this point. While that's a testament to how beloved the iPhone is, Apple's prospective gadgetry would merely be an extension of its existing line of products.

A camcorder? The iPhone already has a camera and a built-in editing suite. An all-in-one television set? An iMac easily serves as one. An ironclad grip on the collective psyche of millions of devoted minions? Sorry, that's a Steve Jobs exclusive.

So maybe Apple becomes first to deliver interactive holographic displays -- maybe around 2030. But in the here and the now, Apple may have to stick with software and product expansions for its existing products for the near future.

And you know what? That's absolutely fine. There are plenty of things Apple needs to work on, improvements on the iPhone and such -- not including the features that competitors have already improved upon. (I'm looking at you, pop-up notifications.)

Taking that into consideration, what will be Apple's next big thing? Here are five possibilities:

1. iTunes in the Cloud
Online, streaming iTunes libraries have been rumored for years, but with the recent leak of Google's (GOOG) streaming services, a cloud-based iTunes seems likelier than ever. Apple bought the online music service LaLa in December 2009 for $85 million and shut the site down the following April, making this Apple initiative a product that's long overdue. Even months before the buyout, TechCrunch's MG Siegler called a cloud-based iTunes "inevitable." And competition from Google Music makes "inevitable" an even more certain term.

2. Near Field Communication
It's a concept recently touted in tech blogs and major news outlets alike: using your iPhone as a replacement for your wallet. Near field communication, or NFC, allows for wireless transfers of data over a short distance. And although the technology is standard in European credit card terminals, the payment system hasn't quite caught on in the States. But if there was one company to make them mainstream, it'd be Apple. Rumors have swirled that the technology won't be implemented in the iPhone 5 because of a lack of an NFC standard. Let's hope one is set before the iPhone 5's debut.

3. High Tech Security
As Apple's LaLa buyout signaled a cloud-based iTunes, September's acquisition of Polar Rose indicates the possibility of a futuristic security feature for Apple. Polar Rose specializes in facial recognition technology -- similar to the kind iPhoto uses to identify photo subjects. But beyond that, the feature could be used as a security system for iPhone users -- as in, the device unlocks once the system recognizes the legitimate owner. Far more secure than a four-digit passcode, facial recognition could really put the future in iPhone owners' hands.

4. VoIP
There's a reason mobile carriers are ditching unlimited data plans. Aside from the ubiquity of streaming video services, more users are discovering the benefits of VoIP -- or making phone calls over the web. FaceTime essentially covers this territory, but only between Apple's late model mobile devices and Mac OS X 10.6.6 -- and even then, a Wi-Fi connection is required. Google's recent Gmail VoIP -- and hints of turning Google Voice into an official VoIP app -- ought to push Apple to open FaceTime to all users while on 3G/4G networks. And when that happens, expect to really feel the lack of unlimited data plans.

5. Smarter Voice Commands
Again, increased competition from Google is expected to light a fire under Cupertino. Like its notification system, Android's voice commands completely trounce the iPhone's offerings. Save a "Call Dad" or two, Apple is completely lacking in the voice command department. However, last year's buyout of Siri -- a personal mobile assistant app -- might open up a wide array of new commands in iOS. Similar to the Wolfram Alpha search engine, Siri recognizes common phrases for a more natural interaction with your device. So if "I'd like a table for two at Alta tomorrow night at 7:30" will do all the work in Siri, why couldn't it outside the app in native iOS?

Click here to return to "The Mythology of Apple" and our complete list of Apple stories.

Why is Apple so important to us? What's next for the iconic brand? Click here to continue reading from our series on the mythology of Apple. You'll also find a link to our video, "Is Apple a Religion?"

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