What's up for Apple in 2012?

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2011 was a big year for Apple. The company continued to dominate the tablet market, with no rival coming close the iPad in sales. It also released Lion, an update to OS X that delivered hundreds of new features; pushed out a major update to iOS that finally cut the cord for backups and syncing; launched its new cloud service, iCloud (albeit not without some issues); and continued to rack up record sales of Macs.

And, of course, 2011 was the year that Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO because of declining health just weeks before his death on Oct. 5.

On several fronts, Apple seems likely to capitalize on its successes in the coming year. Fueling continued growth in 2012 will be several trends that began this year within the company, the consumer market and enterprise IT.

Bridges to the enterprise

Apple isn't the first company that comes to mind when you think about enterprise technology vendors. Indeed, Apple has never released an enterprise product road map like Cisco, HP, Dell and other vendors do. Despite its unique approach (or lack thereof) to the enterprise, Apple has historically created its own enterprise offerings, like its OS X Server platform and the Xserve rack-mount server.

Although these could be integrated with common enterprise infrastructures, Apple has focused more on producing end-to-end Apple solutions -- an approach that has worked well in Mac-centric niche markets and small businesses, but not in the larger corporate world.

Over the past couple of years, however, Apple seems to have learned that it doesn't have to be the only option for bringing its technologies into the workplace. The company has been quietly building bridges to the enterprise by establishing partnerships with third parties to advance the use of iOS devices and Macs in business environments.

Letting mobile device management (MDM) vendors lead when it comes to securing and managing iPhones, iPads and other mobile products is a great example of Apple putting the underlying technology in place and letting others devise scalable, multiplatform systems.

At the same time, Apple has scaled back some its own enterprise technology. The last orders for the Xserve rack-mounted server shipped in the spring, and OS X Server was recast as a small business system with the release of Lion Server as a simple add-on to Lion.

This is a trend that will continue through 2012. Apple will quietly boost its support for iOS and OS X in the enterprise by more deeply integrating its systems with existing enterprise standards and technologies. The number of client and system life-cycle management tools that now support Macs and iOS devices are evidence of this.

But Apple will also work to ensure that its systems are implemented and supported as effectively as possible. It will achieve that goal through partnerships with IT consulting firms, by offering training and educational resources, and by refocusing its existing set of certifications to address the needs of the market. Apple has already taken such steps with the new Mac Integration 10.7 certification for deploying Macs in Windows environments.

Apple's own efforts will be helped by the growing trend of companies allowing employees to use their own devices for work -- the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) movement -- and a tablet market that has yet to produce a true iPad competitor.

Embracing LTE and the A6 for next iPad/iPhone

Without a doubt, we'll see new iPads and iPhones in the coming year (and a real update to the iPod Touch). Those devices will be based around next-generation ARM processors. There will almost certainly be improvements to the iPad's screen, bringing it in line with the retina display of the iPhone (though maybe not to full parity when it comes to pixels per inch).

Likewise, there's little doubt that Apple will introduce LTE support. The question is more about whether Apple will offer separate 3G and LTE models of the iPad 3 and iPhone 5 (along the lines of the Verizon iPhone 4, which launched as separate GSM and CDMA handsets) or combine the technology in a single model.

The inclusion of near field communication (NFC) technology and support for mobile payments seems more in doubt. Obviously, Apple is proving that iPhones make great mobile payment systems via the self-checkout feature recently instituted by its retail stores. And it already has a user-payment mechanism in place through the iTunes Store. However, Apple sometimes waits on features (like LTE) until it feels they can work as flawlessly as possible. That could mean another year before NFC comes to iOS.

I strongly suspect that 2012 will also be the year when Apple begins to diversify iPad price points. The company isn't likely to introduce a 7-in. or limited-feature model, however. Instead, it will more likely follow the approach that it has used with the iPhone and continue producing past iterations and selling them at lower prices.

Siri evolves

It's a given that the iPhone 4S's virtual assistant, Siri, will improve and evolve throughout 2012. And there are a handful steps that Apple is sure to take to enhance the voice-controlled technology. For starters, we know that additional languages and localized results will be added in the coming months. We also know that Apple is amalgamating a lot of crowd-sourced data that will improve Siri's speech recognition and understanding of colloquial phrases. And it seems a sure thing that Apple will deploy Siri on a number of devices, including future iPads and iPod Touches (and potentially TVs, which I'll get to in a bit).

It's also likely that Apple will begin linking Siri to additional reference and recommendation services. Currently, Siri can get information from Wolfram Alpha, Yelp, and Google Maps. As the brouhaha over Siri's inability to locate abortion services proved, Siri is at the mercy of the services it connects with. No doubt, Apple is working to identify and develop partnerships with additional content sources, particularly in regional and local markets around the world. The company may even be looking at buying one or more outright. I also wouldn't be surprised to see Apple allow users to select which services Siri uses to locate information or in what order it should query those sources.

Beyond putting more data at Siri's virtual fingertips, Apple will also likely extend the technology's capabilities in terms of what data and apps Siri can interact with on an iOS device. Any new capabilities would be implemented in iOS itself or with Apple's apps at first. That said, I'm sure Apple will eventually open up at least a few APIs so developers can plug into Siri in a variety of ways. I expect this will be a key feature for developers in iOS 6.

One big question: Will Apple eventually introduce additional voice/personality packs for Siri? Given that Apple has already done so to some extent with the localized language support in the Siri beta, it seems almost certain that the company can offer additional choices, just as most GPS navigation systems do. The questions are: When will we see them, and will they be free?

As with developer access to Siri, I'm betting that those options will arrive with iOS 6 and that users will be able to purchase them like ringtones.

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