February 22nd, 2012

With Mountain Lion, Apple announced they are moving OS X for Mac to an every-year release schedule, like iOS. That’s significantly more aggressive than Apple’s been since 10.3 was released in October 2003. Since then, each successive release has taken at least 1.5 years. 10.5, Leopard, took 2.5 years to ship, partly because Apple had to peel engineers off of the Mac OS X team to finish the iPhone in time for release.

That shows how much Apple has changed in five years. At the beginning of 2007, Apple’s only computing products were Macs, and it took them at least 1.5 years to release a new update to Mac OS X. Shipping the iPhone required re-tasking engineers from the Mac OS X team, and delaying the 10.5 release. At the beginning of 2012, though, Apple sells three kinds computing products: the Mac, iPhone and iPad, releases new versions of iOS each year, and plans on doing the same for OS X for Mac.

In 2007, Apple eked every last ounce of work out of their resources. They were maxed out, with larger releases for the Mac, and a new operating system to develop, too. In 2012, they’re stepping on the accelerator.

They’re accelerating at an interesting time. The Mac is outgrowing the PC industry, the iPhone was the top-selling smartphone in the U.S. in the fourth quarter of 2011 (top three, actually—iPhone 4S, iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS), and the iPad dominates the nascent tablet market. Apple is, by all measures, at the top—and yet they’re increasing their pace.

It’s a lot like a marathon runner or cyclist that, while punishing the rest of the pack with their pace midway through the race, decides they can ratchet the pace up even more. Their earlier pace was merely a leisurely stroll. They don’t just want to win the race. They want to break everyone behind them.

I think that’s what Apple is doing. They are a bigger company now, with more resources and capabilities, and they are using their size to accelerate development. As I wrote last April, Apple’s success depends on constantly defining this new market. When Apple defines what these new kind of computing devices are and what they can do, and everyone else has to play on Apple’s terms, it is very hard for anyone else to beat them head-on. Now that Apple is in control, their plan is to move at such a quick pace that no one has time to jump ahead, because they’re constantly trying to catch up to where Apple was.

This doesn’t mean constantly improving their current devices and software, iterating and iterating closer to perfection. That kind of development leaves you open to disruptive change, just like Apple did to Research in Motion with the iPhone. It means making big leaps into new areas, and it means cannibalizing their current businesses. it means disrupting your own business. I have no doubt mobile devices as we know them now—handheld device with a large screen—will morph into other forms as time passes, and I think Apple’s intention is to make those kinds of dramatic changes.

That might mean a move toward wearable computers, playing a larger role in the family room, or making the iPad an even more capable computer. Or it might mean something entirely different, I don’t know. I think that’s what, in part, Mountain Lion indicates: in the next five years, Apple isn’t going to make consistently small improvements to their current products, they’re going to make dramatic changes. Apple is attacking.