What's Coming In 2012: A New Era For Apple

Apple CEO Tim Cook

This is the first in a series of posts over the next week that will highlight key people, companies and trends to watch in 2012 in the sectors we cover most, from publishing to legal, and from mobile to advertising.

Two weeks from today will mark the five-year anniversary of the day a device that would change the world was first shown to the public. As we look ahead to 2012, Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) will remain the most compelling story in tech not just because of the iPhone and its cousin, the iPad, but because of the immense pressure on CEO Tim Cook and Apple’s management team to live up to the standard set by a legend.

It’s certainly going to be another ridiculous year in the mobile tech industry, even though it’s hard to believe that anything could top 2011. The patent wars will continue, Google’s purchase of Motorola (NYSE: MMI) could change the Android community, and Research in Motion (NSDQ: RIMM) will continue to sink deeper into a pit of irrelevance and despair.

But one topic stands out.

The first quarter of 2012 will be the first full quarter that Cook and his lieutenants will have been in charge of Apple following the death of Steve Jobs in October. Apple has never been stronger, and Cook has been auditioning for this job for several years. Right now, it’s hard to imagine Apple losing steam in 2012.

Yet decisions will be made during this year that will shape Apple for years to come, and those who have been hoping that Apple will finally make a significant mistake will be watching those moves like hawks.

Apple is the most influential company in consumer technology, hands down. It enjoys a position Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) did in the late 1990s, or IBM did in the 1970s: the choices it makes have ripple effects far beyond its own business.

For example, Apple could make or break mobile payments this year depending on how it wants to act. It could settle for the “patent peace” Google’s Andy Rubin would certainly like to see if it becomes clear that Apple won’t win a total victory, or it could fight on knowing that it can outspend several mobile companies while distracting them from competing in the marketplace. And if the rumors are true, it could finally be the computer company that changes the way we watch television.

Fairly or unfairly, nearly every decision that Cook and Apple make this year will be accompanied quickly by someone asking “Is that what Steve would have done?” People have been predicting Apple’s downfall for years in order to seem prescient when and if it happens, but now that a mourning period for Jobs has passed, any slip will raise questions as to whether Apple will ever be the same without him.

That will only heighten the scrutiny on what is already the most-scrutinized company in technology, not only among tech writers with mouths to feed but among competitors hoping they can duplicate some of the magic (and some of the profits) that Apple has enjoyed over the last five years. Cook and his team seem up to the task: all they have to do now is go out and prove it.

Jobs famously referred to death as “life’s change agent” in his legendary speech to Stanford graduates in 2005. Change is the last thing Apple wants to see in 2012.

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