This is the post in which I make the seemingly crazy claim that the "next big thing" for Apple — and for consumer tech — will be smart pets. Don't say I didn't warn you. 🙂

Trying to predict what Apple will do next or what Apple should do next (these are two different things) has fueled some of my best work and most enjoyable after-work conversations. I'm not alone in this endeavor, of course. For the past few years — ever since the Apple Watch came out — clients, the press, and just people in my neighborhood ask me: "What's the next big thing for Apple?" There are several key candidates that often get proposed – many have suggested an Apple car though late developments make that less and less likely, others think a virtual reality headset is around the corner while I myself have suggested a voice-based personal assistant (Siri in your ear, as I have been known to call it). In none of those cases would Apple be introducing a market-changing product that leaps years beyond competitors, like the jump from Blackberry to iPhone was. Even Siri in your ear is already happening, the latest version that has captured my attention is the Vinci, currently crowdfunding on Indiegogo, a headphone and intelligent agent device which exactly fulfills my prediction of what Apple should have done with Beats but for some reason chose not so, at least so far. 

Certainly, Apple has to have something up its sleeves, otherwise the dramatic increase in Apple's R&D budget in recent years would be out of place. Plus, the company has to have something big cooking to fund the intriguing new campus that it will open soon. What could it be? Rather than just aim randomly at possible targets, we could come at an answer by asking this another way: What opportunities are there left where the company can carve out a new territory and shape a market as a leader the way it did with music, phones, and tablet computers. I use the word "left" with some urgency, because there are fewer and fewer untapped, consumer-based markets that Apple could enter, meaningfully advance, and capture. Which leads me to my urgent, outlandish claim: 

Apple should create a global market for smartpets.

Follow this logic: Digital assistant devices are already proliferating, thanks to voice-based control. Amazon Echo is in more than 10 million homes and it or something like it will be in three times as many by year-end 2017. Google will be part of that growth, first with Google Home, boosted later on with other sensors and controllers in the digital home thanks to the Works with Nest ecosystem. All of these companies know that the digital home – better said, the digital lifestyle – that is just around the corner, will require devices that respond to you intuitively and through a natural interface, services that configure themselves in response to your current context, all driven by a digital platform brand that becomes a provider, caretaker, coach, and assistant to cater to you and yours. To make this happen, to gain entry into the most personal and vital parts of your lives, such a brand would have to connect to you on a very emotional level.

Apple…is so far behind Amazon’s efforts to establish an emotional beachhead in the home that it will be rendered emotionally irrelevant within five years. Unless it makes a more powerful, emotional play for its customers’ digital lifestyles.

Emotion is the crucial, missing piece and the thing that ultimately points to smartpets. Today’s digital platform brands either forgo emotion altogether (Microsoft, anyone?) or they rely on apps or other users to inject emotion into the Google Play or Apple App Store environments. Amazon is the digital platform with the most direct connection to your emotions because it’s delivering the very personal products you consume every day, from personal hygiene products to consumer food to books. But that's not a guarantee of an emotional connection. That's why, as I’ve written extensively, Amazon Echo represents a powerfully new extension of Amazon's emotional customer relationship. Amazon gives it a name, “Alexa,” and it introduces a personality that, over time, will secure an emotional connection with the user. Apple, one of the few digital platform brands that consumers actually obsess over and consciously align with, is so far behind Amazon’s efforts to establish an emotional beachhead in the home that it will be rendered emotionally irrelevant within five years. Unless it makes a more powerful, emotional play for its customers’ digital lifestyles.

The answer is staring Apple in the face: smartpets. I predict that smartpets will be the most rapidly adopted piece of the digital home and digital lifestyle ecosystem.

A word on how that will be measured. Echo, the only digital assistant device of any note is at 10 million. Skip forward to 2025 and I predict that digital assistant devices will have reached at least 200 million users. And here’s why such a big leap: By 2025, the most common form factor for digital assistant devices will not be speaker towers like today. It will be a smartpet. Three fundamental human drives will collide to make this happen:

  1. People cherish the companionship of small things. There is an embarrassment of evidence for this. From the popularity of baby, kitten, and puppy memes on the Internet to the nearly $60 billion we spend in the US each year on our pets. Tamagotchis were the earliest example of this gone digital and some form of digital pet has invaded every device known including game consoles, mobile phones, even Amazon Echo (ours has a digital kitten living inside, though it often runs away due to neglect).
  2. Consumers pay extra for personal efficiency and convenience. I call it the convenience imperative in my research and it’s a driving force behind hyperadoption – the astounding increase in the rate at which people try new products and experiences today compared to just 10 years ago. Even as the world has gotten more and more convenient in that decade, the number of people willing to pay extra to get even more convenience has risen.
  3. We really do want one service/relationship to rule them all. The smartphone is the Swiss Army device that has combined phones, digital cameras, MP3 players, and GPS devices. The same will happen with lifestyle services. It’s partly a function of the convenience imperative, but it’s also a backlash against the proliferation of services coming at us – how many ways do you pay for TV shows today compared to the one single way you paid back in 2000? How many different apps do you have to manage just your financial life? (For me, how many different devices count my steps in a day? Three!) Intelligent assistants that can rise above all of these devices, control them, deliver commands to them, extract information from them, will be the intelligent abstraction layer we don’t know we need but will embrace when it’s offered.

You can build a business on any one of these things and many people have. But few companies are in a position to do all three of these things in a way that can evoke the powerful emotions tied to these benefits. Apple could, if it located them all in the form of a smartpet. Smartpets will do all of this for us, in the most companionable, convenient, and centralized way possible. A smartpet will be connected to the cloud, making it aware of your calendar, the weather, and your other information needs. Thanks to dozens of sensors it carries wherever it goes, it will know you and your home environment – whether you are awake, who else is home, if you’re late for work. And because it’s cute (and because it will follow you around and snuggle with you in the ways that you are most receptive to), you will trust it to know more things about you than you would divulge to a wall-mounted camera or a microphone sitting on a table. In short, a smartpet will be the catalyst for you to fully embrace a digital lifestyle, with the full weight of your emotions.

There are phases to the product’s existence. The first phase is a pet-resembling, limited-mobility companion that connects with your underlying drive to care for small, vulnerable creatures. It will speak to you but also mimic animal sounds. It can use its voice as well as any other networked item in your home or possession to deliver specific information, entertainment, and personal wellness benefits. This device will sell to homes with kids as well as seniors, as an alternative to real pets but also as a lovable security guard and source of personal entertainment. Version 2.0 will have more sophisticated mobility, more natural-language processing capability, and the express permission to control other related sensors and devices you will have bought by then, including other robots. The most sophisticated version will be able to place its “consciousness” into different pet form factors, a different one to ride along in your car; another one to romp on the bed with the kids at bedtime, only to snuggle in with them and “read” them a bedtime story a few minutes later; yet another that follows you on your run or carries your groceries. The third phase, before the 2025 time frame I noted here, will be a phase that extends the digital companionship of the pet into the virtual and augmented reality world, where your physical pet now becomes a digital pal that plays VR games with you, rides along in your AR headset to give you advice or remind you when you met that person you just saw on the train and so on.

The smartpet of 2025 and beyond is not a pet at all. It’s a personality. We’ll call it a pal, a companion, a friend, an assistant, a coach, even lover. Maybe we’ll need a new word. But we won't get there from here without passing through a natural, emotionally available physical avatar, one that taps into the man’s-best-friend instinct and ultimately grows into the most complete digital relationship you will have with any company, whether Apple, Facebook, Google, or Amazon. The list of companies well positioned to do this is very small. And no one is as well positioned to push into phase one as immediately as Apple.

The business would likely eclipse Apple’s iPad line in revenue before 2020 and go on to be much bigger, especially because customers would grow to want several of them. What’s “left” for Apple is much more than leftovers, indeed. 

James McQuivey, Ph.D., is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. In his career he successfully predicted the commercialization of the Internet, the rise of online retail, and the arrival of Amazon Echo. He is also the author of Digital Disruption