For more than a decade, Microsoft and Google have been investing in projects far afield from their main profit centers. Google, with its self-driving car efforts, as well as other projects like Google Glass and Wave, has adopted a "let's see what sticks" shotgun-approach to developing new technologies. It has been pretty public about many of its endeavors, and its failures have been very visible. Still, most of its money comes from advertising.
Microsoft has its fingers in LOTS of pies, from the living room (Xbox) to the car (Ford Sync) to tablets and smartphones. Microsoft, like Google, has seen some successes outside its traditional profit centers, but it still makes most of its money from Office and Windows (and, to a lesser but growing extent, the cloud).
Apple, on the other hand, seems to have only a handful of massively successful products. iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple TV — they're all pretty big success stories (with some more successful than others). Even though Google and Microsoft are more public about their far-afield R&D projects, Apple has a lot going on behind the frosted windows at Infinite Loop.
One of those projects, the Apple Car, has exploded from quiet rumors into a full-fledged phenomena, thanks to detailed reports from traditionally reliable news sources, including the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Reuters. We know that Apple has lots of things cooking, but when a project makes its way into the press in this manner, there's something big going on. We saw it with the iPhone, iPod, and the Apple Watch — and now we're seeing it with the Apple Car.
It's certainly possible that nothing will come of it, as Apple "pulls the string" to see where it leads them, as Tim Cook might say. But with reports saying Apple has hired 1,000 employees to work specifically on the car project, we know it's something big. It could be an electric car, a self-driving car, or something else entirely. All we know is that Apple is pouring a ton of money into it.
I, like some others, suspect that this was about to break out into the open. It had already been reported that Apple was busy hiring engineers from other automakers, such as Tesla. My guess is that these were controlled leaks from Apple, giving hints to analysts and Apple stockholders as to what the company is up to.
Apple makes a massive amount of money from the iPhone, with nearly $200 billion in the bank. It will take a massive project to keep the company's bottom line growing, and expanding into new markets — especially one so far afield from Apple's existing product base — is one way to do that. The company surely has the capital to invest, important for such a cash-intensive business like car development, and the global car industry is a big one. Furthermore, as Tesla has shown, there's a definite demand for futuristic cars.
Tim Cook has repeatedly said that he believes it is Apple's corporate duty to help the environment, and bringing a next-generation electric car to the masses could do that. I imagine that we're at least a few years away from any car-related announcements, and an announcement could precede an actual launch by years as well. But the rumor mill will continue to churn, and we'll all be wondering what else Apple has cooking at Infinite Loop.
What do you think about Apple's newest secret project? Let us know in the comments below.
Jordan Golson is an Apple Columnist for TechRepublic. He also writes about technology and automobiles for WIRED and MacRumors. He has worked for Apple Retail twice and has been writing about technology since 2007.