But there’s one good reason why Apple won’t be the first company to $1 trillion – and that’s because it’s too easy to fall into the trap of extrapolating from the recent past to predict the future.
Think back to the end of the last tech boom in the 1990s, when Microsoft, Cisco and Intel were stock market darlings and all of them attained stock market valuations of over $500 billion. At its peak, Microsoft had a market valuation of nearly $620 billion – comparable to Apple’s valuation back in August 2012 – and everyone thought the “Wintel” PC dynasty was unstoppable. And then the dot-com tech collapse happened in March 2000, changing everything we thought we knew about the Internet.
Fifteen years ago, then, we got it all wrong but it wasn’t our fault. Back in 1999, of course, Google was only a year old, Facebook was not even a dream yet in a Harvard dorm room, and the first iPhone was still nearly a decade away from being introduced. For much of 1999, Apple sported a nifty market capitalization of under $10 billion, less than that of either Dell or Nokia. Who would have guessed that Apple’s market cap had the potential to grow 100-fold over 15 years?
And now we are at risk of getting it all wrong all over again. By focusing on tech heavyweights such as Apple and Google in the race to $1 trillion, what we are ignoring is the rise of entirely new technologies that are capable of growing at an exponential rate such as artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and 3D printing. These new technologies are the “mobile phones,” “social networking” and “Internet search” of future tech generations.
As a result, whoever controls these industries has a good chance of becoming the first trillion-dollar company. The problem is, we can’t yet recognize these companies and industries for what they are because they are still in their formative stages. The future, as William Gibson is said to have famously remarked, is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. The company that will be the first trillion-dollar company may already be here, we just haven’t noticed its poential yet.
Artificial intelligence is one industry that could give rise to the first $1 trillion company – provided, of course, that sentient AI life doesn’t kill off humanity before it reaches that target. The promise of AI is that almost anything can be made more valuable by making it smarter. It’s no wonder that we’ve started to see an initial land grab of smart “machine learning” companies and talent. Google, for example, has spent more than $400 million to acquire DeepMind Technologies to ramp up its deep learning capabilities. For AI ever to produce a trillion-dollar company, though, machines will need to do more than just recognize patterns and crunch a lot of data. AI start-ups will need to create a fundamentally new way for humans to interact with machines, perhaps even a new way of learning or acquiring knowledge.
Another potential trillion-dollar industry is 3D printing, which promises a “second industrial revolution.” 3D printing has the potential to upend the way we buy, sell and make everything, turning every garage into a personal fabrication unit. If the first industrial revolution was all about mass production, the second industrial revolution will be all about mass customization. There are any number of companies today that hope to use 3D printing for rapid prototyping, design and small-batch manufacturing, but the real boost will come when there is a 3D printer on every desk and in every home. Think of a mega-ecosystem even bigger than the one Apple is building.
But that’s really just scratching the surface. Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler in their new book Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World highlight a handful of technologies — including the Internet of Things, AI, robotics and synthetic biology — that have the potential to fundamentally change the way we live. Add to this list other futuristic tech favorites such as drones, asteroid mining, augmented reality, and nanotechnology and you have other prospects for the first $1 trillion company.
However, keep in mind, $1 trillion is a very big number — bigger than the annual GDP of all but 15 economies in the world. $1 trillion in annual revenue means selling seven billion people one item each that costs $143. As Diamandis points out in “Bold,” the best way to become a billionaire is to solve a billion-person problem. That means the most likely trillion-dollar technologies will be those that are networked, global and capable of growing exponentially. To sell seven billion people anything, there needs to be a focus on selling to the developing world, a place where some of today’s stock market darlings — Apple included — have fallen short.
As they say on Wall Street, past performance is no guarantee of future results. All of those fantastic valuations (Goldman Sachs says Apple is worth $845 billion! Carl Icahn says Apple is worth $1.26 trillion!) are based on the assumption that Apple will continue to grow at its current pace and that all of its new products in the pipeline — the Apple Watch, Apple Pay and the rumored Apple Car — will be huge smashes later. They also assume that the tech market has nowhere to go but up, up, up, just like in 1999. If Snapchat is worth close to $20 billion these days, Apple must be worth 50 times that, right?