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Apple in 2018: Five questions we need to ask

The company had a big year in 2017. Could next year be even bigger?

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The iPhone X marks a big redesign for Apple's popular smartphone. 

Claire Reilly/CNET

This past year was one of Apple's busiest ever -- and 2018 could be even more jam-packed.

In 2017, with the iPhone X, Apple revamped its popular smartphone for the first time in years, removing the home button and integrating an OLED screen that stretches across the entire front of the display. It showed off its new HomePod speaker and updated the Apple Watch. Sales of the iPad even started to rise again after sagging for about three years.

It's going to have a tough task topping all that in 2018. Apple will finally start selling the HomePod, presumably revamp its Mac computer, and come out with the iPhone X's successors.

Sounds simple, right? Well, we have a few questions for Apple going into next year.

The company declined to comment. 

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What does the iPhone lineup look like?

When Apple launched the first iPhone, in 2007, part of the gadget's appeal was that it was one device for everyone. You could have the same iPhone as basketball players or movie stars, assuming you could afford the $500 price tag.  

Gradually, though, Apple started expanding. Now there's everything from the "cheap" $349 iPhone SE to the $1,150 version of the iPhone X -- and a myriad of options in between. The company has also kept the older models around as cheaper options for consumers not only in Western markets but also in newer markets like India and China.

The early rumors say Apple next year could launch three high-end phones that look like the iPhone X, as well as a follow-up to the iPhone SE.

The result could be an iPhone line that's more varied than ever. This also raises the question of which older model Apple will keep as it moves to the next generation. Will it stick with all three new models?

The adoption of the iPhone X look across three new models of iPhone suggests the home button may be on its way out more quickly than we realized.

How does Siri become relevant, especially in the home?

Apple beat its rivals to market with the Siri digital assistant, artificial intelligence software that lets machines act more like humans. But Amazon and Google have surpassed Siri with their own assistants, thanks to the proliferation of smart speakers in the home.

Amazon, with its Echo smart speakers and Alexa voice assistant, now all but owns the home. Since launching the Echo in late 2014, Amazon has sold 20 million smart speakers in the US, taking 73 percent of that market, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.

Already late in playing catch-up, Apple in November delayed the HomePod, leaving the field that much longer in the hands of the Echo, the Google Home and smart speakers from companies including Sonos. Even when the HomePod eventually launches in 2018, Siri will be only a minor part of the device.

Though the smart home is still in its early stages, Apple could be missing out on a big opportunity if it takes too much longer to get things right. And it's got to find a way to make Siri not only smart enough to play the music you want but also trustworthy enough to lock your front doors.  

"Siri has to work really well on HomePod," Technalysis Research analyst Bob O'Donnell said. "If it doesn't, that's a serious blow to the evolution of Siri."

O'Donnell's research showed that 50 percent of people who have smart speakers at home use their personal assistants at least once a day. On smartphones, only 30 percent of people use their digital assistant every day.

Apple needs to make sure Siri gets smarter and more useful -- and do it fast.

Where does Apple go with augmented reality? And what about virtual reality?

Apple finally dipped its toes into augmented reality with the launch of its iOS 11 software and its augmented reality programming interface, ARKit. The technology overlays digital images on the real world using special headsets or your phone. In the case of Apple, AR means new interactive apps, like Ikea's software that lets you virtually furnish your apartment, or Pokemon Go software that lets you catch digital monsters.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has compared AR's potential to the impact of the smartphone on the world's population. "We don't have to think the iPhone is about a certain demographic, or country or vertical market: It's for everyone," Cook said during an interview with The Independent earlier this year. "I think AR is that big. It's huge."

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So far, there are about 1,000 AR apps available for the iPhone and iPad. For the tech to become as big as Cook predicts, that figure needs to rise.

Along with pushing augmented reality software, Apple is rumored to be working on AR goggles. It's unclear when something like that would hit the market or how it would avoid the problems Google saw with its Glass eyewear.

Apple also hasn't made any moves into virtual reality, even as companies like Samsung, HTC and Facebook's Oculus push the technology that makes you feel like you're in a different world.  

How deep will Apple get into the entertainment business?

Apple used to provide one of the main places to buy movies and music: iTunes. Now it's making some of that content, too. The company has been releasing original TV shows through its Apple Music service, and its efforts are growing. For instance, Apple has signed a deal to release a drama series starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, and another series from Steven Spielberg.

The company hadn't been as serious about releasing original content as Amazon, Netflix and others. Some of the shows garnered mixed reviews, like the reality app-pitching show "Planet of the Apps."

But as video gets more important, Apple could do even more.

The more interesting question is whether it may launch its own video service or offer shows a la carte. Perhaps Apple TV, once considered a hobby by the company, will become more of a focal point.

Does touch come to the Mac in a bigger way?

Year after year, Apple denies speculation that it will make a touch-screen Mac or release a hybrid Mac-iPad. It says that's not the best way for people to interact with their computers.

Instead, its solution from 2016 was integrating a touch-sensitive strip called the Touch Bar into its new MacBook, as well as giving its iPad more computerlike functionality. The Touch Bar, which replaced the normal function keys on the top row of the MacBook Pro's keyboard, can be programmed for quick access to things like emojis. It lights up with a menu of buttons, control sliders, dials and tools, which change with the app you're using.

But the call for Apple to add more touch to its computers hasn't abated. The Touch Bar has some fans and some haters, and the iPad Pro doesn't quite cut it as a PC replacement for many people.

"Consumers more and more want touch in their notebook [computers]," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. "Is the Mac the one going to be left out?"

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