Demanding That Apple be More Innovative Requires More Innovation

| Particle Debris

It's all to easy to be an armchair quarterback writer and cry out for more innovation from Apple.  The odd thing is, none of those articles get into any serious discussion of what customers really need and what kinds of innovation would meet those needs. I want to explore that issue.

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Fifty years ago, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov looked into the future and made some predictions about technology and life in the year 2014.  Most of his predictions were pretty good: pervasive video conferencing, Mars probes and self-driving cars. However, he did geta few things wrong, and that's not unexpected. How he did with his predictions is very instructive, and Eric Mack provides a run down. That's a great article, worthy on its own, but it got me thinking.

What I find interesting is to compare a great science fiction writer's predictions for the future to how things really turned out -- and then ponder what some agitated writers today are thinking when they demand that Apple be more innovative. For example, just what things are genuinely missing in our lives that make it so urgent for Apple to rush into their development? I'd like a list please. (Thank you.)

Asimov looked at what he thought would be the natural development of technology and how technology could serve us. That kind of vision, necessarily means a keen insight into what people really want as opposed to gimmicks. 

It's easy to think of gimmicks.

One aspect of innovation is to develop something profoundly new. It never existed before, like the invention of the Maser, then Laser. Another path for innovation is to combine existing technologies. That's something that is more appropriate for Apple because it spends its money on applied R&D, not so much pure R&D -- as science does (when it can get the funds).

Along the combinatorial lines, technology develops on multiple fronts, and then innovation comes from combining the components in a new way. For example, mobile FaceTime requires 1) The Internet 2) LCD displays, 3) extreme miniaturization of smartphones and 4) Wi-Fi (or cellular wireless). A modern ARM CPU requires advanced fabrication methods, modern multi-core and threading techniques, and low-power technologies. So innovation doesn't always mean something brand new. It can mean something viable, useful and generally profitable, using technologies that are creatively and effectively combined.

When I think about potential innovation, just what current technologies do we have that are crying out for a profound combination that gives us something new? One example I can think of is Bluetooth LE combined with the modern smartphone and the Internet to create something new: iBeacon.  Another is all the piecemeal technologies that combine to make the digital wallet/Passbook.

There are others, but the trick isn't always selecting one from column A and one from columns B and C. It's figuring out what customers need (vision) and what's technically and commercially feasible in the short term (industrial expertise).

Regrettably, when I see strident demands for innovation from Apple, I don't see much of this discussed. More often than not, further discussion in the article stops abruptly -- with the hope that we won't ask questions.

Isaac Asimov, a giant of science fiction, looked at where technology was going and what people could benefit from and made some darn good guesses. Anyone who demands that Apple be more innovative and plans to cite specific products has big shoes to fill.

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Tech News Debris for the Week of January 13

No one tech journalist gets it right all the time. Including yours truly. Also, every journalist has a unique perspective, and while it makes for mixed voices, it's also a good thing, especially as complex issues are explored. But what happens is that it's all too easy for companies to use that very personal side of journalism to dismiss the ideas of any one journalist as they rationalize their decisions.

Over time, however, as ideas are kicked around in the technical echo chamber, a common thread of truth often emerges. It's a bit like science. Thousands of scientists nibble around the edges of a difficult problem, creating a common body of literature, until the real truth emerges as both consensus and testable truth by experiment. Often, (we hope) one great mind sees the whole picture and can articulate it.

And so it is with the technical journalism. Every once in awhile an article comes along that distills the best thinking of something we all wrote about, but didn't quite nail. Such is the case in John Kirk's "Blind, Deaf, Dumb & Broken Computer Metaphors" In this superb article, Mr. Kirk explains how Microsoft broke the very essential metaphors of a modern tablet -- and has paid the price. It's the best article yet that sums up why the Microsoft Surface tablets have failed.

Kirk's analysis is a gem from an accomplished observer of the tech world. You'll see what I mean.

Rocco Pendola works for The Street. He can't buy and sell stock because he provides investment advice. And here is his advice. "Apple Will Put Microsoft, HP Out of Business." In his essay, Mr. Pendola quotes another analyst, Steve Kovach at Business Insider related to Windows 9. "Microsoft Is Going To Try And Save The Imploding PC Market With Another New Version Of Windows." Pendola continues, "But, as Kovach's piece clearly illustrates, Microsoft isn't in a position to save a damn thing." There you have it, Microsoft: Pendola, Kovach and Kirk.

But wait, there's more now that I'm ploughing through my Microsoft list. MG Siegler, with light profanity, writes about how Windows 8 is "A Clear and Present Shitshow." It's a fun read.

It seems to me, the Linux community has always had a bit of OS X envy, so I was interested to read this "Apple OS X Darling Project Active." The stated goal of the Darling Project is "...to create a software compatibility layer for Linux-based operating systems so they can run OS X apps."

"The Next Data Privacy Battle May Be Waged Inside Your Car." Thank goodness Google technology will be actually driving the car by then.

What if Apple's website looked like THIS? Perhaps Apple is waiting for its now long-gone science pages to be resurrected before a redesign?

Finally, I think we all heard about a California woman who was cited for wearing Google Glass while driving. In the end, she was acquitted. Her argument was that the device was not on when she was stopped, and the law in California says a device that displays TV or video to the driver must be on. Not guilty, according to CNET.  However, Chris Matyszczyk raises an important issue: "This will present its own nuances, especially when those who wear prescription glasses integrate them with Google Glass."

On the other hand, Google glass can really help in other more favorable situations. Will this next article foretell the eventual fate of Google Glass? Restricted scenarios by professionals? It's going to take some time for the law and the technology to come to terms if this kind of technology becomes pervasive amongst the general population.

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Teaser graphic via Shutterstock.

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Particle Debris is a generally a mix of John Martellaro's observations and opinions about a standout event or article of the week combined with a summary of articles that didn't make the TMO headlines, the technical news debris. The column is published most every Friday except for holiday weeks.

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9 Comments Leave Your Own

Lee Dronick

Very good John. Also that is an excellent graphic.

MacFrogger

Glad to have my weekly dose of Debris!  I was getting worried for a while!

Re: “Apple…spends its money on applied R&D, not so much pure R&D—as science does (when it can get the funds).”  Funding for pure R&D, as you know John, mostly comes from the federal govt.

If we accept this part of your thesis at face value - and I do - that the “profoundly new” types of innovation mostly come from research funded by the federal govt, we are headed for some rough seas.  Federal support for basic R&D is on the decline, not only in terms of the dollars spent but also in terms of the science-hostile members appointed to key Congressional committees now responsible for making such decisions. 

Gareth Harris

John, sometimes innovation is really response to changes in availability of technologies that don’t result in a single product. For example, cameras in mobile devices suddenly alter the cost equation of scanning. Maybe it doesn’t replace professional scanning devices - yet, but a change is coming. Similarly you can see the voice input getting stronger. The threshold may be when Apple has enough confidence in Siri to open the API to apps, then a change is coming.

The point I’m making is that sometimes the innovation isn’t encapsulated in a single product as in iPhone, but rather in the accumulation of increments in component technologies as the bleeding edge recedes. This is not just creeping featurism. The features all add up. And the the sum alters usage.

geoduck

re: Computer Metaphoirs

All along the untrodden paths of the future I can see the footprints of an unseen hand. ~ Sir Boyle Roche


OMG I have a new favourite mixed metaphor.
Re: Clear and Present
It is astounding both how utterly awful Win8 is and how the die hard Windows Fans defend it. I’ve seen a lot of OS’s over the years and Win8 is simply the worst I’ve ever run across.

jfh17

I wonder how many of the people that complain about Apple’s “lack” of innovation are doing so on a device that was the stuff of science fiction just a decade ago. My iPhone is more powerful than my first desktop computer from 2 decades ago. Seems like some innovation too me but I guess the whiners need devices that will do their thinking for them too.

aardman

The strident demand by bloggers and commentators for innovation from Apple, if one listens more closely, is really a demand to be entertained no end.  No different from a gaggle of six year olds, all sugared up and shrieking at a party clown for more balloon animals.

Jamie

Analysts aside, I do believe many of the bloggers in question may actually be too young to realize just how revolutionary the iPhone was in those terms, aardman. It’s beats the first Mac I bought years ago too, by a long shot. smile

TMO is one of the last places to get real journalism anymore these days.

ibuck

jfh17, you elicited some interesting responses from me. I bought my first computer (Mac) in Jan 1984, which means 30 years of personal computing for me.

I guess the whiners need devices that will do their thinking for them too.

Isn’t that what Fox & NewsCorp do for them?

skipaq

Hey, I like Fox.

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