Apple Innovation Timeline – Revolutions Keep on Turning

The Apple Lightbulb

When Steve Jobs died in 2011, everyone rightly worried whether Apple could continue to innovate without him. I’m happy to report that with regard to major innovations, the state of the union for Apple is strong.

Several years ago, I wrote an article pointing out the frequency of major innovations from Apple. Five years after Steve’s death, it’s a good time to look back at Apple’s progress based on that track record.

The Apple Innovation Lightbulb

In the earlier article, I noted that Steve was responsible for some 16 tech revolutions across 30 years; or about one product revolution every other year. So to be on pace, Apple would need three such revolutionary products in the last six years.

The time-line below shows Apple ahead of that pace with Siri, TouchID, Apple Pay, CarPlay, and (arguably) Apple Watch. Even if you discount Apple Watch and Siri (because Steve Jobs was involved), that’s still three solid innovations since Mr. Jobs’s death. They redefined how we interact with devices with biometric security (TouchID), payments (Apple Pay), and the car industry’s locked infotainment juggernaut (CarPlay).

The Mega Revolutions

While all 21 revolutions in the full timeline are killer, some are more important than others. Eight of them (marked by asterisks) were really mega revolutions that rocked the tech world:

  1. Apple I/II
  2. Lisa/Mac/GUI
  3. Desktop Publishing (DTP)
  4. Airport/Wi-Fi/Wireless Networking
  5. iPod
  6. iPhone/iPad/Touch Computing
  7. iTunes/App Store/Digital Commerce & Distribution
  8. Siri

One can argue that Apple released at least one mega product post-Steve Jobs, Siri. Some might argue Apple Watch is, too. Conversely, pessimists might argue Siri was mostly completed during Steve Jobs’ tenure, and that Apple Watch ain’t mega. My view is that between the two, Apple should get credit for at least one mega project.

Another thing to note: it’s not reasonable to expect a revolution every other year. It’s just an average. If you look at the time-line, it took six years for Apple to come up with the Lisa after the Apple II. There was either a 10 year (measuring from the NeXTstep acquisition of NeXT by Apple) or 13 year (measuring from the DTP revolution) gap before Apple came out with the iMac. There’s a four year gap between the release of iTunes Music Store and iPhone. The gaps grow even wider if you limit yourself to just the ‘mega’ revolutions. The table shows these innovations come in stalls and fits.

Thinking Differently

I’ve groused about Apple’s failure to scale and inability to release regular updates to its tried and true product lines. I mean, what do I have to do to get a new MacBook Pro with 2TB of SSD storage? But I’m super comforted Apple has continued the more important tradition of innovating on big milestone projects.

In that most important of ways, Apple continues to be what it has always been. A pioneer in the tech world.

The Original List of Apple Revolutions1

Revolution Year Why It Was (or Is) Important
1. Apple I* 1976 Apple I ushered in the concept of powerful personal computers that mere mortals could obtain. Steve Wozniak deserves all the tech Kudos here, but Steve Jobs was key in seeing its potential and then selling it.
2. Apple II* 1977 Apple II was first “total package” computer the average person could bring home, plug in, and go. Again, The Woz gets all the tech credit, but Steve Jobs sold it and had the vision.
3. Lisa* 1983 Steve Jobs was booted from the Lisa group, but he got the ball rolling with his stroll/deal with Xerox. This got the Graphical User Interface on its way towards becoming mainstream.
4. Macintosh* 1984 This is the computer that brought the graphical user interface to the masses, or “the rest of us,” as Steve Jobs said at the time.
5. Desktop Publishing/LaserWriter* 1985 Right before Steve was invited to leave Apple he helped bring the world the ability to produce high quality print and layout with the LaserWriter. The Mac, Postscript, AppleTalk, PageMaker, and the 300dpi goodness of LaserWriter allowed the masses to create beautiful (or gaudy) layouts, ushering in desktop publishing. DTP technologies would later morph and beget many web publishing technologies we continue to enjoy today.
6. NeXTstep/Mac OS X 1988 macOS/OS X is NeXTstep plain and simple; the libraries still refer to NeXT. Both have modern Unix under the hood, incredible display technology, modern operating system libraries and a slew of other advancements. You can see a NeXTstep demo on YouTube.
7. NeXT’s/OS X’s Development Environment 1988 The reasons for such rapid and rich application development on iPhoneiPad, and Mac all stem from the object oriented programming (OOP) development technologies developed at NeXT and advanced at Apple as Xcode. It also played a role in the World Wide Web, which Tim Berners-Lee developed on a NeXT box. Apple’s Swift OOP technologies continue to build on this foundation.
8. iMac 1998 iMac started the trend towards the consumerization of the computer industry, and the injection of high style into desktop computers. Style now matters, and that started with the iMac. It also brought the demise of the floppy drive and popularized the now-ubiquitous USB port. It even made getting onto the Internet a standard and easy feature.
9. Airport/Wi-Fi* 1999 Apple included wireless networking (802.11b and its successors) with the introduction of the iBook by way of Airport (now widely referred to as as Wi-Fi). This popularized and made wireless networking commonplace. Now wireless technologies permeate most of our gadgets including Bluetooth, NFC, etc.
10. Apple Retail Store 2001 Even though all professional analysts said Apple Stores would fail, the retail locations are now the highest grossing (per square foot) retail shops in the U.S., and possibly the world. This redefined what a retail experience can be. Sadly for consumers, not enough retail shops have copied the recipe.
11. iPod* 2001 iPod is the little music player that could. It truly brought about the digital music revolution and made portable digital computing devices mainstream.
12. iTunes Music Store 2003 iTunes changed the music industry, curbed music piracy by giving users a legitimate way to procure quality music, and created entirely new digital purchasing ecosystems. iTunes revolutionized digital commerce and product/media distribution by allowing users to easily buy music online and have it show up on their computer and portable devices.
13. iPhone* 2007 Everything today is a copy of the iPhone; even Android devices started out as Blackberry knockoffs. After seeing the iPhone, Google shifted gears into iPhone knockoffs. This device brought about the entire mobile boom of the last several years, and it popularized the touch interface. We would still be navigating inane option menus with crappy four-cursor keyboards but for this major convergence advance.  Lastly, iPhone mainstreamed computing and communications as a mobile platform.
14. DRM TKO 2007 Steve Jobs helped bring about the death of Digital Rights Management (DRM) for music downloads when he penned an essay sharing his distaste. That letter helped bring about the death of copy protection schemes that punished honest users, while doing little to thwart piracy.
15. App Store 2008 Building on the iTunes Music Store, the App Store revolutionized the distribution of software on mobile devices. Mac App store, iBooks and other outlets furthered the same basic premise, disrupting entire industries and distribution models.
16. iPad 2010 Building on the foundations of iPhone, Apple scaled up the touch interface for iPad, enabling more generalized computing tasks in a larger, yet still mobile, device. Amazingly all the smug geniuses calling the iPad a big iPod touch are less critical of Android tablets that have adopted a similar model. Despite having plenty of time to copy the original iPad, Android tablets suck, and yet the press at large and Android fanboys in general find ways to pan the iPad and defend the current state of Android tablets. Perhaps having their noses rubbed into being so unbelievably wrong about iPad gives them a need to lash out. Regardless, Steve Jobs successfully ushered in another category of technology with iPad.

Apple Revolutions Since Steve Jobs’s Passing

17. Siri* 2011 Siri was arguably the last revolution ushered in by Steve Jobs. Siri brought SciFi/StarTrek-like real voice-to-computer interactions into the mainstream, and it made real the concept of personal digital assistants. It was initially released and available as a feature of the iPhone 4S.
18. TouchID 2013 Fingerprint readers existed on various phones and laptops before TouchID (introduced with iPhone 5S), this technology brought fingerprint readers (i.e., biometric tech) into the mainstream.  Better yet, it increased reliability with an integrated, dedicated, secure enclave even Apple cannot read (for added security).
19. Apple Pay 2014 Apple Pay brought device-based electronic wallet payments into the mainstream. Coupled with TouchID, it made heretofore complicated and clunky e-wallet payments super easy and secure. Utilizing one-time tokens dramatically increased electronic payment security, speeding up transactions in the process.
20. CarPlay 2014 CarPlay introduced and made common the ability to overlay your car’s infotainment cluster with your iPhone interface and data. Before CarPlay, auto manufacturers provided closed satellite and infotainment packages with no expansion abilities. Not unlike telecom companies before iPhone, automakers steadfastly controlled car infotainment systems to the detriment of everyone involved. Apple cracked this industry and ushered in user expectations that the software quality on their phones would be present in their cars.
21. Apple Watch 2015 This entry is certainly arguable (even among the the fine folks here at TMO).. What is not arguable is that Apple Watch brought wearable computing into the mainstream. This, even though an ultimate killer feature has yet to surface. But for starters, it has made constant sensor monitoring (and analysis via ResearchKit and CareKit) of personal healthcare data possible.

1 The original list focused on revolutions ushered in by Steve Jobs, and it included Pixar. I’ve removed Pixar from this version of the list, which is Apple-specific. I also added in AirPort/Wi-Fi, an unintended omission.

8 thoughts on “Apple Innovation Timeline – Revolutions Keep on Turning

  • One I forgot is WebObjects in 1995, that really brought the dynamic web (development) into reality. Early e-commerce sites such as Dell’s online store were powered by WebObjects.

  • None of the so called innovations here after Steve died were developed by Apple as all were out in the market place already. 99% of the content on this site since Jobs passes is about one product -the iPhone – look at today’s headlines to see how Singular Apple has become. Lets talk about Apple innovating COMPUTERS (and handy I/O) AWAY – namely the Mac Pro – historically the choice of Pros for music. graphics and film production. Still no love for gaming,4k-6k, 3D, AI, VR and more…..

  • Regarding lack of innovation from 1988-1998, what about: QuickTime? QuickTake? ARM (and indeed the ill-fated Newton line including the brilliant eMate 300)? Putting a laptop keyboard behind the trackball in the original PowerBooks? And don’t forget the, uh, 20th Anniversary Mac. 😉

  • Heheh, I am a fan of Apple’s penchant for cool daisy-chained hardware interconnects: Localtalk (easy daisy-chained network); SCSI (not-so-easy daisy-chained hard drives); ADB (easy daisy-chained keyboard and mouse); FireWire (easy daisy-chained, powered hard drives and other stuff like video cameras); USB (goodbye built-in floppy, hello iMac and daisy-chained peripherals); Thunderbolt (fast, daisy-chained hard drives, monitors, and networking); USB C (one connector to rule them all, with both daisy-chained USB and Thunderbolt devices).

    Apple seems to be ahead of the game, which means that sometimes they pick a winner that hits the mainstream (SCSI, USB), sometimes they pick a loser that remains a niche interface (FireWire, Thunderbolt), and sometimes they are just living in the future before anyone else arrives (Localtalk/Appletalk, ADB, etc..)

    Apple is frequently and inappropriately criticized for ostensibly developing expensive, proprietary, and inferior alternatives to cheap, mainstream, and superior Windows/Android technology, simply to defraud its apparently idiotic and sheep-like users who have been hypnotized by some kind of mind-controlling advertising, but such claims are easily refuted by considering when the events in question actually occurred as well as the maturity of each technology at the time.

  • Excellent. every engineer under the age of 30 should study this list. There are so many misconceptions about the origin and evolution of modern technologies, it isn’t widely known just how much of what we utilize now was built upon these foundations spanning decades. Maybe we are far enough along that we should start requiring Computing History as a part of an engineering curriculum.

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