Occasionally, observers criticize Apple for not being innovative enough, but they’re off the mark.
There are several ways to define innovation, and I think that contributes to an enduring misunderstanding. One can take the approach that innovation means a breathtaking, unexpected new product that ignites the company’s fiances and takes the tech world by storm. One can argue that the iPod and iPhone did just that. See: “The Day Steve Jobs Launched the iPod and Changed Apple Forever.”
The other way to look at innovation, and I think this is he proper one, is the application of original thinking and engineering finesse combined with significant resources to attack modern problems and create solutions that make life better for customers. In new ways.
The first definition above is often applied to Apple when Steve Jobs was trying to save the company in the late 1990s. The dramatic “One More Thing” announcement at events was cleverly designed to whet our appetites and make us believe that Apple was imaginative and resurgent. That turned out to be true, but Steve Jobs knew that he had to back up the hype with real, desirable products. He demanded as much from his engineers.
Another factor is the size of the company. In 2001, Apple’s total revenue for the year was about US$5.4 billion. Today, it’s over $200 billon. When a company is small, dramatic changes are a significant fraction of revenues. They have an impact. And the company can turn on a dime.
When a company is much larger, innovative products tend to be overwhelmed by the scope of the company. They’re innovative, but they don’t have the same impact on the company’s directions and finances. They may be great, but their appreciation is lost amidst all the other positive things the company does. Putting them into perspective is harder and requires insight.
Modern Innovation at Apple
Apple has made some significant advances in terms of how we live (health and fitness) and how we interact with devices. For example, we have AirPods, HomePod, ARKit, HomeKit, HealthKit, and amateur photography to name a few. Our Apple watch tracks our pulse, exercise and soon, perhaps, our blood glucose. An iPhone with a fast 64-bit processor executes 100 billion instructions to deliver breathtaking photos.
One of the most notable innovative contributions lately has been Apple’s cooperation with the company called Cochlear and their new Cochlear implants. Cochlear created the product, but Apple’s made MFi licensing available at no charge.
Why does Apple get involved in such seemingly small projects? It’s because new frontiers in health can leverage from many of the core technologies that Apple has developed over the years. Apple could just settle for cool toys and gizmos, but instead actively looks for ways to utilize its technologies, in an innovative way, to make life better for customers. That’s the real legacy that drives innovation.
There was a day when it was enough for Apple to organize our music in iTunes and our photos in iPhoto/Photos. That did make our life better. Today, the challenges Apple can take on are vaster and more sophisticated. But, in most cases, they don’t have that one-off “One More Thing” sex appeal that punctuated the older Apple.
Today, it doesn’t make sense to crave an endless succession of dramatic events presented by someone like the master showman of the past, Steve Jobs. The scale and subtlety of modern technical challenges in AI, big data, autonomous vehicles, Health, AR and VR won’t look like an iPod pulled out of a CEO’s jeans pocket for the first time.
We’re beyond that, and Apple executives know it.
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