Apple’s Present Day Innovation is Not What You Think

4 minute read
| Particle Debris

Innovation concept.

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.

Next Page: The News Debris For The Week Of July 24th. Failure was an option.

7 Comments Add a comment

  1. Jamie

    Au contraire, it is exactly what I think, and I think it is pandering and backward thinking. Just my opinion, but those are two words that I never would have formerly associated with the company.

  2. svanthem

    Your comment about Apple ‘frittering away’ it’s talent on programming when it should devote those resources to making better hardware makes me wonder,

    would you prefer to use an iPhone running Android or a Galaxy with iOS?

  3. pjs_boston

    Great piece Jon! I strongly agree that Apple’s innovation engine is still firing on all cylinders.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that folks seem to remember Apple’s past achievements as more epic that they actually were. I recently watched a few Steve Jobs’ keynotes including the 2010 WWDC announcement of the iPhone 4. I was struck very strongly at how little meat there was in the actual presentation beyond the iPhone 4 itself. This year’s WWDC was packed with so much more substantive innovation that I was shocked at the difference. These days most in the tech media just don’t seem to appreciate when Apple pulls things like ARKit out of their hat. They also don’t seem to appreciate how these announcements relate to upcoming product innovations.

    Who knows, maybe the new iPhone (and its connection to ARKit) will manage to surprise and delight the pundits this fall.

  4. MacFrogger

    John: “There are several ways to define innovation, and I think that contributes to an enduring misunderstanding.”

    You got that right!

  5. wab95

    John:

    Very insightful comments about the nature of innovation at Apple.

    The implications go beyond simply the range of products and services that will be the subject of innovation, but the impact of those advances on the relative impact of those innovations on Apple’s overall portfolio and bottom line. As has been pointed out numerous times, were the iPad Apple’s only business, or more precisely, were another company to have created the iPad with its current level of market domination, it would be hailed as a runaway success, more so if Apple’s tablet’s market performance were on par with Samsung’s or Amazon’s.

    Another implication is organically linked to Apple’s evolution. As the company’s range of products and services expand, Apple’s focus will likewise continue to expand beyond Apple’s original portfolio, and those clients rooted to an earlier timepoint of Apple’s past will find themselves in increasing strangeness. Some of these will be discomfited by that strangeness and move away, others challenged by it may dig deeper and expand their horizons; but an increasing majority will be people who become clients because of a specific set of offerings, but not others. These will not be the same clientele, nor should veteran Apple clients expect these special interest clients to share their interests, or to behave as a like-minded community. The like-minded community that does exist may eventually become a minority in an increasingly diverse clientele, even as that lesser community far outnumbers Apple’s current entire client base.

    MS’s original reception to the iPhone also relates to the question of innovation, and our capacity to both conduct and/or recognise it in the face of scepticism, rejection or derision. Ballmer’s reaction was clearly one of a failure of imagination and vision, but one that he shared with a great many people. The critical difference, however, was that Ballmer was the CEO of one of Apple’s chief competitors, and his reaction was therefore destructive to MS’s growth and future competitiveness. We’ve said many times that Apple play the long game. While they could not have predicted the ultimate outcome, Apple were prepared to gamble on an alternative direction to gain footing and industry relevance, while addressing an unmet and indeed unrecognised need. Bruce Lee, in describing martial arts, said that one had to be like water. When a solid object strikes a barrier, it may break or be brought to a stop. When water, strikes a barrier, it flows around it and then may encompass and overwhelm it, or assume the shape anything trying to contain it. Be like water. This applies to life, and our response to challenges and obstacles in general. The iPhone was Apple’s version of being like water, and flowing around the obstacle of Windows dominance on the PC platform. What Apple did was to change the game, overwhelm MS’s PC hegemony with Windows with a completely non-PC response in device and platform, such that not only did Apple deprecate the PC to but one of many digital devices, but they enhanced the status and marketshare of Apple’s own PC in a way it never could without the iPhone.

    In short, innovation often requires a complete re-imagination of a solution to a problem, and may not simply be counter-intuitive, it may appear to be irrelevant to the challenge until we re-examine the solution and determine how it may not simply address the problem, but redefine it. This is what genius does, but mere brilliance devoid of imagination may miss entirely.

    Innovation, like genius, is often a lonely path, dismissed and derided at its outset; appreciated only after it begins to bear fruit. We should therefore not expect that Apple will always meet our expectations with their solutions to known problems or future directions to address new ones; unless we profess to know every possible solution to all problems known and unknown. An astounding proposition indeed.

  6. CudaBoy

    Apple hasn’t innovated anything in quite a while as seen by stagnant market penetration in an Android and PC world. Indeed tend to steal (see the many lawsuits they have paid up so far to the tune of a few hundred million – or see the stylus and flip keyboard for that matter). They sort of designed a cool interface a LONG time ago; realized that proprietary I/O was a failure and became more PC every year even down to switching chips to the PC chip Intel – what happened to “RISC chips are the future and much better than CISC chips like Intels? and then basically stole every idea from swipe to unlock to thinner wider phone variations, came late to wi-fi, styli, still have no presence in AR and AI or alternative energy, on and on… they are a commodity like Corn Flakes but the excitement and innovation is long gone. With all that money – what have they done? Where’s the car? Where’s the holo-deck? Where’s ANYTHING except the iPhone? Good thing millions of drones love Corn Flakes. Then, there is the mark-up on their stuff that only a loan shark would appreciate coupled with the immoral unethical “no home repairs” strategy of a monopoly of stores instructed to NOT REPAIR but replace laptop motherboards for typically $700 instead of a simple $300 repair.

  7. RonMacGuy

    Nice cherry-picking, CudaBoy. This all coming off the BRILLIANT assessment you made one short year ago that AAPL will never surge over $100 ever again. You expect people to actually listen to your dribble? Same garbage as Bosco, but with a lot less intellectual analysis.

    July 26, 2016: “A billion here, a billion there. The whole smartphone thing can’t go on forever so it levels out to a nice steadily declining revenue still made of billions, it’s only natural. No panic; just don’t expect APPL to ever surge over $100 ever again, and that’s fair.”

    BRILLIANT!!

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