Being “Fastest”, “Different” or “Most” Doesn’t Make You Innovative

There have been a few pieces in the past couple of days lamenting the fact that the iPhone 5 isn’t “ahead” of Android phones, and that it is largely just catching up to some hardware features. Others point to things that some feel are missing, like NFC. All imply that Apple has “stopped innovating” and that they aren’t “leading the way”. It’s as if these authors know nothing about the history of the iPhone, or mobile computing in general. Yes, it is true that few of the iPhones have been “the best” or “the fastest” when it comes to hardware specs and features. Apple didn’t do a lot of the software features on the iPhone first. What Apple did was make some of it better, or make it easier to use. It’s worth looking at some of the history, and some of the main features for the iPhone, to understand how Apple is really, really good at taking current ideas and making them a little better (or occasionally, a lot better).

Touch-screen Mini-tablet

The iPhone was not the first mobile computing device to feature a touch-screen only interface. This was done years before by others, including Palm and Compaq. Apple appeared to have learned from those devices, though, and made some improvements, or at least some changes. Consider that the first Palm Pilots and Compaq Windows CE/Windows Mobile devices were geared toward a stylus. In order to get as much info as possible on such a small screen, it meant making a lot of the “targets” like buttons and other controls small.

Apple decided that the stylus was a problem. Personally, I’m mixed on the subject. A stylus is still superior for some tasks (like writing) vs. using a fingertip. But not having to pull out a stylus every time, and allowing a lot of operations to occur one-handed has some utility. Apple’s take on a touchscreen interface wasn’t truly revolutionary, but more evolutionary. But it was an important revolution.

General Hardware Performance

Name one iPhone model that, at the time of it’s release, had the fastest, most powerful processor, or had more processor cores than existing phones? You can’t, because Apple has generally been conservative in this approach. It is a philosophy that has carried over from the Mac: the Mac has rarely, if ever, held the lead on processor or other hardware performance. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean that each new iPhone model as a slug when it was released. Every iPhone has been very competitive when it comes to performance. But the iPhone has rarely been the fastest, and where it has lead, it was in the GPU for graphics, not the CPU for general processing.

What Apple has done is taken the hardware and put it into packaging that is functional (usually. See: iPhone 4 Antennagate) and attractive. No cheap plastic boxes for the iPhone. The plastic versions had attractive curves, and shapes meant to actually fit in a human hand. The iPhone 4 went a different direction, moving to glass and metal for a more “engineered” look. Steve wasn’t kidding when he compared the iPhone 4 to older models of Hasselblad cameras. Despite the weakness of the antenna design, the iPhone 4 was (and still is) a very attractive piece.

Apps

People credit Apple with creating the entire mobile app industry, and to some degree they are correct. But Apple didn’t pioneer the idea of building mobile apps. You could buy and install apps for PalmOS and Windows Mobile years before the iPhone came out. I should know: I bought several. Developers could build apps for Blackberry and Symbian, again years before the iTunes App Store came into existence.

What Apple did was solve a problem that held back many app developers: distribution and platform promotion. To build and sell an app for Windows Mobile or PalmOS, you either had to find an app store (invariably Tucows or something run by Digital River) or you had to set up your own. And then the user had to go through a few steps to install the app on their device. It wasn’t onerous, but it wasn’t exactly convenient either.

Apple made buying and installing apps a trivial exercise. It took limited effort to buy an app, and installation was more-or-less automatic. Your job as a developer? Set up some banking information and submit the app for approval. Yes, the first iteration for app submission was a bit clunky. There were several manual steps that weren’t exactly convenient. But Apple has since streamlined it, such that you don’t have to leave XCode to get your app submitted for approval.

Apple “closed the circle” to some degree by promoting apps. Other platforms didn’t do a particularly good job of letting people know a) that apps existed for their platform and b) where to get them. In some cases, the carriers likely worked to discourage the practice (carriers hate anything that takes away control of the device and the bandwidth). But Apple made apps a big deal because apps, like 3rd party software for PC’s, makes your mobile device more useful, and it makes it more personal.

So, Has Apple Lost It’s Innovative Ability?

I’m not prepared to say that Apple’s ability to innovate has slowed down for four reasons. First, using the supposed “lack of innovation” in the iPhone 5 ignores the history of the iPhone. It overlooks where the iPhone was innovative. It isn’t in what Apple created from whole cloth, but what Apple did to repackage and repurpose existing technologies in a better way.

Second, the room to “innovate” has lessened as fewer and fewer new and compelling features are needed on smartphones. About all you can do is get faster, smaller, more power, etc. At some point we may see another dramatic leap in small-formfactor mobile computing (like the impact the MacBook Air had on notebooks). But that hasn’t happened yet. If it does come from Apple, it either won’t be called an iPhone, or it will be an iPhone with a different “surname” and not a number appended to it.

Third, the “nothing has changed since 2005” argument, something I didn’t touch on previously. So what? Just because something hasn’t changed doesn’t mean it is broken. My god, the basic controls of my car haven’t changed since the 1930’s! That must mean something is wrong with my car’s interface! When something is working, and working well, change for the sake of change isn’t “innovation”.

The fourth and last reason is that Apple is still looking for its path forward absent Steve Jobs. A lot has changed for Apple in the past couple of years. They went from underdog to mainstream technology provider. They aren’t the outsider anymore, they are the archetype that other companies are trying to mimic (here’s a hint: if you want to beat Apple, don’t be Apple. Imitation doesn’t work). During this transition from the outside to the middle, they lost their leader and the public face of the company. In some ways, this was a failing of Steve, in that he made Apple as much about himself as it was about the products. He started to bring others to the front, but in some ways, he waited too long, and didn’t give them a chance to put their stamp on the company.

This move to the middle has also meant they are bumping up against classes of consumer they haven’t catered to before: ones who aren’t swayed by the design, or people who are more conscious about price. As with any product, Apple will have whole swathes of people who won’t buy their products. Apple isn’t alone in this regard. But for Apple to continue to grow, they have to appeal to a broader base of customers, and that means a less frantic pace of change, being perceived as “stable” and offering a broader range of products.

Sometimes “innovative” isn’t about setting new directions, but giving people what they want in a comforting and reliable way, just a little better than you did it last time. Not all innovation has to be giant leaps forward (or sideways).

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