Innovation and iteration: The two sides of Apple

If you’re the kind of person who frequently peruses publications of a technical nature, you’ve undoubtedly seen the headlines: “Apple no longer innovates!” And although I know that these headlines and accompanying stories are generated largely to raise dander and attract clicks, I must agree with their main thrust. Currently, Apple isn’t innovating.

Whoa, whoa, hang on there, Reader With Angry Fingers Poised Over Keyboard. Before you dash off the kind of note that you’ll later regret, let me finish. I agree that Apple’s latest work is not innovative. But here’s the important postscript.

Whose work is?

This boils down to semantics. The word innovate refers to creating something that is new or original. At one time you could reasonably apply the term to the work of Newton, Tesla, Einstein, Ford, and Elvis. These days, however, it apparently takes little more than a bigger screen, a faster processor, and a blue-rather-than-red LED to lay claim to the term.

But suppose we revisit the original meaning and apply the following standard: To truly innovate, your work must adequately meet the “This completely changes the way we _____ ” test. If you can fill in the blank without being laughed at, innovation it is.

Three times in 12 years

I suggest that Apple has met this standard exactly three times in the past dozen years.

“This completely changes the way we acquire and listen to music.”

One: iPod. This diminutive player made downloadable music a legitimate enterprise. It seems quaint today to think that you’d go to a store across town to purchase music, or that you’d listen to one album, then to another and another after that, rather than pulling tracks into personalized playlists.

“This completely changes the way we think of a computer in the pocket.”

Two: iPhone. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, he pointed out that it was more than just a smartphone. It was also a widescreen media player with touch controls, and an Internet communications device. What he didn’t mention was that it would launch a generation of smartphones whose features you’d actually use. That it would simplify mobile data plans. That it was, in fact, the pie-in-the-sky convergence device that many people swore we’d get one fine day.

“This completely changes the way we think of tablet computing.”

Three: iPad. People tried tablet computers before the iPad came on the scene, but rejected the devices because they wanted something more from a tablet than a stylus-driven Windows slab. Apple made the tablet a viable platform by designing a device that adapts to the way we interact with objects in the real world—by touching them—rather than asking us to adapt to an unintuitive, keyboardless computer.

When you look at innovation this way, you find that Apple breathes some fairly rarified air. What other companies have produced technologies that have changed life so drastically? I can think of a handful: Google for search and advertising; Amazon for shopping and reading; TiVo for time-shifted television watching and ad-skipping; Netflix for acquiring movies and cord-cutting.

Samsung? I’m drawing a blank. Microsoft? Not in a very long time.

It ain’t easy

It’s not that those last two—or other companies like them—lack smarts and drive. It’s that real innovation is extremely difficult. Imagine winning the World Series as many times in as many years, and you get the idea.

But Apple is in a public relations bind. How are you supposed to turn “Hey, we’ve innovated three times in the past dozen years!” into an effective marketing message? When the world is full of people asking you in reply what you’ve done lately, it sounds petty to reply, “What has anyone done lately?”

And so Apple has chosen to accept the dumbed-down definition. When it releases a new iPhone, iPad, Mac, or operating system, we hear a nearly constant barrage from the company of “innovation this” and “innovative that.” And it’s simply not true. The latest crop of Apple products may be wonderful, but they’re iterative improvements (albeit sometimes significant ones) on what came before. We may love those improvements, they may make our work easier, but they don’t completely change the way we do anything.

Compounding the problem is that when Apple lays the mantle of innovation on iterative products, it legitimizes its competitors’ claims. If all it takes to be innovative is to make a computer, tablet, or phone thinner, to improve the camera, and to throw in a faster processor, any company can follow suit and say that it’s innovating the heck out of its products and is every bit as good as Apple.

At least until Apple makes the next truly innovative product, which could be any year now. Right on schedule.

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