A complaint rippling through the pundit-sphere over the past year is that Apple has lost the ability to innovate. The echo chamber’s insistence of Apple’s inability to delve into unexplored territory has culminated in the rumor that Apple has initiated steps to replace CEO Tim Cook. Stock prices have plummeted, and critics gleefully prognosticate Apple’s slow slide back into the obscurity of the days before Steve Jobs‘ return.
Is there any validity to these claims? Has Apple truly lost their mojo? For an answer, let’s look closer at the core issue- innovation. By definition it is the act of introducing something new or unknown, and Apple has made their incredible fortune not both new products and the careful cultivation of the ecosystem behind them.
Apple earned the innovator title from the inception of the organization. The cobbled-together home brewed Apple I through the first Macintosh, the company was a trend setter in home computing. After floundering they righted the ship with the introduction of new product lines- the iPod, iMac, and OSX.
Skip forward to today: Apple has reaped the benefits of innovation well. New hardware such as the iPod line, iPhone and iPad, and software associated with it (iTunes and iOS) along with steady incremental improvement to their core Mac lineup have resulted in Apple being one of the wealthiest corporations in history. What has set pundits off has been the apparent lack of new products since the untimely demise of former CEO Jobs.
While Apple has continued to release new versions of their products on a regular basis (including the iPad Mini), those products are incremental refinements of existing devices or services. The iPhone improves with each version, becoming faster, more powerful, and with more screen real estate. The iPad has slimmed, gained cameras, increased in power and split into two product sizes. The core Mac lineup has evolved as well; the iMac has slimmed and been given a performance boost, the MacBook Pro lineup has split to include the Retina models, and the Air versions have been refined enough to be some of Apple’s best selling laptops. Where are the new, groundbreaking products to keep Apple ahead of competitors?
Time has dulled our sense of perspective. While Apple has been at the forefront often, groundbreaking products take years to develop and hone. Even though there have been numerous trendsetting releases they haven’t come at regular intervals, and have been separated by more time that is readily apparent. The product that appeared to spark Apple’s explosion was the iPod, first released in 2001. The iPhone didn’t make an appearance until 2007, followed by the iPad in 2010. By that timeline alone Apple is well within their typical product development window, even discounting the continual refinement of both hardware and software.
Then there’s the Mac lineup. One could consider the MacBook Air as an innovation; the physical form was unheard of when it was first released and competitors have flocked to create similar devices. The evolution of the MacBook Pro should be kept in mind when evaluating innovation as well; the construction and components of Apple’s premier laptops have set industry trends as well culminating in the Retina models, with their stunning display and solid state internals.
In comparison, the PC hasn’t changed much in the past ten years. Components have improved- processors, graphics, memory, and other internals have grown in power and speed, but the actual form and function of the PC hasn’t truly altered in a very long time. Until recently, input was via a keyboard and mouse (or similar device), with the computer consisting of a tower and monitor. There were a few all-in-ones similar to Apple’s iMac, but they were a small minority of the PC market. Yet no one championed the lack of progress or innovation in the PC market. The attempt by Microsoft to create a uniform interface across all devices (handheld and PC) via Windows 8 is a prime example of the peril of poorly implemented change; consumers have by and large shunned it to the point that Microsoft will be releasing a service pack to undo the most drastic changes to the operating system: the once-named “Metro” interface.
So what of Apple’s other competitors? Samsung has been heralded for their products, and they do have a very successful line of handsets. Yet Samsung’s innovation has been more of a hyper variant of what Apple has pursued in improving the iPhone. Samsung has offered a wide variety of products, some with massive screens (even one that needs a stylus), some with a hardware keyboard, and units that sport Android and Windows operating systems. Yet what groundbreaking innovation have they offered? The sole differentiating factor has been screen size (which Apple has notably followed with the slightly larger iPhone 5), but no true paradigm shift or new product categories. The ‘shotgun’ approach of releasing a wide variety of products has served both Samsung and Google well, but it doesn’t fit the concept of innovation that Apple has been faulted for lacking after the passing of their iconic CEO.
While I’d love to see a new product line released (what tech addict doesn’t like shiny new things?) the criticism Apple has faced is unwarranted. If we are to believe the recent claims of Tim Cook that new product lines will be introduced this year, Apple will have continued to follow the same timeline of innovation that has served them since the turn of the century.