It’s Time to Kill the ‘Apple Doesn’t Innovate’ Argument



There’s an argument in the platform wars, and also on Wall Street, that goes something like this: “Apple doesn’t innovate anymore. It moves too slowly, and is being taken over by more nimble, more innovative rivals.”

Any success Apple has is the result of slick marketing, rather than the newest technology. But now, Apple is a laggard and is being overtaken by more nimble companies.

Apple has an “innovation problem,” according to Forbes.

Samsung is innovating faster than Apple,” according to Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster.

Why Doesn’t Apple Innovate?” asks

For Apple haters, this argument feels good to make. Unfortunately, it fails the test of fact and reason. Here’s why.

Vision means you don’t try whatever to find out what works

Samsung’s Galaxy S4 is a good example of a product considered more innovative than Apple’s competing iPhone 5.

The S4 has “Smart Pause,” “Air Gesture,” dual-camera mode, a photo “eraser” feature, a health and fitness tracker, “smart scroll,” and something called Sound and Shot for adding sound to pictures.

Plus, the S4 has a much bigger screen, NFC support, a higher pixel-density camera and a more advanced chipset than the iPhone 5.

Does all this — does any of this — mean Samsung is more innovative?

“Smart Pause” and “Air Gesture” don’t strike me as bold new directions in user interface design, but mere gimmicks that most people will either ignore or turn off. They separate the user from direct control, and are likely to be frustrating to use for most people. Is anybody loving these? I haven’t heard anyone gushing about them on social media. It seems to me that Samsung threw these ideas in there just so they’d have something to demo and convince the gullible that they’re more advanced than the competition.

The dual-camera mode, where an image from the front camera is placed in a box on the picture from the back camera, the photo eraser, the health-and-fitness tracker and “smart scroll” are just more feature gimmicks that should be or in some cases already have been added by many apps available in the App Store. I personally use the eraser feature and “smart scroll” in long-existing apps. They’re really no big deal.

“Sound and shot” is yet another thing you’d expect to find in some free app nobody uses. Is this taking the world by storm as is, say, Vine? The answer is no.

I don’t think anyone believes Apple doesn’t have the technological capability to make a bigger-screen iPhone or add NFC chips. Obviously they can do it. They’ve chosen not to yet. They’ve made a judgement call. Does deciding that the ability for people with smaller hands to hold a phone and deciding the market or the services aren’t ready yet for NFC mean Apple isn’t innovative? Or does it just mean they’ve made a decision some people (but not the market) disagree with?

And finally, you would expect a newer chipset to come out on a newer phone. The Galaxy S4 is six months newer than the iPhone 5.

When iPhones first ship, they tend to have much higher benchmark performance than all or nearly all the competition. Does shipping 6 months after the iPhone make Samsung more innovative?

I think any honest observer would have to admit that Apple is certainly capable of slapping on feature gimmicks and somewhat arbitrary new interface alternatives, but that they chose not to. Their strategy is to ship one best phone, and it has to serve everybody out of the box, enabling users to add gimmicky features with downloadable apps.

You can disagree with that strategy, and believe that Apple would be better off using the Samsung model of selling dozens of phones to target every narrow niche. But that disagreement doesn’t mean Apple isn’t innovative.

The so-called “innovative companies” are the biggest Apple fans. 

The Apple-doesn’t-innovate crowd often holds up companies like Google or Samsung as companies with superior innovation.

Yes, Google and Samsung are both very good companies with wonderful cultures and histories of innovation.

But innovation is not an end in itself. It’s a means to an end. The goal of innovation should be to create better products, superior designs and superior usability.

It’s worth noting that both Google and Samsung engineers and designers are huge fans of Apple’s designs and usability.

Any conference or meeting where Google engineers, designers and executives congregate reveals a very strong preference for Apple laptops, for example.

That’s not because Apple products are more innovative or less innovative. It’s because Apple products are very good products.

An internal Samsung memo that surfaced in a mutual patent lawsuit between Samsung and Apple revealed that Samsung was in awe of Apple’s interface design — similar to the “difference between heaven and earth.” The memo then slogged screen-by-screen through the iPhone UI and Samsung’s at the time, pointing out the superiority of Apple’s approach to user interface.

Some observers called this evidence that Samsung copied Apple. But that’s not true. It is, however, evidence that Samsung was internally very impressed by Apple’s design decisions.

Is that innovation? Or is Apple really good at interface design?

Apple executes on vision, then try to perfect it. 

What passes for innovation by many companies is just throwing every new technology they can into their products. Is that “better”? Is that “innovation”?

Apple’s approach has for years been very easy to understand. Here’s how they go about product development:

1. Find content consumption experiences that are seriously lacking and which Apple is interested in fixing.

2. Wait until the market is ripe for the new approach, then unveil a bold new product that offers simplicity, extremely high usability and aesthetic beauty.

3. Design and spec that product for maximum broad consumer appeal, then very clearly convey the benefits with emotional advertising.

4. This approach doesn’t ever invent the product — Apple’s patents tend to involve unique methods of doing things and unique designs — but it does create the market by getting a critical mass of consumers to embrace the new thing, a feat that’s very hard to do and which major companies routinely fail at doing. (Once the market is created, then other companies flood in to take advantage.)

5. Continue through multiple product generations to not take the product into random or technology-driven directions, but to refine and perfect the original vision.

This is the basic process Apple used for iPod, iPhone, iPad, MacBook Air, iMac, and other Apple products, and which they’ll probably use for the rumored iWatch and iTV and other future products.

In the two year period after the iPod, iPhone, iPad or whatever ships, everyone says Apple is innovative. In the years of iteratively perfecting the vision, everybody says Apple is not innovative. Then Apple comes out with the next market-creating product, and then they’re innovative again.

The degree to which Apple is or is not considered innovative has nothing to do with innovation, but with what point in the product lifecycle Apple happens to be in.

One Last Commentary On Apple and Innovation

It’s fun to be a technology fan and argue about who’s got the better stuff — and why. I certainly enjoy it.

And it’s perfectly legitimate to prefer, say, Google’s approach to platform ecosystem cultivation or Samsung’s approach to serving the market with smartphones and other products.

But it’s time to retire the tired, irrational “Apple doesn’t innovate” line.

Apple clearly innovates, and they do so very selectively and with enormous purpose and vision. They have a create-new-market-then-perfect-on-the-vision approach that, while it leaves them open to being called less than innovative, it also works better — far better — than any other model out there from a business perspective.

Apple could easily throw arbitrary new ideas into its products, and develop complex product lines to narrowly target every niche. But why? So haters would call them innovative?

Companies don’t exist to cultivate a reputation for innovation. They exist to make money.

That Apple alone makes more than 70% of the industry profits is undeniable proof that Apple is doing innovation right.


Daily round-ups or a weekly refresher, straight from Cult of Mac to your inbox.

  • The Weekender

    The week's best Apple news, reviews and how-tos from Cult of Mac, every Saturday morning. Our readers say: "Thank you guys for always posting cool stuff" -- Vaughn Nevins. "Very informative" -- Kenly Xavier.