Apple should look to the past as it innovates for the future

Apple Park photo of the side of the main building
Apple Park photo of the side of the main building (Image credit: Apple)

"Can't innovate my ass." Great line. Everyone knows who said it and when.

It's easy to criticize Apple for lack of innovation. I heard it a lot at WWDC. "Where is the new hardware?" they cried. "This is the new iOS? A feature to nag me not to use it? Where is that amazing new UI?" they wept in San Jose.

As the definition says, there's more than one way to innovate. That said, sometimes to innovate, you need to look back. If there're a thousand Nos for every yes, sometimes one needs to take five steps back to take one step.

The thing is, looking back at the past is not Apple culture. I can't tell you how many times I heard the mantra of "We don't look back, only forward." At Microsoft there's a place you can go that's a museum of sorts. Every Microsoft product made is on display. The good, the bad (remember interactive Barney). I once asked an Apple exec why we don't have a place like that here. I think you can guess the response. Want to see any mention of Steve at Apple? There's just this:

I think you might get the point by now.

There are, however, places where Apple needs to take the five steps back. Perhaps more.

Mac Pro: No doubt Apple has completely gone deaf on this product. From the moment it came to market, users most likely to buy had little interest. Apple has committed to creating something more in line with user demand, though we still have no idea what it is. While the iMac Pro is awesome, it still suffers from the same lack of features users want back from their beloved "cheese graters".

Mac mini: Oh where have you gone, Mac mini. The mini was created with one purpose in mind: make it easier for the switchers back in the days of the switcher campaign. "Do you have a Windows PC? No problem; bring your own keyboard, monitor, and mouse." It was a way to ease the "Apple tax" for new users. Except other users found a lot of other purposes. Home servers are a big one. The mini/server device was beloved by a nice-sized audience. Users have gone to incredible lengths to keep their devices current. They shouldn't have to. It's time for a comeback.

Real keyboards: Well, "real" is a little harsh, but forget quality issues and failures. A lot of users simply hate the latest keyboard design. It was needed when the 2015 MacBook came to market. There was no other way to build that device with keyboard innovation. That, however, was a niche device. The keyboard was only one polarizing keyboard. There's no reason not to have a MacBook Pro with a traditional keyboard SKU. So many users would prefer adding that small thickness for a traditional keyboard. I suspect such a SKU would easily outsell its cousin.

Cheap replacement Apple TV remotes: 'Nuff said. The old remote cost less than $20. The replacement cost for the latest one is absurd.

Ability to downgrade iOS: I know Apple wants users to upgrade. Those upgrade stats relative to Android are great. Sometimes, however, older is better. I prefer iOS 10 on my iPad and I have one iPhone that I refuse to upgrade — too many apps that won't work on iOS 11. I had another iPhone that unfortunately was "upgraded" for me when it was repaired. Apple said there was nothing they could do.

HyperCard: Legend has it that when Bill Atkinson showed it to John Skulley, his response was "now I can finally program." I felt the same way. Not only could I create applications that just suited me, I could create commercial applications as well. HyperCard was as simple or deep as I wanted. Now I don't buy into "everyone needs to learn to code." I do think that those that do want to create an application should be able to do so. The journey isn't the reward. The destination is.

Innovation doesn't always mean self-driving cars or augmented reality glasses.

Sometimes it's refining the little things. Sometimes it's bringing back the old. Robert Frost said, "Why abandon a belief merely because it ceases to be correct?" Perhaps that quote should be posted at Apple.

Michael Gartenberg

I’ve covered the personal technology beat for more than two decades at places like Gartner, Jupiter Research and Altimeter Group. I’ve also had the fun of contributing my $.02 on the topic at Computerworld, Engadget, Macworld, SlashGear and now iMore. Most recently I spent a few years at Apple as Sr. Director of Worldwide Product Marketing. On Twitter I’m an unverified @gartenberg. I still own some Apple stock.