Has Apple lost its innovation?

Note: This piece sprang from a discussion I had with Leo Laporte and Andy Ihnatko on MacBreak Weekly yesterday. Both Leo and Andy stated their cases far more eloquently and with far more experience than I could ever hope to sum up, so check out the video below for the entire conversation. I go over some oft-repeated ground here as well, but I think it bears repeating in this context.

When it comes to Apple and innovation, there are two equal and opposing lines of thought. The negative sentiment is that Apple is no longer that which dented the universe in eras past, that it is no longer capable of producing Mac-, iPod-, and iPhone-class disruptions, and is now simply coasting on the momentum of glories and ecosystems past. The positive sentiment is that Apple is still at the height of its power, pushing out manufacturing breakthroughs like the iPhone 5, interface reboots like iOS 7, and bold new computing designs like the Mac Pro. So which is it?

Both? Neither? Some oscillation or cycle? Apple is as it's always been, one part brilliant timing made vulnerable by price and focus, but resilient by culture. And that's what causes the perceptive dissonance.

The Mac paved over command lines and made personal computers more fun and more approachable. The iPod and iTunes destroyed the disc and brought digital music into the light. The iPhone and iPad flipped the table on the lazy, user-unfriendly smartphone and tablet market and made personal computing more personal, accessible, and mainstream.

The Mac was 1984. The iPod was 2001. The iPhone was 2007.

These major innovations were never year after year. The Mac was 1984. The iPod was 2001. The iPhone was 2007. They also each represented a movement into a massive consumer electronics business. Personal computers. Mobile devices. Mobile computers. They required prescience and patience and perseverance. They sat upon the ruins of Lisas and Newtons and ROKRs past, and they laid the foundation for entire lines of Macs and iPods and iPhone/iPads future.

Yes, Apple's focus on margins mean they can be undercut by cheap, which can be undercut by free. Yes, Apple's focus on a few products at a time means they can be blotted out by many options, which can be blotted out by floods of options. Yet free can be beaten by valuable, and floods by coherence. Disruption is cyclical.

That Apple has had so many revolutionary products, however, creates an expectational debt for more, and for faster, that's impossible to fill. What other massive consumer electronics businesses are left for Apple to disrupt in a similar manner, and of those, when is each one ready for Apple-style disruption. And of those, how many can Apple engage at once?

On the stage of D: AllThingDigital, Steve Jobs taught a master-class in Apple's go-to-market strategy. He explained how tough it was for the iPhone, and why it wouldn't yet work for an Apple television. He had prescience. He was patient. Apple would persevere. That disruption would wait until the timing was right, and if it was never right, Apple would be just as proud for never doing it.

Jobs failed with Lisa before getting the Mac right. He failed with NeXT before nailing it with OS X and the iMac. He held off on doing the iPad in favor of the iPhone, and then released the antecedent as the descendent. And Tim Cook, like Jobs before him, is still pulling the string on Apple TV and the living room.

Wearables - the confluence of traditional products like watches with informational delivery systems that include communications from the world around us and biometrics about ourselves - could be another such market. It may not be as big as the phone or tablet market, but right now, what is? And rumors of Apple entering it are at roughly the same stage as rumors were about the iPhone in 2006. Can Apple do it this fall? Could they do the iPhone in 2005 or the Mac in 1980? Were they willing to, given the products they could have launched compared to the ones they took their time to launch? Did they have to?

In the time between massive revolutions, Apple concentrated on and evolutions.

In the time between massive revolutions, Apple concentrated on and evolutions. Apple TV bought iTunes, and then iOS to the living room. MacBook Air made computers truly, ridiculously portable. Retina display took away the curtain of pixels and made content look real. Siri gave natural language not only a voice but a personality. Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X empowered regular users with what was previously only understandable to power users. Time Machine and iCloud made backup and restore something the masses might actually do. Taken separately, none of the equal the major leaps before, and each is easy to overlook. Taken together, they've meant every bit as much.

That's why, in the old days, there was endless talk of Steve Jobs having lost his touch. There were Flower Power and Blue Dalmatian, iPod Hi-Fi and G4 Cube, ROCKR, MobileMe, and Ping. There was the perceived failure to enter the netbook market or to offer an xMac. There was the iPad, dismissed as being just a big iPhone. And that's why, now, there's endless talk of Apple having lost Steve Jobs, and innovation along with him. iPad mini is just a small iPad. iPhone 5 is still a rounded rectangle. There's a perceived failure to launch a big screen iPhone.

The problem with generalized feelings like "Apple isn't innovating" is that they're tremendously hard to address in the specific. What would be different about Apple today if Steve Jobs were still running it? What market could Apple disrupt to iMac, iPod + iTunes, or iPhone levels today if they just seized the opportunity? What could they do to make their products innovative again?

"Apple isn't innovating" is to latch onto but incredibly tough to flesh out. It's first ten words. What are the next ten? What innovation specifically is lacking?

Would a bigger screen be innovative? No, those have been done for years. Would a thicker phone with a giant camera and 2 days of battery life be innovative? No, also done by Nokia and Motorola, and others. Would customizable backplates be innovative? No, Dell and Lenovo came in bamboo before the Moto X. Would pre-emptive, localized Siri be innovative? No, Google Now is already doing that. Would a thumbprint scanner? No again. Been there. Scanned that.

Wanting Apple to duplicate features we like from other products isn't innovation, but it can certainly lead to the feeling that Apple isn't innovating by omission. Yet, again, Apple's innovation has never been in being first. The iMac wasn't first. The iPod wasn't first. The iPhone wasn't first. They were better.

A bigger screen iPhone that serves North American geeks and people in emerging markets for whom the phone is their only connection to world and need to do more than 4-inches allows. A version of Siri that melds that personality with far more, and far more responsive assistive technologies. A thumbprint scanner that balances convenience with security and mainstreams mobile identity. A way to project interface into cars, and perhaps one day onto any display connected to the internet of things.

All of those would be better than, for example, doing a triangular display on an iPad just because it would be different. Or selling an iPod at cost just because Apple can lose money too.

Apple is now as they've always been.

Apple is now as they've always been. They're beatable and Apple better know it. They're vincible and Apple better know it. They're boring and Apple better know it.

Because sentiment has momentum too. It's what leads those not enamored with Apple to predict their doom, and those who love Apple's products to secretly fear that's the best of them are far behind. It's what leads everyone to look back through rose colored glasses and remember with great nostalgia a better time - a time that never really existed.

Anticipation of innovation is far more powerful than innovation itself. Macworld Expo 2007 was a moment the likes of which few companies have ever, much less several times, and likely we won't ever see again. It was Steve Jobs doing what he did best with the most impressive new product he'd ever launched at a time when the internet had made that knowable to far more people than ever before. It was the perfect confluence of presence and technology. Maybe when easy neural implants get broadcast over the interdimensional net Jobs Headroom we'll get that moment again. Likely not.

Of course, product leaks from phones left in bars to parts walking out of factories don't help with the whole mystique thing. Nor do sites like iMore which bring attention to them. But none of this is entirely new either.

Apple will continue as they've always continued. We'll get iOS 7 and iOS in the Car, the new Mac Pro and Mavericks, gold iPhones and the thumb-print reader, and next year we may just get the band. Apple will need to prove their prescience remains, and hold to their patience, but their perseverance is all but guaranteed.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.