Innovation Talk: Apple’s big reveal is not the essence of innovation

Apple’s huge product launches are now iconic events in their own right, but have become conflated with innovation itself

The iPhone 5c is basically last year’s model in a colourful skin. Photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The iPhone 5c is basically last year’s model in a colourful skin. Photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Mon, Sep 16, 2013, 16:24

Last week, Apple’s Tim Cook unveiled two new iPhones, and the world, it seemed, paused to take note. The vast amounts of attention these launches generate is disproportionate to the products themselves, certainly, but the attention itself is worth examining, as it tells us something significant about Apple’s singular place in our popular culture, and I think about attitudes to innovation.

We look to Cupertino not just to see what desirable new gadget or feature they have created this year, but because Apple has managed to conjure the sense that maybe, just maybe, we will not merely be impressed by what they unveil, but filled with wonderment.

The comparison between Steve Jobs’s Apple and Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory is often made, but instructive nonetheless – the company feels ever so slightly like a work of fiction, mysterious and somewhat sinister, an entity capable of upending industries, shaping epochs, making the future happen.

In the popular imagination, an Apple product launch is what innovation looks like. The device itself is the result of innovative thinking in design and engineering, of course, but the stage-managed reveal is the culmination of all that, and how we end up relating to the process.

But increasingly, with every iterative improvement and refined design, the perception of Apple as a magical innovation factory grows fainter. Willy Wonka is gone, and if we don’t see a brand new Everlasting Gobstopper soon, we can only surmise that the magic has gone with him. And so we reach the current juncture, where Cook’s announcements were seen as further evidence that Apple’s era of innovation has ended.

That consensus, I feel, tells us something very interesting about how we think about technology and innovation.

It’s important to realise what Cook and co really achieved last Tuesday, from a strategic perspective. It was, in fact, a masterful sleight of hand – by unveiling two new iPhones, the 5c and 5s, Cook gave the impression that the iPhone has finally become a portfolio product, with differentiated models for different categories of customer. In previous years, there was just one new model, with the previous two generations dropping in price to cater for the lower end of the market. In truth, Cook is staying true to the same pricing structure, with the 5s as the new model, the 5c as last year’s model (which it is, plastic casing notwithstanding), and the 4S rounding out the family.

(As an aside, there is significant debate about whether this was the year Cook should have dropped margins significantly and chased market share, particularly in developing countries, but Cook probably feels able to focus on maximising Apple’s high-margins for the time being because there is no viable third platform posing a risk to iOS. Android has already won the marketshare war, but the lucrative end of the market is all Apple’s, largely because Blackberry is close to death and the Microsoft-Nokia venture has been a veritable omnishambles.)

With the iPhone 5c, Apple is exploiting the genuinely superficial demands of customers – last year’s phone carries the stigma of being last year’s phone, but a facile enough change like adding coloured plastic is enough to convince lots of us that this is something new.


Ability to innovate
A similar superficiality also accounts for the larger concern about Apple’s ability to innovate – where are the new product categories, critics cry, where are the amazing new wearable computing devices such as a smartwatch or a pair of spectacles with a computer built in?

Updating blockbusters such as iPhones and iPads is all well and good, but if Cook can’t introduce entirely new groundbreaking gadgets on a regular basis, then surely it confirms that Apple’s days as an innovation machine are numbered, right?

Maybe there’s some truth to that, but I suspect that wearable computing will be less disruptive than assumed because of the often-overlooked fact that we already have a marvellous computing device on us at all times – our smartphones. For the next few years at least, smartwatches or smart goggles will be accessories to, rather than replacements for, our smartphones. There’s no reason to think Apple won’t develop these sorts of devices at some point, but they certainly won’t rush them out to appease an impatient public.

Ultimately, if we have been conditioned to believe that “innovation” takes the form of slickly produced launches of groundbreaking new products, then we’re going to be disappointed when confronted with the reality – real innovation is much closer to the iterative process of improvement that Apple does year in, year out.

So that disappointment is founded on a specious understanding of what innovation entails – ironically, it’s a misunderstanding that Apple has done more than any other company to cultivate, albeit inadvertently. One thing is certain, however – it will be a long time before we stop gazing at the mysterious chocolate factory, waiting for that mythical Everlasting Gobstopper to finally appear.

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