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
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.)