The Apple Verdict and the Challenge of Innovation

by Ben Bajarin   |   August 27th, 2012

I spent some time on the weekend digesting the results and implications of the verdict between the Apple and Samsung patent trial. I watched my Twitter stream flow continuously with many remarking on the negatives of the verdict and many remarking on the positives. I am yet to see a convincing analysis one way or another as to whether the win for Apple is good or bad, which leaves me thinking that only time will reveal the answer.

So rather than dive too deep on whether the verdict is good or bad for the industry, I would rather make a different observation.

It is Easier to Follow Than Lead

The one thing that I think is interesting about Apple as a company is that under the vision of Steve Jobs in particular, their culture and their products have ALWAYS had a unique identity. Even if a particular concept or idea was “borrowed” it was done so in a way uniquely and freshly with a specific vision in mind.

Historically, in fact, Apple sacrificed success to stick with a unique approach to personal computing. Steve Jobs and Apple as a company had a vision for the best way to make computing products and that determination to not compromise that vision cost them success in key markets in the past. One example of many would be the decision to not license out the operating system at a key junction in the adoption cycle. The fear of losing the quality of hardware in which their software ran is a key reason why I believe this decision was made. None the less it was not popular and probably cost Apple market share in the early days of computing.

Although, that is not the case today where Apple is the market leader in several key categories; the above observation uncovers a key truth and it relates to the challenge of innovation.

Creating something new or unique is not terribly difficult. I’ve got great ideas for all kinds of unique products that no one wants but me. Creating something new, unique, different, and innovative that garners mass market success is EXTREMELY difficult and more interestingly EXTREMELY rare. The fundamental challenge and to a degree fear around innovation is that you create something the market does not want. This at its core is the reason why it is easier to follow the leader than blaze a new trail.

As a wise sage once said:

“Trying is the first step toward failure” – Homer Simpson

A little longer than five years after the iPhone and we already entirely take for granted things that were not common place in the market before the first iPhone. All touch screens and virtual keyboards, screens that know when we are looking at them or by our ear, a full home screen of glossy icons, app stores, etc. We can argue the degree of these in terms of innovation but the bottom line is Apple made many features the industry standard.

Of course many of the things which became the standard in terms of look and design were not patentable and were simply the result of a new standard emerging. But this case was more about setting a presidence more than it was about money. The message has been sent loud and clear that following the leader too closely is not a good idea. Some degree of trailblazing will be necessary in the future. Although, this is difficult and risky, I strongly believe that in the long run those who do invest and take risk and blaze their own trails will be rewarded.

There are some very cool FEATURES Samsung, HTC, Nokia and others have added to their smart devices that are distinct. That is without question; but the bottom line is a template for success has been established by Apple.

In this regard I must give Microsoft a tremendous amount of credit. Microsoft, rightly or wrongly, blazed a new trail and we are on the cusp of seeing whether or not the market accepts what they developed or not. Microsoft is blazing a new trail with their new UI and emphasis on touch for all hardware. We will see if this trail leads to success or failure. Regardless, Microsoft deserves credit for taking the risk, and giving their best effort to do something fresh.

Blazing new trails on the frontier of personal computing may take its toll on many companies. I stand by a conviction I have shared many times publicly. I fully expect the landscape for personal computing to look very different in the future. The personal computing companies of today, particularly those in hardware, may not be the personal computing companies of the future.

When I think about the things that led to Apple’s success in many key categories, as well as what may be the underlying theme for success for many in the future, I think about a quote that I am rather fond of–which is:

“The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

The key to the future will be to seek out new opportunities with fresh thinking and innovative ideas. To those that think innovation is dead I pose this question:

Have all the problems of the present and the future been solved? Until the answer is yes, there will always be room for innovation.

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research. He is a husband, father, gadget enthusiast, trend spotter, early adopter and hobby farmer. Full Bio
  • jwjvh

    A few thoughts:

    Most ideas that Apple ‘invented’ were ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere, sometimes in a blatent way.

    The history of design is all about borrowing and ‘copying’

    Apple have a huge market advantage as a result of the success of
    their products and their brand. People see them as innovators, even when
    they are not. Surely that is enough. If Samsung copy then they will be
    seen as copyers which makes their brand less attractive.

    Small companies and newcomers don’t have enough money to patent every
    piece of sh*t that floats throught their mind. The way that Apple are
    approaching this makes me fear that my own creative endevours are under
    threat. If something I do is successful and that success is inconvenient
    for Apple, they can use a legal team to ruin me.

    • rattyuk

      “If something I do is successful and that success is inconvenient
      for Apple”

      This is not about the Galaxy SIII which could be seen as a success but not a success in the Apple category (It has been reported that they’ve sold 10 million since May – Apple does that a month – but there is no way to tell as Samsung don’t report actual sales figures anymore). The stuff Apple took to court were phones that weren’t particularly successful but Samsung went out of their way to pass themselves off as an iPhone.

    • Walt French

      And just as surely as Newton (not really modestly) said, “if I have seen farther than others, it has been because I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants,” our society has for HUNDREDS OF YEARS found some developments worthy of protection, of a temporary or even permanent monopoly.

      Patents, trademarks, trade dress: they’ve been a part of our social fabric for centuries. The recent changes in laws around the world have NOT been to strip away IP rights, but to make sure that they do NOT interfere with modern notions of fair competition. And to do that, they lean on Motorola’s and Samsung’s violations of their pledges to license patents on FRAND terms; our society is NOT leaning on Apple for having spent years to re-invent the experience of using a tiny computer.

      So yes, human beings’ copying is wired into our DNA, but still, SOME copying is egregious and will be slapped down. Too bad for those whose narrow vision and/or sense of entitlement prevents them from seeing this obvious fact.

    • dufusdude

      Even if the ideas are “borrowed” (which I personally believe doesn’t happen as often as you do), they are implemented in fresh and unique ways, which is the point of this article.

      What Samsung has done is to borrow the implementations, as well. Right down to the packaging, the plugs, the cables, the connectors, the colors and icons.

      There is a difference.

    • capnbob67

      “Borrowed” is in the eyes of the beholder. Apple has an unparallelled history of paying for its source technologies. It bought the stillborn Xerox work for the Mac and then vastly improved it. It bought SoundJam and created iTunes, Fingerworks for the multi-touch experience, it hired the guy who developed iOS5 style notifications in the Cydia store, it bought SRI to create SIRI, it bought the chip designers to create the A4 and beyond. In each and every case where it did not invent a technology, it bought it fair and square, then vastly improved it and integrated it into a much better whole. That is the innovation. Innovation is NOT Invention. It does NOT require that every morsel was invented from scratch in some mythical Apple Lab. It is the successful introduction of something to the market and a well developed innovation is then widely adopted.
      When Apple introduced the Mac it was the industry underdog (vs. IBM), same for phones (vs. Nokia, RIM, Samsung). Only now do we look back 400 million devices later when Apple is the behemoth and think it looks preordained because Apple is the most powerful company in the industry. It didn’t become successful because it was powerful, it became powerful because it was so successful in the free market.
      Compare that to Samsung and (to some extent) Google… who took Apple’s bundle of technologies and the specific implementation of those and copied the hell out of them. There was negligible innovation in Android 1-2.2 nor any Touchwiz. They may have added new features in later iterations but those features would not have existed if they hadn’t blatantly cribbed Apple’s major innovations first.

      • steve_wildstrom

        Small correction: Siri was developed at SRI and spun out as a separate company, which Apple bought, The parent SRI remains independent.

        • capnbob67

          Thanks.

      • http://www.facebook.com/donald.m.kraig Donald Michael Kraig

        I still remember when the first Mac came out. It was at the time when “macho” was king and a popular book was “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche.” IBM reps started handing out buttons saying “Real Men Don’t Use Mice.”

        IBM sold their PC business to Lenovo years ago. They just couldn’t compete. I guess smart people didn’t use IBM PCs any more.

        • steve_wildstrom

          IBM sold its Personal Systems Group in 1995 not because it couldn’t compete but because it felt the operation was no longer strategic as the company moved heavily to software and services. Also IBM’s corporate overhead was a crushing burden on the low-margin PC business.,

      • unhinged

        And I remember when Apple copped criticism for developing its own technologies in-house, like NuBus. Twenty-plus years ago, Apple used “non-standard” technologies and was derided for its “Not Invented Here” attitude. Now the punditry claims Apple should invent more of its own stuff.

        What a world this is. :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/dan.andersen.79230 Dan Andersen

      A few corrections:

      You seem to be quite confused, “jwjvh.” It’s not about invention of ideas, it’s about invention of devices and interfaces. Patents are NOT about the protection of ideas; they’re about the protection of the *expression* of ideas. Apple’s lawsuit against Samsung was about Samsung’s blatant theft of Apple’s *expression* of many ideas regarding mobile devices and their interfaces.

      Copy ideas is a great thing–it moves the world forward. Copying the expression of ideas is theft, plain and simple and benefits no one (except, possibly, the thief).

      • pawhite524

        Wow! So well stated. No one gets to patent gravity or friction or combustion but the implementation of these ideas can make a great rotisserie broiled chicken. The rotisserie broiler method can be patented it seems.

    • FalKirk

      “Most ideas that Apple ‘invented’ were ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere”-jwjvh

      I don’t agree that Apple borrowed most of it’s ideas, but let’s set that aside for now.

      Instead, let’s think of this as a value add problem. The Guttenberg printing press was made up of four different inventions that already existed, some of them long before Guttenberg was born. He didn’t invent anything. He just took existing stuff and put it together in a novel arrangement. Guttenberg not only added value to the existing inventions, he added immeasurable value to the world.

      Ford didn’t invent the car. There were dozens and dozens of car manufacturers in existence when he built the model-T. His real contribution wasn’t the car but the assembly line that helped to build reliable cars fast and cheap. He didn’t invent a single part of the car (that I know of) but he added value to the process and he added immeasurable value to the world.

      Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb. He experimented with various types of filaments (hundreds of them) until he found the one that worked best. He didn’t invent the lightbulb, he perfected it. And in so doing, he added immeasurable value to the world.

      Stop thinking in terms of who invented or innovated what and start thinking in terms of value. Did Apple add value when they introduced the Apple II, the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad? You bet they did. Did that value exist before those products arrived on the scene? No it did not.

      In terms of giving credit where credit is due, that’s pretty much all you really need to know.

  • Walt French

    Want to REALLY know how important those UI innovations are, that we all take for granted today? Try this thought experiment:

    You get to be Steve Jobs, in 2006. You’ve decided that you need to be in the phone market (in part to protect your iPod franchise, which is increasingly just Yet Another Feature of feature phones). But you haven’t worked out ANYTHING really new. You bring out a nifty phone with lots of buttons — more than anybody else! — and a phone that drops calls more than the established players. Of course, the tiny screen on your device shows a crappy little window to the “mobile web” just like everybody else.

    You go to Verizon and they laugh in your face. (You don’t have to imagine that part.) AT&T has no use for you; maybe T-Mo thinks you’re worth a gamble. Your competitors note how (a) you have zero experience in the phone business, and (b) you are bringing exactly nothing that’s new. Consumers see the obvious truth in those, and your business never gets off the ground.

    It’s hard to see how Apple breaks into the phone business WITHOUT the years that it spent building a unique product. We’re talking about the UI absolutely being the difference between being in the market, and not.

    In contrast, Google quickly copied all the IP work that Apple spent years conceiving and polishing. In the 5 years that iPhones have been around, they’ve apparently spent zero energy on developing a unique, proprietary UI it could call its own and defend against others. If Apple’s 5-years-later legal assault takes Android phones off markets around the world, Google has only itself to thank.

    • benbajarin

      Thanks for the comment Walt. One thing I find interesting that seems to not get brought to light often, is that during the time period you described when Apple was looking to do something fresh and new and create the template for success I mentioned – Eric Schmidt was on Apple’s board.

    • Eric

      Great comment Walt. Also remember the phone (ROKR) Apple did with Motorola. It was the typical phone of the time but with some iTunes support. It failed. You could tell Steve didn’t really like it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/donald.m.kraig Donald Michael Kraig

      The iPhone didn’t drop calls in Europe. The problem of dropped calls was with AT&T. The same is true for why calls can be challenging in places like San Francisco where AT&T service is terrible.

  • pk de cville

    Remember the Steve Jobs ‘turret’ think he’d do?

    I think the Jobs turret is now swinging towards and targeting Google.

    Google, biggest thief of the millennia: newspapers, books, movies, video, my location (where, when through time), your location, my purchases, your purchases, my email, your email.

    And now, we give you Android, the greatest heist. May Google fester in its own invention: free(d) software that anyone can use.

    Apple, Samsung and the Android OEMs will settle leaving Google alone and out. Apple’s going after Google.

    • mhikl

      “Apple’s going after Google.”

      Oooh so right, ok de cville.

      Technology hath no fury like an Apple facsimiled.

  • jfutral

    Seems to me that people who think innovation will be stifled and who think Apple has not innovated, lose by both fronts. You can’t have it both ways. If nothing Apple has introduced to the smartphone market is truly innovative and Samsung was doing no more than use the “obvious” evolution of smartphones, then nothing innovative has occurred by either company. If no innovation has occurred, how can innovation be stifled?

    Joe

    • jfutral

      Further if there is no innovation occurring, the consumer is losing already.

      Joe

    • DroidDoesnt_2

      Absolutely brilliant point….

  • mhikl

    Here is a novel thought, possibly off topic, but inspired by this article and comments, nonetheless. Won’t happen, I know, but what if . . . ?

    What if Apple started up a sister company, separate in all respects from itself. Let’s call it Pear and lets say it develops a jPhone, j for junior but that would be a Pear secret. Let the media ponder what the j might stand for.

    The jPhone would be an Android, Ice Cream phone. It would look and act as similar to an iPhone as possible. Pear would do this legally by paying for the rights to certain Apple patents. Wouldn’t that set a precedent. (An honest player as ye shall see.) Pear, however, would have to devise its own jTunes- and jStores-like and patented ecosystems but have nothing to do with Apple’s iTunes or iStores. Pear could even experiment with an open structure. Here is the fun part. Pears would use the free Android Ice Cream OS. It would then make a very definitive Android phone that would even be closed to Google shenanigans as Amazon has done. It’s components would be competent but not as high class and costly as Apple components; no Retina display, for example.

    Then Pear would go into the market with a cheap, but good quality grade Android phone with the same look and much of the same feel and ease of an iPhone, with much of the comfort of Apple’s whole widget infrastructure. Pear owners could tinker and muck about to their hearts desires in Android heaven. They could use Android stores of course. The fun part would be making it so Google made as little off the jPhone as it does off the Amazon Kindle Fire. And it would be less expensive than a true iPhone and close to the cost of Android phones.

    This might be called a spiteful move on Apple’s part. The bad news is that it might steal a little Apple share but if it steals a whole smack more of Android share, bad part becomes irrelevant. I would hope a sense of humour, black of course, on Apple’s, er Pear’s part might be sensed by those with a sense of the uncommon.

    The big draw back to this might be in legal issues, but being neither a lawyer nor a technocrat I haven’t the knowledge to see all the loop holes in such a Bizzaro world as this. Would patenting to one, i.e., Pear, be legal or would Apple then have to open it’s patents to all Android manufacturers?

    Drats! if so.

    On a more serious note, Ben’s article is one of the most thoughtful and original pieces I have read on this topic and it has inspired comments at the same order, present voice excluded.

  • http://twitter.com/TheNextSiValley Next Silicon Valley

    In the immortal words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

    “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

    Robert Frost expounded further in his poem

    The Road Not Taken:

    TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveler, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth;

    Then took the other, as just as fair,
    And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same,

    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.
    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
    I doubted if I should ever come back.

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

    Richard Wallace

    Founder & Editor
    The Next Silicon Valley (www.thenextsiliconvalley.com)

    • pawhite524

      Thank you for bringing this aesthetic to ATD and to the discussion in so relevant a manner.
      Frost is a wonderful poet. I have kept a copy of this poem plus a copy of Mending Wall and Stopping By the Woods on Snowy Evening within easy reach in my library within easy reach for 40 odd years.