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Apple and innovation

With Apple’s announcements this past week, it’s been fascinating to read analysts’ and reporters’ comments about whether Apple is still an innovator. Critics cite the modest improvements made in the recent revisions of the iPhone line as demonstrating Apple’s failure to innovate.

When I did a search for “Apple innovation”, up came dozens of headlines like this from the past half-dozen years:

“Apple swiped ideas from Google and Microsoft”

“Apple’s Core Problem Is That It Can No Longer Innovate”

“This Is Why It Feels Like Apple Stopped Innovating”

“Here’s Proof of Apple’s Downward Fall From Innovator to Imitator”

Yet, I can’t think of any company as innovative as Apple. Just in the last few years, they’ve been one of the leaders in new patent filings, are impacting the health industry with new tools and platforms for medical researchers and patients, and have made contributions to material science and manufacturing processes. 

Product innovation for Apple goes beyond adding new features or creating new hardware. It’s in areas not readily visible, their seamless integration of all the pieces that creates a great user experience. All the pieces work smoothly and logically together — hardware, software, services and even support. 

Yet, Apple is not always first with what we think of as innovation. They avoid adding features that add complexity or impacts user experience. Compared to Android phones, the iPhone is more “rigid” and less “flexible” but generally easier to use. 

It reminds me of how Walt Mossberg once defined what he considers to be a great consumer electronic product:

“The attributes of an excellent product as “so useful in function and clear in its operation that its user, within days or weeks, wonders how she ever got along without it. This is not the same as having long lists of features, specs, speeds and feeds. In fact, my rule is that, if a product claims to have, say, 100 features, but an average person can only locate and use 11 of them in the first hour, then it has 11 features.”

The iPhone and iPad certainly meet this definition. It’s been responsible for it being adopted by everyone from toddlers to the elderly. 

Yet, with all this said, there’s a strong case to be made that Apple’s is not moving fast enough, while their competitors are catching up and even overtaking them in some areas. Like the old Avis slogan, being number two has made their competitors such as Samsung try harder. That became evident when I recently reviewed the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and the new Galaxy S7 Android phones.

As a long time iPhone user, I’ve always found Android phones to be more complex to use and aesthetically less appealing, but after adding the Google Now Launcher interface that strips away all of the crapware the cellular companies load, hides the duplicate apps, and replaces Samsung’s launcher, these phones were a delight to use.

The interface was clean, intuitive and simple. That allowed the hardware to shine through. The displays were brighter and sharper, the phones were more responsive, and their batteries got me through a full day. The new Gmail and Calendar apps were more attractive and usable as well. I was able to set up the second phone by just touching it to the first while they communicated wirelessly with each other.

Suddenly, my iPhone 6 lots much of its appeal, particularly the need to use a battery case to get through the day. The Galaxy S7 has fast charging that recharges in a little more than an hour and can survive a soaking that destroyed my last iPhone. Adding Samsung’s wallet case turns the phone on and off when flipping the cover and I can buy an accessory to charge the phone wirelessly. What great phones!

Now in fairness to Apple, their phones are about to go through a major upgrade, and they’ll have a chance to respond. But based on these Samsung models, it’s going to be hard to upstage them. 

While Samsung and Android may still lag behind Apple’s user interface experience, these other advantages improve the user experience in other ways, like working from morning to night.

It’s interesting to speculate how Apple allowed this to happen. Has it been due to being overly conservative, arrogant, or out of touch with their competitors? Or has Samsung just out-innovated Apple in areas where it really counts?

Published by

Phil Baker

Phil Baker is a product development expert, author, and journalist covering consumer technology. He is the co-author with Neil Young of the forthcoming book, “To Feel the Music,” and the author of “From Concept to Consumer.” He’s a former columnist for the San Diego Transcript, and founder of Techsperts, Inc. You can follow him at

41 thoughts on “Apple and innovation”

  1. I really really don’t think Apple is about innovations nor features: It’s about branding, with a left-over rep for ease of use that’s wildly undeserved by now. I think the torrent of patents if mostly a US thing, those cost nothing and are granted blindly, sometimes even generate tens/hundreds of millions in fees and lock out competitors before being invalidated (or if you’re Samsung then Obama vetoes your win…)

    I’m just back from a distant-family gathering, always great for hands-on observation of unfamiliar (to me) non-nerds and non IT workers. People don’t care about features, they care about style and image. That’s Apple’s innovation: turn phones into handbags.

    50:50 Androids to iPhones (middle+ class crowd, France is 80:20). I couldn’t find anyone using more than 10 apps (not counting games and unused apps), and very basic apps at that, mostly banking, mapping/GPS/service station locator+pricer/traffic info, then email/Skype/Chat. Camera gets a lot of use. Weather, sometimes 1 news app, mostly the local paper.

    It’s telling that most Androids have a protective case while most iPhones don’t. 0% cracked screens on droids, 30% on fruits, but do they look better from afar…

    3 nonfunctional phones:
    Samsung GS3 Mini with frequent reboots + bootloop. 4 years old. Probable battery failure, boots when on charger. Cure: change battery ($20) or phone ($100), elderly user wants a bigger phone anyway.

    4″ iPhone, borked iOS update. Cure: no iTunes PC available, so… drive 2hrs to closest Genius Bar ? ($80 time + gas)

    4″ iPhone, storage utterly full (8 GB ??? that’s “premium” ???). No iTunes PC at the home. Solution: apparently, activate backup of pics to iCloud and automatic storage management, then wait for a wifi connection. Hopefully it worked, no wifi on site. ($0 probably). Not sure if there is a non-smart way to just dumbly backup pics to cloud and unlink them from the phone’s, so they can be deleted from local storage while remaining in the cloud. That’s not what my fix does.

    Looks and brand matter more than features.

    Smartphones are wildly under-used, except Camera
    Still too complicated to use (no widgets on Androids, no shortcuts to contacts on any phone, though people loved it) and manage (lots of $40+ contracts when $20 was enough, lots of crap apps mysteriously installed)

    1. “I really really don’t think Apple is about innovations nor features: It’s about branding,”

      Because “Branding” is just a magic elixir used by con men and tricksters to dupe us into paying more than we should, right?

      Dude, you’ve got it 100% backwards. Apple has a great brand BECAUSE of it’s innovative features.

      1. Dude, I’m sure you’re right. Just so that I can measure the extent of my mistake, what exact innovative features usage should I check for next time I meet Real People ?

        1. I guess you missed near real time malware protection.

          How do Android users discover their Droids have been rooted by StageFright (or something else)?

          How do they then protect their Droid?

          15 minutes to the nearest Best Buy and $300? Gosh, that’s more than the $80 spent to repair that iPhone 4.

          1. Great! Your link is perfect. The link details how Apple discovered, resolved, and real time protected all iPhones in response to a discovered threat.

            OTOH, we have Android’s StageFright: And no,

            “I guess the remedy would be whatever iPhone users did for their iPhones ?”

            …is pure fantasy. (Google “StageFright” and consider the predicament of 1.5B Android users. They are using phones that have no patch and will not be patchable. Protection? Buy a new Android.)

          2. As always, you don’t understand choice: Google’s Nexus do just that, for those who want it. For those who prefer something else, they can get that too.

            Great, as you say. Actually, greater ?

          3. “For those who prefer something else, they can get that too.”

            By “something else”, are you suggesting that there’s a market for “willing to be hijacked” buyers?

          4. I’m suggesting there are people who care for other features. The Apple hack *did* happen, the Android one is still only hypothetical foam at the mouth of iFans looking for a counter to Apple’s very real big breach. So it’s easy for buyers to think “nah, it’ll never actually be exploited, I’d rather save $300 / get a better camera / better battery / cooler-looking phone” than get a Nexus or ONE or blackberry.
            I actually do that myself, in the end, every time. At least I’m not getting an iPhone with its 500million malware distributed by Apple’s AppStore ^^

          5. You’re steamed and he’s laughing. You do realise that facts are irrelevant for most people? You’ve been Trumped.

          6. Some of us reserve the right to potentially be exposed to malware. Don’t knock it. 😉

        2. Since Android is designed on the examples and paradigms developed by Apple when it comes to user interface, ya might want to ask about default encryption, processor efficiency, RAM efficiency, operating system upgradeability, and the effort involved in synchronizing their phone with desktops/laptops systems they may also use for mail/messages/calendar events, etc.

          But don’t knock yourself out just because you’ve ‘missed something.’ You miss everything. You’re famous for it.

          1. That’s only partly true though: granted, Apple was first out the door with a smartphone that combined a “real” OS and a touch-optimized UI (Android had a real OS but not the UI, Palm had the UI but not the OS and for resistive not capacitive screens).

            On the other hand, Apple has also ripped off other ecosystems/products: the appstore concept, native apps, interactive notifications, split-screen and pip multitasking, touchID, pen … all were on other products before Apple’s.

            FYI, late Androids have default encryption too, processor efficiency is a vague concept (iphones still don’t last a busy day except the +, how efficient is that ?), ditto RAM efficiency is vague (you mean not multitasking fres up ram ? obvious ?), OS upgradeability is fine on Nexus devices (people have a choice to prefer other features), as for effort involved in Cloud and desktop synch… Apple’s rather lagging Google.

            Going back to the question: what innovative features should I look for on iPhones to check if people use them and value them more than looks and brand ? Not looking for an abstract and misinformed rant, thank you, but for actual features / uses ?

    2. One question.

      I agree that I see far more cracked iPhones than Androids. My hypothesis is that iPhones are designed to continue working even after the screen is shattered. On the other hand, Androids die immediately.

      I haven’t had much experience with Androids, but a Galaxy Nexus that I had completely died with only a slight crack on the corner. Curious as to whether other androids fare better.

      1. I don’t have stats for cracked screens on droids. I do for iPhones in France…. activating Google-fu: 25% of iPhones. Not “once broke their screen and got it repaired” but “currently have a damaged screen”.

        I don’t know if droids die on screen damage whereas iPhones don’t. I have seen a few droids chugging on with cracked screens, so it’s not a black/white situation, shades of grey maybe. I DO know:

        1- more protectors on droids than iPhones (that’s my anecdote, couldn’t find stats). From another source: 65-75% of smartphones are in some kind of protective case. If my anecdote holds up, that means almost all droids and no iPhones indeed.

        2- more repairs on iPhones than droids ( percentages at the bottom of the last chart), 32% of repairs are on iPhones which make 15-20% of the French market, so about 2x more repairs on iPhones, and that’s not taking into account the 25% that go on w/ cracked iPhone screens.

        3- . Apparently, 50% of users have already damaged a screen, of that 50% repaired it, 25% changed phones, 25% used w/ broken screen.

        4- repairing an iPhone screen costs as much as buying a new midrange droid (150€, the price of a Moto G), I’m guessing most droid users just get a new phone, cheaper phones aren’t worth fixing.

        Nothing nicely conclusive and all-encompassing, but an accumulation of hints.

        1. Thanks. The last point makes a lot of sense. I think I’ve heard that a lot of the second hand market goes to customers who’ve broken their phone as well.

          Regarding iPhone repairs. There are quite a few gray market repair shops in Japan which probably use fake parts out of China. They charge about half of the Moto-G. Still, many people seem to be ok with cracked phones.

          1. There are even DIY kits. My half-competent engineer iBrother tried it… and my iSis-in-Law got a new iPhone ;-p so that must be on the difficult side.
            I know I don’t even try it. Plus I’m afraid of catching cooties or something.

  2. It’s amusing how you start out by decrying those who say Apple has lost its innovative touch, quote Mossberg saying that it’s not the number of features that count, and then go off to blissfully count features yourself.

    1. There’s a clear distinction between features that add to user issues and those that solve issues. The examples I cited such as battery life, sharper and brighter displays fall into the second category.

      1. Are you sure? It appears hundreds of millions don’t align with your assessment. Smartphones are selling no matter what the so called user issues are… The handheld pocket devices are popular because they have solved a big issue, easy use of technology in my hand. Nobody cared about batter life or display. If they did, we would still be using flip phones.

        What you cite are conveniences or possibly tradeoffs…

      2. Ah! “The features I chose to highlight are special.”

        I’m pretty sure that the critics that have been saying all along that Apple is not innovative, the ones that you and Mossberg dismissed at the beginning of the piece, would say exactly the same thing.

        Contrast this to the features that you chose to show how Apple used to be innovative; patents, health, materials. I fail to see any consistency in your argument.

  3. If you ask me, it’s because Apple is sorely overextended. You mentioned it yourself – they have to ensure their various OSes play well with one another. On top of churning out annual updates for iOS and OS X, they just released watch OS and TV OS last year. So that’s 4 different operating systems they need to maintain and update every year (5 if you count iPad as an offshoot), plus patches and all.

    In addition, they have to maintain their software and services, from iCloud to maps to Siri to the App Store to Apple Music to negotiating deals for Apple Pay, tv content packages, and news is that they are going to create their own original content as well.

    Not forgetting their bread and butter is their hardware, where they even design their own processors. Plus accessories.

    Doing it all is very lucrative because all the profits go to you at the end of the day, but it’s also very taxing on manpower because it means every time someone releases something new like a smart watch or music streaming or VR, Apple feels obligated to replicate it themselves so customers don’t feel tempted to leave their ecosystem, and because they can’t always trust 3rd parties to “get it right”.

  4. As you say, you’re a software dev and talked to your colleagues. I found my anecdote interesting because it’s outside the tech demo.

    1. “How else explain that people will rather have a cracked screen w/ no protector than a pristine screen on a protected phone ?”

      Cracked screens? Were the screens you looked at cracked or did you make that up? My family has been using 5 uncased iPhones for the past 7 years. 35 years of iPhone use.

      One cracked screen; cracked when it fell directly on concrete on its corner.

      Care to estimate cracked screens/year of use in Android world? Remember to include all of Android (2B units), $80 and up, going back to Android One.

  5. Apple doesn’t care two straws about “keeping up” or “falling behind.”

    Take the infamous slashdot response to the first ipod, “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.” The Ipod was a latecomer to the MP3 player market. However, it was more portable, more user-friendly, and more well integrated with MP3 software (itunes) than anything in that market that had come before, and today, nobody remembers any of its predecessors except for this quote.

    For most things, Apple’s approach to innovation is to wait for someone else
    to do all the inventing, the mistake making, and the embarrassment and expense of creating products that fail. Then they enter an already defined space with a far more simple, user friendly, and well integrated implentation, sell scads of “lame” products that are “boring” and “behind the innovation
    curve,” and gain yet more happy satisfied loyal customers.

    This applies to new products like that original Ipod, and it applies to features in iterations on old products. Take NFC; other phones had it for years, but what good was it? Aside from nerds bumping their samsungs together, not much, especially with Google’s contactless payment initiative dying stillborn. Apple waited until a sea change in payment methods was about to happen (the mandatory upgrade in the US to more secure payment methods from magnetic stripes) that created an opportunity for a new payment method to take root and grow. Then, and only then, did they release a phone with NFC.

    To recap, the real nature of Apple’s innovation, in the realm of checklist “features” is not that they are the first to come out with a new thing, but that they are generally the first to take a not-so-new thing and make it simple and elegant and popular.

    Really the only exceptions to this approach that I can think of have to do with forward-thinking features on Macs, where Apple tends to jump in with both feet before anyone else has even heard of the thing in question (USB, firewire, thunderbolt), or before most people are ready to change (eliminating floppies, eliminating optical disks, switching from CRTs to LCDs when LCDs still cost a fortune). which sometimes works well (USB, floppies, LCD displays) and sometimes never catches on (firewire, thunderbolt) or is clearly a step too fast for many customers (the non-retina macbook pro is still made, because many mac buyers demand a mac with an optical drive).

    1. I would say it is not that Apple waits for other people to innovate, but they polish user experience before releasing and it takes time. While many OEMs are hardware companies, Apple is a product company. Apple is not the first to introduce the latest Intel processor in their products for example, but first to introduce new ways of interaction with a hardware product.

      1. Don’t equate “invention” with “innovation.”

        Invention is just the first step. Lots of failed products do that first step and then the company that made them wonders why things went so poorly. Invention is easy. Taking an invention and making it into a useful, simple, elegant solution to a problem or job to be done, into a product that people will want to own — that’s the hard part.

        1. “Invention is just the first step….” I wholly agree with this statement. I would add “…and cheap”. Some people do not realize how much tech is going into the small piece that iPhone is. And they can buy it for just ~1/50 price of an average new car in the US.

          Companies first invent and then gradually improve in their market space by executing on their mission. Unlike smartphones made by hardware integrators I would say the mission for iPhone (remember, a “bicycle for the mind”?) is “taking your mind places slowly” or “enhancing your cognition in a subtle way. ” It is hard to put a finger on it, I know, but it becomes more clear when you use the device everyday.

  6. Is it necessary to see innovation or can it be behind the scenes? I’m not so sure if anything innovative has happened since smartphones became the pocket computer.

    I believe Obarthelmy got it right for the current state… People have figured out the apps they really need and want, branding is a huge factor in purchasing decision, and there isn’t going to be a run on iOS or Android.

    It appears the market share and user base is now well defined and everyone knows who the true players are.

    So why continue to beat the drum that doesn’t need it? Start demonstrating analysis/writing beyond what’s already known. I’ll gladly sign up and pay for exploring hard questions.

  7. I would say a really great piece of an advanced technology feels different than just a list of features. It feels like an extension of ourselves or seamlessly disappear in the background – a magic. User interfaces on smartphones of today is a lot about visual to hand coordination, a tactile feeling.

  8. “Yet, I can’t think of any company as innovative as Apple. Just in the last few years, they’ve been …”
    Tesla. It’s doing for the electric vehicle industry what Apple did for the smartphone industry.

  9. Phil triumphantly declared “Like the old Avis slogan, being number two has made their competitors such as Samsung try harder.”

    Huh??? Either you totally fail to understand the old Avis slogan, Phil, or you don’t realize that Apple is number two. According to IDC, Samsung had 22.7% of the mobile phone market in 2015, while Apple only had 16.2%.

    I wonder, with a major blupper like that, did you get anything right?

    1. According to recent data compiled by comScore, the iPhone’s share of the U.S. smartphone market now checks in at 43.6%. Following not too closely behind is Samsung with a 27.6% share of the market. And pulling up the rear, we have LG and Motorola who have respective market shares of 9.4% and 4.8%.

      1. I’m sorry, Phil, but I didn’t realize that 95% of the world’s mobile phone market didn’t exist in your fantasy world.

  10. A 750p screen on a 2016 flagship phone, when all other flagships have Qhd screens, no more needs saying.

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