Apple as Innovator: Four* Contributions That Changed Computing

Steve Wildstrom / September 5th, 2012

Reading the comment threads on Tech.pinions’ many posts on Apple v. Samsung and iOS vs. Android, I have been struck by the recurring charge that Apple is nothing but a clever marketer that does nothing but copy (impolite version: steal) and repackage the work of others. To anyone knowledgeable about the history of the industry, this is pure nonsense I’m not sure that evidence will do much to persuade the doubters. Nonetheless, here are three critical Apple innovations that reshaped the tech industry:

LaserWriterDesktop Publishing. The laser printer was invented by Xerox in the late 1960s and developed in the 1970s by Canon, Ricoh, and Hewlett-Packard. But  in the mid-80s, nearly all “letter quality” printers relied on typewriter technology. Apple had the vision to combine the capabilities of the laser printer, the new Macintosh, and Adobe’s PostScript page-description language to put something resembling professional page composition on the desktop. Apple’s LaserWriter printers were not terribly successful and the company decided to leave printing to HP and others after a few years. But Apple’s early commitment to the technology set the stage for the desktop publishing revolution that not only made gave every computer user the tools of the graphic artist but revolutionized commercial publishing.

 

 

iMacThe legacy-free computer. In 1998, every computer was expected to have a floppy drive. Windows PCs came with PS/2 ports to connect a keyboard and mouse, a parallel port for a printer, and a serial port for other chores, such as syncing a Palm Pilot. Macs replaced those connectors with the proprietary AppleDesktop Bus and LocalTalk ports. That spring, Steve Jobs, who had just resumed the helm of Apple, introduced the original iMac. In addition to looking completely different from any computer anyone had ever seen, the iMac dispensed with both the floppy and all legacy ports, replacing them with Universal Serial Bus connectors. USB had been around for a while and was standard equipment on all Intel motherboards, but since Windows didn’t reliably support USB until Windows 98 Second Edition in mid-1999, they were barely used. Apple, which was still in very shaky financial condition, got scathing criticism for its leap into the future. But while floppies and legacy ports persisted on Windows machines for years, the iMac was a runaway success and suddenly all those indispensable legacies became dispensable indeed. (The iMac’s USB “hockey puck” mouse was a less brilliant idea and was soon replaced by a more conventional design.)

 

 

AirPort iconWi-Fi. No, Apple didn’t invent Wi-Fi, or, as it was originally called, wireless Ethernet. That honor goes to AT&T (later Lucent) Bell Labs. But Apple began putting AirPort cards (actually rebranded Lucent Orinoco PCMCIA cards) into Macs, including some desktops, in 1999, before the IEEE even completed the agonizingly slow process of ratifying the 802.11b standard that it was based on. (Here’s a 1999 article I wrote on Apple’s offerings.) Slower versions of the 802.11 standard had been around for a while for commercial and industrial use, but Apple took the blindingly fast version (a theoretical 11 megabits per second, up from 2 mb/s) and turned it into a consumer product. Although others, particularly Intel, were later to play an important role in making Wi-Fi ubiquitous, it was Apple that had the vision that freed our computers from their network tethers.

 

 

 

WebKit logoWebKit. It’s easy to foget how awful mobile browsing was before the iPhone. Not only did most devices have minuscule displays, but the browsers on Palm, Symbian, BlackBerry. and Windows Mobile devices were just terrible. The WebKit browser engine that was the basis of the iPhone version of Safari  totally changed the game by bringing desktop-class browsing to a handheld. Even though the original iPhone, which lacked 3G support, suffered from slow connections, it provided a vastly better browsing experience than anything we had seen before. Even better, it’s open source (not entirely by choice; WebKit was based on the KDE project’s open source KHTML) so it is widely used by other company’s browsers, including Google Chrome.

Purists can complain that Apple didn’t invent any of these. But that’s the difference between invention and innovation. And while the cleverness and insights of the inventor are essential, we need the daring and vision of the innovator to move forward. The iMac in particular was an extremely gutsy move by Apple; Steve Jobs bet the company on a novel design and its failure would almost certainly have meant the end of Apple.

Even during Apple’s darkest days of the mid-1990s, Apple remained a remarkably inventive company.  For example, the Newton MessagePad was a failure, but no one can say that it did not break significant new ground. There are many things you can fairly criticize Apple for, but the charge that the company fails to innovate is just plain silly.

*-There are three kinds of mathematicians–those who can count and those who can’t. The original headline said “three.” While writing the piece, I added the section on the LaserWriter, but forgot to change the headline.

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • Rich

    Apple has been on the cutting edge of technology for at least 10 years, leading the industry and introducing one new feature after another ahead of everybody else. Yet some people insist that Apple doesn’t innovate. The only way I can explain such a statement is that either those people haven’t been paying attention or they seriously dislike Apple, consequently they find a way to select and distort information so that it will – in their heads – support their claim.

    • Jurassic

      It’s understood that “distort information” is a euphemism for “lie”. 😉

  • Apple also started the digital camera revolution with the QuickTake.

    • steve_wildstrom

      The QuickTake was the first consumer digital camera. But I’m not sure I really want to consider it the start of the digital revolution, It was more the like Newton, a really interesting device that didn’t really work very well and failed because it was a head of its time. Nonetheless, it is another example of Apple innovation.

  • You might include USB. It was invented by Intel, but it was going nowhere until Apple put it on the first iMac. Then its popularity exploded.

    • steve_wildstrom

      USB was a critical part of the iMac story. The strange thing was that when the iMac shipped, nearly all new Windows systems came with USB ports since Intel had been putting them on motherboards for a while. But no one knew what to do with them because the lack of native support in Windows defeated the plug-and-play aspect that made USB attractive in the first place. Windows didn’t get real USB support until Windows 98 Second Edition in late 1998, and the support remained somewhat shaky until Windows XP in 2001.

      • mhikl

        I believe that there were very few USB devices until the iMac came into being. I think I read long time ago that Apple had done some deal(s) with a manufacture or two to build some products. I remember that quite quickly a printer was produced that mirrored the look of the iMac.

        • steve_wildstrom

          That’s true because of the problems with Windows and USB. And mostly only specialty manufacturers were interested in Mac-only products because at the time of the introduction of the iMac, Apple’s market share hit its all-time low. It was a fascinating case of a product, whose market share I believe was below 5% in the U.S., setting the agenda for the other 95%.

          • Rich

            I’ve always thought that the reason Apple’s market share at that time was so low was primarily or exclusively because the Mac was a lot more expensive than “PCs”. Had it been equally priced with them I’m sure things would have been different.

          • steve_wildstrom

            Apple in the mid-90s was pretty much the antithesis of Apple today. It was a badly managed, undisciplined company turning out mediocre products. It executed poorly, regularly missing ship dates and failed to manage its supply chain, ending up either with product shortages or vast overstocks around new model introductions. It failed modernize Mac OS, which became a critical problem after the introduction of Windows 95. Pricing was a problem, but part of a much bigger dysfunction.

  • mhikl

    Steve, thank you for this article. I would also like to say something that will go over most people’s heads for we often react in anger or have the misguided altruistic urge to set things right, change someone’s mind or educate the idiot. Those with agenda will not have their biases challenged or changed and this is particularly true in the religious, political, allopathic medical and technological fields.

    Here goes: Ignore the naysayers and Apple Haters, even if they attempt to come off as possible converts to the magic that is Apple. They will not change and their only desire is to stir the talk and irritate those participating in discussions out of pure interest and a desire to learn. The most cunning fein awareness and willingness to learn. That is the purpose of TachPinion and its discussions but the smart observer can sense out the interloper.

    The anger that is generated by their negative participation and the response of true hearts does not dissuade their intent, change their minds nor turn them into good, fair-minded or more intelligent sentient beings. They have an agenda and each response to their trickery empowers them. Be neither snide nor educative. Ignore, ignore, ignore and they eventually get bored and leave. And even if they continue their assault, big deal. You know that by ignoring them they are being eaten up inside by resentment and envy and that is a curse of their own designing. Pity them and send thoughts of healing; such is the Buddhist way and the way of all good religions, should religion or a spiritual sense help guide one through this mortal coil.

    Notice how the most communicative naysayers in John K’s articles were the ones who received the most responses from fair minded and cantankerous (where I fault) participants. Their concerns need not be addressed. However, that doesn’t mean one can’t wait an honest post or two and then give truths without actually addressing the riff-raff.

  • jfutral

    I just thought you were adopting the Guy Kawasaki technique of Top 10 lists plus 1-3 bonus points.

    Joe

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