Inverse Innovation Inanity

At Forbes, Chunka Mui ((Coauthor of “The New Killer Apps: How Large Companies Can Out-Innovate Start-Ups”, “Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance”; and “Billion-Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years”)) writes:

[pullquote]If you desire a wise answer, you must ask a reasonable question. ~ Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe[/pullquote]

Will Tim Cook Be the Next Steve Ballmer?

His initial premise seems reasonable:

Like Ballmer, (Tim) Cook’s legacy will be defined by whether he successfully launches new post-Jobs killer apps. … (T)o be truly successful, Cook will have to innovate beyond iPhones and iPads.

What Is Innovation?

Wikipedia defines Innovation as:

“the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs. Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself. Innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different rather than doing the same thing better.”

[pullquote]Some people see innovation as change, but we have never really seen it like that. It’s making things better. ~ Tim Cook[/pullquote]

I would add this caveat. Too often “innovation” is judged from the perspective of the engineer, rather than from the point of view of the consumer. We are seduced by the wonderfulness of the technology, but it is the market, not the maker, that is the ultimate arbitrator of what is and what is not innovative. It is the value of the product — as judged by the consumer — that matters.

If something is truly innovative the consumer’s first thought isn’t, “I was asking for this.” Their first thought is, “Of course,” because — although it’s something they didn’t even know they wanted — now that they see it, it’s seemingly self-evident.

Myth #1: First To Market Matters Most

(The) field is crowded. The biggest technology companies and numerous start-ups are already in the race. Google has invested heavily in Google [x] projects like Glass and its Self-Driving Car, and it just bought Nest for $3.2B. Samsung has already launched two generations of its Galaxy Gear smart watch. Both GE and IBM are pursuing massive Internet of Things initiatives. ~ Chunka Mui

[pullquote]In a forest, there are many plants. but only a few are destined to be trees. And of all the forest trees, only one is destined to be a California Redwood.[/pullquote]

Really? The field is crowded? Crowded with what? A lot of throw-it-at-the-wall-and-let’s-see-what-sticks experiments?

Take a look at five of Apple’s greatest innovations:

  1. Apple II
  2. Macintosh
  3. iPod
  4. iPhone
  5. iPad

Now ask yourself: Were any of the above products first to market?

No. No they were not.

[pullquote]I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things. ~ Steve Jobs[/pullquote]

In every case, those products came out many YEARS after others had tried to establish their respective markets.

Malcolm Gladwell put it this way:

“You don’t want to be first, right? You want to be second or third. Facebook is not the first in social media. They’re the third, right? Similarly, you know, if you look at Steve Jobs’ history, he’s never been first.”

LESSON UNLEARNED: It’s not first to market that matters, it’s FIRST TO GET IT RIGHT.

Myth #2: The Path Of Innovation Has Been Identified

History tells us that the new technological landscape that will likely define both Apple’s next horizon and Cook’s legacy is somewhere at the intersection of wearable computing and the Internet of Things. ~ Chunka Mui

Say what? History tells us nothing of the sort.

Pundits keep predicting that Apple will go into wearables or television. Why?

— Did anyone predict that Apple would veer into MP3 players?

— Most everyone predicted that Apple would make a phone, but by phone they really meant a flip phone that would also work as an MP3 player. Did anyone predict the pocket computer — complete with its own operating systems and, eventually, an app ecosystem — that Apple produced?

— Most everyone predicted that Apple would make a tablet, but no one predicted the tablet that Apple introduced and few understood it at the time or even understood it long after it was placed on sale. Heck, a lot of people STILL refuse to understand it, despite all its subsequent success.


It is an open secret that Apple is working on an iWatch wearable device. ~ Chunka Mui

So what? did any of Apple’s previous major innovations look or act or feel anything like the products that preceded them?

— Did the Apple II look anything like its non-monitor competitors?
— Did the Macintosh look anything like the line interface operating systems that preceded it?
— Did the iPod click wheel work anything like its MP3 competitors?
— Did the iPhone have any resemblance to its keyboard heavy smartphone predecessors?
— Did the iPad touch interface have any relationship to the stylus-driven, Windows tablets previously offered by Microsoft?

[pullquote]Predicting a wrist device from Apple as “a Fuelband, but better” is equivalent to predicting an iPhone with an iPod click wheel. ~ Zac Cichy (@zcichy)[/pullquote]

No. No they did not. In every case, these products were a significant variant from what then existed in the market.

Entrepreneurship is essentially identifying the path that everyone takes; and choosing a different, better way. ~ Sheldon Adelson

LESSON UNLEARNED: The innovative product that solves a significant problem WILL NOT LOOK OR ACT OR FEEL like anything on currently on the market.

Myth #3: History Says Apple Will Be Disrupted

(The) incremental, extend-the-ecosystem approach makes all the sense in the world—to Apple. (It) fits very nicely with how customers interact with the Apple world today—and how Apple hopes that they will interact with it in the future.

It could be entirely rational for Tim Cook to take this view. Every one of his key lieutenants, who are responsible for the day-to-day defense and extension of Apple’s iOS ecosystem, must be even more whetted to this point of view. If there is any fight for resources, mindshare, talent, etc., you can bet that they’ll want to invest as much as possible to iOS. History also tells us that industry analysts will focus on today’s sales, margins and growth forecast at those important quarterly conference calls.

Momentum will drive Tim Cook and Apple down this path—as similar forces drove Steve Ballmer and Microsoft down the path of defending and extending the Windows/Office ecosystem at the expense of smartphone/tablet/cloud dominance.

Who doesn’t think that would the natural strategy for it to follow? ~ Chunka Mui

Oh, oh! Me, me, me, me! And anyone who’s been paying even the slightest attention to Apple and Apple’s history.

[pullquote]Never underestimate a pundit’s ability to underestimate Apple’s ability.[/pullquote]

Apple’s EVERY ACTION since Steve Jobs returned in 1996 argues against their being disrupted by falling into the trap described, above, by Mui.

“Design (not profits) is where Apple products start,” writes Lashinsky. “Competitors marvel at the point of prominence Apple’s industrial designers have. ‘Most companies make all their plans, all their marketing, all their positioning, and then they kind of hand it down to a designer,’ said Yves Behar, CEO of the design consultancy Fuseproject. The process is reversed at Apple, where everyone else in the organization needs to conform to the designer’s vision. ‘If the designers say the material has to have integrity, the whole organization says okay,’ said Behar. In other words, a designer typically would be told what to do and say by the folks in manufacturing. At Apple it works the other way around.”

[pullquote]If anybody’s going to make our products obsolete, I want it to be us. ~ Steve Jobs[/pullquote]

Ben Thompson puts it this way:

“Apple’s focus on user experience as a differentiator has significant strategic implications as well, particularly in the context of the Innovator’s Dilemma: namely, it is impossible for a user experience to be too good. Competitors can only hope to match or surpass the original product when it comes to the user experience; the original product will never overshoot (has anyone turned to an “inferior” product because the better one was too enjoyable?). There is no better example than the original Macintosh, which maintained relevance only because of a superior user experience. It was only when Windows 95 was “good enough” that the Macintosh’s plummet began in earnest. This in some respects completely exempts Apple from the product trajectory trap, at least when it comes to their prime differentiation.

Indeed, it seems that Apple simply isn’t very interested in moats. They do what they think is right by the user, strategy nerds like me be damned. This kills them on Wall Street, but perhaps is the only possible route to avoiding stasis, and ultimately, disruption.

This is why Apple is so fascinating.”


Caesar defied historical prohibitions and marched his army across the Rubicon River. In doing so, he toppled the prior regime and enabled the flowering of a new Roman Empire. Will Tim Cook dare to cross the Rubicon? ~ Chunka Mui

[pullquote]In a company that was born to innovate, the risk is in not innovating. The real risk is to think it is safe to play it safe. – Jony Ive[/pullquote]

Are you kidding me? Will Tim Cook dare to cross the Rubicon? He and Apple have already constructed a four-lane highway over and across that Rubicon and left it far behind. Apple may have many a problem to deal with in the future, but playing it safe — not cannibalizing themselves — will not be one of them.

Steve Jobs himself may have said it best when he was recruiting a job applicant:

We are inventing the future. Think about surfing on the front edge of a wave. It’s really exhilarating. Now think about dog-paddling at the tail end of that wave. It wouldn’t be anywhere near as much fun. Come down here and make a dent in the universe.

Published by

John Kirk

John R. Kirk is a recovering attorney. He has also worked as a financial advisor and a business coach. His love affair with computing started with his purchase of the original Mac in 1985. His primary interest is the field of personal computing (which includes phones, tablets, notebooks and desktops) and his primary focus is on long-term business strategies: What makes a company unique; How do those unique qualities aid or inhibit the success of the company; and why don’t (or can’t) other companies adopt the successful attributes of their competitors?

64 thoughts on “Inverse Innovation Inanity”

  1. I just want to say “Thank you, John Kirk”!

    And BGR has already come up with its masterpeice page hit pushing headline – Is Apple evil?
    As I said in one of my previous comments, I come to techpinions to see some sanity restoration.

  2. John, I know you have a great talent for finding apposite quotes in strange places, but Sheldon Adelson?

    Also, Tim Cook should be careful of those guys Chunka Mui says are whetted to his point of view. They are probably very sharp.

    And then there’s that Rubicon thing. That’s the second or third reference I’ve seen this week in connection with Cook. These people should be sentenced to read Suetonius to find out what the expression means. “Alea iacta est!”

      1. “The problem with quotes on the internet is that you can’t tell if they’re real.” ~ Elvis.

        (P.S. They’re as real as I can make ’em. :-))

          1. If you’re going to use a famous quote, you really should give proper attribution. Thus:

            “Sorry, that is misattributed, it was Abraham Lincoln. I know because I saw it on the internet.” ~~ Oscar Wilde

  3. Is Mui the same head up his sand moron who keeps leaving flaming bags of dog exhaust on the Asymco forums? Why the appalling headline John? I was just going to skip past it till I saw your name, but I should have moved on. Insomnia is not a good thing.

  4. Great column, but the anti-Apple idealogues cannot be swayed from their belief that Apple is ‘doing it wrong’. The very reality of Apple’s tremendous success is anathema to them. Their ‘Apple is doomed’ meme is the apotheosis of irrational analysis. There is no way to assuage their disquietude. For them, no matter how much Apple succeeds, Apple is not succeeding.

    1. “Never try to reason the prejudice out of a man. It was not reasoned into him, and cannot be reasoned out.” ~ SYDNEY SMITH

      1. Yes! It also amazes me how consistently the anti-Apple crowd fails to understand that what works best for them is not what works best for others. I wonder if this is a nerd-specific problem, or just a human problem? Probably a human problem, ‘my way is the right way’, and so on.

  5. Great dissection of Apple myths as usual.

    Again analogies are great, too bad most people applying them to Apple use ones don’t apply.

  6. Looks like Chunka Mui wrote a big chunka hooey. By hooey, I mean the variety that you might step on in cow pastures.

  7. I appreciate the sentiment, but question the rigor of the belief that the market decides what is innovative.

    Case in point…from:

    “In the early years after Einstein’s theory [of General Relativity] was published, Sir Arthur Eddington lent his considerable prestige in the British scientific establishment in an effort to champion the work of this German scientist. Because the theory was so complex and abstruse (even today it is popularly considered the pinnacle of scientific thinking; in the early years it was even more so), it was rumored that only three people in the world understood it. There was an illuminating, though probably apocryphal, anecdote about this. As related by Ludwik Silberstein,[17] during one of Eddington’s lectures he asked “Professor Eddington, you must be one of three persons in the world who understands general relativity.” Eddington paused, unable to answer. Silberstein continued “Don’t be modest, Eddington!” Finally, Eddington replied “On the contrary, I’m trying to think who the third person is.”

    So much for the “market” deciding what’s innovative.

    1. I don’t think John is saying that the market judges what is innovative in all cases — because, as you point out, the “market” (ie consumers like the rest of us) don’t know and understand what is being done in labs and the minds of geniuses until there is a popular product based on the innovation available on the shelves.

      I think John is saying that it should be possible to find a judgement in the marketplace (once the marketplace gets hold of it) of what does indeed turn out to have been innovative. There is a subtle difference. In fact, if an innovation is of any practical merit, then we should be looking for confirmation in the market. On that basis, Windows RT wasn’t particularly innovative.

      For example, tablets weren’t particularly innovative for 20 years under MS. Then came the iPad, re-envisioning tablets and the jobs to be done by a tablet. It appears the iPad is indeed innovative, and that this is judged so by the market, in several ways:

      They have displaced netbooks
      They have impacted PC sales
      The app phenomenon has exploded
      They have created whole new sets of tasks and workflows (for pilots, doctors, waiters, salesmen, teachers, etc.)…

      Love it or hate it, this is the marketplace declaring, in hindsight (though perhaps within a year of its launch), that the iPad is innovative. Part of this is that it has caused some degree of disruption to incumbents.

      1. The market judging something as innovative, is just a commercial success of the innovation. Nothing more. The Xerox Parc machine never launched, and the Apple Lisa was a commercial failure. I don’t think anyone can question their innovation. They ultimately inspired the products that became commercial successes. Heck, without the aforementioned innovation of General Relativity (something the market had absolutely nothing to do with) GPS would not be possible.

        I do think you’re being too harsh on the Surface. I have both the Surface 2 Pro and the Surface 2. Is either my main machine? No, but I do like them. The Surface 2 is permanently at my bedside, and the Surface Pro is my “around town” machine.
        Gates contributed to the PC business model, which I believe was quite an accidental innovation. The real innovation there, never to be underestimated (warts and all), was off the shelf parts, and an open OS with an open driver model. This permitted everyone to play and innovate collectively (down to the user) in ways where it’s impossible for any single company.

        The iPad, and tablets in general, aren’t innovative due to any particular tech, rather it’s the implementation…the model. They are the successors to the netbook, which demonstrated the demand for an inexpensive internet capable machine. Apps are an evolution of web pages (with JS, etc.). This did indeed disrupt PC’s, rightly, because the PC numbers were artificially high. Not everyone wanted/cared about/needed a full blown PC.

        1. They can and do question Xerox’s innovation, because it wasn’t applied in a way that made it accessible to the market to form a judgement — “successful” or not. Since everyone now uses a “mouse” (Apple’s name for the pointer), Apple’s innovation is indisputable.

          1. So we’re going to play the “name it and claim it game”? Okay, they innovated the name. Woooo! The player hits the home run, not the announcer. 😉

            Again, the most important innovations are unknown to 99+% of the populace.

          2. I was trying to illustrate that since Apple brought the pointing device to the market, it has become known as what Apple called it. They did in fact fundamentally improve upon it (maybe add the third internal roller or something, I can’t remember).

            Talk about naming and claiming: “Windows”, anyone?

            “Again, the most important innovations are unknown to 99+% of the populace.”

            I don’t think this is at odds with the article. The “populace” is merely one market. There might be markets that consist of just scientists, or just molecular-biologists. If there is a new way to splice genes, the “populace” doesn’t have to know of it — just the market it is intended for. It will be the molecular-biologists who judge it innovative or not. If they are suddenly all splicing genes using that method or device, then I guess it was innovative. That method or device would be an application or implementation of a discovery or invention that one of the molecular-biologists made.

          3. I don’t want to get involved in what is an increasingly sterile argument about what is innovation and who invented what.

            But the history of the mouse is not particularly hard to get right. The mouse, sort of as we know it, was invented by Douglas Engelbart of SRI and demonstrated to the world in 1968 (though there is evidence of earlier mouse-like pointing devices.) The earliest known published reference to the devices as a “mouse” was in a 1968 article by J.C.R. Licklider of MIT. Apple was neither responsible for the invention of the mouse nor its name, though the Mac was the first popular product to use it. The fact that the term had been in use for 16 years before Apple introduced it explains why it was not trademarked.

            By the way, it’s not really correct that Xerox failed to commercialize the mouse and graphical user interface. The Alto work station, developed by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and which famously impressed Steve Jobs, did come to market as the Xerox Star workstation. It was not successful, unsurprising since a single workstation cost $15,000 and a working system a minimum of $50,000. Like many other products of its day, it was blown away by the much cheaper and quickly commoditized IBM PC.

        2. I’m glad you like the Surface. But is it “innovative” considering it came three years after the iPad (which has a better Touch interface, and you can hook a keyboard up to it, too?) Most would say it was the obvious response MS would make, one more iteration in a long line of failed tablet attempts stretching back 20 years.

        3. “The iPad, and tablets in general, aren’t innovative due to any particular tech, rather it’s the implementation”

          I think I was very clear about “innovation” being an “application” of an invention or advance. Application = Implementation.

          Nevertheless, Apple has indeed made advancements and inventions in technology. And they do a lot of their own development — such as battery technology, sensor layers in their screens, silicon in their chipsets, materials and production methods…

          1. Yeah, I was agreeing with you. But I wanted to emphasize innovation in design over more fundamental innovation.

          2. OK, but I think that it is easier if you view “more fundamental innovation” simply as a “Discovery”, an “Advance”, or an “Invention”.

          3. well, no. That is why we are having this difficult discussion. Someone can “invent” the wheel. The wheel is not the innovation. A cart is an innovation over a sled.

          4. Yes and no. The wheel is an innovation AND the cart is an innovation that depends on the wheel. Yes, the cart is an innovation over the sled, because it advanced the function of transport.

        4. “Heck, without the aforementioned innovation of General Relativity (something the market had absolutely nothing to do with) GPS would not be possible.”

          Innovation? Or, Discovery, Advance, or Invention?

          I think your reaction to the whole article is based on your insistence to think of the “innovation” as the “discovery”, “advance” or “invention”; and then to complain that such an “innovation” isn’t really an “innovation”, because it’s just about the “implementation” of the “real innovation”.

          Seems a convoluted way to argue. Also, seems a convoluted way for people in general to try and “prove” that Apple isn’t innovative.

          I think John acknowledged all that. Hey, guys, it’s OK: “innovation” is about application and implementation, and it is judged by the market.

          That Apple also invents, discovers, advances and contributes to standards (though not necessarily all within the same product, nor each and every time), is also true!

          1. I’m not complaining. I’m discussing. Most of my arguments in this thread had nothing to do with Apple. I’m also not saying that you’re wrong when you say “application + implementation”. Where I vehemently disagree is that the market has anything to do with it, beyond being a stimulus, a motivator, to innovate. That however, is not a necessary condition. Like I responded to our author, market success is a side effect of innovation, not a criterion.

            Einstein discovered a disproportionate amount of “deeply profound truths”, using his innovative thinking. These are truths, as in facts, and not amenable or influenced by people “voting with their wallets”.

          2. OK, you’re not complaining, you are vehemently disagreeing. Nevertheless, we are discussing…

            I am simply pointing out that there really wouldn’t be that much to disagree with, certainly not vehemently, if you adjusted your definition of innovation slightly.

            You talk about “invention” being “a more fundamental innovation” than (mere) “innovation”. Why not simply just talk about “invention” and “innovation”? That’s all I am saying.

            The article proposes, not unreasonably, that “innovation”, as a “judgement”, is a conclusion about an invention (completely original or otherwise); it’s a quality. A quality that only means something in as far as it has a practical application.

            You keep referring to the Theory of Relativity as “innovative”. I said it was a Discovery or Advancement. His ideas were certainly new and unique. They were certainly better and more insightful about the universe than anyone else’s. How can his ideas be “innovative”? An idea is an idea.

            What could be “innovative” is the way in which Einstein exercised his mind or inspired himself — certainly if a causal link could be shown between his exercise and his ideas.

            What I find confusing/frustrating is that you want to use the term “invention” to restrict the term innovation — ie, innovation isn’t “fundamental” unless it involves invention…

            Yet, you balk at something being a “mere” invention but not an innovation — ie. the wheel must be an innovation in addition to its being an invention. You want every invention to be elevated by the term innovation.

            I don’t think this works out. I don’t think you can have both at once.

            I am just saying:
            An invention is an invention is an invention. It might require other inventions (as the cart requires the wheel). But I agree with the article: we can’t really talk about anything being innovative unless it proves out in the marketplace and changes behaviour. That is the quality that makes an invention an innovation. It has to be measured, while an invention just is.

          3. Introducing relativity only muddles the discussion further. Einstein, like any other scientist, would argue that both special and General Relativity (let’s avoid the word “theory,” which has a scientific meaning different from its common English one) were discoveries of fundamental principles of nature, neither inventions nor innovations. And even then, Einstein understood the extent to which he, like Newton, stood on the shoulders of giants, particularly Maxwell, Minkowski, and Lorenz.

          4. True, he stood on the shoulders of giants, like Newton did. His innovations were the mode of his thinking and how he arrived at these truths. His thought experiments. This wasn’t someone just doodling math equations and noticed “Oh, look at that!”. Surely your not saying he wasn’t an innovator, his methods and discoveries were totally non-obvious and counterintuitive, yet true.

            I did stick with GR because SR is indeed very close to the work of Lorentz and Fitzgerald, who still didn’t have the leap of faith to carry them to their natural conclusion.

          5. I agree. I think klahanas introduced it, and I was attempting to explain why it wasn’t relevant.

          6. Actually, I must not have articulated myself clearly. Innovation is the basis of invention. Not the other way around.

            I can agree that commercial success is a singular, by itself insufficient, acknowledgement of innovation. IMO, being able to do things in a way that could not be done before (revolutionary), or do them better (evolutionary) is what unambiguously, and sufficiently, constitutes innovation. Not commercial success.

            Regarding The Master, his methods, imagination, and ability to recognize the discovery were his innovative contributions. True, Nature happily does what she does, whether we know about them or not. If it weren’t for Einstein (or his proxy) we would still have no idea about way too many things, and our lives would be poorer.

    2. There is nothing more reactionary than the general public. They instinctively reject anything new.

      However, the beauty of free markets is that people get to vote with their dollars. You vote for something by spending your money. You vote against it by not spending your money. Innovation can survive and thrive in a free market even if only a small portion of the public — those who need it most — see the value of the product.

      Majority vote does not matter in a free market. A dedicated and devoted minority can carry the day.

      1. Thanks for clarifying. As I say in my other posts in this thread, with examples, market success is a “side effect” of innovation, not a criterion. IMO.

    3. What market was General Relativity serving that the market didn’t decide it was innovative, regardless of who could actually understand it?


      1. Innovation is anything enabling in new ways. In the case of General Relativity, it singularly advanced modern electronics, GPS, Television, chemical measurement, Astronomy and cosmology and many more. Yes, the outcomes are innovative as well. GPS, for instance. But General Relativity has an intrinsic value that enabled these “marketable” innovations. GR would be no less innovative if not a single marketable product came out of it. It helped us understand nature better. Now we know why apples fall (no pun intended), why light bends in space, why the universe is expanding, and so much more.
        Let’s bring it to something less abstract. Where would we be without the integrated circuit? That innovation, along with many others, made this conversation possible. But not having it is a show stopper.

        1. So then, the market actually has decided that GR is innovative, even if the theory itself had nothing to do with markets to begin with (thus not really falling under the premise of the article).


          1. True, but with my writing style you may have missed it. For the first 20-30 years of it’s existence, there were no applications of GR. It was no less innovative.

          2. How are you defining “markets”?

            General Relativity wasn’t bought and sold on the NYSE, but it did a brisk trade in the marketplace of ideas.

  8. Apple without Steve Jobs is not Apple. It remains to be seen what the future holds, but it is already clear that it’s not the same company. It wasn’t the same company when he was pushed out the first time, and it hasn’t been the same company since his death. Simply put, you cannot use a period during which Jobs was there as a reliable indicator of what the company will do in the future. It’s apples and oranges. Cook is at best a curator of what Jobs created. At worst, he could be the one who squandered it all.

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