Part 3: How Does Apple Innovate?

on May 31, 2016


This is part 3 of 7 in a series of articles that explores Innovation at Apple.

1. Who is Apple innovating for?
2. Where should Apple’s innovation be focused?
3. How does Apple innovate?
4. When should Apple introduce its innovations?
5. What does innovation inside of Apple look like to someone outside of Apple?
6. Why does Apple do what it does?
7. Why not be Apple?


How does Apple Innovate?


Apple is great at making incremental improvements to their products, but where Apple really excels is in the creation of user interfaces. All of Apple’s groundbreaking products have user interfaces that simplify the user’s interaction with their technology.

In a very real sense, Apple is a user interface company.


Examples include the Apple I and II (combining the keyboard input with the video display output), the Macintosh (mouse and GUI), the Powerbook (recessed keyboard and trackpad), the iPod (shuttlewheel) and the iPhone and iPad (multitouch).

More recently, Apple has introduced:

1) The Touch ID fingerprint scanner.

2) The Apple Watch, which included three new user interfaces: the digital crown, the taptic engine and force touch (now 3D touch).

3) 3D Touch — which lets you press a little harder on the screen to access hidden menus — has migrated from the watch to the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus.


In retrospect, there are two ways to know whether or not user interface was a true game changer:

1) It becomes the industry standard; and
2) It lasts for a long, long time.

Industry Standard: For a user interface to be considered a true game changer, it must become an industry standard. The shift from the old to the new is dramatic. Before the introduction of the new user interface, no one was using it. After the introduction of the user interface no one is using anything else.

That is exactly what happened with Apple’s most iconic products.

After the Apple I, the video monitor became a fixture on computers. After the Powerbook, all notebook computers standardized on recessed keyboards and trackpads. For legal reasons, competitors could not adopt the iPod’s shuttlewheel, but they often created pseudo shuttlewheels that had the same look, but none of the same functionality of the iPod. That’s dominance. Finally, before the iPhone, mobile phones all had keyboards and they all looked different. After the iPhone, all phones became glass covered rectangles. Same with the tablets.

Longevity: The second way to know whether a design got it right or not is longevity.

Good design doesn’t date. ~ Harry Seidler

Great design lasts. You can tell when a design captures the essence of a product by its longevity. Not only does the design become an industry standard, but it remains the standard for a significant period of time.

That is exactly what has happened with all of Apple’s most iconic user interface designs.

Desktops still use mice, notebooks still use trackpads, MP3 players have become moot, but no design other than the shuttlewheel ever caught on, and phones and tablets are all rectangular pieces of glass with a multitouch input.

Good design is long-lasting. It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society. ~ Dieter Rams


With the Apple I, the Macintosh and the iPhone, Apple didn’t so much create new devices, as they created new device categories.

I have a great respect for incremental improvement, and I’ve done that sort of thing in my life, but I’ve always been attracted to the more revolutionary changes. I don’t know why. Because they’re harder. They’re much more stressful emotionally. And you usually go through a period where everybody tells you that you’ve completely failed. ~ Steve Jobs

We all know the quote about how Wayne Gretzky skated to where the puck was going to be, but that’s not what Apple did at all. With each new interface, Apple left the skating rink entirely and started a whole new game. A new game where they usually gained an insurmountable advantage over their competitors. In essence, Apple made their competitors come to them and play on their home court.


This is pure speculation on my part, but I think Apple felt that they had gotten burnt in their patent war with Samsung. (Not that Samsung felt great about it either.)

The patents were difficult to maintain, winning in court was problematic, the publicity generated by the court cases was unfavorable, the damages were not large enough to deter future patent infringements and the courts moved so slowly that the patents were moot long before the, now mostly useless, verdicts came in.

Since patents had failed to provide Apple with the deterrence it sought, I think they decided to switch tactics and to rely, instead on their design prowess and the advantages inherent in an integrated hardware/software model. Thus was born Touch ID, 3D Touch and the Taptic engine.

Touch ID is in the same conversation as the mouse, click-wheel, and multi-touch, but arguably harder to copy. ~ Ben Thompson on Twitter

These products were not protected by the laws of man. They were protected by the laws of physics. Competitors would surely try to copy Apple’s innovations, but they would be physically unable to do so until they made hardware and software as well as Apple did. And that is a very high hurdle indeed.

Apple turned away from the courts of law and turned instead to a higher court where physical reality provided a quick, immutable and final verdict with no opportunity for appeal.


If you want to know why Apple may fail, look no further than user interfaces.

While the Apple I, the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad were all game changers, all of Apple’s recent user interface changes have been underwhelming. There are troubling signs that these user interfaces — which were introduced with such promise — may never live up to their potential.

Touch ID is nice, but it’s not a game changer. It is, at best, an incremental update that provides Apple with a subtle advantage over its competitors.

Apple Watch simultaneously introduced three new user interfaces. The trio of user interfaces are off to an exceedingly slow start. Far from being intuitive — which is Apple’s claim to fame — Apple Watch owners have struggled to master the watch’s nuances. Some Apple Watch owners don’t even use the digital crown, which is as clear a design failure as ever there was.

3D Touch started as force touch on the Apple Watch and migrated to the phone with the debut of the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. Introduced with much fanfare, I think Apple had great hopes for 3D Touch, but so far, it has underwhelmed. Some users have found it far less helpful than they had originally anticipated, while others have abandoned its use altogether. (See: “The trouble with 3D Touch, Jason Snell, Macworld, April 8, 2016.)

Perhaps most troubling of all is the fact that Apple didn’t even bother to include 3D Touch on the recently released iPhone SE. If a user interface is going to be a groundbreaker, a game changer, a competitive advantage, you do not leave it off your brand new phone offerings.

Voice interface: While Apple got off to a very strong start in voice interface with the introduction of Siri, they have done little since and are the clear laggards in this important interface arena.

Apple led the graphical UI, and the touch computing UI. Not leading the Voice UI though..” ~ Ben Bajarin on Twitter


Still, it’s early days for these new Apple interfaces.

Touch ID enabled Apple to successfully roll out Apple Pay, and that is no small thing. It’s also a big deal when it comes to privacy and privacy is becoming a bigger issue every day. Ultimately, Touch ID is laying the foundation for future product offerings.

Of course Apple is slowly creating building blocks for letting you use & control that identity. Touch ID has a long way more to run ~ Benedict Evans on Twitter

It’s true that the Apple Watch and 3D touch aren’t setting the world on fire…

…but then again, neither did the Macintosh mouse or the iPhone multitouch when they were first introduced.

The Macintosh uses an experimental pointing device called a ‘mouse’. There is no evidence that people want to use these things ~ John C. Dvorak, May 1984.

iPhone which doesn’t look, I mean to me, I’m looking at this thing and I think it’s kind of trending against, you know, what’s really going, what people are really liking on, in these phones nowadays, which are those little keypads. I mean, the Blackjack from Samsung, the Blackberry, obviously, you know kind of pushes this thing, the Palm, all these… And I guess some of these stocks went down on the Apple announcement, thinking that Apple could do no wrong, but I think Apple can do wrong and I think this is it. ~ John C. Dvorak, 13 January 2007

I can’t believe the hype being given to iPhone. Even some of my blindly-loyal pro-Microsoft friends and colleagues talk like it’s a real innovation and will “redefine the market” or “usher in a new age”.

What!?!? […] I just have to wonder who will want one of these things (other than the religious faithful). People need this to be a phone, first and foremost. But with 5 hours of battery life? No keypad? (you try typing a phone number on that screen, no matter how wonderful it is — you will want a keypad). And for all that whiz-bang Internet access, you absolutely need the phone to work, immediately, every single time. Will it do that?

So please mark this post and come back in two years to see the results of my prediction: I predict they will not sell anywhere near the 10M Jobs predicts for 2008. ~ Richard Sprague, Senior Marketing Director, Microsoft, January 2007

Okay, so perhaps user interfaces take a little while to grow on us. So let’s not jump to any hasty conclusions and give Apple’s new user interface offerings some more time before we rush to judgment.


The biggest danger facing Apple may be their inability to create new user interfaces of the same caliber as the Apple I, Macintosh and iPod. But new user interfaces are their greatest opportunity too. If Apple has a next breakthrough product, it’s likely to be because that product is designed to employ yet another breakthrough in user interface.

As for the electric car… Assuming they’re building one, Steve didn’t focus on me-too products, but breakthrough products. And the breakthrough is in driverless cars, and Google dominates there. ~ Bob Lefsetz, Apple’s Numbers

This is the kind of profoundly ignorant thinking that epitomizes the way many of Apple’s critics view Apple. They assume that Apple’s future opportunities are limited by their own stunted ability to foresee the future. Like mental midgets, they think that if they can’t see over a fence, then no one else can possibly see over it either.

Apple should take the sage advice of that well known worldly philosopher…Dolly Parton:

I’m not going to limit myself just because people won’t accept the fact that I can do something else. ~ Dolly Parton

And then there’s this:

People tend to fear what they do not know, and what they fear they dislike. ~ Dolly Parton

And wait, there’s more!

Find out who you are and do it on purpose. ~ Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton — guru, sage. Who woulda thunk it?


If Apple is coming out with a new car — and I have no idea what they’re up to — don’t think “car”. That’s too limiting. Think user interface. If you want to imagine Apple’s future, re-imagine the car with a whole new user interface.

Here is what Tim Cook had to say to Jim Cramer in a recent interview:

JIM CRAMER: I will need something else?

TIM COOK: You will need something else.

JIM CRAMER: I can’t think of something else that I need.

TIM COOK: But we are going to give you things that you can’t live without that you just don’t know you need today.

JIM CRAMER: Ok that’s what I want.

TIM COOK: That has always been the objective of Apple. To do things that really enrich people’s lives. That you look back on and you wonder how did I live without this.

Whatever Apple is cooking up in Cupertino, Tim Cook is promising us that it’s going to be something we don’t know we need, but can’t live without. Let’s hope that he — and Apple — can keep that promise.

I can hardly wait to find out.


Tomorrow, part 4 of 7.

1. Who is Apple innovating for?
2. Where should Apple’s innovation be focused?
3. How does Apple innovate?
4. When should Apple introduce its innovations?
5. What does innovation inside of Apple look like to someone outside of Apple?
6. Why does Apple do what it does?
7. Why not be Apple?