The Apple Verdict and the Challenge of Innovation

on August 27, 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.