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?

by Phil Baker