Delivering innovation vs delivering products

A company’s ability to manufacture products and sell them worldwide is not the same as having the power to deliver innovation to a market. Apple has proven over the last few decades that it innovates, while many of its competitors are satisfied with building products based on that innovation.

There is nothing wrong with being a company that sees a product and wants to compete with it. Companies have made billions of dollars copying from its competitors and it’s a proven strategy.

However, the ability to manufacture shouldn’t be confused with a company’s desire to affect change by offering new designs and a different way of doing things. In other words, innovating.

The Mac

Over the last 15 years Apple has literally innovated itself out of being close to bankruptcy to being the richest company in the world. It did so by improving the way we interact with the products we use most and offering a rich, attractive design. Apple recognized that products don’t have to be utilitarian “beige boxes” — they can be elegant and functional. They can be something we can be proud to own.

The modern version of this mindset really started with the iMac. Until then, PCs were a mass of wires and confusion, but Apple wanted to make the process simple and the end result tasteful. Out of the box, the iMac was setup by plugging it in and connecting the keyboard. Anyone could do it and millions did.

Apple did the same thing over and over again in the years following the introduction of the iMac. Even things like the Apple Remote is elegant and completely different from other remotes on the market. That design sense went into their software products, from iLife, iWork and the company’s pro applications.

They continued to innovate the computer industry with products like the MacBook Pro. It’s not just another laptop, it’s the material its made out of, the shape of the casing and the technologies it contains. Just look at how many copycat products came from HP, Dell and others.

The Big Three

However, Apple saved its most innovative designs for its mobile products. The iPod, iPhone and iPad are not only the company’s most successful products, they changed their respective industries forever.

They did that with a brilliant combination of functionality and design that no company had brought to the market before or since1. Of course, Apple didn’t invent those markets — there were music players, phones and tablets around before Apple, but it was Apple’s design that made the market what we know today.

Take a look at music players before the iPod. They only held a few songs and while popular, they were nothing compared to the popularity of the iPod that could hold a thousand songs. It wasn’t long before everyone was trying to copy the iPod and piggy back on Apple’s success.

The same thing happened with the iPhone and iOS. Even Google switched gears, taking Android from a copy of RIM’s BlackBerry OS to mimic the functionality of iOS. The iPhone changed the phone industry forever. Everything released since then was built on the innovations that Apple brought to market with that original iPhone.

Apple had one more design surprise up its sleeve — the iPad. Microsoft and its partners had been producing tablet computers for the better part of a decade by the time the iPad came out. They were heavy, clunky and didn’t work very well.

The iPad was sleek and designed for mobile use. It had apps that could be purchased specifically for that device and you can do almost anything you wanted to on that device.

The market’s response? Copy it as quickly as possible and get it to market. The same response that competitors had to the iPod, iPhone and Macs that came before it.

Innovation

I believe that Apple has been successful in innovating these markets because of a fundamental difference in the way they approach a new product. Apple sets out to solve a problem through design, and hardware and software innovations.

While Apple has delivered more innovation to more markets than most, it is important to realize that not every product released is going to be a design or innovative breakthrough.

Innovation is always followed by iterative upgrades to a product. There may be some design changes, added features and other small changes before another innovative change is made.

This is what a lot of analysts get so wrong. Analysts are quick to label a new Apple product as not being innovative, but they don’t even mention innovation with competitors products because they don’t expect anything from them.

Apple designs its products to work, from a software and hardware design perspective, not to be like something a competitor has released.

Innovative companies and the copycats

There have been some wonderfully innovative companies throughout many industries. We all have our favorites. Sadly, many of them have lost their way over the last decade or so. Sony comes to mind as one of those companies.

Two companies that really led their industries, but have fallen badly are RIM and Microsoft. The latest releases of products from both companies seem to have missed badly in the market2. It seems that both of these companies just seemed to give up a number of years ago, perhaps being a bit too comfortable with their lead.

Then you are left with companies like Samsung, HTC3 and that ilk. They have made successful businesses from copying other company’s products and getting them to market quickly. You only have to look at Samsung’s 85-inch TV to see how ugly its designs are without someone like Apple to copy from.

Every company has a place, but it’s important to remember the difference between innovating an industry and simply delivering a product.


  1. Companies are still basically copying the design and functionality of these products. 

  2. With the exception of the Xbox, which is a great product. 

  3. Given HTC’s latest quarterly numbers, maybe they aren’t so successful. 



  • Clitoritzin

    Being the most valuable (general and tech) company in the world puts you under heavy scrutiny and no company can make huge leaps overnight. Great innovation takes its time.

    It took 4 or so years for Samsung to accomplish what we know as the Galaxy S III (the previous ones already forgotten) and (based on the leaked photos online) the SIV won’t be that huge leap either. They’ll learn what is like to keep high standards and push de market forward (like the iPhone does).

  • http://twitter.com/octsyst Gase

    Jim, why do you think the TV is ugly ?

    • Steven Fisher

      For what it’s worth, I think that TV is horribly ugly. It looks like a expandable laundry rack, except you can’t dry clothes on it.

      • http://www.theuniversalsteve.com SSteve

        I think you are wrong. It will generate plenty of heat for drying clothes.

    • BC2009

      The $30 whiteboard/chalkboard reversible easel that I assembled for my daughter after Christmas had better design than that 85-inch TV.

      It does not really matter because while folks scream about the “Apple Tax” and how Apple makes “luxury” items, you need not look further than Samsung’s televisions (especially this 85-inch TV) to understand just how overpriced and out-of-reach they are. Samsung won’t even give you more than 2 HDMI inputs in a 55-inch or larger LED TV unless you are willing to pay like $1500. Meanwhile the $1000 Vizio E601i-A3 is a 60-inch LED TV that gives you 4 HDMI inputs, USB input, and Component/Composite input with a picture that CNET rated the “best for the money” — Walmart ran this TV at $688 on Black Friday.

      When I look at this 85-inch Samsung monstrosity, I get the same reaction as Josh Topolsky on The Verge: this is great if Donald Trump needs a new TV, but why does it matter to me?

  • DaveChapin77

    Apple invented a lot of stuff and they have great taste in their industrial design. But the thing that really sets them apart is the balls out bet the company design decisions. There are soooo many variables that go into a product, so many trade offs. Apple with the iPhone and then the iPad made some big risky design decisions and committed them to products that shipped in massive break the bank volumes.

    Many (maybe most) of those decisions do not amount to inventions. But the totality of the decisions probably represents the biggest part of how they innovate. Apple has tried to protect what they can with patents, but the big insights (which are the combination of a 1000s little & big trade-offs) are not very protectable. Just look at those Samsung slides of all the things the iPhone did but their phones didn’t at the time; and how they systematically copied it all knowing it was safe from a business standpoint because Apple proved the trade-offs worked in the market place.

    • Herding_sheep

      So many people just don’t understand this sort of thing, that its very welcoming to see someone who does. People really take for granted the kind of decision making and risk-taking involved with delivering game changers like the iPhone and iPad. It’s an enormous risk, and if you don’t have the conviction to truly make the tough trade offs and bet the company on those design decisions, you could never hope to affect an industry the way Apple has. Shipping a phone with no buttons or keyboard? ‘Obvious’ today, blasphemous 5 years ago.

      To me, innovation has always been about problem solving. When you are problem solving the way Apple did developing the iPhone, you don’t have he luxury of hindsight or conventional wisdom. You don’t get to see how the market reacts to decisions. You have to take that risk yourself, and throw the weight of the entire company on those thousands of different decisions. And that takes a lot of conviction, something Steve Jobs had a lot of.

  • http://www.facebook.com/james.stratford James Stratford

    Was this written indirectly as a response to MG Siegler’s recent post about Samsung being the 4th horseman? It certainly makes the point I felt when I read that.

  • tylernol

    Apple definitely has a knack for making good trade-off decisions. It is not just what they put in their products but what they decide to omit or defer:

    – no LTE until the iphone 5 because the earlier chipsets consumed too much power. What good is LTE speed if the phone does not last at least 10 hours ?

    – no Retina (yet) in the Mini to preserve the battery life , and form factor.

    – no release of a “revolutionary” Apple TV until the most important part, the content deals, are squared away.

    – no NFC yet because it is unclear what the standards and the adoption rate will be.

  • http://darcyfitzpatrick.tumblr.com/ Darcy Fitzpatrick

    I agree with you on the whole innovation, then iteration approach that Apple takes. A friend recently tried to tell me that Apple have stopped innovating because they didn’t include some kind of capacitive touch technology they acquired in any of the recent iPads and iPhones. As if cramming the most bleeding edge, newly discovered technologies into a device is the hallmark of innovation.

    Anyway, I do have a few points of contention with your piece. Here they are.

    “There is nothing wrong with being a company that sees a product and wants to compete with it. Companies have made billions of dollars copying from its competitors and it’s a proven strategy.”

    Reading your blog on a regular basis, I’m surprised to see you say that. I don’t think there’s an explicative left that you haven’t already used to describe a company that copies from and competes with Apple.

    “That design sense went into their software products, from iLife, iWork and the company’s pro applications.”

    Which pro applications are you referring to? The Final Cut Pro of just two years ago, along with DVD Studio Pro, Motion and especially Color (the strangest one of the lot) are a motley crew if ever I saw one. And yet they’re still better in terms of functionality than what Apple has put out by their own design today, i.e. Final Cut X.

    “… like the MacBook Pro. It’s not just another laptop, it’s the material its made out of, the shape of the casing and the technologies it contains.”

    It would be helpful if you could name what some of those innovative technologies are in comparison to other, non-innovative ones from other companies. Just for the sake of some context.

    “The iPod, iPhone and iPad are not only the company’s most successful products, they changed their respective industries forever.”

    Don’t you think you’re being a little hyperbolic with that statement? Forever is a long time, after all.

    “They did that with a brilliant combination of functionality and design that no company had brought to the market before or since.”

    What about Braun?

    “It wasn’t long before everyone was trying to copy the iPod and piggy back on Apple’s success.”

    While there were definitely a few iPod wannabes back then, most notably various efforts from Creative, and the Zune, there were still plenty of companies trying their hand at butt-ugly mp3 players of their own ghastly designs. I think “everyone” is a bit of a stretch.

    “Everything released since then was built on the innovations that Apple brought to market with that original iPhone.”

    Everything; everyone; forever. If you’re going to make such monumental claims, you should at least make some effort to back them up. Otherwise it just comes off as pandering.

    “Two companies that really led their industries, but have fallen badly are RIM and Microsoft. The latest releases of products from both companies seem to have missed badly in the market. It seems that both of these companies just seemed to give up a number of years ago, perhaps being a bit too comfortable with their lead.”

    I have to include examples from this paragraph on the grounds that if you are going to be in the business of criticizing others, you really should pay close attention to the details in your own work. You use the word “badly” in two adjacent sentences, which is arguably weak writing, but then you go on to describe RIM and MS as “seeming to seem” – never mind you “seemed” them in the previous sentence as well – which really is pretty sloppy.

    “They have made successful businesses from copying other company’s products and getting them to market quickly. You only have to look at Samsung’s 85-inch TV to see how ugly its designs are without someone like Apple to copy from.”

    Granted, you did ask his permission first, but this blog is in many ways a copy of John Gruber’s Daring Fireball. While you certainly take acerbic to a whole new level, the only real differences, quality aside, are the inclusion of photos/videos and comments. When it comes to the subject of copying, about which you’ve had some pretty harsh things to say on this blog, The Beard doth protest too much, methinks.

    All that said, I think the gist of this piece has the right idea. Apple are a company that innovates themselves forward, then iterates their way until the next innovation. And so far, that’s working out great for them.

    • http://twitter.com/billyrazzle Billy Razzle

      I think the point is that it’s annoying when these “copy companies” call themselves innovative & insist that they aren’t copying. It’s fine to be one of those companies, (if I could make billions making an iPhone rip off I would) but don’t pretend to be innovating.

      • http://darcyfitzpatrick.tumblr.com/ Darcy Fitzpatrick

        I don’t have a problem with that argument. I just think coming from a blog that is more copier than innovator, it’s a little hypocritical to criticize others for doing the same.

  • Jörg

    Great article!