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.
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.
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.