Sunday, January 31, 2010

Apple: innovation vs. breakthrough

From time to time, Apple announces its latest creation. Even if you're not a particular follower of Apple, you can tell it's coming by the steady stream of breathless press releases. "Rumor has it Steve Jobs is about to announce ..." Apple didn't get into this happy position by chance. The company has been extraordinarily successful in building its brand through a highly effective combination of engineering and marketing.

Before I go on, let me be clear: That's a compliment.

Rather than dig into the details of the latest product, I want to put forth a small thesis: Apple has succeeded not by producing stunning technological breakthroughs, but by expertly pulling existing pieces together to fill a gap in the mass market.

That's also a compliment.

Looking at a timeline of Apple products, it's clear that this goes all the way back to the original Apple I, a pre-assembled motherboard in a time where kits were popular. Likewise, the Apple II (or Apple ][, if you prefer) came fully-assembled and had color when its main competitors didn't, but it certainly wasn't the first computer with a color display. The Lisa and Macintosh brought Xerox's UI breakthroughs out of suspended animation at the PARC to the world at large, but they weren't the first systems with mice and windows.

And let me pause here for another point: Just as much brain sweat can go into synthesizing existing pieces as creating new ones. The hacks behind the Apple II's handling of color and sound were ferociously good. I had the privilege of seeing an early (pre-release, I think) Lisa in college. I was suitably impressed. The hardware geeks in the room managed to persuade the sales rep to pull the cover off and, as I recall, made similar appreciative noises.

The Lisa wasn't really ready for prime time, but the Mac certainly was. The ROM carrying its graphics and other system support was known for having squeezed in more functionality into 64KB(!) than should have fit, and of course the coherence of the whole concept and execution laid crucial foundations for the brand we know today.

If you prefer to call those achievements engineering breakthroughs, I won't argue. My point is more that Apple didn't win by inventing color, or the GUI, or the portable music player, but by bringing them to market early and very, very well.

I think this is why I tend to find Apple's announcements exciting and underwhelming at the same time. The iPod, mini and nano followed in logical succession. With them, and their cousin the iPhone the news was not just that Apple had hit the existing digital music player and cell phone with its pretty stick, but that it had managed to partner with major players to give them a decent shot at working. Someone was bound to do that, might as well be Apple.

The MacBook Air is a cool piece of engineering, but however much you hype it it's a thinner, lighter MacBook. The latest offering is, as Jobs himself says, halfway between an iPhone and a MacBook. What's worth noting here is that Apple is re-entering a market where it and others have stumbled (remember the Newton?) not by jumping into the void but by anchoring firmly to two existing successes.

This is the usual way we progress, on the web and off. Breakthroughs are important, but they don't make it out of the lab until someone puts them into usable form and brings them to the world at large. This generally means connecting the breakthrough to enough of the familiar that people will know what to do with it. Apple does this as well as anyone and (with inevitable missteps) has from the outset.

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