Monday, April 15, 2024

Has Apple’s Innovation Engine Run Out of Steam?

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When I started my professional career over two decades ago, I threw myself into all things Microsoft with boundless enthusiasm, vim, and vigor. I was especially keen on learning everything there was to know about Windows, and making as much use of what I learned as possible.

And I did just that. For over fifteen years I lived and breathed Windows. I knew every version inside out. I could identify almost every file, and I knew my way around the Windows registry better than I knew my way around my neighborhood.

But then something happened.

When Vista was released I started to feel that Microsoft was taking Windows in a direction that wasn’t compatible with what I wanted from an operating system. Increasingly I wanted an operating system that I could install and that would then get out of the way. But Microsoft wanted me to have a platform that was filled with bells and whistles, that wanted to be the center of attention. It also needed more handholding, and the dumbed-down interface made it harder to get at the features I needed.

So I turned to Apple. First came the iPod, and then there was an iPhone or two.

Then came an iPad.

And then came a Mac.

And I liked it.

It was clear that I was gravitating toward what Apple had to offer. And the more drawn I was to iOS and OS X, the more I disliked Windows. And that dislike only increased with Windows 8.

So it’s fair to say that I’m deep in the Apple ecosystem. But over the past few months I started to get a little scared. I began to worry that Apple was running out of ideas. But could the company that gave birth to the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad run out of ideas? Could the engine of innovation wide down?

As much as I hate to admit it, I think it could.

The biggest indicator that Apple’s innovative flair might be stuck in the tar pits is how focused the company has become to making products thinner and lighter. Sure, we all want the phones and tablets that we carry to not be burdensome, but there’s more to portability than just being thin and light.

For example, take robustness. Sure, Apple has put a lot of effort into slimming down both the iPhone and the iPad, but we’re still dealing with devices that feature a lot of very fragile glass. A drop of only a couple of feet can bring an iOS device to the end of its life. We’re buying devices sold to us based on their lightness, thinness and beauty – and sticking them into ugly cases because they’ve not been designed to handle the day-to-day existence.

Then there’s battery life. Ten hours seems to be the number that Apple has been shooting for with both the iPhone and the iPad since they were both released. But 10 hours seems to be all that Apple is willing to give us. And as our use – and overall reliance – on our iOS devices has grown, the amount of time we can fondle them in and out of sweaty hands before we need to top up the battery hasn’t increased.

Ten hours might have been good back in 2007 when the first iPhone was released, but in 2014 it’s quite a speedbump to productivity.

I’m not for one minute suggesting that Apple hasn’t worked hard to make the current crop of iPhones and iPads a significantly different – and better – than their first-generation counterparts. But most of what’s better is buried under the hood.

“But wait,” I hear you protest, “hasn’t Apple worked wonders with the processor and graphics chips, squeezing much more power out of thee devices without compromising either battery life or weight?”

Sure it has. The processor in the latest iPhone 5S is around fifty times faster than the chip found in the original iPhone. It’s quite an achievement, but it’s nothing new. Processors have been following Moore’s law since the 1970s, with performance doubling every couple of years. Stuff gets faster, whether it’s PCs, smartphones, the tablets that you’re using today or the quantum computer than you might be using in a decade or so.

The PC industry relied for years on this unrelenting increase in performance to sell new desktops and notebooks, and it worked until the hardware got so powerful that doubling the performance didn’t offer much in the way of a real-world performance boost.

Could Apple be facing the same problem? If you compare an iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, and iPhone 5S, it’s really hard to see the performance difference, despite each hop offering twice the processing power of the previous generation.

The same is true for the iPad.

Apple needs to think outside the box, and that means not only working to revolutionize its existing products – the Mac Pro is probably the most innovative thing to come out of Apple in a few years – but also coming out with new products.

Think it’s just me who thinks this, and that perhaps I’m having a bit of a whine?

Think again. After delivering what would have been for any other tech company a stellar quarter, and selling 50 million iPhones and 26 million iPads in a three month period – that’s over half a million iPhones and over a quarter of a million iPads a day – the company’s share price took a beating as investors worry about what the future has to offer. They’re worried that the company’s massive fortune is based on a couple of products, and that those products are themselves coming under sustained pressure from both Google and Microsoft.

Investors believe that consumers are fickle, and if the shine wears off either iOS device, then Apple could find itself in trouble, and that this would cause the bottom to fall out of the share price.

Can Apple replicate the success that it has enjoyed with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad with a new device such as a smartwatch or smartglasses? I think it can.

Despite the death of Steve Jobs, the company is in good hands, with CEO Tim Cook seeming to understand the value of timing when it comes to releasing new products.

I think that the time is right for the Cupertino giant to unveil a new product, and prove to the world that innovation is alive and well at Apple HQ.

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