Part 1: Understanding How Apple Innovates

Like most people, I followed along with Apple's iPad unveiling the other day remotely, via various live blogs. And once again, I'm struck by how poorly these live blogs conveyed the events of the day. I've complained about this in the past, but now that I've had a chance to watch and rewatch Apple's official video version of the iPad presentation, I can see that all of the live blogs I followed--and I followed quite a few of them--completely missed the point.

The iPad isn't about creating a new product category, despite Apple's claims, claims that were immediately parroted by Apple promoters like The New York Times' David Pogue. In fact that there's nothing new to the iPad at all--everything it does, everything, is available in many other device types, right now--is in many ways the point. The iPad brings with it a declaration by Apple that it is a different kind of company than many had imagined. And this information was presented right up front in Apple's iPad event the other day. It's amazing that no one caught this at the time.

First, for the Captain Obvious gadget bloggers out there, yes, Apple did explicitly position itself as a mobile devices company. As CEO Steve Jobs pointed out, the company's three main products--iPods, iPhones, and Macs (well, at least the portable ones, which apparently are the majority now sold)--are all mobile devices. "That's what we do," he declared. But Apple isn't just any mobile devices company, Jobs said, comparing his company to others in the industry. "It turns out that, by revenue, Apple is the largest mobile devices company in the world."

That's debatable, but whatever. Apple has finally found a way to describe its entire product portfolio as being the dominant player in some non-existent market, something it's been eager to do since the failure of the Mac to crack 4 percent market share during Jobs' most recent tenure at the company. And no one likes to talk up its own success more than Apple. But what this boasting really did wasn't to establish Apple's credibility in a sort of vague everything-mobile market, thus explaining why releasing yet another mobile device was, in fact, not just logical but inevitable. Remember? Apple's a mobile devices company. This is what they do. Nod your heads, folks, like it makes sense.


Anyway, back to the real message, the one that everyone missed. After declaring Apple king of the all-things-mobile market, Jobs then slyly explained what Apple really is. He said that the Apple of the early 1990's (a company he was not part of; his NeXT Computer was busy building non-mobile, super expensive and hugely unpopular workstations at the time) built the "first modern laptop computer." The PowerBook, as it was called, was not the first laptop, not even close. But Jobs can claim that Apple took a good idea and made it better. And he's probably right about that.

Apple did something similar in 2001 with MP3 players, though this wasn't mentioned in the presentation for some reason. While others had already made and sold MP3 players, Apple's iPod, eventually, defined the product category and ultimately drove virtually all other competition away. Not invented by Apple, but improved and made into something more popular.

Then in 2007, Jobs explained, Apple "reinvented" the phone with the iPhone. Again, smart phones already existed, but Apple took an idea that was already out there and just improved on it. "It's the best phone in the world," he said. And it is. (At least for now.)

From here, the presentation veers off into a discussion about why the iPad may make sense as a "new" product category. But it's not a new category. Instead, the iPad sits firmly between the smart phone and the laptop, a fact Jobs did explain. But there are already many products in this space, some of which Jobs never mentioned. After poo-pooing the netbook, which is, by the way, the most successful new mobile device product in the world, he completely ignored the other products that sit between the smart phone and the laptop. Slate and convertible laptop computers, with us since 2002. Smart books--PC form factors with smart phone innards--that first started appearing last year. Internet mobile devices. Large-screen media devices, like those sold by Archos. This is a category that both exists already and, in the case of the netbook, has even been popularized already.

Apple iPad
The Apple iPad: A new product category? No. An interesting device? Yes.

(I think this last bit explains why Apple really isn't making a netbook, by the way. This isn't a market that Apple can come along and just dominate. It's already full of PC maker players, and Apple's entry, even if popular, would never rule the market. Apple has been much more successful, from a market share perspective, with its non-computer mobile devices like the iPod touch and iPhone.)

And this all brings up to the definition what Apple is and how it is that the company innovates. This definition will fly in the face of everything you think you know about the company.

Most people regard Apple as an innovation factory, as if everything they produce is magic and has never been done before. But Apple, put simply, is a finisher. They take products that already existed, improve on them, and, in most cases, popularize them. They are, in fact, much like Microsoft: A company that rides on the backs of those who previously pioneered the markets in which they operate.

Now, there are major differences between Apple and Microsoft. Apple very carefully chooses which markets in which it will play, and when it does make a choice, it focuses on that market with a laser-like intensity. And Apple, unlike Microsoft, isn't interested in pleasing everyone. Apple makes products that Steve Jobs likes, and nothing more. If you're looking for a logical feature that would benefit millions, tough, because Steve Jobs isn't interested. Therefore, neither is Apple.

This definition of Apple will upset some people. But you need to understand that it is Apple, and not I, that first broadcast this definition. And if you watch the iPad presentation, the bit leading up to the actual product introduction, you'll see that that is exactly what Apple says it does. Today's Apple is a mobile devices company, sure. But it has yet to invent a single product category. It just sees what's out there and then does its own take on that, improving and popularizing as it goes. And it releases early and fixes late. This is decisive, yes. It's also somewhat hurtful to early adopters.

But is it innovative? I argue that it is. But then, I make that argument about Microsoft and its popularization of not-invented-here technologies too, and I'm pretty sure that any Apple fanatics out there will immediately recoil at such a thought. On the flipside, I suspect they'll have no problem applying the tag innovative to Apple, however. That's how these people operate. But it's important to understand that stealing great ideas and improving on them is in fact a form of innovation. And a great idea isn't so great if no one knows about it or uses it. The very best ideas, productized, are those that people lust after. And when it comes to this kind of product, Apple is of course Exhibit A.

So while Apple is keen to focus on those things that it can popularize, Apple also makes very high quality products, and that's true even of those products that don't become popular. The iPad, despite being nothing new, is still interesting, if only because Apple is making it. Apple may miss some fairly obvious features, but Apple never--absolutely never--half-asses anything. And some of those features will appear over time, as always. Not all of them: Steve Jobs will always get in the way of that one very logical thing that you want.

This is important, and it's a key driver to the company's success. And it's a point that should frame any discussion about the iPad, whether you or I think this product is necessary or just a fanciful, lust-worthy bauble. Right now, I'm trending more towards the latter, but then I haven't laid hands on the thing. The truth, as always, is likely somewhere in the middle.

We'll get to that truth once reviewers and users are able to purchase and use the iPad. And, of course, over time we can expect the iPad to improve to include some of those features that the "blogger haters" (as Mr. Pogue spitefully calls anyone independent enough to actually question Apple product design) have accurately pointed out are currently lacking in the first generation devices. Until that time, however, what we have to go on is Apple's initial, detailed presentation of the iPad. And my first impression of this device is decidedly mixed. As is so often the case with first-gen Apple products.

Next: First Impressions