Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Boy Who Cried Innovation

Business as Usual
For about a year I've been seeing grave predictions of the impending demise of Apple due to a lack of "innovation".  While there may ultimately be reason for concern, the panic over the lack of new, breakthrough products seems both unreasonable and inaccurate to me.

First, we seem to have a problem with our perception of the actual pace of innovation in the real world. Apple is responsible for some number of genuine breakthrough products since the Macintosh in 1984 - how many depends on how you view the company and the products, but at the very least one has to include the MP3 player (the iPod), the Smartphone (the iPhone) and the tablet.  Personally I'd also include OSX - a true UNIX desktop operating system with a user-friendly User Interface - but again, it depends upon how you see the various hardware and software products and how they are integrated and sold.

Now, it's true that Apple hasn't released a breakthrough innovation since the iPad, but is that really a sign that they have lost their product-development mojo?  What have other companies released that represented such an innovation in consumer electronics?  Or, put another way, what product category remains undeveloped, waiting for Cupertino's engineering and product design geniuses to build the defining, quintessential version that all others still pursue?

The smartphone market is quite mature - people have their favorite brands, but we know what a smartphone is, and what we expect it to do.  Voice, text, email, camera, music player, game platform, web browser.  There's just not much more you can do with a small, hand-held touchscreen computer.  Apple still has a lead in the tablet market based on the ease-of-use of iOS and the quality of their hardware, but it's not like there's something you could do with a tablet that we haven't thought of already, and like the Smartphone, improvements at this point are going to be incremental rather than revolutionary.

So what WILL the next breakthrough innovation on the level of the iPhone or iPad actually be? Remember, we had thought about, talked about and even seen prototypes of those products for YEARS before Apple released them, so we should have plenty of information to speculate on what might come next.  There's an ongoing buzz around integrating a computer and a television set, but as much as smart people are thinking about it, Netflix and changing the channel from a web browser are about all the uses they can come up with.

I suspect the next breakthrough will be in some kind of commercial or consumer robotics.  The combination of intelligence, mobility and autonomy will lead to any number of consumer products, from lovable robotic pets to self-driving cars.  And the temptation to adapt robotics to man's most ancient endeavor, war-fighting, will ensure that there is plenty of money available to do the development.