Understanding Apple’s Approach to Innovation

Photo by Firmbee.com on Unsplash

It’s a fairly regular thing with tech pundits and Apple enthusiasts and some who just complain that Apple isn’t innovative, either at all or not enough. That is to misunderstand both Apple’s approach to innovation and its business model. Apple is quite innovative but not in the way we sometimes think about innovation. It’s also important to understand that Apple is a business. It has a duty to provide its shareholders with value. That means being profitable.

Understanding Technology Evolution
When Apple launched the first iPhone it was seen as an incredible breakthrough and new technology. It was neither. Mobile phones had been around a while, so had MP3 players, personal assistant devices (remember the PalmPilot?) and of course the Blackberry, so oft lamented still. The innovation was combining technologies. That’s how most technologies evolve.

Truly novel and breakthrough technologies are quite rare. One example is the shift from steam engines to gasoline engines. One that is coming is quantum computing, which is a novel and breakthrough technology. Whether or not it can be harnessed to be viable in consumer computing devices is yet to be seen. Same with fusion technology.

Most new technologies on the market are simply combinations of already existing technologies. In this sense, the innovation is bringing them together to create new products that may seem like a new technology, but isn’t really. This is where Apple’s innovation strategy is. Apple is very good at technology combinations. This is how technology generally, not always, but generally, evolves.

Apple’s Product and Growth Strategy
Siri, Apple’s voice technology, came from a little bit of in-house development through R&D, but largely came from the acquisition of a company that was far ahead of where it was. It was the same with MP3 players like iPod, that came through an acquisition. It is a model that Google and Amazon have also followed. Once the technologies are acquired, Apple or Google et al, then shape the technology into their ecosystems and platforms. Eventually new products and/or services are launched.

If this sounds easy, it isn’t. That’s where the innovation comes in. Apple has to figure out if consumers will adopt the new product, then they have to make it appeal to the broadest audience. That takes a lot of work involving industrial designers, graphic, UX and UI designers, technology and digital anthropologists, marketers, market researchers, sociologists and then coders and developers. It requires a lot of specialists in a complex dance to bring it all together. The iPhone seems an elegantly simple device, but it is incredibly complicated in its elegance. Same with any smartphone, tablet or laptop.

Another aspect of Apples’ strategy is that it is just far better at understanding humans and designing for humans, that is an innovative approach. It’s why devices from Dell, HP, Samsung and some others just aren’t as ergonomical and are often quite ugly…the engineers have more say than the designers. Apple lets the designers have more say.

Apple then knows how to deliver a good product into consumer hands. They also understand and research human behaviours around technology. It is why Microsoft copied so much from Apple and many companies want to be like Apple. Where they typically fail is understanding Apple’s approach to innovation and how they grow their business.

Apple, like Google, Microsoft and Amazon also understand the economic strength and value of ecosystems. Apple, contrary to what some might say, does not have a monopoly in any segment. Some might argue the Apple Store is, but it isn’t. Consumers have a choice. Apple delivers something that Google Play doesn’t do very well, which is respect of consumer privacy and a relatively safer environment for apps. It could have better rules and perhaps 30% is too high a price to pay for fees, but that’s up to the courts to decide.

The point though, is Apple’s approach to innovation. It’s one of multiple ways to approach innovation. Apple may never invent a breakthrough technology that stands on its own, it doesn’t have to and that’s rare and extremely expensive. Any technology harnesses a phenomena of some sort. Quantum computing harnesses quantum energies and theory. It’s taking a long time to get to a scalable mass-market technology and that is not Apple’s business model. If you’re waiting for Apple to develop some novel, breakthrough technology the world has never seen before, you’ll be waiting a long time.

The other part of Apple’s innovation strategy is its very business model. That is, combining technologies into new products and services and delivering them profitably to the market. Apple is a business first and foremost. The purpose of a business is to deliver a profit by giving customers something they want or need. It is as simple and complex as that. Apple does it innovately and elegantly, whether you like their products or not, they are an innovator.



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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious