Mac Musings

Apple's Ahead-of-Time Innovation

Daniel Knight - 2001.12.07

It's one thing to see Apple critiqued on its own merits, quite another to see an article chock-full of errors ripping into our favorite fruit company. Let's take a look at a recent example of egregious journalism, Apple's Just-In-Time Innovation: Can It Last? by Robyn Weisman. Quotes from the article are indented. (Thanks to Damien Barrett, whose rant got this started.)

It seems that whenever Apple Computer (Nasdaq: AAPL - news) begins to run out of steam, the company confounds competitors and naysayers by showing up with the Next Big Thing.

Apple innovations have included color graphics and low-cost floppies (way back in the Apple II era), the graphical user interface and one-button mouse (on the Lisa, a year before the Macintosh), the 3.5" floppy on the Mac, multiple graphics monitors and SCSI on the Mac II, ADB (the precursor of USB) and the GeoPort, CD-ROM as a standard feature, DVD as a standard feature, portables with built-in trackballs and trackpads, built-in ethernet (along with that frustrating AAUI adapter), switching to RISC processors, AirPort, the clever easy-access beige G3 minitower and blue & white G3 minitower cases, USB, FireWire, the Newton PDA, and the iPod. Although Apple didn't invent all of these, they were the first to bring them to market in a big way. In fact, it was Apple's own iMac the made Intel's USB a household word and finally got the PC industry to start using the port.

When the company seemed to be in dire straits with a tired product line, the iMac galvanized consumers, many of whom had not before owned a computer.

Maybe Robyn Weisman doesn't remember 1987, but I do. Remember the snail ad extolling the "up to twice as fast" G3 processor? Remember the bunny suits? The beige G3 may not have had the pizzazz of the iMac, but it was far from a tired product. It offered Pentium smashing performance, an easy-access case, DVD and AV options, and passed the 300 MHz mark in April 1998 - a month before the iMac was unveiled.

At the same time we had the PowerBook G3, a portable powerhouse that smoked any Wintel laptop out there. Nothing tired about these products!

When the iMac excitement faded, Apple's flagship Titanium PowerBooks became objects of desire....

Let's conveniently ignore the WallStreet PowerBook G3 (May 1998), the Lombard PowerBook G3 (May 1999), the iBook (unveiled in July 1999), Power Mac G4 with FireWire and AGP (August 1999), the Pismo PowerBook G3 (February 2000), multiprocessor G4 with gigabit ethernet and the Cube (July 2000), and the whole range of Apple flat panel displays introduced between the iMac preview and the TiBook's introduction this past January.

With all of these introductions, perhaps the iMac excitement faded, but sales remained strong. According to all of the sales figures I've seen, the iMac has accounted for about 50% of iBook 2001Macintosh unit sales since it was introduced in 1998. Not only that, but each year Apple sells more iMacs than they sold the year before.

Still, the TiBook definitely replaced the iMac as the most coveted Macintosh, at least until the iceBook came out in May 2001.

Ross Scott Rubin, vice president of research firm Jupiter Media Metrix, told NewsFactor Network that Apple's marketing strategy has changed over the last decade and that, despite assumptions to the contrary, Apple has actually become less innovative in recent years.

"Back then, Apple used to try to invent standards, but its Geoport lost out to USB, and Appletalk [Internet protocol] lost to the now-standard TCP/IP," Rubin told NewsFactor.

Here Rubin becomes Weisman's coconspirator of disinformation. Apple's original serial port was fast, and Geoport made it faster, but Apple realized that a 2 Mbps proprietary protocol wouldn't cut it in the long run. As part of their move to industry standard hardware (IDE drives, PCI and AGP slots, the same DIMMs used in PCs, etc.), Apple chose to adopt USB in 1998 and bury their own Geoport. Geoport didn't "lose out" in the market; Apple killed it.

As for AppleTalk, it's a local networking protocol, not an Internet protocol. AppleTalk works over LocalTalk and ethernet, and it's even been adapted to work over the Internet, but it has never pretended to be an Internet protocol or to be in competition with TCP/IP. In fact, Apple has provided TCP/IP access on the Mac since at least System 7.5 (circa 1995) - long before it became a standard protocol for Windows users.

"And ten years ago, Apple pioneered several devices and then were gone because they couldn't compete" with other companies that had more resources to manufacture the same types of products, Rubin continued.

He pointed out that not only did Apple bring the first serious PDA, the Newton, to the marketplace, it also introduced one of the first digital cameras, the Quicktime.

First we complain because of Apple's tired product line, and then we bash them for being so far ahead of the curve that some products failed? Sorry, but you can't eat your cake and have it, too. Sure, Apple took it on the chin with Newton, but they didn't manufacture the QuickTake (not Quicktime) camera - it was an OEM product also offered by Kodak.

According to Rubin, "Apple has innovated in terms of bringing things to market, namely Airport and iMovie. iTunes is less of a breakthrough. It's a nicely implemented jukebox, but it's not as great a leap forward as iMovie."

Rubin should read some of reviews that compare iTunes with seemingly comparable Windows products. They follow a similar pattern: "The Windows software has great features, but I can successfully burn CDs with iTunes. iTunes is a winner." Software that works easily and reliably shouldn't be considered a great leap forward; it should be par for the course.

Rubin told NewsFactor that he believes Apple will find a less hospitable climate for innovation today than it had ten years ago. As a result, Apple now is embracing industry standards and focusing on their implementation.

The market was completely different ten years ago. Although the personal computer had become an office staple, networking was considered cutting edge and most homes didn't have computers. Ten years ago Windows 3.0 was considered state of the art on the DOS site of the industry - but Mac users were already using System 7.

There's nothing wrong with embracing industry standards; innovation goes beyond whether you use the PCI bus, IDE drives, and AGP video cards. Rubin realizes this - see the word revolutionary in the following paragraph!

Apple's new OS 10.1 is evidence of such a strategy. Although revolutionary in many ways, it is essentially a UNIX OS with an elegant GUI interface that retains some classic Mac OS elements.

"Apple's hedging its bets with OS X," said Rubin. "It still supports [Macintosh Classic] programs [and] it's able to write UNIX and Java programs as well."

Now that's just a truckload of manure. Hedging its bets? Apple is fully committed to making Mac OS X the best operating system on the planet. Sure, it supports classic software - just as Windows XP supports old Windows-ware - but there's no turning back for Apple. Apple's betting the farm on OS X.

Rubin went on to say that Apple's new iPod is an excellent example of Apple's focus on implementation.

Although iPod, like other Apple products, demonstrates award-winning industrial design, it uses accepted technologies, such as the MP3 digital music format and Firewire (which Apple successfully pioneered).

And the player's Toshiba hard drive is not a proprietary product, Rubin said, adding that he expects competing MP3 player manufacturers to introduce similar products to the marketplace within the next six months.

Apple has never used proprietary memory, CPUs, hard drives, CD-ROMs, etc. They had special floppy drives, but other than that Apple has attempted to adopt and advocate standards such as NuBus, RS-422, and SCSI.

Or, using Rubin's spin on things, we could argue that the entire Wintel world has no innovation at all since they use off-the-shelf components almost exclusively. And I don't think anyone wants to argue that there's no innovation on that side of the industry.

Jupiter analyst Rubin said that Apple is less directly driven by customers than its many competitors, both on the software and hardware levels.

Show me a company less driven to provide its customers the best hardware and software designs, and I'll show you Dell. In the Windows world, manufacturers follow the market. Apple takes the lead, often delivering new technologies and better solutions before consumers even know they want them.

There's a big difference between being driven by the market and driving the market, the same difference you see between the Dells and Gateways of the world and Apple Computer.

Innovation isn't about being just-in-time; it's about creating your own opportunities. By that measure, few companies in any field measure up to Apple.

The only place timing comes into the picture is knowing when the product is ready to market. And I'll put my money on Apple every time.