Focusing on SillinessApril 8th, 2016
There are lame theories about how Apple updates its products. A frequently voiced cultural meme is that Apple often upends the tech industry by dint of a brand new product that takes things in a new direction. Year after year, or close to that, amazing technologies emerge from some magic place. You’ll see shortly how misleading this contention is.
So as we close in on the first third of 2016, just how has Apple changed the tech industry? Well, I think I could have written this article last year, where the new products didn’t seem so spectacular.
We have the iPhone SE, which is basically an iPhone 5/5s with mostly new innards. The new components take it quite close to an iPhone 6s except for the lack of 3D Touch. All right, the Touch ID sensor is from an older generation, but most people won’t notice.
Rather than advance the technology, Apple filled a gap in its product line to serve people who wanted a cheaper iPhone, an up-to-date one with a smaller display, or some combination of both. But there’s nothing wrong with that, and I think Apple should have built it last fall. A lot of people have yet to upgrade to new iPhones, and price and the inconvenience of a larger display are two factors. The other, that their existing gear works fine, means they won’t upgrade regardless.
So Apple’s critics complain that the iPhone SE won’t sell lots of copies. But a few million per quarter can mean the difference between flagging sales and modest growth. There may be a small indication of where it’s going when Apple releases its quarterly financials later this month. But it may be telling that supplies are said to be short at Apple Stores in the U.S. Does that mean that Apple has production difficulties, or was demand larger than expected?
To someone buying one of these handsets, the question of whether the technology is all-new won’t matter. Only some tech bloggers are concerned.
The other new development is the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, which largely matches the bigger model with some changes and additions. So there is a new wrinkle on color matching called True Tone, which adjusts color temperature based on sensors measuring ambient light. The benefits are modest for the most part except for sunlight, where it is said to make a world of difference.
In the scheme of things, the new features in the smaller iPad Pro won’t alter the tech industry in the way the first iPad in 2010 did. It’s iterative, and the only concern is that it’s $100 more expensive than its predecessor, the iPad Air 2, which was given an additional $100 price cut.
That, however, is how Apple really works. Rather than deliver major upgrades or all-new gadgets every year, the new product initiatives are years apart. So we had the first Mac in 1984. I will suggest the first Apple LaserWriter, introduced in 1985, was a major innovation. By introducing Adobe PostScript to the masses, and paving the way for such apps as PageMaker and QuarkXPress, Apple created a new industry. Within a few years, desktop publishing mostly replaced traditional typography.
Apple no longer makes the LaserWriter. That market was taken over by traditional printer makers, but Apple’s willingness to introduce a desktop printer, with technology to match the finished page seen on your Mac’s display, was revolutionary.
You might not regard the Newton MessagePad, introduced in 1993, as particularly innovative. But it sported a touchscreen of a sort and was powered by an early version of the ARM processor. Sure, it was overpriced for its modest pretensions, and handwriting recognition was perfectly awful, but it helped paved the way for a market that eventually led to tablets and smartphones.
In 2001, people laughed at having 1,000 songs in your pocket for a “mere” $399 — until the iPod took over the fledgling digital music player market. Nobody came close. Even Microsoft, thought to be destined to take over every market it entered, couldn’t deliver a worthy competitor.
The critics laughed at the first iPhone in 2007, but such companies as Google and Samsung were working overtime developing imitations. Certainly no subsequent iPhone has added as much new technology as the original, but it took the smartphone market in a new direction. The previous standard for the industry, BlackBerry, never recovered.
Just four years later, the iPad arrived. Maybe it was mostly a phone-less iPhone with a larger display at first, but it was the first truly successful tablet computer. For years, Microsoft promised a tablet revolution, but its hardware partners mostly delivered clumsy notebooks with touchscreens that required a stylus. The most successful competing tablets from Samsung and other companies are in the iPad mold. Microsoft is still trying to promote convertible notebooks, just slimmer and lighter.
The Apple Watch, which arrived in 2015, doesn’t seem to have the potential of an iPhone. At least not yet. But it has become the most popular smartwatch out there. It may take a few years to realize its potential. But it’s more than just an expensive tech toy.
So you see that Apple doesn’t necessarily overhaul a market every year or two. Most product improvements are simple refreshes, evolutionary and not revolutionary. Other companies do that all the time and few complain. But Apple? It has to meet a fake standard or it can’t the successful due to the misguided perceptions of some people.
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Well done. This is what progress looks like. The big changes are relatively rare. It is the small changes that help a new product find its niche. A friend of mine, a lawyer, loves her Apple Watch. If nothing else, she can peek at it discreetly when dealing with clients, opposing counsel or in the courtroom.
The tech media preoccupation with game changer products by Apple on an annual basis is puzzling. It was as if they have nothing else to write about. As you and many others with sound facts proved that Apple doesn’t follow a schedule to make the next big thing.
However, Apple continues to change the tech industries with as you noted “evolutionary refreshes.” Moving to the first USB to consolidate serial ports. The need for speed with peripheral connection by creating FireWire which pushed the USB group to create USB 2 and 3 and with Intel creating Thunderbolt. Pushed the envelope with the 2015 MacBook and the 2008 MacBook Air with the thin design. The MacBook Air introduced the aluminum unibody case with limited number of ports and an SSD (very expensive) option.
Even the smaller product changes have an effect on the tech industries. Can we do what Apple has done?
I think analysts look to Apple to revolutionize the tech industry on annual basis “by dint of a brand new product that takes things in a new direction” mainly because they know full well that nobody else is going to do it. Take away Apple and the entire industry would immediately become stagnant. Even its most conspicuous rivals look to Apple to show the way forward and feed off its creativity, all they can hope to do is follow Apple’s lead. Even when somebody develops a new product or technology, it is usually Apple that is the first to figure out how to make it work right. So when analysts express anxiety about Apple possibly losing its creative mojo, this is really their shorthand way of expressing anxiety about the health of the industry as a whole.