Apple, has been accused for a long time of not innovating. This goes back to the time of Steve Jobs when a certain group of people lived in a reality-warp that denied anything positive out of Apple. It continues now in the oft repeated meme: “Since Steve has gone, Apple no longer knows how to innovate.”
It amuses me that this usually comes from analysts or writers who – for the most part – themselves have never created anything of value themselves. Typically,they know little of the creative process, and even less about technology. Oh sure, they know technological products, but next to nothing about how they work – that is, nothing about neither the physical hardware nor the software systems that drive the gadgets they critique. In short, they could not tell a bit from a case statement, and have never created even a simple electronic product.
3 Main problems – unrealistic expectations
There are several problems here, but they all stem from one main problem.
- The proponents of this misguided view have a deep-seated failure to understand the limitations of technology. They expect to see revolutionary new products come out every 4 to 6 years.
- Because they have such limited understanding of technology, they simply do not understand much of the deep innovation that Apple does.
- Some of the detractors have a kind of cult hatred of Apple. Therefore they refuse to acknowledge any real advance that are visible.
Let’s address these in turn.
1. Limitations of technology
It is an aspect of reality that, for the most part, technology advances at a steady pace – that every development builds on the state of scientific knowledge and the level of technology that preceded it. Sure, there are great leaps at times, but even the invention of Xerography, one of the most original technical advancements of all time, was possible only because of existing scientific knowledge. (Not only did the revolutionary idea spark the modern era of photocopying, but the laser printer as well.) Even the transistor was developed out of basic research.
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Xerography and transistors were great innovations. In terms of electronics, there has been nothing since to equal it. All that has followed is the constant refinement (including miniaturization) of the same basic system. So what are we to say, since Bell Labs there has been no innovation in digital circuitry? All computer CPUs are nothing more than elaborations of Intel’s 4004? That idea would be absurd.
My point is that great revolutions in technology occur very infrequently, and major paradigm shifts are few and far between. The cars we drive are not significantly different than Ford’s model T.
In the field of personal computers, Apple has been at the nexus of every fundamental change. They were one of the leaders with the original personal computers with the Apple, then the Apple II was one of the first commercially available ready built systems, and the Mac was the first commercially successful GUI based systems. (Also a first with built in networking.) But it was 23 years later that the next real breakthrough was made with the iPhone, a real computer in your pocket. (Yes, earlier PDAs were simpler pocket computers.)
But, says the current detractor, those are long gone days.
It is important to note is that each of these advancements was possible only when technology had reached a certain level. The Apple II needed the MOS Technology 6502 CPU. Without this (or some equivalent), it never would have happened. Thus, the iPhone could exist only when an appropriately powerful ARM processor and touch screen technology existed (and many other technologies as well).
But impatient pundits are crying for something completely earth-shatteringly new. They are calling for something completely new. Something for which there may not currently be existing technology. And something that they have no idea of what it is.
It does not matter that no other company is producing this marvelous product, somehow Apple is supposed to do.
2. Limited understanding
The clueless pundits who promote the “no innovation” meme are oblivious to much of the very spectacular innovation that goes on under the iPhone hood. Brandon Chester at Anand Tech writes:
- At the heart of a smartphone lies the SoC. While there’s now an increasingly common belief that specifications don’t matter, the truth of the matter is that almost all of the software features that users now take for granted in a smartphone have only been made possible by the continued improvements in hardware performance. Modern smartphones with high resolution displays and complex interfaces would not exist if the available CPU and GPU processing power hadn’t advanced as much as it has.
- On top of that, performance is something of a gating factor for software development, as the innovation that happens in software has to happen within the boundaries of what can be done with the hardware. [emphasis added]
One of the amazing things about Apple is that while they remain among thinnest phones and are very light in weight, they continue to outperform the competitors. They do this because of the exceptional efficiency of the A-series processors. Forbes reports in iPhone 7 Performance: A10 Chip Smokes Galaxy S7, Gives Intel Problems:
“Owing to…improvements, Hurricane blows other CPUs out of the water,” Gwennap wrote.
Apple’s focus on single-core performance gives it an upper hand. “Apple continues to focus on single-core performance. By designing its own CPUs, the company differentiates from its competitors on this metric. Although these competitors add more CPUs to improve their multicore-benchmark scores, the extra cores don’t help most applications, which run only on one or two CPUs,” Gwennap said.
These refer to benchmark tests that test the basic performance of the processing units. There are as well a lot of real world usage tests have iPhones outperforming competitors phones in spite of having slower CPU speeds and fewer cores. The reason for this is that Apple focuses on designing specifically for the mobile devices and directs design specifically for maximizing their ideal of performance.
Performance, especially in a mobile device, is a delicate balance competing requirements. Increased speed (for a given level of technology) has a cost in increased battery demands, and increased heat. The way that Apple has treated this tradeoff is to use incredibly innovative design to maximize performance at lower current levels.
The simple fact is that every year since the A4 was introduced in 2010, the newest A series processor has thoroughly surprised tech heads with the superb performance eked out by radically creative designs. Yet this is ignored by the professional detractors.
Note how in Anand Tech’s iPhone 7 test chart, even the previous model iPhone 6s has better performance (at least in this test) than newer Galaxy S7 and the ill-fated Note 7. The performance of the iPhone 7 blasts past all of these.
There are further “hidden,” low level technical innovations that are ignored by many because they do not understand them:
- First smartphone with 64-bit processor
- M-series motion coprocessors
- Metal Graphics technology
- Patented secure-enclave in processor protects critical security data
- First successful fingerprint sensor
- The incredible abilities of the S1/S2 Apple Watch processors
Much of the same lack of real understanding continues for software issues, as detractors fail to appreciate technical difficulties of various innovations.
One thing to note of special importance is the move to 64-bit processing. First, not only did they change the processor, but all the iOS apps and mucho of the operating system was upgraded. Second – the importance of technology upgrade was lost on many. In this quote from Anand Tech review, we see a hidden importance of this switch and why Apple wanted to do it early:
ARMv8 also adds some new cryptographic instructions for hardware acceleration of AES and SHA1/SHA256 algorithms. These hardware AES/SHA instructions have the potential for huge increases in performance…
As we all know, Apple places a huge emphasis on security. This switch to 64-bit enabled them to implement the continual behind the scenes encryption in a manner that does not impact performance. It also enable the secure enclave that protects the Touch ID data, giving it the most secure system available.
3. Cult of anti-Apple
While this is not true of all those who criticize Apple, there are many who have harbored an irrational, intense dislike for anything Apple. So they focus on the superficial exterior appearance and proclaim there is nothing new.
Apple is criticized for following other companies who initiate a some technology first, but this is frequently a specious argument since the quick-to-market implementation was flawed. The Motorola Atrix had fingerprint recognition, but it did not work well and the model was a flop. Apple came along with a robust and highly secure implementation that worked, but some people said it was not innovation, but copycat.
The same is true of Apple Pay, Sure Google Pay existed before, but Apple waited until the time was right with the Tokenization technology adopted in the banking system, and its own Touch ID/Secure Enclave hardware to secure he transactions. So anyone who believed there was no innovation here was only fooling himself.
One important thing that is being overlooked by these people is the importance of improved processor performance. Currently, web pages load fairly quickly (assuming a good internet connection), and photos/videos are taken quickly and editing can be done at a reasonable speed. So why would a user care about even more speed – aside, perhaps, from gaming?
Apple CEO Tim Cook has said that the world of Augmented Reality (AR) is huge, potentially larger than the smartphone itself. In AR, data is presented to augment the physical surroundings of the user. Pokémon Go is the currently most widely know application, and illustrate it well. Virtual data – the Pokémon, type, specs, location – are provided by the game, and overlaid on a view of the real world. However, more useful, real data could be presented as well. The whole thing could not only be huge, but potentially processor intensive as data is downloaded, prioritized, and displayed. Thus, as usual, Apple is preparing for the future.
I am not trying to say that Apple is above criticism. I believe they sometimes value aesthetics over usability. Nor are not above serious technical issues. The release of Maps was one of their biggest snafus, for example.
Yet to deny the many real levels of innovation is foolish if not totally blind.
And yes – there has not been a real spectacularly new product out. But when has anyone ever levied this complaint against Microsoft or Samsung?
The next huge, paradigm-shifting product will come along as future technology allows. For now, people just need to have realistic expectations.
Also of interest: How Apple Pay Reveals Apple’s M.O.