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OPINION: Is Apple really such an innovator?

From Apple I to iPad, where's the innovation?

Much is made of Apple’s “revolutionary” role in technology by innovating new products into the mainstream. From the Apple I to the iPad Apple is credited with its game-changing engineering and design wonders. But is Apple really the über innovator or the company that just gets things right first? Maybe Apple’s more of an ‘outovator’.

Apple I computer

The Apple I is seen as innovative as, unlike other hobbyist computers of the time, it was sold fully assembled – that is a fully assembled circuit board; you still had to add a case, power supply, keyboard, display, etc. What was forward thinking was its use of a keyboard and standard TV display. The Altair 8800 looked like the controls of the Tardis with toggle switches and flashing lights all over the place.

But the Apple I’s remembered today in comparison not to the many other now forgotten personal computers but the huge vacuum-tube machines that actually required an inside-the-Tardis-like space to reside. If the Apple I had come out of Steve Wozniak’s garage as the successor to one of those giants it really would have been an innovation. Still, we’ll give it 5/10 for moving things forward somewhat.

Apple II computer

Similarly the Apple II is seen as the first true personal computer because it was mass produced, but again it wasn’t alone in being so. Its innovation was to look like a thing that someone without a beard would have in their house. It didn’t need to be constructed from a kit and had a novel plastic case with built-in keyboard and neat lid. Again 5/10 for innovation.

Apple Macintosh original

The Macintosh’s graphical user interface spelt eventual doom to the flashing green command line. Its mouse brought us the free-ranging cursor and RSI. But, as all Mac historians know, Apple got most of the idea for the Macintosh operating system from a 1979 visit by founder Steve Jobs to Xerox PARC, where he saw the mouse-based WYSIWYG user interface of the Xerox Alto computer. What Apple did that Xerox didn’t was actually produce a commercial computer using it, and so the Mac gets at least a 4/10.

The Mac went on to ‘innovate’ such things as the computer CD-ROM drive, various Ethernet firsts, and was early to drop old technologies, but none of these were its very own.

Apple Newton

Another Apple platform that was originally developed to reinvent personal computing, 1993’s Newton scores higher on the innovation front (6/10) despite getting little further than the early adopter phase. It was a touch-based handheld computing device that’s like a prehistoric relative of the iPad, except that it used a stylus rather than a finger for its screen interaction.

Apple’s then CEO John Sculley – the man who effectively fired Steve Jobs in 1985 – coined the phrase Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) in 1992. Despite some neat products from the likes of Palm the PDA never really took off as a major threat to the PC … or indeed even the Filofax.

Apple iPod 5GB original

While we’re not all walking round with PDAs in our top pockets most of us do pick up an Apple iPod as soon as we leave the house. 2001’s iPod and its iTunes software have revolutionised the way we listen to, buy and share music, but neither was an Apple innovation. MP3 players had been around for over five years, starting with Audio Highway’s Listen Up player and followed by successful models from the likes of Rio and Creative. In 1998 Compaq produced the first digital audio player with a hard drive. The iPod’s software was developed from PortaPlayer, previously used in an IBM-branded MP3 player. iTunes was developed from Casady & Greene’s SoundJam MP software. So the iPod scores a lowly 3/10.

Apple iPhone original

In 1996 Nokia built on Apple’s Newton lead by incorporating PDA functionality into a mobile phone and thus spawned the smartphone. Apple’s iPhone didn’t show up for another 11 years – so, like the iPod 3/10.

Apple’s latest “innovation” is the iPad. Yet tablet PCs have been around for nearly a decade, with Microsoft pioneering the form factor in 2001.

Indeed pen-computing devices actually predate the mouse/GUI platform popularised by the Mac. The Stylator and RAND tablet systems were around in the 1950s and early 1960s, for heaven’s sake. The iPad can muster just 2/10 on that lineage.

Apple iPad original 2010

The iPhone and iPad succeeded where Microsoft’s pen-based tablets failed by throwing away the pen. And the iPhone itself was a by-product of an earlier Apple tablet prototype – so the iPad even came before the iPhone.

Here’s Steve Jobs on the subject: “I had this idea about having a glass display, a multitouch display you could type on. I asked our people about it. And six months later they came back with this amazing display. And I gave it to one of our really brilliant UI guys. He then got inertial scrolling working and some other things, and I thought, ‘My god, we can build a phone with this,’ and we put the tablet aside, and we went to work on the phone.”

It’s clear that Apple hasn’t been the originator of very much at all, but it always captures something of the spirit of originality that makes it appear to have done so.

Artist Nina Paley has written that “The more original an idea, the more people will say it is stupid”. And from the Mac to the iPad Apple has been derided for its cute but silly new products that apparently “will never catch on”.

It doesn’t matter that Apple isn’t an innovator, as no technology is ever really produced out of thin developmental air. Computing pioneer Michael Williams says that “there is no such thing as ‘first’ in any activity associated with human invention”.

In his book The Nature of Technology W. Brian Arthur describe advances in technology as “combinatorial evolution”. Technology evolves as a result of combinations of existing technologies and methods to create new ‘innovations’.

“Technology creates itself out of itself,” writes Arthur.

“If credit for ‘invention’ must be assigned, it should go to the person or team that first had a clear vision of the principle, saw its potential, fought for its acceptance, and brought it fully into satisfactory use.”

And for those dogged efforts we can give Apple 10/10 just about every time.

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