Despite the heresy of it, I want to consider the question of what part innovation plays in Apple’s recent success(es).
Three things can be credited with returning Apple to glory: Mac OS X (to a lesser extent), iTunes/iPod and finally the iPhone. Mac OS X, rather than being an innovation, is a bit of a throwback (if I may), abandoning Mac OS “Classic” for the tried and tested Unix’ish base of FreeBSD and Mach. Lest you consider that quibbling or even misleading, let me suggest that by the turn of the millennium, the fan base for Apple computers/laptops was growing most significantly not among the graphic designers and hipsters who had previous embraced the brand, but among geeks and übergeeks, the very types who could appreciate and take advantage of a Unix back-end and all that that implies. They don’t make up much of the population; one reason for the low market share of Mac OS X.
Few would disagree that the iTunes Store and Music Player along with the iPod greatly hastened the ubiquity of online music purchasing and portable playback. The Walkman of course predates the iPod by decades, the Rio by years, MusicMatch and other services beat Apple to the pole on the online music store, and if MP3 (as the music encoding format is popularly known) and the Internet made distribution, storage and playback significantly easier, Apple had little to do with any of these advances. And when it comes to the iPhone, RIM, Microsoft, Palm and other tech companies have been at the game for years, in their clumsy ways.
In the meantime, Apple’s forays into other less established spaces have ranged from silent to spectacular failures. I am referring hear to such products as the Newton and more recently the Apple TV.
Which all leads to my tentative summary that Apple does not really excel at solving new problems, but in solving long-standing significant problems by replacing existing solutions with elegant ones that respect the user (in a design and UX sense) and displace the dinosaurs from their positions of power (the music industry, telcos). What that gives away is my ambiguity on the future of the iPad: in my view, there is neither a widespread need nor a strong market for these devices. The Apple magic of bringing design to technology will therefore, most likely, have as much success in this space (in the near future) as Apple TV or Mac OS X have had.
Would you agree?
P.S: The move away from the robust Mac OS X to iPhoneOS (which I admittedly know nothing about) is a troubling matter as well.