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Apple’s Mantra: Being Best Doesn’t Mean Being First

I suspect some of you don’t always get Apple’s method of innovation. It doesn’t necessarily mean they were first with everything they’ve done. I am sure, for example, that you will locate prior attempts at graphical user interfaces before the Lisa and later the Mac arrived.

Only Apple (and Microsoft) managed to survive, while many other attempts at more advanced — and friendlier — computer operating systems did not stand the test of time, or sustain sufficient sales to keep their creators in business. Of course, some of you might remind me that Microsoft’s anti-competitive tactics didn’t exactly help the growth of a number of graphical operating system alternatives.

These days, Linux provides a few of its own, and some are reasonably usable, as folks who have acquired netbooks can attest. It’s also true that Microsoft can’t get away with some of the nasty stunts they pulled in the past.

In any case, when it came to the iPod, you know it wasn’t the first portable digital music player on the market. Indeed, I recall testing a few for an online publication some years back, and most were downright unusable. They were slow when it come to downloading tracks to the device, and interfaces depended on standard software that wasn’t always user friendly. No, I’m not talking about the early versions of iTunes.

Apple’s contribution to the market was to provide a simple-to-use product, and a much faster way to transfer your stuff. As you recall, the original iPods used FireWire, which delivered many times the performance of USB 1.0. But when moving to the PC platform — and most iPod owners are actually Windows users nowadays — they embraced the speedier USB 2.0 standard. Removing FireWire was probably a matter of not just convenience but keeping manufacturing costs as low as possible.

There were places to buy music online before iTunes as well, but most were illegal. Apple not only made it simpler, they kept the DRM restrictions mandated by the music industry reasonably basic. In fact, I dare say most of you probably never hit the limits in the normal course of using iPods for yourself and family members. Now that we have DRM-free options for music — though not for videos and movies — you can even put your stuff on a Microsoft Zune player if you want without any file translations or other trickery. But why?

So here we see, so far, that Apple’s method of innovating was to take something that already existed and make it work better. That, and extremely clever advertising, resulted in making the iPod number one in its market segment by a huge margin. That also helped Mac sales, benefitting, in part, from the so-called “halo” effect, and the simple fact that more and more Windows users decided they were fed up with the complexities and security lapses that resulted from Microsoft’s abject failures.

Indeed, I rather suspect that many people consider Microsoft’s best days in the past, and I am actually convinced that they are on the long road downhill, an inexorable path to ultimate irrelevance.

With the iPhone, Apple used the same design strategy that made them prosperous. You already had feature phones and smartphones. They all had totally pathetic user interfaces, though certainly the BlackBerry was better than most. Despite the massed skepticism from the media and so-called financial analysts, Apple turned the iPhone from a promise until a huge success that appears to be continuing almost unabated.

Now it’s true that the first two major releases of iPhone software were lacking in some critical features. Chief among the was, of course, cut, copy and paste. You may ask why it took Apple’s developers two years to craft a feature that was introduced on the Mac in the 1980s, and was already present on other smartphones.

Apple’s reason — or excuse if you will — is that they wanted to make the central data repository, the iPhone’s clipboard, more secure so that third-party applications would only have limited access. Indeed, that access wouldn’t be automatic, since I gather apps have to be updated to support the new features.

Now I don’t pretend to know if that is the real reason why it took so long. I suppose just finding a convenient, intuitive and simple method to make it happen was also a consideration. I haven’t played with this feature on other phones, so I’m not the one to give a comparison, at least not yet. When the iPhone 3.0 firmware is officialy released, I will compare it to the versions offered on other products just to see how well Apple did. No, I’m not going to report on the beta version, since that wouldn’t be fair, nor do I wish to violate any of the confidentiality terms that Apple imposes on its iPhone developers.

If, indeed, it is a superior solution, then it’ll be clear once again why Apple may not always be first on the block with something new, but they seem to always find a better way to make things work.