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Why Expect Apple to Do All the Innovation?

So it’s popular these days to expect that Apple is forever destined to inspire the tech industry on a regular basis. At the same time, tech and financial pundits seem to be crying from the top of their collective lungs that Apple can no longer innovate as well as they used to. New products are iterative, rather than innovative, meaning they are simple (or not so simple) design and component refreshes. The basic form factor is essentially unchanged from model to model. Why must this be so?

The real question is where has the rest of the industry been? When Apple released the iPod, the other companies released similar players, with maybe an added feature or two (such as an FM radio) that Apple had avoided. In many cases, these products were touted as certain iPod killers, and that’s particularly true for Microsoft’s Zune music player.

Only it didn’t happen.

Prior to the arrival of the iPhone, Samsung’s smartphones were mostly in the image of a BlackBerry, with tiny physical keyboards. Even early Android renderings were in the same vein, since they were simply imitating what was considered the standard form factor for such a device. As court filings revealed, however, once the iPhone came out, Samsung went full-bore trying to mimic Apple, and Android went in the same direction against iOS. You can argue that there are more features in Android, but that’s also the cheap way for a competitor to seem, well, different but not always better.

Yes, there are still some smartphones around with traditional BlackBerry-style keyboards, including one of the latest entrants from BlackBerry. But Apple’s virtual keyboard took control of the market, and the rest of the companies followed in lockstep.

Tablets? Well, up till the time the iPad arrived, the prevailing design was a convertible PC note-book. The display might support touch, usually with a stylus and a swiveling or rotating display. After the iPad, PC makers decided to allow those convertibles to work as a full featured tablet, although thick and heavy and with poor battery life. Did I say they were also expensive?

At the same time, BlackBerry and loads of Android licensees delivered dedicated tablets that were very much in the iPad mode. Maybe cheaper, maybe with a larger screen, but it didn’t matter in the end. It was all inspired by Apple.

Yes, it was inevitable that other products would gain a foothold of the market, what with the proliferation of models in all sizes and an emphasis on price. Both Amazon and Google featured tablets that were being sold for roughly the amount it cost to build them, with perhaps a tiny profit. That’s hardly a sensible business plan for a company that hopes to sustain itself by selling mobile hardware, but Google sells ads, and Amazon sells just about anything you can think of that can be shipped somewhere, including pet food, home appliances, and even products from Apple. The Kindle tablets are designed as low-cost storefronts for Amazon’s ecosystem, with the hope that you’ll buy enough stuff to cover the cost of the cheap tablets. Some call such a product a loss-leader, although it’s not clear Amazon is selling any Kindles at a loss.

That’s not Apple’s game. Apple sells hardware for fair prices, expecting to earn a decent profit from every sale. The company still earns more of those profits than other mobile handset and PC makers, but it’s still not enough for Wall Street. The only reason Apple’s stock price has risen this week appears to be the company’s decision to raise money on the capital market to partly fund a huge stock buyback. In other words, Apple is gaining not because they sold more gear, but because they know how to move numbers around on a spreadsheet. And I assume that’s a Numbers spreadsheet.

The dearth of new products, particularly stuff that upends a market, has sent the critics into wild flights of fancy. If Apple doesn’t push something out soon, well Tim Cook has to be fired. Steve Jobs would never have done that, although it’s also true that Apple had a few bad quarters with Jobs at the helm. Only Apple didn’t occupy such an exalted profile in those days, so it didn’t matter as much.

But you have to wonder about all those other companies. If Apple isn’t producing as much new innovative gear these days, and the year is far from over, what about Samsung? What about Dell? What about HP? When was the last time any of those companies introduced a trend-setting gadget of one sort or another? What about the first time?

Samsung in particular is famous — or notorious — for entering an existing market and producing their own versions of some of those products. Sure, they may pack in a few of their own unique features, some of which work, and some that just look good on spec sheets. But is that innovation? What about profiting from being a slavish imitator?

This is not to say that the pressure shouldn’t be on Apple to deliver compelling OS upgrades and great hardware releases beginning later this year. It shouldn’t even mean that Apple doesn’t have a totally unexpected product in the hopper. But having unrealistic expectations about what Apple should do is just the wrong approach to take.