The Tech Industry Depends on Apple for Innovation

January 2nd, 2014

You’d think what with tens of thousands of talented designers and engineers working for all the major tech companies, including Google and Samsung, that Apple would be only one of many when it comes to real innovation. It would be difficult to believe that no other company has the creativity to make a dent in the tech world in the same way as Apple.

Yet when you look at some of the me-too products that appear, or the ones that seem to have been designed to anticipate an Apple move, sometimes you have to wonder just what’s going on in that business.

Let’s look at Samsung. Since the company confessed to stealing Apple’s intellectual property recently, any penalty imposed by the court when the current lawsuit in a California federal court is resolved will be well deserved, even if it’s only financial. Surely there are other smartphone designs and OS features that can be devised that don’t look so close to iPhones, right? Again, I’m assuming Samsung has talented people on board who could do wonders if their creativity was only harnessed by the executives. Instead of telling them to make products that resemble those of other companies, or are stuffed with near-useless features nobody cares about, why not try something different?

Well, I suppose there was the Galaxy Gear smartwatch, although it was surely highly influenced by the Pebble and other contenders. But somewhere in Samsung’s executive suite, they agreed to sell it for twice as much as the Pebble, and release a design that limited compatibility to only a tiny handful of Samsung products. Battery life was inferior as well, not to mention that absurd ad campaign. Consider someone trying to get it on with a person of the opposite sex by showing her photos he surreptitiously took of her with his Galaxy Gear. If the woman was famous, he’d be part of the paparazzi. If not, he’d just be a stalker.

Clearly, when it comes to trying to be original, Samsung has no taste. But don’t forget the overblown rollout of the Galaxy S4 smartphone. That was the gadget meant to overwhelm the iPhone, only it didn’t quite work out that way.

Sure, when it comes to total unit sales, Samsung moves far more product than Apple. When it comes to gadgets that are actually designed to generate profits, not so much. But Samsung still shows a decent profit and, at the end of the day, is the only smartphone maker aside from Apple that is actually making a decent return. Forget about BlackBerry, HTC, Motorola Mobility and most of the other handset makers. The former market leader, Nokia, has done so badly under the leadership of a former Microsoft executive that it was forced to sell the handset division at a sharply reduced price to their CEO’s former employer.

All right, Nokia handsets are well designed, but hobbled by Windows Phone, which has really failed to catch on. Well, at least you can’t call Windows Phone an iOS knockoff.

Yes, Android overwhelms iOS in terms of the total number of activations, but most are low-end handsets running older versions of Google’s OS. Rather than deliver compelling new features, except for a handful of changes, Android 4.4 KitKat is mostly designed to slim down the code so it runs better on older hardware. But that assumes the hardware makers and wireless carriers will bother offering the upgrades.

But where was Android before the iPhone and iOS? Well, if you look at the early concepts, it was all about resembling a BlackBerry. The same is true for Samsung’s prototypes before Apple got in the smartphone game.

Aside from selling cheap, generic PC boxes, manufacturers of Windows computers have tried to enter the tablet game with the same failed routine they’ve used for years. Take a regular note-book — thin or normal — and install a touch-enabled display. Add to the mix the ability to rotate, or unhook the display and that’s their answer to the tablet revolution. Only people just aren’t buying. It doesn’t help that these clunky convertible PC note-books sell for more than standard models, or that reaching up to a touchscreen on a device with a regular form factor is extremely uncomfortable.

Or did anyone notice?

Clearly Apple did, but the rest of the industry isn’t learning from their mistakes as PC sales continue to erode. Sure, Apple isn’t immune, but at least they can sell you an iPad or an iPhone if you decide that a Mac isn’t for you.

When it comes to the TV market, where the world awaits Apple’s solution to dominating your living room, it almost seems as if every “smart” TV — the ones with bunches and bunches of apps — resembles someone else’s smart TV. Just the other day, I wondered through the aisles at a nearby Sam’s Club, where I saw dozens and dozens of large-screen TVs. Some even merited a separate presentation, no doubt due to a spiff from the manufacturer.

But when everything was said and done, it was near-impossible to tell one brand from another without actually looking at the label on the set or a sign. They were sleek and thin, with shiny black plastic cases, slim bezels, and decent picture quality. Since they were all fed the same content, I suppose you could see which delivered a better picture. But it doesn’t really work so well, since these sets are usually configured to a super bright or “store” setting where you get an exaggerated picture meant to draw attention to the set. At home, you’d have to choose something a little more refined that would look very different, or at least dimmer, to better suit a living room or bedroom. So much for a decent comparison.

The core argument is that Apple has taste and most other tech makers don’t. Well, some do, but the product lineups are so overwhelmed with junk, it’s hard to tell. But why should an entire industry look to one company for much of its real innovation? What would they do if Apple wasn’t around?

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