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The Apple Innovation Slowdown Myth

As I’ve said in the past, some of those who fancy themselves as informed critics of Apple Inc. seldom pay attention. Rather than take time to understand the progression of the company and the details of its history, they make assumptions. Sometimes those assumptions are based on what others might believe without supporting evidence. Sometimes those assumptions are meant to take advantage of the value of putting “Apple” in the title; in other words hit bait. Sometimes those assumptions may even benefit a rival company.

So we have the claim that the pace of innovation has slowed severely at Apple since Steve Jobs passed away, that Tim Cook has concentrated more on minor product refreshes, with a few exceptions. That is part and parcel of the demands that Cook should be replaced for — well — one reason or another. Maybe they just want to hold a seance and have Jobs run Apple from the hereafter.

Forget the silliness. Let’s look at the facts. Up until the iPod arrived in 2001, Apple, then Apple Computer, was primarily thought of as a maker of personal computers. True there were Apple printers and other products, but at the end of the day, the Apple of 1997, when Jobs took over as CEO, earned the largest part of its revenue from Mac sales.

So where did this illusion of a constant appearance of new product categories begin?

In August, 1998, Apple introduced the original Bondi blue iMac. I remember it well. As a member of Apple’s Customer Quality Feedback program at the time, I beta tested both software and hardware. That first iMac was included, and I had the promise of being able to keep it if it sustained the final firmware update. That update bricked the computer — which may be what my contact at CQF expected — so I returned it.

The iMac may have looked like no other Mac before it — or PC for that matter — but the basic concept dated back to the original all-in-one Mac from 1984. It was meant to be a computing appliance, easy to set up, simple to maintain. Rather than have a bunch of ports, Apple concentrated on USB and Ethernet. Aside from the CRT display, Apple relied heavily on PowerBook parts with the same processors and RAM. No doubt that kept manufacturing costs low.

Aside from the distinctive looks, the iMac was hardly innovative otherwise. It wasn’t a new product category by any means, but it sold well, and helped Apple return from the brink. Apple also had fun with the iMac, choosing all sorts of color schemes that, along with minor hardware refreshes, got more mileage out of the same basic design.

The real new product category arrived with the punch line, “1000 songs in your pocket.” At $399, the iPod it may have seemed overpriced, but sales took off. Apple spread the joy over the years by building a Windows version of iTunes, thus expanding the iPod to a much larger market.

That same year, Apple also released the first version of OS X, which represented the new OS direction for the Mac. But shorn of the pretty face, it was heavily derived from the original NeXT OS that first appeared in the 1980s.

There was no new product category for Apple in 2002. A total of nearly six years transpired between the first iPod and the first iPhone. Yes, the iPod got better and more popular, with several variations to fit the needs of different customers with different budgets. iPod became the metaphor for a digital music player, and that hasn’t changed even though sales are a fraction of what they were at its peak.

The iPhone arrived in 2007 as a standalone product that was tied exclusively to AT&T’s network, although hackers found ways to jailbreak the device. There was no App Store at first. Steve Jobs envisioned web apps, but was finally convinced to give developers a chance to build what became a huge online storefront that now offers well over a million selections.

Now there was yet another new Apple product in 2007, the first Apple TV. But the present-day concept of a tiny video streamer with minimal storage didn’t appear until 2010. The current 1080p version didn’t show up until 2012, and it’s not at all certain where Apple will go with its hobby. Well, it’s not called a hobby now, but the speculation continues as to whether there will be a TV set with an Apple label, an enhanced Apple TV set-top box, or both.

Now while the iPhone got better and better, Apple didn’t enter another new product category until 2010. That year, the iPod became the first tablet computer to succeed as a mass market gadget. While Microsoft had touted tablets for years, they were mostly clumsy note-books with swivel touchscreens. These days, although PC tablets are slimmer and lighter, the original unsuccessful design concept of a convertible PC hasn’t changed.

So rather than enter new product categories, weekly, monthly, or annually, Apple’s annual product introductions were mostly refreshes of existing gear. Revenue kept growing, so why attack Cook?

Apple Pay arrived in October to a positive reception. There were few glitches, and banks and merchants are signing up at a steady clip. Well at least merchants who haven’t committed to a competing and more complicated mobile payment scheme known as CurrentC.

Apple Watch arrives in 2015 to take on the nascent smartwatch market. Existing gear hasn’t gone anywhere, but there may be hope for Apple’s intriguing variation on the theme. But remember that the iPod, the iPhone and even the iPad were dismissed by skeptics who claimed they’d never succeed. So it may well be that those skeptics will be proven wrong yet again.

And when you look at Apple’s history, you’ll see that Tim Cook is taking the company into new product directions at a roughly similar pace as his predecessor. The critics may believe otherwise, but that’s their cross to bear.