Fell From the Tree

Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary

Over the last few years, the tech press has been quick to jump on Apple, calling its new releases evolutionary, not revolutionary.

But isn’t that missing the point?

John Brownlee, writing for FastCompany, nails it:

It’s very difficult to imagine that an iPad five or 10 years from now will look, feel, or even function very differently from the ones we have right now…Simply put, as far as Apple is concerned, the iPad is now a solved problem.

Apple has been repeatedly criticized for not inventing anything. It wasn’t first to invent the mouse, the GUI, the MP3 player, the smartphone, or the tablet. But it was the certainly the first to solve the design problem in each of those categories. 

MP3 players were around for many years before Apple decided to give one a large capacity, a click wheel, and an easy way to manage songs. Smartphones were around for nearly a decade before Apple decided to give one a giant battery, a giant touchscreen, and a full-fledged OS. Tablets had been around for years before Apple approached it as a larger mobile device instead of a stripped-down laptop.

It may sound cliché now, but Apple looked at what the industry was doing and decided to think different.

This is no small feat, and it’s the root of Apple’s innovation. That’s the value Apple adds and it’s how Apple has made it’s fortune over the years. You can tell when it happens too, because in hindsight it seems obvious — why would you do it any other way?

Don Lehman discussed this today in a guest piece about the iPhone on The Loop:

When Apple did nail it, their competition couldn’t believe they had actually done it. RIM’s executives ripped open an iPhone on launch day and were shocked at what they had found. Their solution to battery efficiency had been to use a small, low res screen (by today’s standards) with an OS designed to minimize battery usage. It was an elegant solution for the time and everyone else was copying their lead. Apple’s solution? Use a really big battery. Obvious. In retrospect.

The wheel has been iterated on many times throughout history. It’s been used for buggies, trains, planes, and cars. But it’s still a wheel. It hasn’t been reinvented. It’s obvious — a solved design problem. Just as the wheel should obviously be round, tablets should obviously be a large touchscreen with an OS designed for touch. Still, it wasn’t obvious before Apple showed it to us. Before Apple solved the design problem.

When you remodel a home, you don’t knock it down and re-pour the foundation. You iterate on what’s there. This year’s cars still have four wheels, seats, and a steering wheel, just like last year and the year before. Yet no one writes articles claiming Ferrari has failed to deliver a revolutionary car.

Each year at CES, hundreds of companies show off their new products. But CES is becoming less and less interesting because so little of what’s on display actually ships — and those that do rarely gain traction in the marketplace. It makes for a week of interesting tech demos, but none of them have taken the time to solve the design problem. They’re essentially prototypes. This year there are all kinds of wearables on display, a market that, as Lehman points out, is suspiciously similar today to the smartphone market pre-iPhone and MP3 player market pre-iPod. There’s something there, but the design problem has yet to be solved.

Tim Cook has often eluded to Apple’s interest in this market, yet Apple’s not at CES showing off what it has so far. It’s just not ready. In the meantime Apple will continue to refine the iPhone and the iPad. Each release has gotten better and better. But the iPhone will always be built on the foundation of the original iPhone and the iPad will always be an iteration of the original iPad.

There will come a time when Apple looks to solve another design problem — possibly in the wearables market, possibly something else entirely. But until then, lets enjoy each new iPhone and iPad for what it is: iterating and refining upon a solid foundation.

Why should it ever be anything else?