Apple is innovative, precisely because it doesn't innovate

Flip through the comments on The Verge and you'll inevitably come across arguments (to put it mildly) about whether or not Apple is an innovator. Some vow that Apple has never invented anything, that they are purely the masters of polish and packaging. Others point to Apple's successes---the original Mac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad---and claim that, on the contrary, they are clearly the most innovative consumer electronics company.

I think a lot of the disagreement comes down to an equivocation of the concept of innovation. There are really two kinds of innovation for consumer electronics, both of which are important.

First, there is the classic sense which invokes Edison, Tesla: the creation of something completely new, like the first lightbulb, or the first steam engine. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to the quality of innovativeness in this sense as inventiveness. And it seems perfectly fair to say that Apple is not an inventive company. None of their products are necessarily the first of their kind, and they rarely come up with fundamental inventions: they did not invent the GUI, nor the touchscreen, nor the trackpad, nor the tablet.

But there is another kind of innovation, one where the innovator puts together ideas and concepts that exist in a novel way and makes it practical for the masses. You might not want to call this innovation, but that would deny entire swaths of people and products even the possibility of being innovative. We want to be able to say that things like Roombas or AMOLED screens are innovative, even if they are just rehashing of older ideas. Even something like the Livestrong bracelet, which is just a piece of plastic, can be considered a social innovation. The fact that these are not fundamental inventions does not prevent us from admiring the creativity of their makers.

It is in this second sense that Apple is innovative. The Mac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad did not contain any fundamentally new technologies, but they were nonetheless innovative and had a deep impact on the business world and even seeped into social consciousness. Indeed, the fact that Apple is not an inventive company makes these innovations even more impressive. The idea of a graphical user interface was not a new one, and yet the Mac was the first to bring this idea to consumers. Everybody already knew that touchscreen phones and tablets were possible, and surely every mobile company had prototypes in their labs, but it was Apple who found the right formula and brought them to the masses. We can't deny that these creations are admirable, and that any company would have been proud to have made them. And keep in mind, these are only innovations of the highest order, comparable to the Walkman or the Leica M camera. Apple has pushed many minor innovations, like ultrabooks, and high-resolution displays, which I would classify as innovative in this second sense.

Of course, in reality there aren't two clearly defined classes of innovation, but rather a wide gradient, spanning the various spheres of the world (social, business, science). In many ways, to be innovative is merely to be creative, or to successfully do what others could not. But it's clear that we can't limit ourselves to a narrow conception of what is or isn't innovative.

It's worth noting even in the second sense of innovation that I described, Apple is not always an innovator. Indeed, most of their releases are minor iterations, sometimes with the most insignificant changes imaginable (e.g. the 4th generation iPad). But nonetheless, I maintain that on broad strokes, looking at the past ten or fifteen years, Apple has been one of the most innovative companies in consumer electronics.