First Click: Apple’s greatest innovation is its ecosystem

September 7th, 2016


Apple can’t innovate anymore, say the critics. A chorus of complaints so common that it received a remarkable "Can't innovate anymore, my ass” response from Apple’s Phil Schiller. But that was three years ago, before the launch of quasi-controversial products like the Apple Watch, the single-USB-port MacBook, that chubby iPhone battery case, and some awkwardly charging peripherals. The complaints have grown louder and more insistent ever since.

The trouble I have with the innovation argument is that it’s often limited to critiquing individual pieces of hardware. I hear it more frequently now that Samsung has matched and even surpassed Apple in terms of smartphone industrial design (exploding batteries notwithstanding). The unspoken subtext is that Apple, post-Steve Jobs, is incapable of producing another Mac, iPod, iPhone, or iPad moment. Here’s a comment posted yesterday on The Verge that perfectly encapsulates the criticism:

"Forget the iPhone’s disappearing headphone jack and digitized home button. What about Apple no longer standing as an innovator of exciting new products and designs, having morphed into another consumer electronics behemoth? Somebody, if not Tim Cook, needs to put the focus back on delivering the best products, not this tiresome cycle of incremental upgrades."

Yes, iteration is boring. But it’s also how Apple does business, quite successfully I might add. It enters a new market and then refines and refines and continues refining until it yields a success like the iPod nano, the MacBook Air, the glass and aluminum iMac, the iPhone 6 Plus, and even the iPad Pro that’s become a stealth hit with businesses. I agree that the iPhone 6 and 6S (and the iPhone coming later today, judging by the leaks) are visual turds next to Samsung’s latest designs. But a single device judged in a vacuum isn’t meaningful to most people anymore. We may long for the excitement of revolution, but what we really want is the comfort that comes with harmony. That’s true for me, anyway.

In 2016 a device is only the starting point of an experience that will ultimately be ruled by the ecosystem in which it was spawned. The Walkman was a great product, for example. What it lacked, though, was an ecosystem that kept users from walking away when somebody finally built a better mousetrap. Apple’s been building and nurturing its ecosystem for years through a process of curation and licensing. To understand the ecosystem’s power, just look at how Apple’s hardware partners helped fix the iPad Pro’s keyboard. And Apple’s steady evolution of services like iCloud and Apple Music, and cross-platform software features like AirDrop, Handoff, Find Friends, Universal Clipboard, and Auto Unlock mean iPhones are at their best when used with other Apple gear like MacBooks. I’d argue that Apple’s ecosystem is the company’s greatest innovation yet and one that many can’t easily walk away from, even if they wanted to.

My household is an Apple household, not so much by choice but by a slow 16-year evolution. I’m from the halo generation, where my first iPod caused me to buy my first MacBook, which led to an iPhone and then an iMac and then more iPhones, iPads, and finally, an Apple TV. And all this Apple hardware begat dozens of compatible accessories including speaker docks, cradles, cables, and Kickstarter doodads, not to mention hundreds of apps and other content purchased in Apple’s stores. It’s true, I’m now a victim of vendor lock-in as are my kids who’ve inherited older devices. So maybe what I’m describing is akin to Stockholm syndrome. But I don’t think so, not yet, anyway. Nevertheless, I’m at the point where I judge the best device to be the device that works best in the ecosystem where I live.

My family thrives in the Apple ecosystem. So, clearly I’m not looking for an iPhone revolution. I’m certainly not looking for disruption. What I want is rather simpler: a choice of more capable iPhones that I can slot right into my current setup as seamlessly as possible.

Am I envious of the Galaxy Note 7 hardware? Yes, yes I am — I think it’s a stunning example of industrial design that I’d love to carry in my pocket. Will Apple announce the best of all smartphones later on today? Probably not if the rumors and leaks prove correct. But it’ll still be the best phone available for me.

Even so, I’ll likely hold out for Apple’s tenth anniversary iPhone — a Samsung-esque device that won’t be so dull.

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