Deja Vu Once Again: iPad and the Apple Innovation Formula
Like many, I watched the iPad announcement on Wednesday and then went straight to discussion forums to see what people were saying. As with any disruptive product, there’s a mix of reactions ranging from lust to uncertainty to outrage. What gets missed in the excitement for or against is the comprehensive and disciplined innovation strategy that Apple has used three times now, most recently in the iPad.
The formula rests on two maxims:
- treat each new product class as a combination of hardware, software and services.
- innovate on all three of those facets in tandem
Let’s jump in the Memory Lane machine and look at how that approach played out.
The iPod is largely recognized as a now-iconic hardware design that eschewed the maximum capability goals that engineering-driven approaches value. The clickwheel control was among the first gadget to recognize that human hands are made in a particular way, something every other higher-capacity mp3 player at the time aggressively denied.
The iPod software fitted browsing by nested menus to the clickwheel hardware, but the software innovations extended outside of the device to iTunes and its store to provide an end-to-end content acquisition and consumption experience that needed no technical knowledge. No mounting it as a drive and dragging files, no thinking about format compatibility: one didn’t need to understand how it worked to use it, and to use it well.
On the service side, Apple made a breakthrough with the music industry with license sales by individual track (as opposed to albums), and to price those tracks at $.99 with a cap on album prices at $9.99. Combined with easy to use software and a stylish and simple hardware device, the three combined into a whole product offering with unparalleled success.
Nice trick, but can you do it again? The answer to that challenge was the iPhone.
On the hardware side, there’s no denying that its radically simple surface and finish make the iPhone stand out among hundreds, maybe thousands of mobile device designs already on the market. While not the most powerful phone in any one way, it combined mobile technologies with an even hand so that no one part stood out.
With the iPhone, we learned to appreciate the more obvious marriage of hardware and software, designed together to be used together, not cobbled into various configurations by third party vendors. The result is a signature look and a remarkably stable experience given its underlying (and hidden) complexity.
The third arm of innovation with the iPhone was what Apple got the mobile carriers to agree to. Before the iPhone, only Nokia had convinced carriers to allow a device with wifi on their network, and a pretty geeky one at that. Moreover, they cracked the nut of unlimited data plans (or very high data plans in international markets) for a monthly rate that consumers would accept.
That breakthrough can’t be undersold: it was key to the iPhone’s acceptance that using it at any time was not paired with fear and uncertainty about data rates. We take it for granted now, but that we can and do use as much mobile data as we do is owed to the iPhone’s innovation on services as much as hardware and software.
The introduction to the iPad played out the same three-pronged approach once more, without missing a beat.
The hardware is what most people are looking at right away, and the innovations are easy to count: it’s thin, bright and touchable over the place. Word is that the physical design quality of stands out most when experienced in the hand, and not as a series of photos and videos. Under the hood, Apple has turned out its first self-designed chip at the heart of the iPad, designed specifically for the device with all the advantages that this confers.
The software is familiar, being a modified iPhone OS, but there are some clear innovations with an expanded inventory of multitouch gestures (selecting non-contiguous elements in Keynote especially stood out for me). On the software side there is a huge leap in being able to run all the apps made for the iPhone and iPod Touch.
This advantage cannot be undersold, as for every criticism of what the iPad doesn’t do out of the box, there is likely an app for that. Apple might have presented a content consumption device, but I see huge potential for this as a content creation device too, so long as one considers the App Store.
And then the services. Apple made progress with mobile carriers by getting them to welcome the device on their networks without contracts, unlocked and with a new lower cost data plan. It’s a great move, not earth-shaking but still progressive, and contributes to the product as a whole.
What’s Your Innovation Field of View?
And that’s what we’re really talking about: designing products as a whole, not just throwing out your specialization into the world and hoping that everything else supports it. Jobs mentioned at the end of the presentation that Apple sees product design as an intersection of engineering and liberal arts. But he sells the approach short by not including the ability to forge new service agreements that complement the hardware and software innovations. A third rail to that intersection is partnerships, which take a certain kind of toughness and class to make work.
The holistic approach to product design, the willingness to take responsibility for every part of the stack that creates the end user’s experience with a technology, is not easy. But the rewards of doing it well are clear and the philosophy can be applied to any product: to see it as a combination of technology and other factors, and to innovate on all those factors in tandem to the extend you can. We can’t all be our own chip or device manufacturers, but we can take the wide view and work inward to create great products rather than geeking out on a narrow slice.