The average customer
From the Apple I and II days, the Apple Steve Jobs wanted to build was a consumer electronics company or a company whose products can be used by the vast majority of the consumers, irrespective of their backgrounds and knowledge base. That is the reason he pioneered a computer that had a intuitive UI compared to the command line interface that was prevalent at that time. Apple of today is still that same company Steve Jobs dreamed of three decades back. Though Apple's computers could never become more prevalent than approximately 10% of the market, it was aimed at the average Joe. With the iPhone and the iPod, Apple realized that dream of making accessible consumer electronics products. The iPhone has remained the single most successful smartphone for the last seven years for a reason and that reason is that anyone, from a technology nerd to a blue collar worker can take up the iPhone and start using it right away. This is an almost impossible task and only Apple has done it not once, with the graphical user interface (that Microsoft borrowed heavily that made GUIs the standard for computing), not twice (with the most successful portable music player), not thrice (with the most accessible smartphone ever), but actually four times (with the first ever modern tablet). This is an achievement that no company in the world has managed so far and it is not likely that any company is even trying to take up this spot, nowadays.
First to make it work
When companies like Google or Samsung make products or services, it is seldom focussed on this one goal. When Tim Cook talked about what gets him going everyday, in his latest PBS interview, this is that one thing that he claimed motivates him and Apple everyday. So is Apple changing the world for good, one step at a time? Of course, yes. Think about a world that did not have a GUI or a world that had smartphones like the Blackberries of yesteryear. It is quite possible that some other company (even Google's realization of a smartphone before the iPhone was more like a Blackberry at that time and nothing like the smartphones we have now) might have come up with these or similar ideas eventually, but Apple came up with them first. I don't mean the actual ideas behind the GUI (Xerox came up with it), iPod (someone else came up with this), the modern smartphone (I am sure touchscreen devices existed prior to 2007) and the iPad (ask Microsoft who came up with a tablet first). Apple successfully converted these ideas into actual products that changed the way an average consumer embraced technology and that is Apple's true contribution to society and this is "Apple Innovation". Just like Apple "thinks different" about every thing, think about the meaning of the word "innovation", in a different sense, for once!
I might be able to make a better case of my point in the paragraphs before by taking an example. Take Touch ID, that Apple introduced in the iPhone 5S last year. Yes, using finger print sensor for authentication has been around for a few years now, started with the laptops (in the consumer electronics space) and then some "smartphones" had them before the iPhone. But think about the average consumer's average laptop, has this technology made its way to that consumer's laptop, nope. Or in other words have the finger print sensors become prevalent on laptops like say, the SD card slot has? The same thing holds true to the finger print sensors on the smartphones, before Touch ID (Apple's fancy term for using a finger print to authenticate) though the idea was floating around, it never was widely accepted/adapted. The day after iPhone 5S was announced with Touch ID, millions of smartphone users started using it and arguably bettered their smartphone security by a huge margin.
I have been using Touch ID for almost half a year now on my iPhone 5S and I don't even realize it exists on my iPhone 5S. Yes a great technology does what it is supposed to do, reliably and get out of the way for its users to do other things, those things that the users are supposed to do with their smartphones. That is why I don't even realize that Touch ID exists on my iPhone 5S, but continue to use it every day multiple times a day. This is Apple's take on "innovation". I am so used to Touch ID, that I keep trying to unlock my iPad Mini using the non-existent Touch ID on it every day. Was Apple the first to come up with this idea? No, was it the first to get it working, the way it is supposed to? Yes. Was it the first to get millions of people secure their smartphones in a better and an easier way? Yes. Has any other company managed to do this before Apple? No. Then isn't that innovation?
Another fortunate or unfortunate or an eventual by-product of Touch ID was the fact that Apple copiers (cough cough, Samsung) implemented its own version of the Touch IDs on its smartphone, right away. And though the reliability of these have been extremely questionable, it is at least there, at least the idea reaching more millions of smartphone users (Apple and Samsung phones for example make up more than 65% of the US smartphone market).
The reason I wanted to write this column was to address the questions/accusations I was hearing around me on how Apple is not innovating anymore. If the original iPhone was an innovative product, features like Touch ID (which might eventually find its way on to MacBooks), Apple Pay (we will see how reliable it is), big screen smartphones (is the iPhone 6 Plus and 6, the first big screen smartphones done right?) are also innovations. Just because they don't get the headlines that the iPhone got, doesn't mean that they are trivial, in fact some of these features might be more important to Apple and its customers, even more than the original iPhone itself.
Some of my friends were arguing with me saying Apple has lost its ability to innovate and is just following the herd with a smaller iPad, bigger smartphone, another smartwatch, etc. But I think we are missing the bigger picture here. Apple is innovating the way we think about innovation. What good is an "innovation" worth if you can't take advantage of it? Nada. What good is a spec on a piece of paper worth, if it does not reflect real world performance? None. And, by the way most of my complaining friends still upgraded to the iPhone 6 and when I asked them why they upgraded in spite of Apple not doing anything "innovative" with the new iPhone 6? their answer after a brief pause was, "but it is the only phone, that just works". Yeah that's what I thought too! Innovation is not overrated, it is just misconstrued!