No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

I’ve been reading a significant amount of backlash agains the iPad mini event focusing specifically on the lamentable lack of the “one more thing” moments of old. The typical banter has something to do with leaks coming from places that Apple has a hard time monitoring (China), and that it does everything it can to keep things hush hush in a world in which money talks, and loudly. My main point of contention with this sentiment is that it implies that Apple can’t keep anymore secrets about its new products.

I think that’s a silly idea.

Consider, for a moment, the scale of manufacturing that has to be brought to bear in order to manufacture products for Apple on the scale we are currently seeing. It has to be massive, and requires the coordinated efforts of millions of people, literally. From product inception, design, fabrication, and manufacture, there are literally millions of people involved, taking care of everything from the actual design and sourcing of raw materials to the shipping to your doorstep. Truth be told, their job isn’t even over when you have the product in your hands; they still have to support it and continue developing new software. The human life energy devoted to the manufacture and support of a single iPad is immense.

As such, consider the original iPhone, first introduced in January of 2007, but released in June of the same year. That’s a 6-month gap from introduction to purchase. In contrast, iPhone 5 was revealed on September 12, went on pre-sale two days later, and was available for retail purchase one full week after the introduction, on September 19th. The full implication of that is that Apple’s manufacturing machine has to be at work for months before the device truly sees the light of day. In short, more human beings (see above) are aware the device exists for more time before the general public can purchase the device.

With the original iPhone, Apple had the luxury of producing prototypes and testing them in relative seclusion. Apple no longer has that luxury because it works on some of the tightest schedules a person can conceive of.

Think about it; If Apple wanted to prototype a totally new product using in-house fabrication today, they could do it. They could show a working device to a room full of awed spectators who had no idea that such a thing existed, but they wouldn’t be able to put it in your hands until months later, and that isn’t something that Apple wants to do–they want you to make a decision and strike while the iron is hot.

So when you’re done watching the reveal of a new Apple products from another Apple device that’s barely a month old, remember that things weren’t always this way. You can’t manufacture your cake and be surprised by it, too.

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Well, the iPhone 5 has launched and has been the center of a great deal of attention, most notably since it was timed to follow shortly after the release of iOS 6 (and the shift to Apple’s much-maligned mapping data). To say that Apple’s hardware releases garner a great deal of attention is an understatement, but the scale of the press attention and media frenzy that gets whipped up around their new devices is indicative of something greater, perhaps, and I’m both nervous and hopeful about what this may portend for the consumer electronics space in general.

A conversation I had with a friend recently had us circling back to the topics of patents, lawsuits, and innovation vis à vis the other two. Discussions of this sort are always minefields, since there are so many aspects to the total picture that may not be immediately visible to any one person. Perspective, also, plays a huge role in the idea of “intellectual property”, in this case as represented by Apple’s lawsuits targeting Samsung for patent infringement. While the results of our discussion are, for the purposes of this article, largely irrelevant, the conversation itself is what was interesting to me. While it could have been easy for us to start the age-old “X [company] is better because of Y!” type arguments, we didn’t go there. What we focused on instead was the difficulty in the enforcement of these patents, and the slippery slope that is created when the judicial system starts enforcing these patents.

To be clear, my opinion is that there is something about Apple’s hardware, software, and culture that is incredibly appealing to many people. This appeal lends itself to a significant and conspicuous presence in American consumer culture. Manufacturers, thus, faced with the need to sell products that look good and perform powerfully, tend to copy Apple’s designs. Apple, clearly fed up with the practice, decided to put the kibosh on the whole thing and started patenting various components of their designs. Some of these patents were software patents. This is where things start to get…difficult.

I understand what’s going on here. Apple has designed a product that leapfrogged a generation of mobile devices. While the mobile device landscape eventually would have seen the introduction and proliferation of these devices in the marketplace, Apple got there first and wanted to make sure that they stayed there long enough to establish some sort of market dominance. Strategically, it makes sense. The central issue in this discussion, I believe, is the importance of innovation, and the theoretical stifling effect that these patents will have on it.

The argument is this: Apple’s patents will slow innovation, because other companies will be unable to push forward in a space that is controlled by a competitor who guards it fiercely with litigation.

I see that, I do. I understand the fear that other companies will suffer as a result of these lawsuits and the potential resulting damage awards or judicial decries. What I disagree with at the core is that anything Apple does will hamstring progress in the mobile space.

Assuming that all of Apple’s patents are enforceable (I don’t think they really are), other companies would have to (theoretically) tread lightly in the mobile space.

Except they really don’t.

Apple didn’t tread lightly, did they? No, they didn’t, because they set out to define a subsection of the mobile space that basically didn’t exist. There were cellular devices, and there were PDA devices, and there were “tablet” devices (Nokia N800, N810, etc.), but all were based off of the wrong paradigms. Cellular devices were all basically phones, with buttons and functions tied to the physical layout of the phone. Those devices that were moving away from the idea of buttons with hard-coded functions still were tied to buttons, in general (the Palm Treo 700w/wx springs to mind), and the non-button user interface was generally clumsy and not designed to be used with a finger. Many users used these devices with fingernails¹, and there were many software development companies that made their bread and butter off of developing software that would make the user interface a little more “finger-friendly”. To unpack that a little more, the user interface of Windows mobile-based devices was greatly lacking², in my opinion.

Thus, Apple’s approach to hardware and the software that powered it was absolutely unique. No other manufacturer had created a mobile device in quite this way before. Apple, therefore, would be forgiven for wanting to protect their creation. Since something of this magnitude had never really been attempted before, Apple was assuming a great deal of risk in introducing this untested form of mobile device into the marketplace.

Apple was innovating in a way that other companies were afraid to.

Once the iPhone had been introduced, things changed very rapidly. Device manufacturers suddenly were forced to change their attitude toward design, manufacturing process, and materials. Apple’s phone made use of high-quality glass and aluminum. The feel of the device was unlike anything that had been created previously, and felt like something that would come out of a high-end fashion house, rather than a consumer device manufacturer.

Apple, however, was just that – a consumer device manufacturer. As such, it was uniquely positioned to get this device into the hands of millions of people. Once other manufacturers actually realized what Apple had done (turned the game upside-down), they had to change their manufacturing processes rather quickly in order to keep up.

Unsurprisingly, that’s what they’ve been doing ever since.

This is why I take issue with the idea that “Apple stifles innovation”. If there’s innovation to be had, then innovate. The problem, as I see it, isn’t that Apple is stifling innovation, it’s that Apple is putting a lid on copycats. Instead of letting everyone ride on its coattails, Apple has kicked everyone off their train and is riding it to a future that it is, day by day, defining. If other companies are so upset about it, then create something new. Go out there and design a device that is better than the iPhone, make it out of materials that haven’t even been thought of yet, and integrate it with services that don’t exist. Don’t whine about someone slapping your wrist for copying their hard work. Knuckle up and make something that will take the world by storm.

We’re all waiting for someone to build the future. Will it be you?

 


1: Since resistive displays would register touch inputs from anything, users were only limited by what they had available. I, for instance, would often use a coffee stirrer since the stylus always had a tendency to grow legs and walk away.

2: Palm did its best to try to create a UI that was inviting and accessible over the standard Windows mobile operating system, but it’s clear that they had difficulty doing that. Attempting to change system settings, or interacting at all with the file system, was incredibly difficult for most users. I, considering myself a power user, would often have to resort to registry changes and such to get the device working just the way I wanted. Purchasing software that made the device mores accessible and user-friendly would typically cost $30-50.

Naturally, I had to do many of the same things with the original (2007) iPhone (read: [Jailbreaking[(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IOS_jailbreaking) iOS), but the current iteration of iOS solves many of the issues that I would normally Jailbreak for.