Sunday, June 10, 2007

Apple’s cumulative innovation

In last week’s issue, the Economist praised Apple’s ability to build upon the innovation of others. The anonymous correspondent gushes:

[Apple’s] real skill lies in stitching together its own ideas with technologies from outside and then wrapping the results in elegant software and stylish design. The idea for the iPod, for example, was originally dreamt up by a consultant whom Apple hired to run the project. It was assembled by combining off-the-shelf parts with in-house ingredients such as its distinctive, easily used system of controls. And it was designed to work closely with Apple's iTunes jukebox software, which was also bought in and then overhauled and improved. Apple is, in short, an orchestrator and integrator of technologies, unafraid to bring in ideas from outside but always adding its own twists.
The description at first struck me as odd. Certainly they have right the design role of Tony Fadell (iPod consultant whose role is sometimes minimized in favor of bigshot Apple execs) and the software contributions of Bill Kincaid and Jeff Robbin, authors of SoundJam (which became iTunes).

But what was jarring is how much that Apple has changed. The Apple of the 1990s was the exemplar of NIH. I once tried to prove that “Not Invented Here” was invented at Apple, but the problem is widespread enough that no one company can get the credit (blame). Any Mac developer will tell you how we suffered almost 20 years working with an operating system (OS 1.x,4.x,5.x,6.x,7.x,8.x and 9.x) designed in the early 1980s by programmers who’d never heard of Unix (or VMS or CMS or RSX-11 or anything else). In the 1990s, Apple kept inventing new electrical interfaces and standards just because it could, not because the world needed them.

I think the Economist is right, and the new Apple is an exemplar of what we now call “open innovation.” (For some reason the Economist claims it’s called “network innovation,” but as someone who studies social networks, network industries, and all forms of innovation, I’ve never heard this term and can’t find anyone who uses it). The business model also has elements of user innovation and cumulative innovation, which thus brings to mind a talk I gave last month distinguishing the three types of innovation.

Apple has come a long way in a decade. It has always run a systems business, and (to varying degrees) been concerned with product design and ease of use. The turnaround is in part due to execution, and in large part due to a willingness to be open to building upon the ideas of others.

Steve Jobs claims he was quoting Picasso when he said “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Whatever the source, the best innovations build upon what has been done before.

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1 comment:

Matthias said...

Hi Joel - Thanks for your thoughts which are always interesting to read! This time I dared writing a little critical comment on them. All the best, Matthias