Technologizer

The Myth of Steve Jobs’ Constant Breakthroughs

Most of Apple's improvements have always been incremental -- and there's nothing wrong with that.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images

Consumers line up to buy the new iPhone 5s and 5c at an Apple Store in Glendale, California on September 20, 2013

Last Friday, Apple’s iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c went on sale. The company sold nine million of them in the first weekend, breaking the five-million-phone record it set last year with the iPhone 5. I sort of thought that was clearly good news for Apple and the iPhone. Or at least not, you know, worrisome news.

Then I read a piece by Sandy Cannold at ABCNews.com (which I found via MG Siegler’s ParisLemon). Cannold says that the new iPhones selling so well and generating so much hoopla is potentially alarming:

To me though, all this over-the-top fanfare and even the record-breaking first weekend of sales could actually be cause for concern. Now before Apple lovers pillory me and say that I have no idea what I am talking about, hear me out. I fully concede that Apple is going to make billions in profit from the sale of these new devices and the company is in no danger of becoming Blackberry or Nokia. But the reason I am voicing a bit of doubt is that it seems like Apple is now trying to squeeze every last bit of profit it can out of an aging, shall we call it, iStone.

If you’ve read other pieces of this sort, you already know where Cannold is going with this:

This is no longer the Apple of Steve Jobs. The Apple that seemingly every couple of years rocked the consumer electronics world with a product so innovative that it changed industries forever. He did it with music, Smartphones, computing, the list goes on and on. But sadly since he passed away it seems like that era of innovation has given way to an age of incremental change. I firmly believe that Steve Jobs wouldn’t have been satisfied to only pocket billions upon billions on tweaked products alone.

O.K., that’s the issue. Under Steve Jobs, Apple released an epoch-shifting product every two years or so. Under Tim Cook, it’s capable only of the boring, evolutionary business strategy Cannold later calls “incrementalism.”

Except…

The golden age of Apple that Cannold pines for never existed. Steve Jobs didn’t change the world every two years like clockwork, and he was incrementalism’s grand master.

Just how many times did Jobs rock the consumer electronics world with a product so innovative that it changed industries forever? In Apple’s first nine years, from 1976-1985, there were two of them: the Apple II and the Macintosh. Maybe three, if you count the LaserWriter laser printer.

But for simplicity’s sake, let’s begin our accounting on July 9, 1997, the day that Gil Amelio resigned as Apple’s CEO, thereby restoring Jobs’ full control over the company he co-founded. And let’s end it on August 25, 2011, the day that Jobs resigned, formally turning the company over to Tim Cook. By my math, that’s 5,161 days.

Just about everybody, I suspect, will agree that the original iPod (2001), iPhone (2007) and iPad (2010) changed industries forever. (If you take issue with that assessment, I’d love to hear your reasoning.) The original iMac (1998) did, too; you could make the case that it was a triumph of packaging and marketing rather than technology, but its influence is still felt today.

Two Apple services also had impact of historic proportions: the iTunes Music Store (2003) and App Store (2008). Let’s add them to the list, too. By my standards, at least, we’ve now covered all of Apple’s seismic shifts that rattled the entire industry forever — the sort of stuff that hasn’t yet happened under Tim Cook’s stewardship.

That’s a total of six industry-changing items, or one every 860 days on average, though the gap was sometimes substantially longer. Now, that’s a remarkable streak. But it’s not a revolution every other year. And Tim Cook has been CEO of Apple for only a little over two years, so there’s nothing deeply troubling about the fact that he hasn’t boiled any oceans yet.

Of course, skeptics didn’t wait until Cook had been on the job for a couple of years before they started accusing him of incrementalism. The charge has hung over all of his product launches like a cranky little cloud, starting with the iPhone 4S’s debut way back in October, 2011. From the start, plenty of folks assumed he’d fail to live up to Jobs’ record.

Which is not an unreasonable thing to fret about. Cook does have the biggest shoes to fill in the history of the personal-technology industry, and neither he nor anybody else is capable of all the things that came naturally to Steve Jobs. But it makes more sense to fret based on concrete data points and an accurate accounting of Jobs’ achievements than raw emotion.

Me, I’ve always thought that it will be impossible to fully judge the Cook era until Apple does enter a wholly new product category. It’s going to do so at some point, and it’s possible that it’ll either go spectacularly well or be a fiasco. Or it might fall somewhere in between, as some of Jobs’ products did. (Exhibit A: The “hobby” known as Apple TV.) But Cook has plenty of wiggle room left before he falls substantially behind Jobs’ pace. I figure he has at least until the end of 2014 or so before there’s reason to join the worry-wart chorus.

Back to incrementalism. I don’t understand why Cannold — and plenty of others — think that it’s at odds with Steve Jobs’ legacy. For every great leap forward Apple ever made, it accomplished at least as much through small steps that made its products easier, faster, thinner, lighter, more polished and/or more useful. Apple’s most important products may have been the game-changers, but its best products, always, have been those that benefited from smart, evolutionary improvements. And as far as I remember, Jobs never seemed guilty about the profits they brought.

Remember: Even Jobs himself was constantly upbraided by pundits for releasing products they deemed to be snoozers. If Steve Jobs was incapable of being sufficiently Steve Jobs-like, isn’t it possible that the standard doesn’t have much to do with reality — and that it’s silly to make the case that Tim Cook has failed to uphold it?

99 comments
sukebe7
sukebe7

Actually, it was the RIO that revolutionized portable music.  They also won the legal fights brought on by the recording industry.  THEN, the ipod came out, after the real hero's cleared a path for them.

raindog308
raindog308

Your math...doesn't make sense.

"Every two years" is about 730 days.  You're saying Steve Jobs rocked markets every 860 days.  So you're going to argue about 15%?  It's an estimate.

But whatever...let's use your math.  Tim Cook is coming up on 860 days awful fast.

michael.e.lovett
michael.e.lovett

The big picture isn't Jobs, nor is it Apple. Jobs was only one great inovator during the personal electronic age. And he didn't necessarily create any of them. He pointed in the direction and they went. Simple.

The personal electronics of today will look different as time goes by. And something new and completely disconnected from these items will arise over and over again, with other people like Jobs pushing them forward.

Don't think Jobs made Apple and Apple made the iPhone generation. Think right person, in the right place, at the right time. It's nothing more than that. Ever.

hisfrogness
hisfrogness

I'm just going to be honest. Apple's success bothers me. I work in an industry that still, to this day,  makes their daily offerings to iGod in the form of paying higher prices for the luxury of huge technical inconveniences. Apple products are inferior. This is not open to debate unless you want to qualify your purchasing decisions to include "well it makes me happy". And the more power to you man. Enjoy it. You paid a lot for it. 

But if you're going to base your decision on price vs features or price vs quality, you would never buy an Apple product. Feature-wise,  any Nokia or any Samsung blows the iPhone out of the water. Macs have gotten better but only because they've become more like PCs and even then you're paying 40% more for what is inherently a PC with an Apple logo on it. Before they reversed their profit-killing proprietary manufacturing on Macs, you were often down for weeks waiting for some 3rd party (Avid) to finally update their software to work with the latest OS.

These inferior products are sold at exorbitant prices (a sure recipe for failure) and yet Apple is the..what...2nd most profitable business in the whole freaking world?

So there must be some other area where Apple succeeds beyond imagination in order to offset their many many flaws. And there is. It's their marketing.

juepucta
juepucta

on top of that, the average moron thinks that he is gonna be like jobs if he is a stubborn and headstrong contrarian and misses that what made jobs jobs was his batting average - in other words, cutting off your ear will not make you van gogh

JohnFKramarz
JohnFKramarz

This article is so true! There were not only long dry spells, but also quite a few failures under Jobs. His strength was to not dwell on the failures, so most people forgot them. They might have even been good or desirable products, but they were market failures.

I'm thinking of the Cube G4, the slim rack G5 server, the hockey puck mouse, the Apple HiFi, the Motorola Rokr, and Apple TV. (like I said, some of these are good products, but market fails or lukewarm at best)

He also had some ideas that he (luckily) reversed his decision on, like not wanting to offer 3rd party apps for iOS.

Yes, some of the dry spells lasted a LONG time. We heard about a phone for YEARS before we got the iPhone, and the Rokr was just something to calm the people waiting.

ross.baltimore
ross.baltimore

Toy Story?

Whenever I doubt Steve Jobs' impact, I simply think about Pixar.

R.AnthonySteele
R.AnthonySteele

All of this (especially the comments) highlights the cult-like relationship that Apple and its users have.   I used Palm products for years before Apple rolled out the iPhone.  There really wasn't much 'new' in the product aside from the logo, and interfaces that actually synced as promised.

...and there have been dozens of computer manufacturers who have established retail outlets to buy their products (something mentioned in one of the comments) ALL of them aside from Apple have gone bankrupt spending money maintaining their retail outlets. Dell was unique when it was established in NOT having retail outlets at which to buy their products. Something they should probably get back to.

carlhancock
carlhancock

Incremental?  What's he expecting as far as the iPhone is concerned?  It's a mobile phone.

As far as mobile phones go the updates made to the iPhone 5S are far bigger than most people realize.  They see that looks like the iPhone 5 and assume it's just a minor update.  Incorrect.

The only thing the iPhone 5S has in common with the iPhone 5 is they look the same.  They are the same form factor.  But that is by design, and i'll get to that.  The 5S is completely different under the hood with plenty of innovation.  

The new dual core processor in the iPhone 5S out performs all the fancy quad core processors in the high end Android phones.  But more cores is better, right? It's the first mobile phone that is 64 bit, something competitors such as Samsung were quick to say, "We're coming out with 64 bit phones too... next year...".  It's camera is superb even if it isn't some crazy 40 megapixel Nokia... but more megapixels is better, right? Kinda like quad core is better than dual core.  Right?  Then there is the M7 co-processor that is designed to handle motion related sensors more efficiently in order to odd load that functionality from the CPU so that the phone performs as fast as possible while maximizing battery life.  

All of this while maintaining the same battery life and throwing in the new TouchID functionality which is secure enough for most users, don't believe the hype on it being "hacked".  The truth is it's designed to help prevent thefts and help owners to recover lost or stolen phones by doing as much as possible to prevent Find iPhone from being disabled after someone finds or steals it.  It's going to do that just fine.

Now the reason why the iPhone 5S looks just like the iPhone 5.  It's the same reason the iPhone 4S looks like the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 3GS looked like the iPhone 3G.  IT JUST MAKES SENSE.  

Think about it.  By using the same form factor it maximizes both Apple's accessories and the 3rd party accessory market.  All the accessories and cases for the iPhone 5 work with the iPhone 5S (minus cases that may prevent Touch ID from functioning) just like all accessories for the previous updates did.  It is why Apple's phones dominate the accessory and case space.

If they created a new form factor every single year the accessory market would not be what it is today.  It would be frustrating for manufacturers to have to create entirely new cases and accessories every single year.  Ever wondered why there are so many cases and accessories for iPhone's while other phones are so limited? This is why.

I'll take the same form factor over an entirely new design every single year for that reason alone.  As long as the internal hardware has been upgraded that is all that matters.  What is looks like is meaningless.  People that assume it's not a new phone because it looks the same should go buy a disposable Samsung phone.  But hurry up.  Because they may release a new phone by the time you get your new one home.


rickstarr11
rickstarr11

You left out Apple Retail stores, which were a breakthrough in computer retailing. Dell didn't have it. Microsoft didn't have it. HP didn't have it. Nobody wanted to pay high mall prices for space, even Apple's board resisted, but Jobs insisted, and now those stores are the model for others to follow. That makes 7, not 6, and it brings the average down to precisely one every two years. (And that doesn't count the early years, with the Apple I, Apple ][, Macintosh, Appletalk, wireless wifi, Pixar, NeXT, and a bunch more, even when he was wandering in the weeds.) Nobody expects Tim Cook to be Steve Jobs, but lets not force fit history to fit the theory, OK?

charbax1
charbax1

Apple's numbers are completely BS and fake. The numbers they always report aren't sell-outs, but sell-ins, meaning the number of phones Apple bought from the factory, not the number of phones consumers bought and neither the number of phones resellers bought. Apple decides that number months in advance of the announcement, as Apple ramps up manufacturing way before. That number (9 million, first weekend) is manufactured by Apple and has nothing to do with the demand.

genechuang
genechuang

I don't understand the point of your article.  To quote: "That’s a total of six industry-changing items, or one every 860 days on average, though the gap was sometimes substantially longer. Now, that’s a remarkable streak. But it’s not a revolution every other year."  860 days/365 days/year = 2.36 years. That seems close to every other year to me.  I'm no Jobs Acolyte, but I do want to point out 860 days is just about every other year!

georgesvh
georgesvh

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed king reigns supreme. It is not about the phone, people...and since the competition is focused on building (disposable) phones using the same commoditization principles as PCs in the Windows days (see my blog), Apple's success will continue on, despite Tim Cook not having produced a single upstream innovation after Jobs' passing, and apart from minor interface changes has not seen real change since 2006. Tim should thank Steve Jobs again, and again, and again...for his gifts that keep on giving.

andrerichards2010
andrerichards2010

What people have to bear in mind as well is that none of these "world changing" products unveiled under Jobs were immediate successes. Even when something new was unveiled, it took a while (and sometimes a few major refinements) before they were an acknowledged success. The iPod did not change music players overnight. It took several years. Likewise, iTunes didn't revolutionize anything at v. 1.0. The iMac took a very long time to have an impact and even the iPhone, perhaps the splashiest and most headline-generating product Apple ever introduced, was scoffed at initially and seen as an underpowered, overpriced and deeply flawed product (and frankly, it was. It took a few iterations before it really started to shine.) Same with iPad. The idea that Jobs unveiled perfect version 1 products that changed the face of the markets forever is absolute myth. He never did. The real magic was in the slow and evolutionary changes. That's where Apple kills the competitors.

johnbroussard
johnbroussard

I remember when they held the memorial service at Apple and had Al Gore speak. One line stuck out to me: "The greatest creation Steve Jobs is Apple itself." I pretty much agree with this sentiment.

freedman1
freedman1

Rather than focus on Jobs the inventor, take a look at Jobs the business leader. Let's give him credit for what he did: mobilize 50,000 employees and countless admirers around a vision and set of products. I think people give Jobs more credit than he deserves for "inventing" the iBlahBlah. Huge teams collaborated to build these products and all deserve a share of the credit of invention. 

Jobs clearly organized, steered and motivated the teams of engineers and designers who built great things and did it profitably. That is a major accomplishment. Cook is doing the same and deserves praise. 

tomforemski
tomforemski

The entire tech industry is trying to squeeze the last drops of value out of the innovations created in the 1960s and 70s largely through government sponsored research.

Changes_Long
Changes_Long

If Apple products are so great, why do people camp out for days to replace them?

safari
safari

@michael.e.lovett

  • Michael said, "The big picture isn't Jobs, nor is it Apple. Jobs was only one great inovator during the personal electronic age. And he didn't necessarily create any of them. He pointed in the direction and they went. Simple" 

You are oversimplifying his accomplishments and you know it. Apple changed the way smartphones look and feel. You are correct, technologies change and we will not be using these devices at some point in time, but the Unix based OSX might live on in future products Apple designs and manufactures 30 years from now. Who knows, Apple might have a device that is ready to displace the iPhone, but can't put it on the market because the technologies are not available.

  • Michael said, "Don't think Jobs made Apple and Apple made the iPhone generation." 

Jobs did make Apple. He founded the Company. When he was fired, he founded NeXT which created OSX. iOS, the OS in iPads, AppleTV, iPads, and iPods are a version of OSX that his Company (NeXT) created. Of course Jobs had very smart and dedicated employees, but he was responsible for leading them back to profit. 

  • Michael said, "Think right person, in the right place, at the right time." 

The same goes for Edison, Gates, Kennedy....

MMPhotosTexas
MMPhotosTexas

Here's your great PC compared to a comparable, equivalent MacBook...
 

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=4&cad=rja&sqi=2&ved=0CFIQFjAD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.techrepublic.com%2Fblog%2Fapple-in-the-enterprise%2Fis-a-macbook-pro-really-more-expensive-than-a-dell-latitude%2F&ei=PxiqUvWyLNPpkQeQ0YHQAQ&usg=AFQjCNGVGDeHtslHL07GiHVcrOUGmuye0Q&sig2=6JF4ZIFEnRFXN9jH6aFP0g&bvm=bv.57967247,d.eW0


Do your research before you do your bashing... That's my suggestion... All I personally own is Apple computers. The business that I own, however all have Windows machines... Oh and those businesses are all computer repair stores... The ONLY time I see an Apple computer in one of my shops is because of human neglect (e.g. broken screen, liquid damage, etc)... I don't see them for viruses, malware, hundreds of dollars worth of software upgrades, etc. Nope, those are all Windows computers that get to spend that extra money... Bad part about Windows is you never know when you will need the extra money to pay for the repairs, but with Apple you pay for the quality up front and don't have to worry about it later... And I don't pay hundreds to upgrade to the next version of the operating system either...

safari
safari

@hisfrogness

I'll have to respectfully disagree with you. I work in an elementary school with close to 200 Macs that do not run any virus protection, can you guess how many viruses or malware we have on the machines? Zero. Like all technologies, computers have problems, both hardware or software. At work and with my personal devices, I have always been able to rely on Apple to fix issues that I can't troubleshoot; I can't say the same thing for Samsung, I own a Samsung TV and have had horrible customer service. For the most part, Apple products have been very reliable, with the exception of the big white eMacs (what were they thinking?). In addition, the apps for the iPads have been great learning and teaching tools in my classroom. Again, these tablets have been very reliable with exceptional battery life. 

hisfrogness said, "This is not open to debate unless you want to qualify your purchasing decisions"

Does my purchasing decision meet your qualification standard?

stratozyck
stratozyck

@hisfrogness 

You just don't get it.  The moment I picked up my MacBook Pro and used that awesome trackpad, I literally gave my Windows laptop away.

I am a developer and I use my computer all the time.  Sure, comparing pure specs looks like Macs are more expensive.  I used Macs from 1989-2001, and windows from 2001-2012.  I can't explain it, but I love using my Macs so much that my productivity has increased by about 100%.

Sure, if I wanted a gaming computer I would buy Alienware.  But my Mac sits on my desk and I use it every day.  The fact that it looks beautiful is not a mere marketing ploy.  Every time I look at it I am inspired to go above and beyond in my work and in life.  

safari
safari

@JohnFKramarz 

Don't forget about the white bubble eMac it had a lot of glitches.

Nice to see a fellow cyclist out there!

jgpmolloy
jgpmolloy

@R.AnthonySteele To be fair there were hundreds of analysts and journalists that said Apple would fail in retail. To go from failure to highest earning per square foot in the  whole of retail are two completely different things.

JCCris
JCCris

@carlhancock do you know what 64 bit means? how it can be used ? do you know the difference between clock speed and cores? and overclocking? child.

safari
safari

@charbax1 

So the 10-Q form they filed with the IRS in June stating they profited 6.9 billion dollars in that weak quarter is not real and they did not sell 31 million iPhones? I'm with JohnFKramarz, please, by all means give us the data that states Apple did not sell that many iPhones in the last quarter and we can finally have Apple where we want them /S. Are you serious dude?

JohnFKramarz
JohnFKramarz

@charbax1 "Apple's numbers are completely BS and fake."

Sure, so buy 100 shares of AAPL, and bring a fraud case against them for releasing fake numbers and fake news. We'll watch the court case with great interest, and thing "Hey! That must be Charbax1 !". You'll rip apart Apple's numbers and lies with the boatload of evidence you have.  You'll easily win this investment fraud case, to the tune of billions!

Only to find out they lied about having $100+ billion in cash too.

They only have $15.86 in the bank! Tsk! Of course, you probably "know" that too, so it isn't worth your time in court in the first place.

charbax1
charbax1

It has everything to do with Apple trying to keep its stock price up for as long as possible before the inevitable collapse of AAPL stock.

JCCris
JCCris

@georgesvh cigarettes still sells despite being proven that they kill people. Drugs are still consumed despite being proved they destroy lives. icrap might still be sold despite..

QueueEmUp
QueueEmUp

@georgesvh Try using an IBM/Lenovo product one of these days. I guarantee you that they aren't hot commodities but they get the job done far better than any other company's products.

T3H_G04T
T3H_G04T

@georgesvh  And what exactly were "the Windows days"? And how come they suddenly ended?

JCCris
JCCris

@freedman1 except there were lots of inventions stolen from devs too..

MaryMcGivern
MaryMcGivern

@BjjAvYGvPJAY8OBylWQLCw He definitely had the RDF; however, he had the uncanny knack of making his reality our reality. His vision of an iPad-like device took him 20 years to make real. But he did do it.

safari
safari

@Changes_Long 

So they can buy a newer device accompanied with newer technologies for $200 and sell their old one for $225. Does that make sense?

andrerichards2010
andrerichards2010

@Changes_Long If human beings evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys around?

I mean, as long as we're throwing all logic out the window, right?

JohnFKramarz
JohnFKramarz

@charbax1 How about all those actors they paid to wait in line though? Pretty impressive, wasn't it?

It's incredible the length and expense they'll go to perpetuate a lie!

rickstarr11
rickstarr11

@charbax1 You have some proof of this? I ask because Apple is a public corporation, governed by fair disclosure rules which, if not followed, can result in jail time for executives and millions in fines for the corporation. So I'm sure you have some solid evidence for these otherwise ridiculous claims, right?

safari
safari

@JCCris @georgesvh

 icrap might still be sold despite..

Despite what? Don't leave me hanging...Oh, despite my students the devices being used in my classroom as a teaching and learning tool. Despite their awesome customer service. Despite a developers making an inexpensive app for the iPad to help a student with a disability have a different way of learning. Please, don't leave me hanging, what are your experiences with this icrap.

JCCris
JCCris

@MaryMcGivern @BjjAvYGvPJAY8OBylWQLCw Bill Gates talked about the "iPad" WAY before it was brought up to market by Apple. Another great thing to point out is the iPaq 2003, 4 full years before the first iphone came out. oh and I bet it wasnt Bill who came up with the original idea.. he just had the means to be heard..

jgpmolloy
jgpmolloy

@R.AnthonySteele Your original post boiled down to two things:

1) Apple is a cult. 

2) Nobody managed to make tech stores work.

Both are nonsense. 

Not entirely sure what the Palm justification was all about.


JCCris
JCCris

@jgpmolloy @rickstarr11 @charbax1 there was a time when MSF handed AAPL some money so that they wouldnt go under. As people get smarter about technology more and more realize the Apple has a worm.

maximvs3
maximvs3

@safari @JCCris @georgesvh don't listen to that hapless soul, if it was icrap, not every single art & design institute would have a buttload of macs in their laboratories.....this guy is probably an anti-apple fanboy that speaks for the sake of him having a mouth and typing for the sake of using his fingers.