The Myth of Steve Jobs’ Constant Breakthroughs

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

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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 (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.”


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?