Apple’s Curiously Complex Innovation Problem



Today Apple hosted their familiar and always anticipated event to unveil the upcoming changes to their MacBook Notebook line. Apple’s events have a well-orchestrated, and after several years well-established flow to them, usually hitting the same notes of polish, innovation and justifiable boasting. The presentation style of Tim Cook and Jony Ive doesn’t hit the same emotional highs of Steve Jobs, but it’s hard to complain too much when Apple has consistently kept their position as the dominant consumer products tech innovator. Even with a barrage of products and services from Google, Samsung, Microsoft and others, generally speaking people continue to look to Apple first for innovation.

The updates to Apple’s premiere notebook have been long in coming. When the iPhone took market share during the boom of the smartphone, the natural side effect became a parallel increase in all of Apple’s products. But in general the MacBook Pro innovation have been limited to stronger, more powerful hardware, modest battery improvements and the feature most embraced by the market: the high-resolution retina screen. But none of these are particularly eye catching; they are the definition of incremental pragmatism. At a time when Apple’s notebooks were growing in the market these improvements were well-timed to take advantage of the rush of adoption. Apple’s approach, while not particularly “newly innovative” in the strictest sense of the word, was well-timed to take advantage of the market.

Many speculated that Apple was going to change that this week though, finally bringing Jony Ive’s design and innovation sense to the dominant laptop. It also came at amidst interesting circumstances for the company; this week Apple announced declining earnings for the first time in 15 years. The news was generally expected even if it wasn’t desired, but it did give credence to critics who claimed that Apple has lost its rudder. This week also provided a surprise in the form of Microsoft’s Surface Studio PC, a device that certainly feels highly innovative and is designed to court the creative industry that has always been firmly in Apple’s pocket. Microsoft has struggled to translate their innovation to sales, but there was a buzz about this week’s announcement that felt different from the past.

The press event was as typically Apple as you would expect; Tim Cook and bold Keynote slides, Jony Ive and eye-catching dissected renders of hardware, trusted partners showing cool (albeit niche) features and plenty of boasting. The MacBook Pro has been a strong seller, and Apple wants you to know it… but the event also revealed the strange position Apple finds itself in. What do you do when your customers want to feel you’re innovating but don’t necessarily want the core product to change?

The centerpiece of the changes seemed to center around the creation of the touch bar, an OLED surface that can display various icons, shortcuts, editing tools, game functions and yes, emojis too. It changes in context with what is on the screen, providing another interesting input function that in theory should increase the bond between the creator and the creation. It also enables touch login and other security and payment features that bring the laptop into semi-parity with the iPhone and iPad. All of which was shown with Apple’s typical flair; a DJ and a photo artist showcased how they used the new touch bar to improve their work and have fun doing it.

Other than that, it was a number of features that make up the bread and butter of what a Notebook needs. It’s thinner and thus lighter. It’s faster. It has more storage. The screen is sharper. The battery? It lasts longer. It does away with the traditional USB port in favor of USB-C which will undoubtedly annoy all of the people who are frustrated that the headphone jack was removed from the iPhone… although it’s present on the new MacBook Pro. Apple gives and Apple takes.

But the underlying question is: is this what you wanted?

Online people reacted with a reasonable lack of enthusiasm. The touch bar was gimmicky, and even though the demos looked cool enough are you a DJ? Do you aspire to use Photoshop to edit yourself into various landscapes? Even if you did buy the MacBook Pro, do you feel like you are skilled enough in Photoshop to use all of the features you saw?

Consumers expressed frustration that they couldn’t simply get the core device improvements paired with a price reduction. With the produce cementing itself in the marketplace, a $400 price drop might have been met with the same level of excitement… or more… than the touch bar itself. Social media, usually safely enamored by Apple’s announcements, seemed to find more enjoyment this time in making jokes.

Comparisons were immediately made to Microsoft’s announcement earlier in the week, and while not entirely fair the question in the air is if Microsoft has somehow stolen Apple’s product creativity. The answer is undoubtedly no: Samsung can certainly share with Microsoft the trap of creating buzz-worthy features that didn’t catch on in the market. For years now articles have been written about Samsung’s cool new features, which never translated to increased market share.

So here is where Apple finds itself stuck: in the middle of a consumer base that expects them to innovate and bring new ideas to the market… but is also reluctant to accept those changes. Consumers want Apple to be two disparate things at once at a time when their product line has grown so wide that simply keeping a focused message is a challenge in and of itself. Apple still needs to find the next big idea that will really connect with consumers, but it’s unlikely to be a feature innovation like the touch bar. Even if the feature catches on (and it does look cool in its way) there’s a bigger technology shift that the market is waiting for.

In the same way that the iPod, iPhone and iPad changed their industries fundamentally, what people really want from Apple is the next major shift.

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