Apple As Innovator

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Tim O'Reilly
May. 29, 2003 01:04 PM

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Dave Zeiler of the Baltimore Sun's online site interviewed me for a column on what he called "the continuing saga of how Apple’s fresh ideas sooner or later get hijacked by the Wintel crowd and re-sold as a Microsoft or Intel “innovation.”"

Dave quoted only a few lines of my rather extensive email interview in his article, so I thought I'd reproduce the entire text here.

Dave asked: "Do you think this is true, or is Apple’s role as tech innovator exaggerated?" I replied:

Success always has a thousand fathers. Neither Apple nor Microsoft invented many of the technologies that they brought to prominence. So "innovator" in that sense is perhaps exaggerated. But what Apple does so well is to realize the potential in a technology, and to frame it in such a way that people discover that they need it. In a way, they are cultural innovators more than they are tech innovators. They have a really great sense of where technology is going. Microsoft's slogan "Where do you want to go today?" may be apposite -- Apple is great at asking "Where do you want to go tomorrow?" and helping to take the industry there. Apple tends to be a market innovator, while Microsoft is a fast follower, delivering that next generation of technology to a wider audience.

A great example of Apple's current market leadership is their realization that "productivity applications" now means applications for managing personal digital assets (music, photos, and videos), while the rest of the industry remained stuck in the 80's definition of office productivity. Their iLife suite is shaping up to be the Microsoft Office of the 00's.

I'm also incredibly impressed with Rendezvous. A lot of companies (notably Sun Microsystems, with Jini and Jxta) have been working on this concept for years, but Apple is the first company to get it right. Rendezvous is truly revolutionary. It's one of the things that is going to have the largest impact on application design over the next couple of years. All the UIs, and all the security models, are going to have to be rethought once all applications are rendezvous-enabled. And that is going to happen. Of course, Rendezvous is just the local version of the peer-to-peer concept that Napster and Gnutella launched on the world. We're just at the beginning of the second internet revolution, and Rendezvous is a big part of it.

And of course, web services are another big part of that revolution. Sherlock is a very cool framework that shows us how web services lead not just to B2B applications, but also to a new application model on the desktop, in which rich clients connect to remote servers over the http protocol, but shed a lot of the baggage of the Web's stateless model, allowing for the design of much better user interfaces. Of course, Macromedia is generalizing this idea and making it cross platform with its Central framework. But then again, Apple arguably didn't invent this idea either, since some people feel that independent developer Dan Wood of Karelia Software pioneered the idea with his Watson program. But innovation is always a game of leapfrog. And Apple does a great job of moving the game forward.

I imagine that Microsoft will do a good job of playing catch up. (And just to be fair, I think that Microsoft has done a great job of playing leap frog as well. While I tend to bash Microsoft for their shortsightedness in "taking all the mashed potatoes"(see some of my speeches at for that reference), I also praise them for their consistent vision of the future of computing. Bill Gates is probably more responsible than anyone for the ubiquity of personal computing, something that all his detractors forget. The Linux opportunity, for example, wouldn't exist, if Microsoft and Intel hadn't created ubiquitous, low-cost, standard PCs. So the leapfrog continues. What's really important is that no one gets so locked in that they are able to stop the game. (That's Microsoft's real issue -- they became so successful in suppressing competitors that they have far fewer people to play leapfrog with. Thank goodness that Apple has survived, and that the internet/open source community has continued to bring in fresh ideas.)

Dave asked: "If Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs and Apple had never existed, where do you think (wild guess welcome) computing would be today?":

Alternate history isn't my strong suit. But there's no question that we'd be poorer for it. Jobs' vision of building computers that were "insanely great" brought a level of artistry to the computing industry that could easily have been completely lacking. Computing can be so boring. Apple has made it part of pop culture.

Dave: If Apple IS a prime industry innovator, why does it remain stuck with such a small market share?

Business model. It's clear that a commodity hardware business model with standard parts and multiple players works better than a proprietary business model. (We saw the same thing with Betamax and VHS.) What's remarkable is that Apple has survived and prospered despite being incompatible with an industry standard with overwhelming market share. It's a bit like imagining an electric automobile vendor with 5% market share. You wouldn't be thinking of it as a failure, but as a remarkable success.

It's interesting to note also that the disparity between Windows and Mac OS might not be anything like so great but for Microsoft's aggressive business dealings (which have, after all, been declared illegal under anti-trust law). If the PC market were more competitive, we might, for example, see the big three vendors, as we saw in the auto market.

It's interesting to note, of course, that Linux is now doing a good job of breaking the Microsoft lock, and that software is being commoditized the way hardware was during the PC era. In this turn of the wheel, Apple is ahead of the curve, with an OS that leverages the commodity software componentry of Unix. (And of course, Linux and Unix are really just two versions of the same basic component set.)

Dave: And of course, any further thoughts or insights you may have on this issue are encouraged.

Steve Jobs is a top caliber conceptual artist. His vision seems to be more of an aesthetic vision than a technical or even a marketing vision. In this regard, I think that the Apple saga may be far from over. I'm mindful of Dave Hickey's observation in Air Guitar, his wonderful book of essays about pop culture: when the automobile became something of a commodity, Harley Earl, who headed the design division at General Motors after WW II, turned the auto industry from one driven by manufacturing innovation into one driven by design. As the computer industry is increasingly commoditized, will the computer market too become more of an "art market", one that, in the words of Hickey, "stopped advertising products for what they were, or for what they could do, and began advertising them for what they meant"?

Apple started this process with the famous 1984 lemmings ad, and has continued with its Think Different theme, but above all, with a consistent set of design innovations in its products, innovations that are aimed at the self image of the consumer, that, again quoting Dave Hickey, "create desire rather than fulfilling needs."

No one in the computer industry has come close to Apple in this regard. Only Sony, with its Vaio line, has even tried. And this is one area that Microsoft, for all its ability to embrace and extend the innovations of its rivals, has never found a way to do more than chase Apple's tail lights.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. In addition to Foo Camps ("Friends of O'Reilly" Camps, which gave rise to the "un-conference" movement), O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar, "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim's long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O'Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.