Apple trots out new phones and a watch. Is the revolutionary era over?
Apple’s much-hyped new product rollout Tuesday has been met with skepticism that the company can continue the tradition of revolutionary innovation set by its founder, Steve Jobs.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
Apple’s much-hyped new product rollout Tuesday – CEO Tim Cook’s first since taking over three years ago – has been met with what can best be described as a polite yawn as well as louder skepticism that the company can continue the tradition of revolutionary innovation set by its founder, Steve Jobs.
The event, staged at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts in Cupertino, Calif., had all the self-importance of a Hollywood red carpet event, with each product coming to the stage as the tech equivalent of a Meryl Streep accepting her Oscar for lifetime achievement.
But in the end, it was all about the latest model iPhones (the iPhone 6 and larger 6 Plus), a digital wallet called Apple Pay, and perhaps the most anticipated gadget: the Apple Watch, a quasi-Dick Tracy wrist biometric device.
Much of the tech community has dubbed them incremental, if respectable progress on products that either Apple or others have been working on for some time.
“I always have a little skepticism about anything that says, ‘Look how amazing this is, it’s going to change everything for all of us,’ ” says Thomas Way, a professor of computer science at Villanova University in Philadelphia.
New features on the phones such as a bigger screen, better camera with internal stabilization, and crisper displays will certainly appeal to the Apple devotees and perhaps move some to upgrade, he notes. However few expect the added features to draw new converts from other manufacturers, he adds.
Neither will the wallet, called Apple Pay, an update on a product that no less a tech giant than Google has failed to master. “There are still things to work out around digital pay systems, which Google couldn’t figure out, and they never do anything half-hearted,” Professor Way notes.
The real star of the show, however, was supposed to be the Apple Watch, but even that is a mixed bag for Way, who says there is little evidence it is a product people were clamoring to own. A year from now, he predicts, “the watch will be mostly a big fizzle.”
Way notes, for instance, that the watch is not a stand-alone product. “You'll still need a phone with you, so it'll just be yet another thing to make sure that it is charged up for when you want to use it,” he says, adding that, “I was hopeful that this event would have something that I would sit up in my chair and say, ‘Hey, I never would have thought of that.’ ”
His disappointment encapsulates the daunting core challenge Apple faces in seeking to live up to its legacy. However, while radical innovation may be Apple’s past, it may not be its future, says Jerry Kim, professor of management at Columbia Business School.
“Creating paradigm-shifting innovations in a consistent manner is extremely difficult,” he says via e-mail, adding that it’s also not clear that the legendary Jobs himself would have been able to do that even if he was still running the company now. Apple is trying to do this with the Apple Watch, as well as AppleTV, says Professor Kim, but the odds are certainly against the company radically changing the industry again.
“The future of the company is leveraging their current product advantage into an ecosystem advantage,” he says, which would be done through partnerships and platform strategies. “They may not be producing the coolest gadgets in the future,” he adds, “but they could control the platforms upon which we pay for things or conduct commerce, which could be much more valuable (just not as sexy).”
That said, faulting the firm for incremental innovation may not be fair, especially when it comes to the way technology evolves, argues Stephen Jacobs, a computing professor at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.
There were MP3 players before the iPod, and cell phones before the iPhone, he points out.
“But you can’t argue that these were not innovative,” he says, noting that each captured world markets for several years because of the unique way they built upon existing technologies. “That’s impressive, and it influenced everything that came after,” he adds.