The Futurist: Why Apple's Good Products Are Bad For Innovation

Few—rather, no other—companies stir up the same fool’s game of me-too as Apple. I feel sort of ridiculous saying it, and perhaps sound like a bit of a fanboy, but Apple makes products that work in ways most CE products don’t. When playing with an iPod or iPhone, it’s almost easy to take for granted the fact that most things we buy just aren’t user-friendly. A top exec at Research In Motion (that would be the guys who make BlackBerrys) told me a few months back that about 30 percent of Windows Mobile phones were returned–presumably because their buyers are so frustrated with their atrocious battery life/molassis-slow processors/impossible-to-navigate GUI/propensity to freeze. I’m not sure how many iPhone buyers are returning their gadgets in frustration, but I’d guess it’s a statistically insignificant number.

In general, as the cliche goes, Apple products are known for being simple, pretty, easy-to-use, and fun. And this is exactly why they are bad for progress in the tech world.

While Apple’s gadgets are undoubtedly user friendly, that ease-of-use always comes at a price. In this case, it is a stinginess with features—video had been around on PMPs for years before the 5G iPod brought it to the masses, and no iPod has yet to include an FM reciever or voice recorder. For the most part, the mass market gets by just fine without such add-ons, as long as a product’s core functionality shines. Unfortunately, all too often, other companies try to mimick this, and end up producing under-powered Apple rip-offs that lack any sense of innovation or experimentation. Unfortunately, many companies seem to have confused “simple” with “feature-less.”

Ever since the iPod burst onto the scene, Creative, SanDisk, Archos, Microsoft, and all their other DAP-making brethren have attempted to beat Apple by giving consumers more features for less money. It obviously hasn’t worked, and the obvious response is “Why even bother?” To these companies, it must look like no matter how many bells and whistles they stuff in their players, they just can’t win. In fact, it may be that they can’t, but that doesn’t mean the public doesn’t win by them trying.

These players represent a sort of farm league for features. A typical feature cycle goes like this: A new feature pops up on one of their players, gets put through the ringer while the technology gets better, and eventually shows up on an Apple product, to much hoopla, when they are ready for prime time. In the end, Apple usually gets credit for the development of the feature, even though such credit is beyond ridiculous.

Still, this farm league is necessary for the progress of innovation—particularly as it concerns mobile gadgets. Without it, we’d likely be stuck with the same stale players for years.

So this is a call to all the Archoses and Creatives of the world: Don’t despair. Keep putting on tons of features that nobody uses. Even if they don’t boost your sales one iota, you are providing a valuable service to everybody who wants great features. And don’t worry about following Apple’s lead—leave that to Chinese iPhone cloners. Instead, worry about carving out your own niche. One day, you just might find that that niche is suddenly the mass market.

Seth Porges writes on future technology and its role in personal electronics for his column, The Futurist. It appears every Thursday and an archive of past columns is available here.