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Apple's "incremental approach" to innovation hides in plain sight

Yoni Heisler
Yoni Heisler|@edibleapple|September 20, 2013 12:00 PM

Apple's 'incremental approach' to innovation hides in plain sight

There's a great line from the exceptionally addicting television series Breaking Bad where drug kingpin Gus Fring explains why he humbly runs a fast food chicken restaurant and even donates to police related causes.

"I hide in plain sight," he says.

So too does Apple's innovation hide from the critical eyes of analysts and investors who reacted to Apple's iPhone announcements with a collective sigh. For reasons that defy explanation, Apple alone is seemingly held up to a standard of innovation that no company could ever live up to.

So like clockwork, Apple's iPhone announcements last week were followed by the same tired arguments about how the company has lost its luster, and rather bizarrely, how the company needs to innovate faster.

While the flaws in these commonly levied assertions have been pointed out time and time again, Glen Fleishman recently addressed the issue in an insightful article that's worth reading in its entirety.

Responding to claims that Apple's iPhone announcements lacked pizazz, Fleishman writes:

My reply is that Apple makes its living through punctuated equilibrium, not through disruption. Revolutions are hard; small but significant improvements are far easier. The all-in-one iMac, the MacBook Air, the iPod, the iPhone, and iPad all changed the way in which the entire industry created similar products.

Those were released at years-long intervals, not every year.

The reality is that products like the iPhone simply don't come around every single year, or even every 4 years. If they did, they wouldn't be as revolutionary and groundbreaking when launched.

With that in mind, Fleishman astutely points out that while not every product Apple releases is revolutionary, many of Apple's design choices go on to have widespread influence on the tech industry at large.

These innovations, like Gus Fring, often hide in plain sight.

Starting with the iMac, Fleishman writes:

Floppy drives hung on, but USB quickly became much more widely adopted because peripheral makers created stuff for Macs that could also be used with Windows systems. All-in-one designs became de rigueur. The MacBook Air, after being ridiculed and after necessary improvements in various features, became the model for "ultrabooks," a category into which Intel poured hundreds of millions of dollars to help PC makers produce their own versions with varying levels of success.

More often than not, industry-wide changes prompted by Apple aren't readily apparent at the outset, but with the benefit of hindsight, Apple's influence is obvious and far-reaching. The technology used in Apple's products is typically not new, but the implementation is routinely best in class; and that's when competitors really start to take notice and industry-wide change can be affected.

The iPhone serves as a perfect example. Initially mocked by tech pundits for not having a QWERTY keyboard, capacitive touchscreens are now ubiquitous. It's hardly a coincidence that the one company that blindly tried to keep QWERTY keyboards alive -- RIM -- is floundering.

Apple approaches innovation methodically, slowly but surely adding value and features to its product line. Each new feature by itself may not seem like much, but over time, as we take a step back and look at these features as a whole, the subtle flair of Apple's innovation prowess becomes apparent.

So how does this relate back to the iPhone 5s?

Well, as some critics bemoan the fact that it's not a revolutionary new product, there are a bevy of notable new features and improvements that, taken together, make the iPhone 5s an absolutely impressive device.

Fleishman writes:

But the 5s has just enough to be interesting: the new camera features are intriguing (slow-mo, burst mode, auto-selection of "best" shots, bigger individual sensors and thus better low-light shots, bigger maximum aperture, two-color LED flash mixing), the fingerprint sensor sounds like a way to get security and avoid irritation, and one wants to wait and see what happens with a 64-bit processor and the separate motion processor.

Toss in iOS 7, the potential for iBeacons and MFi controllers and more, and there's a whole lot of innovation bubbling underneath the surface.

So yes, Apple's annual iPhone upgrades in and of themselves may not be revolutionary, but the hardware and software improvements Apple has implemented over time are extremely impressive. Even the leap from the iPhone 4s (a product that's not even two years old) to the iPhone 5s is astounding.

Daring Fireball's John Gruber astutely pointed out recently that "innovation is missed by most people because it is so often incremental."

Indeed, look at how quickly camera quality on the iPhone, for instance, has improved in just a few years.

As a final point, a quote from Apple Senior VP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi in a USA Today interview perfectly illustrates how Apple's innovations, again, hide in plain sight. Oh they exist alright, but because Apple takes pains to make sure the user experience is as seamless and simple as possible, sometimes you may not even pay it any mind.

Talking about the new Touch ID on the iPhone 5s, Federighi is enthused:

"This right here is what I love about Apple, this incredibly sophisticated powerful technology that you're almost not aware of, it absolutely blows me away," he says. "You can't get this without working cross-functionally."

Federighi is quick to admit that any engineer tasked with such a challenge would be sure to call attention to his brilliant work. "You know, you're going to have some big message saying 'Scanning!' and buzz-buzz-zzz-zzz later it says 'Authenticated,' blink-blink-blink, with 10 seconds of animation," he says, as Ive starts laughing.

"Ultimately we realized all that had to disappear," says Federighi. "If it disappears, we know we've done it."