Microsoft last week surprised the tech masses when the company unveiled a futuristic holographic headset called a HoloLens. The device is a prototype for the time being, but nonetheless got many folks in the tech world excited. Microsoft's own website boldly declares, "The era of holographic computing is here."
In the wake of Microsoft's uncharacteristically exciting HoloLens introduction, Engadget was compelled to ask why Apple isn't delivering in the excitement department the way they used to. Cutting to the chase, the Engadget editorial bluntly asks, "When did Apple become the boring one?"
Has Apple, in fact, become boring? Is Apple on its way towards becoming a modern day IBM, a trustworthy behemoth far removed from the epicenter of consumer innovation and excitement?
I submit that Apple today is as "boring" as it's ever been. If anything, Apple's position as a "boring" company is the result of adhering to a business philosophy rarely prized in Silicon Valley, a philosophy which values finished products that ship by the millions over unfinished futuristic prototypes which are more likely to take up space in tech blog headlines than on store shelves.
This, I contend, is a reflection of Apple's strength, not an indication that the Apple ship has veered off course.
In the fast-changing world of technology, there are no shortage of companies who dream big in their attempts to bring futuristic technologies to the masses. Google, for example, is always interested in making bold bets on eye-catching and snazzy new technologies. Amazon last year invited us to envision a world filled with messenger drones capable of autonomously delivering goods within 30 minutes of purchase. And just a few months ago, Elon Musk said that SpaceX is working on developing advanced micro-satellites that can operate in large formations and perhaps deliver low cost Internet access to the masses.
So where is Apple in all of this? Where is Apple's vision of the future? Are people really pining for a modern-day version of Knowledge Navigator?
Apple is the mid-2000s Microsoft. Its revenues are as healthy as ever, but it's become a company that seems to make things just because it has to, that doesn't take risks, that plays catch-up. The closest it's come to a really exciting announcement in recent years was the launch of a niche pro desktop PC.
Microsoft just showed the world some crazy exciting stuff. Holographic computing might not be all it's chalked up to be. HoloLens might never take off. Maybe people don't want to talk to their computers. We'll see. But Microsoft is trying to excite, or, to borrow an Apple buzzword, "delight" us all. If you're a huge tech company, you should be trying to do that every day. Apple might be trying, but it's not succeeding.
So let me get this straight: Apple should be trying to delight us with products that, from the get-go, may not be all they're cracked up to be?
Truth be told, the "Apple is boring" trope is nothing new. More often than not, such arguments tend to aggrandize vaporware and snazzy looking prototypes with limited mass appeal over technologies and products that are fully baked. Products that sell. By the tens of millions.
Apple has never been a company to open up the doors to its R&D facilities, invite the press in, and boldly declare, "Look at all the cool stuff we're working on!" Apple spends billions of dollars on R&D every single year, undoubtedly working on crazy new and futuristic technologies. Hardly a secret, we're often privy to such endeavors via Apple's numerous patent filings; 3D hologram display? Check. iPhone with a flexible, wraparound display? They've worked on it. They've even patented laptop/tablet hybrids, wearable sensor strips, and all sorts of other "out of left field" ideas.
The point here is simple: Apple doesn't dangle potentially cool technologies or products in order to tease us. It's not interested in exciting the tech elite with bold promises of a future that may never come to fruition. It's focused on one thing and one thing only: exciting consumers with products that they can buy, use, and love today.
That's been Apple's business philosophy ever since Steve Jobs returned to the company in the late 90s. It's not an objectively "better" way to do business, but it's worked exceedingly well for Apple for 18 years now. Besides, keeping a product under wraps until it's close to shipping is a valuable strategy in and of itself. Shrouding upcoming products in secrecy adds an intangible element of excitement and interest when finally introduced. What's more, revealing a product too early is an easy way for expectations to spiral out of control, setting consumers up for nothing more than utter disappointment.
In stark contrast to Apple, we have a company like Google. I think it's awesome that the company is obsessed with pushing the technological envelope. Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page is admirably hell bent on moonshots. That's great, and as a result, exciting Google headlines are never in short supply.
Just about a year ago, Google announced its smart contact lens initiative, a project designed to help diabetics measure their glucose levels via a miniaturized glucose sensors embedded in a contact lens.
How's that for a sexy headline?
It all sounds amazing until you actually dig a little bit deeper. In the wake of Google's announcement, Gigaom's Om Malik expressed his frustration with the search giant's noble project.
But after the initial excitement was over, cold reality set in. It also prompted me to ask the question: why is it that a company with such good intentions fails to ask itself very basic of questions, something a normal human being would ponder before embarking on a scientific quest?
For example, why would they ignore the fact that as a diabetes patient, it is generally recommended that I not wear contact lenses. Yes, I understand that there are many different opinions about this, but it is generally thought of as smart to not wear contact lenses, as they always carry the risk of increased complications for diabetics. And on top of that if you have say, astigmatism (like I do), then contacts are less of an option.
And here's the kicker: Apple itself has worked on ways for diabetics to monitor their glucose via non-invasive means. I have it on good authority that Apple a few years back hired some super smart engineers and scientists to explore the possibility of developing a technology capable of measuring user glucose levels via the skin. If realized, such a technology would have been a medical breakthrough of the highest order as diabetics today primarily gauge their glucose levels via drawing blood.
If Apple had announced its research in this area to the public, perhaps with a press release a'la Google, the headlines would have been overwhelmingly exciting. But again, it's simply not in Apple's DNA to let everyone know what they're working on. The point here is that Apple could easily appear more "exciting' in a heartbeat if it wanted to. The perception that Apple is "boring", I think, is merely an expressed dissatisfaction with Apple's longstanding business philosophy. And as for the glucose initiative, it was eventually scrapped after Apple realized just how technically and medically challenging it was.
Google Glass is another example of how a futuristic device can easily make for better headlines than a worthwhile product. Google Glass, as a product, quite frankly sucked. The device was unquestionably comprised of cool technologies and it was certainly impressive that Google was able to cram everything into a small form factor. But as a product people would actually want to use and derive some enjoyment from, there was nothing to suggest it could actually thrive outside of nerd circles, if even that.
Don't get me wrong, I love that there are companies out there like Google who aim for the fences and have no qualms about releasing untested prototypes into the wild. This certainly makes them an exciting company to follow, but it hardly means that Apple, in contrast, is nothing more than a boring old company slogging along while getting technologically lapped by competitors.
Funny enough, many Apple products now deemed "revolutionary" were scoffed at upon their release, the iPod being the most notable example. Following the iconic music player's introduction in October of 2001, many were quick to dismiss Apple's foray into music altogether. A MacRumors thread from that era has since taken on a life of its own, with gems such as:
I still can't believe this! All this hype for something so ridiculous! Who cares about an MP3 player? I want something new! I want them to think differently! Why oh why would they do this?! It's so wrong! It's so stupid!
Even today, exciting new advancements in iPhone functionality are either a) glossed over or b) quickly forgotten a few months down the line. Today, in 2015, millions of people, literally, unlock their smartphone by using their fingerprint. The introduction of Touch ID happened just 16 months ago! Today, untold numbers of consumers can purchase items simply by holding up their iPhone to a payment pad. Apple Pay didn't go live until this past September!
I contend that many of the technological advancements Apple has helped usher into the mainstream, from high quality mobile displays to fingerprint authentication, work so seamlessly that we often forget they're there in the first place.
Is this boring? I don't think so, but it certainly seems dull if you compare it to Microsoft's vision of the future as depicted in this 2011 video.
At the time, John Gruber wrote of Microsoft's exciting new vision for the future:
This video encapsulates everything wrong with Microsoft. Their coolest products are imaginary futuristic bullshit. Guess what, we've all seen Minority Report already. Imagine if they instead spent the effort that went into this movie on making something, you know, real, that you could actually go out and buy and use today.
Apple isn't a better company because it keeps its R&D initiatives hush hush. It's merely the reflection of a different business philosophy. Again, it's great that companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook have a propensity to dream big and are open about sharing their visions of the future. It's undoubtedly exciting. But, once again, I disagree that Apple's own philosophy makes them boring as a result.
It's also worth pointing out that Apple, as the top dog in the consumer electronics industry, doesn't have the luxury to release a few duds and keep on truckin'. Google Glass can be (read: is) a flop and it's no sweat off their back because they're primarily a search and advertising company. Microsoft's HoloLens can crash and burn and no one will bat an eye because, well, Microsoft's revenue comes from Windows and Word.
Now imagine if Apple were to come out with some type of funky prototype and declare: "This is the future!" Almost instantly, the company would be trashed in the headlines. Reflexively, pundits would scream and shout that Apple had lost its focus. Talking heads would opine that the company was prioritizing unfinished and untested technologies over products that actually generated revenue.
Then, a series of predictable headlines would read just the opposite of Engadget's: "Is Apple too focused on being exciting?"; "When did Apple lose its edge?"; "When did Apple turn into an ordinary company?"; "Is Apple's betting on the future because they can't compete in the present?"
And if further down the line, Apple's ballyhooed prototype or grandiose vision for the future failed to take shape in a timely manner, the headlines would be even more ominous.
Apple simply isn't going to go down that route.
Apple picks its shots strategically. Accordingly, the company is not prone to fads, a fact clearly evidenced by the company's aversion to the netbook craze from a few years back.
Over and above that, Apple has historically concerned itself with making products better as opposed to inventing the future, so to speak.
As Rene Ritchie of iMore wrote last week:
Apple wasn't first to music players, or phones, or tablets, or watches. The company won't be first to VR, or AR, or HUD, or TVs, or self-driving cars, or whatever else their competition is publicly workshopping at the moment. Apple will pick and choose carefully and, like the company always says, only enter the categories in which they think they can make a real difference.
In other words, Apple is going to keep on being the same old "boring" company it's always been.
Apple products today are comprised of truly incredible technologies. They were released with no public prototyping, no "look at us" press conferences held in 2011 to talk about what Apple was thinking of doing a few years down the line.
So while it's great that Amazon has its drones and Microsoft is apparently moving forward with futuristic headsets, the fact that Apple isn't prone to releasing futuristic prototypes is a reflection of the company's strength, not an indication of its weakness or penchant to be "boring."