Monthly Archives: September 2016

Innovation is often in the details

I recently decided to switch from AT&T to Sprint because I can get a good bit more data. It was this decision which led me into a nearby Sprint store which led to the store employee asking me about my use of the iPhone. He uses Android. My take on it is, eh, whatever. I don't care what platform other people use. Use what floats your boat. iOS, Android, hand-made paper, stone tablet, whatever. In any case, as we chatted he suggested that Apple's not been very innovative in recent years. It's something I've heard recently… or rather, read recently. Plenty of times. Mostly I just shrug and giggle. There are more important things to worry about (climate change being the top of my list). That said, I am also a geek, so I do have a few thoughts not just on Apple devices and innovation but also on the ease with which we form opinions often without little knowledge or understanding of a situation or technology.

I've not used a new iPhone 7 but from what I've seen and read, it is a solid technological upgrade with a nearly identical shell. So, to deal with the shell first, I'm an adult and I just don't see the need for a change every year or other year or even every three years. Change for change's sake does not interest me much. Frankly I think that speaks to a kind of immaturity, a kind of insecurity. It demonstrates a surface level desire for the new rather than a deeper, thoughtful appreciation and respect for the work that goes into something artfully designed. It's an expression of a society that is never happy with what it has, never satisfied, always greedy for the next new thing whether it is an improvement or not.

But beyond the I agree with the sentiment that I'm seeing around which is that the iPhone design has become iconic. Ben Bajarin's latest, The Benchmark iPhone 7 Plus is just one example of such sentiment.

Excellent, beautiful design, should stand the test of time. A well designed device should last awhile not need replacing every year or other year. That speaks to a throw away culture, plastic forks and paper plates. I've got a 2012 Mac Mini that I will use until it no longer functions. It is has, to my eyes, a simple and beautiful design. It sits quietly on a shelf of my standing desk and does what I need it to do. My iPad Air 2 is the same story except that it resides near me, be it on the futon or at the library or wherever. Same for the iPhone.

In my eyes the outer shell of the current iPhone is close to perfect. They changed up the design enough to make it water proof and that's a fantastic new feature even if it still looks the same (new color options notwithstanding). Internally they've built an entirely new camera system, processors, taptic engine and more. There's nothing about this iPhone that is the same. These are the changes that matter the most in terms of what the iPhone can be in terms of a functional, useful tool. The only way to look at this current device or the evolution of this device and come away with the idea that it demonstrates a lack of innovation is to look at it with your eyes closed. Such a statement demonstrates a shallowness of perception and a lack of effort of in observation. From the cameras to the processors to a host of other components, the iPhone is an excellent example of thoughtful iteration of design and it's in the details of the evolution that one will find the innovation.

I'd say that's it's not just the iPhone or iPad which demonstrate such innovation but equally important is the evolution of iOS as well. Again, it is a iterative process. Some years the "innovation" is more user facing, other years it is foundational. But it is there. Innovation is not just shiny new device categories. In the case of the iPad Pro and Pencil it can certainly be said that the Pencil, as an accessory, is innovative in the details of the implementation. By all accounts there's never been a stylus like it before and that's because of the details of the software and hardware engineering of both Pencil and iPad.

In the case of iOS and the Apple ecosystem I'd suggest that one innovation that adds to the delight and usefulness of the hardware is the communication between devices. Whether it is the hand off between device clipboards that is a new feature in 2016 or the handoff off app tasks that came on board in iOS 8 or the upcoming handoff that will allow the new AirPods to seamlessly move from device to device as the user moves from device to device. I can easily imagine starting a podcast on my Mac Mini. Half way through the dog goes to the door to let me know he needs a walk so I pickup my iPhone and see the handoff icon for the podcast app in the corner. I push the icon up and after unlocking the phone with my thumb the audio seamlessly switches to the iPhone and continues playing through the AirPods as I move from one device to the next. That is the kind of software/hardware innovation that Apple excels at and it makes for a delightful user experience.

Everyone has an opinion as they are easy to have, but few of us are ever aware of the details. Whether it is the details of the engineering of Apple's latest release or the detail of a probe sent into the solar system by NASA, engineering is all about the details. It's probably safe to say that while most of us are generally unaware of those details we are very good at enjoying the experience that they provide. We are good at taking for granted the innovation and the science involved in the technology that surrounds us. All of this to say that it's easy to sound silly when we express opinions often based on little to no understanding of the details of the technology and process.