“Over the past decade, we’ve pushed forth with innovation, after innovation, after innovation,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said as he described the 10-year history of the iPhone in Apple’s brand-new Steve Jobs theater, at its new Apple Park headquarters in California. He’s right. More than any other company, Apple has defined the modern smartphone. It pulled the rug out from companies like BlackBerry and Nokia in 2007, and has added new features like clockwork each year. That brings us to 2017 and the iPhone X, a phone that scans your face, wirelessly charges, and has a screen that curves around every inch of its own glossy, glass face.
As Cook boldly declared that the iPhone X will define the next decade of smartphones, I realized that’s not just bluster. He’s probably right. For a decade now, Apple has pushed forth with “innovation after innovation after innovation,” mostly unopposed. It’s difficult to imagine this changing in the next 10 years. Anything can happen, but no other smartphone company currently looks poised to dethrone Apple anytime soon. When you think about it, that’s sad.
Apple’s magic sauce is that it doesn’t let competition get under its skin. It’s choosey about the tech innovations it picks for its devices, and artfully creates use cases for all of them.
But as expertly crafted as Apple products are, the company also has slow, predictable annual release cycles (or longer) that competitors can rely on to try and gain an edge, and it often waits two or more years to unveil a truly new product design. On paper, winning over Apple users looks easy; yet no company seems able to do it. Instead of Android phone makers speeding up Apple, it has slowed the rest of them down. The whole industry now follows its slow, plodding pace of innovation. Why can’t any of them rise to the challenge?
Samsung could have made the iPhone X
Take Samsung, for example. Why didn’t Samsung, Apple’s biggest smartphone competitor, debut the first completely edge-to-edge screen on one of its Galaxy phones? It had the technology. Samsung is the company manufacturing Apple’s new OLED iPhone X screen, which curves and takes up the entire front face of the phone. Somehow, it hasn’t yet pulled off this trick on its own phones. It got close with the Galaxy S8 and Note 8, likely because it knew what direction Apple was headed, but no cigar. (Andy Rubin’s Essential phone was also a near miss – it had a cut out up top, but just didn’t go far enough.)
Apple’s screen gives you an actual ‘wow’ moment when you look at it. It appears magical. The edges on the iPhone X screen are so rounded that they look like science fiction, and the curved cutout for the camera up top only enhances the effect. Apple has shattered the notion that phone screens must be perfectly rectangular. But it’s not like the technology for edge-to-edge screens is new. Hell, we were reviewing Sharp phones in 2014 with similar “bezel-less” technology. Apple just shaved off the corners, but by going that extra distance – by boldly taking it to the limit — it really set itself apart.
Samsung has taken it to the limit too, at times. Its biggest successes have come from lucky bold stances it took and stuck with, like its curved edge screens or the Galaxy Note line, which made big phones desirable. The Note led to enough market push that even Apple had to react to it. Sadly, Samsung doesn’t stick to its guns. It has its moments, but its focus and discipline wavers. Competition gets under Samsung’s skin. It is often noncommittal and flippant with its phone innovations, or relentlessly shotguns them out, not putting its true weight behind ideas. It often follows, rarely leads.
And yes, a company like Samsung can actually beat Apple to the market and still be a follower. Many phone makers study the many rumors that pop up online, and in the corporate and manufacturing worlds there are even more backchannels for companies to find out what Apple has cooking, months or years before those products hit shelves. But beating Apple to market doesn’t work unless you also make a much better, different product. That’s where competitors struggle. You likely can’t beat Apple by mimicking its design choices.
Apple creates fun reasons for features to exist
Let’s go back to the iPhone X again. It shouldn’t be the phone that makes facial recognition a thing on smartphones. Samsung also debuted an ‘Iris Scanner’ last year, but it didn’t put its weight behind the feature or perfect it enough to make it essential. Samsung’s Galaxy S8 Iris Scanner is easily fooled by a simple photograph. Apple is making it look silly by rolling out a version that’s actually secure. In its presentation, it showed how much thought it put into the feature by specifically spelling out how photographs, masks, and other tricks won’t fool its 3D depth-sensing Face ID. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, but judging from Apple’s track record, Face ID will probably work as advertised.
Facial recognition tech has floated around for years, yet no one else spent the time to nail it. All Apple had to do was present it onstage like it’s a big deal and show us how it makes the iPhone more secure and easier to use. Now even I can’t wait to use it. As a bonus, Apple even added facial-tracking Animojis. Yet another small delight that came from Face ID.
Apple played the same game with Touch ID fingerprint sensors in 2013. Fingerprint sensors fluttered around in laptops and some phones, like the Moto Atrix and old Windows Mobile devices, for years. Apple made them essential by stuffing one into the iPhone 5S and every iPhone/iPad since. It gave the tech two thought-out purposes (unlocking and buying things) and integrated it deeply into the iPhone, just as it’s done with Face ID. Within a month of Touch ID debuting, HTC had a phone with a crappier, insecure fingerprint sensor, and Samsung sloppily added the feature to its next flagship phone (the Galaxy S5). Somehow, neither of them took the time to make it work for their users.
The iPhone X also added wireless charging, a ‘meh’ feature Samsung and select phone makers have included for years, but it’s upping the ante, releasing a single wireless charging pad that you can plop a couple iPhones and Apple Watches down on, eliminating the mess of cords you may have on your nightstand or desk.
Finally, look back at the double rear cameras that debuted on the iPhone 7 Plus — another feature many devices have. LG at least tried to make its dual cameras useful by enabling wide angle shots, but only Apple thought to include a beautiful, simple background blurring ‘bokeh’ effect for portraits and use the second camera to let users 2x optical zoom. There is now a real benefit to the camera on the iPhone 7 Plus, and a story to tell. It’s sad that only Apple succeeded in giving that second camera meaning and purpose.
All Apple does is give these technologies useful, thought-out purposes. Why is that such a hard thing for competitors to pick up on?
A graveyard of good ideas
Apple’s competitors have given up on many promising ideas because they didn’t boost quarterly profits fast enough or work out immediately. Modular phone designs, LG’s G5 mods and “Friends,” HTC’s amazing Boomsound speakers, Nokia’s incredible 41-megapixel camera … these are just a few game-changing features that sunk because they weren’t part of a fantastic overall package or weren’t given a use case where they could shine.
Apple is the only company that seems able to introduce new device categories, too. Despite years of effort, Google failed with its Glass eyewear and augmented reality (it’s now trying again). Now Apple seems poised to jump in and make it a feature people actually want with iOS 11.
You could fill a graveyard with all the tablets and smartwatches that tried to compete with the iPad and Apple Watch. Android makers knew Apple was making a watch for four years before it came out, and began releasing them more than a year before it, yet they still struggle to showcase the appeal of a smartwatch. Meanwhile, Apple’s Watch is now the top selling wristwatch in the world.
Did Apple have to be the first major tech company to introduce fully wireless, working earbuds (AirPods)? The tech was there, but only Apple put in the time to make it work and focus on it. It was even willing to eliminate its own audio jack on the iPhone 7 to push this, and other innovations, forward – despite blowback from its own users. And it’s stuck with its decision. There are no audio jacks on the iPhone 8 or iPhone X phones this year. That commitment has given it an 85 percent market share in the growing wireless headphone market a year later, and hasn’t impacted iPhone sales much, if at all.
It’s baffling that no iPhone competitors have figured out a long-term vision strong enough to give Apple a run for its money.
Companies can beat Apple, if they stop playing by its rules
Apple isn’t invincible. There are cracks in its armor. Just look at Spotify, which is the reason Apple Music exists, or Amazon’s Echo smart speaker, which has become so popular that Apple plans to counter it with a late-to-the-game HomePod speaker. Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is slowly becoming ubiquitous while Siri, the smart assistant that started it all, is fading away, directionless. With Alexa, Amazon pulled an Apple, and we’re all winning because of it. Apple is likely working on much-needed upgrades to its voice assistant in response, which will benefit everyone.
Amazon is quickly becoming a powerful voice in devices, and is beginning to shape the smart home of the future. It’s not wasting time kicking rocks around, waiting for Apple to do it first. It’s showing leadership, commitment, and vision. (Let’s just hope it thinks through its next Fire Phone, should it get the urge to try again.) Roku is another great company that has pushed forward its vision while Apple has neglected the Apple TV, which just got its first update in two years.
When he was done showing off the iPhone X, Tim Cook also quoted a Wayne Gretzky motto Steve Jobs loved to repeat: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” Apple has long followed this motto, but it skates a lot harder and a lot faster when it’s on the ice with skilled players. In the mobile space, it hardly needs to think about the puck, because it’s already scoring most of the goals.
I look forward to the day when more of Apple’s rivals start skating to where the puck is going to be, and push that puck of innovation their own direction.