Next Tuesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook will make the most important announcements of his tenure: the first set of major new products that won’t be largely credited to his legendary predecessor Steve Jobs.
It’s a hard act to follow. At least in the last ten years of his life, no person on the planet was more associated with innovation in computing technology than Jobs. This has led many to continually look at Apple to see if it’s falling off from prior greatness ever since his death, in part because Apple under Cook hasn’t introduced a new product category for the company, as Jobs did with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. It looks like this run without a major new product category will come to an end on Tuesday with a long-anticipated smartwatch (I was among those who have been anticipating it), as well as the new iPhone 6.
As was the case in the run-up to the original iPhone, there are a few things very different about this announcement from Apple’s usual product launches:
1. Though everyone expects the iWatch to exist, it hasn’t appeared on the internet yet; the iPhone 6, by comparison, has been assembled and started up from replacement parts in many, many leaks.
2. Apple seems to be the last company on the planet to launch a smartwatch, following Pebble, LG, Motorola, Metawatch, Basis, Fitbit, Garmin, Sony, and Samsung (6 of them in the last year).
The latter point is the most interesting (the first just shows how serious about secrecy Apple can be when it wants to), largely because it raises the question: why is everyone so interested in Apple’s watch when you can buy dozens of others in the store today? Isn’t Apple late to the party? You bet they are. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
For big innovations, that kind that adds tens of billions of dollars in annual revenue (as the iPhone and iPad have), Apple is almost always last to introduce their version. Mp3 players were around for at least 5 years before the iPod. Smartphones were rolled out more than 8 years before the iPhone. And Tablets were first shown by Microsoft in 2001, 9 years before the iPad. Heck, the original Macintosh wasn’t even Apple’s first graphical computer (that would be the Lisa), let alone the first one on the market. In each case, despite the wait, Apple’s versions of these products were the first to show the potential of the platforms.
Why does Apple do this? Because it allows Apple to let other people do some of its R&D for them, learn from the in-market failures, and then home in on the idea use cases that actually make the product worth people’s time. Ironically, Apple’s approach is very similar to the smartest thing Bill Gates has ever said, which is that the tech industry overestimates how different the world will look in two years and underestimates how different it can be in 10. This leads to unrealistic product plans in which cutting-edge technologies are expected to revolutionize everything on a short timeline. Apple understands it’s smarter to begin planning for about 10 years down the road — and maybe launch your products then — after the very first product of its kind comes to market.
Back to the smartwatch category. Guess when the first commercially available smartwatch with internet connectivity was released? That’s right. 2004.
As ever, Apple will be right on time to be fashionably late, and the new race to copy their approach will begin.