Innovation Does Not Mean “In All Things, Be Apple”

Innovation is a strange word that has been thrown around a lot lately. Devices that are reviewed well tend to be described as innovative. Companies that do well (especially in the tech world) tend to be “innovative.” One will be hard pressed to find any tech company that doesn’t advertise it’s new tablet, phone or…well…ultrabook now, to be “innovative.” Certainly, innovation is good. It is innovation that allows companies to succeed and grow. It is innovation that brings customers not just to buy a product, but to truly enjoy it. There is a significant risk in innovation, but there if it is done well, there is significant payback.

I’ve seen a consistent trend of desiring innovation within the tech articles and reviews that I read on a daily basis. This is generally a good thing, as innovation is defined as being the “creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas.” To me, tech innovation has always referred to risky ideas or simply ideas that no one ever thought about that end up leaving a legacy of success through generations of products. Sometimes innovation can be as simple as a manufacturing process that ends up allowing parts or devices to be made cheaper without sacrificing quality. Either way, successful innovation will benefit both the OEM and the customer.

Apple gets a lot of credit for being innovative. I give them credit too. Their Macintosh computers are beautifully designed, well built, feature a lot of power and fantastic battery life. Apple computers typically have a lower set of specs for the dollar than most Windows-based computers, but for what they lack in value, they gain in reliability, build quality and premium hardware design. Their OS is simplistic and tightly controlled, which is innovative itself since it is certainly a risk every time Apple launches dramatic updates that immediately outdate older machines and software (such as the removing PowerPC based code compatibility in Lion) and yet the benefit is that most users of Macs still tout the operating system as being beautiful, easy to use, feature-packed and more secure. One can argue against such statements, but the fact is, the customers are telling the story, so there’s something to it. Apple’s innovative nature has allowed them to create the most successful smartphone in history with their first attempt. They created a new category of product now known as the tablet and despite being first to market, still lead the category so much that customers ask for “other iPads” instead of Android tablets.

Apple’s obsession with being “innovative” has allowed them a lot of success, but not always. Apple’s track record has give them a dramatically loyal fan base, however, that assumes that every product that Apple will ever put out will be innovative. And that’s where the fault lies. There is nothing wrong with Apple, but it is the mystique that surrounds Apple that I want to take issue with. It seems that over the last few years (ever since the iPhone as far as I can see), as Apple is associated with innovation, innovation has also become associated with Apple.

That association is not only dangerous for consumers who will blindly buy products without doing any research and stand by it no matter how the experience is, but it is also dangerous for OEMs who now feel compelled to copy Apple. There is a reason Apple is going after Samsung (and Android, however, Android is not really copying anything other than the idea of a touch-based, app-based OS, and ideas should not be patentable). From their Series 9 Ultrabook, to their Series 7 MacBook Pro clone, to their Galaxy S II phones (come on Samsung, one home button and two capacitive buttons? Did you really think Apple would let that obvious attempt slide?) and their Galaxy Tabs, Samsung has done everything possible to copy Apple’s hardware designs. I quietly hope that at least part of this is due to spite, but my cynical side says that it’s all a marketing ploy to make a “cheaper Apple” so that they can grab some marketshare.

Lately I’ve been ranting a lot about how much I’m tired of Ultrabooks and its for the same reason. It was surprising to me that Intel would do such a stupid thing as to take an idea directly from Apple, aka the MacBook Air, and tell Windows OEMS to do the same thing, only cheaper. Imagine my surprise (there was none by the way) when OEMs had problems doing it. Sure you have a few good copies like the Zenbook (although missing the backlit keyboard) but I was more excited by the use of Duralumin in the Series 9 because it was different. I hate the material because it’s a flexy fingerprint magnet, but still it was an attempt. Yes its still a shameless copy of the MacBook Air but at least its not a verbatim copy like the Zenbook. Despite bad reviews, the Toshiba Portege Ultrabook did exactly what Intel wanted, it made a cheaper ($500 cheaper = cheaper in all other aspects too) MacBook Air. What the Windows laptop market needs is to pull the blinds over Apple and start looking at the sky again.

So imagine my annoyance when I see this article by Casey Johnston which takes the boredom and annoyance I suffered with the Ultrabook lineup at CES 2012 and blames it on Ultrabooks not being “MacBook Air”-ish enough. I agree that Intel is being unfairly reamed by OEMs who bend Intel’s rules on what defines an Ultrabook, however, would we be happier if every single Ultrabook perfectly fit the definition? Would it not be a depressing sight to see an HP, Dell, Toshiba, ASUS, Samsung, Acer and Lenovo MacBook Air all sitting next to each other on the CES floor? Would we still compare it to the MacBook Air and conclude that the MacBook Air was the better Ultrabook? Yes we would, because the best MacBook Air is the MacBook Air. However, that also means that the HP Envy 14 Spectre is the best HP Envy 14 Spectre. The IdeaPad Yoga is the best IdeaPad Yoga.

I realize that this Johnston’s article caused me to defend the annoying lineup at CES and yes that pisses me off, but at least we saw innovation at CES this year. Johnston takes offence to the HP Envy 14 Spectre because it’s nearly 4 pounds. Yes it’s heavy if you compare it to a MacBook Air, but it’s not a MacBook Air. It’s made of freaking glass that actually improves the durability of a normally aluminum notebook. Glass is heavier than thin sheets of aluminum. Its innovative because its beautiful, powerful and durable without being a MacBook Air. You are only looking at a pound to a pound and a half difference between it and the “successful” Ultrabooks of last year. Yes it’s not as “portable” as some “ultraportables” but HP wasn’t going for the thinnest Ultrabook, they were going for the most innovative and beautiful.

Johnston also complains about the prevalence of 14” screens fitting within 13” bodies. It may be that they couldn’t get it thin enough for Intel’s 13” form factor requirements and so decided that shoving a 14” screen in a 13” body would fit the bill, qualifying for Intel’s Ultrabook funding. Yes it’s a cheap trick at fitting a rule in order to get money, but isn’t the fact that they fit a 14” screen in a 13” laptop at least a little cool? I mean, they had to actually put engineering effort into making this laptop qualify as an Ultrabook where they could have also just decided to go back to the drawing board and make a super thin Ultrabook. Wasn’t there some innovation required to achieve such a design? Maybe it’s not successful or true innovation because it’s a bit gimmicky, but it’s a start.

The final major gripe is based on the prevalence of hybrid hard drives or built in SSD caching. Hard Drives are still cheaper than SSDs. Though SSDs are getting more mainstream attention, I think many consumers are still slightly insulted at the prospect of paying more for a small amount of storage space. I, for one, think that hybrid hard drives are very innovative because even Johnston has to admit that “Their new popularity is not without reason: tests of recently released hybrid drives show they can match SSDs in many tasks, and importantly to the Ultrabook paradigm, they can match SSDs in startup times.” Hybrid hard drives can match SSDs in many tasks, and yet they cost a fraction of that which a comparable size SSD costs. Sure, as Johnston notes, “they can’t match SSDs for sustained random data access or transfer rates” but that’s why SSDs cost more. In an attempt to keep prices under $1000 (and even as low as $699), OEMs have opted toward using Hybrid hard drives because SSDs command too high of a premium for a vast majority of consumers. This is innovation at work. Hyrbid’s give customers an option so that they can choose between the highest performance and greater value.

That’s one arena where Apple’s innovation fails. They do not create value. The only “ultrabook” of their that fits Intel’s “under $1000” mark is an 11.6” MacBook Air with a paltry 2GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD. I’m sure Windows OEM makers can create something just like it for cheaper. But most will agree that the better configuration for a MacBook Air is going for at least the $1200 4GB/128GB model. For $1200 that’s still just an 11.6” screen. The entry level 13” MacBook Air (which is the form factor that Ultrabook are going after) starts at $1299. Does anyone really expect that Windows OEMs will be able to make a comparably equipped MacBook Air for $699 or even $999? They tend to do a good job at doing so, but its still incredibly difficult while still maintaining some kind of profit.

We are also ignoring the bigger picture. Over the last several years, Apple devices have become defined as the best quality, most innovative, devices. When Intel asks Windows-based OEMs to take an Apple product and make it the same but cheaper, we are asking Windows OEMs to degrade their names, consumer perception of their quality and the Windows ecosystem as a whole. When a consumer buys a Windows computer, do we really want them to do it because Windows computers are “cheaper?” Cheap implies lower price but it also implies cheap build quality, lower reliability, less powerful. Unfortunately, based on Windows computers I see today, such a description wouldn’t be far off the mark. But it doesn’t have to be. At CES this year, I saw a glimmer of hope. It was faint, but it was there. At CES 2012 we saw a little piece of the innovation that I remember that Windows OEMs used to have. Back in the days when Windows computers offered value. They were more powerful, better built, had a more robust operating system, and they also happened to be more affordable. At CES this year, I saw innovative new designs, new build materials, new uses of forgotten technologies, new technologies, all working together not to try to match Apple’s MacBook Air, but to recreate a category of device that had been captured by Apple. Maybe Intel is getting taken advantage of because of their Ultrabook fund. But that fund was designed with the explicit purpose of injecting innovation within a stale PC market. I feel that Intel’s solution forced OEMs to finally remember how to innovate. Wouldn’t that mean that Intel’s plan was at least a bit successful?

We need more of this type of innovation. It won’t be wholly successful yet, because Apple controls the culture. But just look at the chaos Android is causing for the iPhone (ironically not the iPad yet). Windows can do that too. OEMs just need to keep innovating and keep pushing the boundaries of what can and can’t be done. This is what they are good at. They just need to remember.

With the bold leap that Microsoft is making towards Windows 8, it looks like OEMs are finally ready to make bold leaps as well. I don’t hate Apple. I love what they do as a company. I’m just a sucker for options.

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1 comment
  1. Herbert said:

    I think Caseys article was mostly fine, but I won’t argue that.
    About your points:
    * using glass instead of unibody aluminum is innovative and the right direction, agreed
    but:
    * hybrid SSDs/HDs are a weak compromise for a highly mobile laptop as they keep the size and power consumption high and only speed is improved over a HD under most conditions
    * putting 14″ screens on a 13″ body is at best a small intermediary step in the right direction. Apples strength is that they almost always do complete redesigns for changed use cases and even for changed constraints (tech leaps like SSDs, fast WiFi)

    Bottom line for me is:
    If the PC makers want to stay relevant to more than the “cheapness matters” market segment, they need to copy Apples design strategy rather that their designs.
    Design for a certain use case/group of people like in case of the MBA. If a glass body or USB3 or VGA or whatever fits that target, then do it, otherwise don’t.
    Unfortunately, few companies have the resources and strategic bravery to pull this off. maybe Samsung can do it, maybe Lenovo. I won’t hold my breath.

    BTW, I switched from PCs to almost entirely Apple in 2009, should have done it earlier.
    Keep up the good work, somebody needs to push these slackers ^_^

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