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The Religion of Innovation

Enough with innovation for innovation’s sake.
March 18, 2013

BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins took a shot at Apple today, speaking to a reporter for The Australian Financial Review. While couching his statement in respectful terms–“Apple did a fantastic job in bringing touch devices to market”–Heins nonetheless suggested that Apple was lagging behind. “The user interface on the iPhone, with all due respect for what this invention was all about is now five years old,” he told the Review. Meanwhile, a series of analysts have suggested that Apple is taking too long to release its hardware updates. Charles Golvin of Forrester said that Apple’s current rate of releases is “not an adequate cadence for Apple to remain at the forefront of smartphone innovation today.”

While remaining somewhat agnostic on these specific questions–whether the iOS interface can be improved, and whether Apple is moving too slow–I want to dispute the principles underlying both statements. Technology–and the rhetoric surrounding technology–is too in love with innovation for innovation’s sake. It’s possible for an interface to reach a point beyond which innovation is no longer crucial, and it’s wise for a company to release solid updates at a slower pace rather than faulty updates quickly.

I’ve taken up this first point–that technology can sometimes reach an endpoint, beyond which further innovation is largely superfluous–before. “There’s nothing worse than a product that has reached its telos, its design endpoint,” I said in January of last year, responding to a Wall Street Journal report about TV innovation. I was being sarcastic. The television has, by and large, reached the state it needs to be in. We don’t need 3-D televisions, and while we’ll take larger, flatter, and higher-res screens, most of us don’t care to pay a premium for them. There are certainly ways to improve the television, particularly when it comes to content (see “The Gordian Knot of Television”). But the basic idea of the television–a screen that projects an image of something recorded far away–doesn’t need to change. Most TV innovations at this point are superfluous: innovation for innovation’s sake.

This isn’t to say that the iOS interface can’t be improved–it likely can, in incremental ways, though I think Apple mostly nailed it out of the gates. But personally, my own complaints with the iPhone are of a very different sort (see “I’m Going Back to my ‘Dumb’ Phone. Should You?”). Incremental hardware improvements are, of course, always welcome. But the quest to constantly renovate software and operating systems can lead to consumer disorientation at best, outright featuritis at worst.

As for the claim that Apple–or any company–is issuing releases too slowly, it actually might behoove companies to take their time and issue fewer, stronger releases. We’ve all seen the effects of a product rushed to market. Apple’s toughest PR challenges of the last few years, in fact, revolve around products that users came to feel were released too early. Such was the case with Siri, which, though largely a success upon release, disappointed some users, particularly those with accents. Apple Maps, of course, was famously released before it was truly ready.

Technology changes, evolves, and improves–as it should. But far from calling out products for failing to innovate, or calling out companies for moving slowly, I think we ought to respect the forces in technology that stay the same, and that don’t rush. Doubling down investment in what already works, and taking the time to carefully consider new releases, seem like wise policies for any company that wants to be around for the long run.

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