Preamble: Software developers – before you show up with torches and pitchforks, it’s all good; the Mac Book Pro is a great development platform.
If Apple announces just a new iPad and Mac refresh, as the rumor mill has suggested it will, couldn’t the company just post it on its blog like Google did today? Rolling through all the rumors, the most promising one found on Reddit was an iPad with a keyboard and the merger of the OS X Yosemite user interface to support that keyboard. This would put the iPad in direct competition with the Microsoft Surface Pro, which elicited a very positive response from enterprises. That would be nice, but not amazing.
Apple’s super-secret culture keeps the company’s direction a mystery. It also prevents moon shot innovation. A moon shot is a Google trademark style of innovation that challenges what’s possible – high risk, novel ventures like self-driving cars, for example. Google has secrets too, but not as many, and it doesn’t just keep them to itself. Google has been testing its self-driving cars in public for a few years. Project Tango, which will give mobile devices a human-scale understanding of space and motion, is an open source project. Its source code is stored in a public repository to encourage collaboration by all, even Apple. Five of the eight robotics companies acquired by Google use and contribute to the open source Robotics Operating System (ROS). Google’s neural networks experiments, the best-known being the 16,000 CPU neural network that taught itself to recognize cats, has had a revolving door to academia, where the best computer scientists come for a while to learn and teach, cross-pollinating the research.
The products research in neural networks, Project Tango, robotics, search, smartphones and self-driving cars complement each other in a virtuous cycle of innovation. For example, robots and smartphones will use neural networks to learn the context of their environments. Neural networks also improve voice recognition and language translation.
Call it open collaboration or crowd sourcing, but open anything creates more innovation than closed. This open collaboration in software development inspired internet and smartphone innovation. For example, Facebook is built largely on open source software. Facebook continues to contribute to open source projects because, instead of funding a big team, developers from many companies contribute, improving the quantity and quality of the code produced.
This line of thinking was inspired by Open Mobile’s Richard Windsor, who said in a recent post:
“I also believe that if Apple could, it would remove all of Google’s apps from the app store.”
When it comes to technology strategy, Windsor usually shines as the smartest guy in the room. But if Apple were to boot Google’s apps, it would be a huge mistake because it would have to replace them. Remember, Apple doesn’t collaborate, so the company would all on its own have to undertake the recreation of the Google apps capabilities with which its users are familiar. And it reeks of “AOL sucks” syndrome. AOL’s meteoric growth of its proprietary walled-garden dial-up internet service business in the 1990s crashed spectacularly when the open collaboration of the internet spread from the technical community to the non-technical. When the public at large realized that there were better browsers, better search engines, better web publishing tools and email services, the exodus started. AOL was doomed because it could not keep up with the open collaboration.
Apple deserves credit for generating a lot of cash and a great balance sheet. It’s attractive to large investors who have to put large amounts of money to work and who believe that their analytics, like a miner's canary, will alert them to get out with enough time before other investors notice.
Apple makes good products too, and deserves credit. But the company hasn’t created a new product category since Jobs was at the helm. Apple led in both technology and product stability a few years ago, but competitors such as Android caught up or, in Microsoft’s case, are closing the gap. Apple’s customers buy Apple products because they find safety in the brand. They don’t want to research other technologies and don’t see learning new technology as fun.
Consumers who have something better to do than learn new technology should be credited with making the right choices that make them happy. In contrast, there are many consumers who enjoy it. They are proving that alternative products work well and spreading a positive consumer experience, similar to how the open internet spread.
If Apple just announces an iPad and a Mac (or an iPad with a keyboard and a Mac), only Apple customers will be impressed. Apple’s brand is only making incremental progress. The automotive industry makes incremental improvements every year, but the world doesn't take notice. The world anticipates the next Apple product category to follow the Mac, Macbook, iPod, iPhone, and iPad breakthroughs. To meet consumer expectations, Apple needs to introduce the computer industry equivalent of a flying car. In Google terms, Apple needs to land a moon shot.