Invention & Innovation: They’re Different

Apple’s first iPhone was genuinely innovative. They really didn’t invent much: there were already phones that surfed the web, handled email and text messages, and made calls. Even the original iPhone announcement announced Apple was releasing all three in one device. Great, but really not much of an invention.

Sales of that first phone were lackluster. Enthusiasts famously lined up on opening day but ordinary users were frustrated because the first version of the phone, a handheld computer, did not include the ability to add software. Hackers quickly solved that problem, releasing software to “jailbreak” a phone and add apps. Apple saw where that was heading – into a complete loss of control – and responded by creating the app store about a year later. With third-party apps sales skyrocketed.

Despite the hype the original iPhone wasn’t much of an invention nor an innovation. It was a well executed product not dissimilar to what others had. The app store, on the other hand, was an innovation; something very different. Before the app store there was an expectation that users could install whatever they wanted on their computer after purchase.

While the notion of allowing anybody who had purchased an expensive device to install whatever they pleased sounds reasonable more often than not what they’d install were viruses, malicious advertising software, and other malware designed to wreck havoc. Even when users installed benign software the user experience was oftentimes awful.

Apple’s app store balanced these competing needs of openness and quality. All software was carefully vetted for usability, utility, and malware. Even if an app containing a virus managed to sneak through Apple’s vetting process it could quickly and easily be recalled. There are no virus scanning programs for iPhone’s and there will never be a need for one. Further, most apps range in quality from acceptable to great. Those that stink can be quickly discarded with no worries that they might be difficult or impossible to uninstall or leave behind a mess.

By dramatically reducing the ability to install anything on iOS, the iPhone/iPad operating system, Apple innovated an enormous amount of customer value. To this day some in the digital world resent the control Apple exercises but most people don’t care: there are millions of apps that do almost anything imaginable. Many are free and the rest are low-cost; none of them contain viruses, adware, or anything else to foul the user experience.

The iPhone represents invention. It’s great. It sold OK. But the app store represents innovation; after the app store there was no turning back.

So many businesses waste time, money, and lose focus inventing. Sometimes those inventions do well but it’s often in niche products. Reusing components of somebody else’s invention in a new way – innovating – is where real blockbuster businesses often come from.

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