The backbone of any company, especially one that deals in technology, is innovation. You need to come up with better ideas than everyone else to be the best at what you do and win the hearts of your customers. Inevitably, though, companies will fall into the trap of thinking that they can simply rest upon their laurels and coast on previous successes. Some of them, like IBM, simply lose their ability to command the direction that market innovation takes. Others (I’m looking at you, SCO) “drown in a sauce of their own fail” and die a terrible and often publicly humiliating death. Apple has, in a single lawsuit, decided that they want to begin their slow death spiral to complete and total irrelevance to the technology market.
Let me take a moment to explain myself. Apple, for a long time, did a great job of driving the market in places it needed to go. The iMac, while often derided as a kiddie toy by hardcore PC users, brought a much-needed sense of style to a market dominated by the same old gray and beige boxes. The iPod single-handedly dislodged MP3 player as the word for a portable music device and became the de facto standard. iTunes defined what digital marketplaces are supposed to look like and function like. The iPhone created the concept of an easy-to-use repository of simple applications that anyone could create or download. All of these things are truly revolutionary changes to the way we use technology and we owe Apple a great big thanks for making it happen.
Lately, though, most of Apple’s products are more evolutionary than revolutionary. I don’t know if Steve Jobs has been losing his touch or if the cancer has forced him to delegate to the less capable, but none of the company’s PC products have really been more than a periodic refresh of the latest technology. The new generations of iPhones, while improved, haven’t really been compelling enough to entice everyone to upgrade ASAP. And the iPad? Aside from an unfortunate name that’s become the butt of far too many immature jokes, it’s really not much more than a really big iPhone. Apple’s biggest opportunity is in really putting something behind the Apple TV, yet they don’t seem to be willing to make that necessary investment and truly transform the emerging web video market with a subscription-based service and, heck, an extension of the app store. There’s more innovation on this set-top box from XMBC and Boxee than from Apple and that’s a big problem.
Therein lies the real issue. When a company can’t come up with any more game-changing products or ways of doing business, it tried to jealously guard its existing products and business models by any means necessary. This inevitably turns into a game of legislating or litigating success. Telecom companies are notorious for getting all kinds of regulatory special favors; their last Christmas present, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, has cost us all around $300B and growing. Now Apple, by deciding to sue HTC, has started down the same slow death spiral that so many failed companies before it have gone down.
What this is really about is Steve Jobs and his enormous ego. Google managed to out-iPhone the iPhone with the Android platform and the Nexus One handset. Apple hasn’t been beaten at its own game in quite some time, especially not with a flagship product, so this is serious egg on their face. Now, instead of realizing that they have ceded the market lead through relative inaction and only minor product updates, they want to try and stamp out the competition for doing it better. (Kind of ironic since CEO Jobs said that stealing ideas is a good thing.) Apple has admitted, in so many words, that it’s out of good ideas. That’s the sure sign it’s as good as dead.