Apple’s successful launch of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus leaves people wondering if the superstar company has lost its innovative edge. The market is anxious for Apple’s next big instead of incremental improvements to existing products.
I don't believe Apple has lost its way. I say that not based on what they have or haven’t launched, but rather based on the methods they use to create new innovations. Apple is a prolific user of innovation templates, and these templates predict success.
Why are templates (or patterns) so important? For thousands of years, every day innovators have used templates in their inventions, usually without realizing. In doing so, these patterns are embedded into the products and services you see around you everyday. Think of the patterns as the DNA of a product or service. These patterns can be reapplied to anything to yield an innovative result, and this is exactly what Apple has been doing from the beginning…and will continue to do so.
These patterns were described by my co-author, Dr. Jacob Goldenberg, in his now famous research paper1, "The Voice of the Product: Templates of New Product Emergence." His research proved that highly innovative products that succeeded in the market tend to follow one of five patterns, while highly innovative unsuccessful products tend not to. In other words, using patterns gives a company a tremendous edge in innovation.
Apple has it. Let’s consider some examples.
Defying all logic, Apple took out the calling feature of its popular iPhone to create the iTouch and it sold sixty million of them. This is a classic example of the Subtraction pattern.
Apple created apps and a way for iPhone users to create their own apps and distribute them through iTunes. Using the wisdom of crowds is what we call the Task Unification pattern.
Apple launched its first iPod after seven other competitors were in the market with superior MP3 players. It was a huge success because of its simplicity and design. Then Apple subtracted the LCD display. This simplistic innovation let to the highly successful iPod Shuffle. It subtracted a component thought to be essential by the rest of the industry. It kept the rest of the product “as is” without replacing it. In doing so, it sent a powerful message to consumers: that the shuffle function was easier and more fun to use than the MP3 players crammed with features.
Apple launched the second-generation iPod Shuffle in 2006. That also proved an enormous success. The company targeted ordinary iPod owners who wanted a second, less expensive player that was “jaw droppingly small,” according to Amazon. They also believed that the Shuffle’s price and simplicity would attract new users to the Apple brand. Eventually these consumers might make a more dedicated leap to Apple products and purchase a more complex iPod or even a Macintosh computer. Indeed, many iPhone adopters came from the base of customers using the iPod. A study of iPod Shuffle users confirmed the perception of the iPod as unique and innovative. A simple subtraction of a component thought to be essential took the technology backward and moved music enjoyment forward—and changed the music-playing device world forever.
Listen to the voice of nearly Apple product and you will find all five patterns hiding within. Take the IPhone 7’s without the headphone jack. Sound familiar?
Now, that’s innovation.
1Goldenberg, Jacob and David Mazursky. "The Voice of the Product: Templates of New Product Emergence". Creativity and Innovation Management September 1999: 157-164.
People who believe that the wheel is the greatest invention ever assume two things: That it was wholly new when it was invented, and that is was so wonderful that people adopted it immediately. Historically, neither is true.
What is true is that three different types of wheels evolved over time, but none of them were as great as sliced bread.
The concept of a wheel emerged a long time ago. Archaeologists uncovered evidence that Olmec children in southern Mexico played with toy dogs on wheels 3000 years ago. But their parents never transferred the wheel idea to carts or wagons. How could anyone who understood the concept of the wheel not have used it for transportation?
Here’s why. Ancient Mexicans lacked domestic animals to hitch to a wheeled vehicle. There was no advantage over human porters. A more important question: Was the wheel such a good idea that building a toy dog on wheels should inevitably have transformed a transportation system?
Evolutionary biologists tell us that modern humans have not improved their basic store of physical or intellectual capacities for 100,000 years. So when we migrated out of Africa to people the globe, we did it without the benefit of wheels. And we kept on walking and carrying the “stuff” that George Carlin would later poke fun at on our backs for the next 90,000+ years. We could divide up our stuff into manageable loads that were light and compact enough to carry. Finally, some 10,000 years later, we started loading some of our stuff onto the backs of animals.
This solution satisfied the transportation needs of most of the world down to the invention of the internal combustion engine, even though by that time some peoples had been using wheeled vehicles for over 5000 years. But carts and wagons weren’t all that common. So long as roads were seas of mud in rainy weather people thought twice about whether to entrust their stuff to a wheeled vehicle.
Wheeled transport is not an obviously good idea. People who insist that it was truly revolutionary ignore the fact that many societies that became aware of wheeled vehicles over the centuries chose not to use them. It took so many other innovations over a long period of time to make the wheel useful.
Richard W. Bulliet is professor of history emeritus at Columbia University and author of "The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions" (Columbia University Press, January 2016).