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A New New New Thing?

There is no magic innovation room.

There’s an inevitable news cycle around Apple events: The company launches something, like the iPhone 7, building on or deeply integrated with their existing incredibly successful product line. People in the media then write about how it’s just not that exciting — that Apple has lost its way, or its shine, or its luster. Or how the latest product is not a “game changer” —

“Overall, we thought that the phone was an improvement over previous models, but not a game changer that will reignite a significant upgrade cycle,” Deutsche Bank analyst Sherri Scribner wrote in a note.

And then someone else in the media writes, hey, hold on a minute, what about how Apple continues to sell tons of products and basically prints money. Then someone else brings up the amount of time it takes to build self-driving cars — except —

In a retrenchment of one of its most ambitious initiatives, Apple has shuttered parts of its self-driving car project and laid off dozens of employees, according to three people briefed on the move who were not allowed to speak about it publicly.


The iPhone 7 is, come now, an extraordinary work of engineering. Jony Ive told us so, as he read the entire periodic table of elements over video of a spinning phone. Yet no one except Verge readers cares that much about an iPhone’s bits. Everyone was briefly able to muster an opinion about the headphone jack, but now Hillary Clinton has pneumonia and we’ve moved on. It’s just a phone.

There’s an odd public assumption that seems to go: There is a magic room called “Innovation” at Apple and Steve Jobs was buried with its key. But there is no magic innovation room anywhere in the world, despite claims to the contrary. There’s just more business and every now and then someone just knocks one out of the park.

It’s worth considering the iPhone in context, when it launched:

  1. It is a new product, but in a familiar category…
  2. That comes on the heels of other wildly successful consumer products, namely the iPod family…
  3. That has novel hardware and software, and the initial experience of using it — -which requires no learning curve — is novel, too…
  4. That passes the Clarke test. It’s indistinguishable from magic, at least for the first five minutes…
  5. That can tap into a huge, pre-built global communications network that phone companies maintain and support…
  6. That can take advantage of global manufacturing pipelines, and is small and cheap to ship, and…
  7. That builds on a software development kit that already exists and is understood and already widely distributed (which led to the demand for non-Apple apps, which led to the app store)…
  8. That is expensive enough to have good margins but cheap enough that hundreds of millions of people have the means to acquire it.

Money and resources and talent aren’t enough. Google Glass tried like hell to pull off another iPhone —to build and create a whole new product category—but no dice. If you read the history of the Edsel you find that Ford Motor thought they’d changed cars forever; they teased it in ads for a year. It was a total failure.

So what is the big new thing? The Internet of Things? Augmented reality? Voice and chat interfaces? Virtual reality? Or, yes, self-driving cars? (Self-driving cars are fascinating—but it’s a new category and so Apple’s legendary “simplicity” wouldn’t be comparable to anything else. You can’t be simple if you’re first.)

It’s weird how people keep looking to one giant company to fulfill some sort of impossible-to-articulate (but urgent!) shared techno-fantasy. Apple is trying to innovate as hard as it can, because it likes being enormous and profitable and sucking all the air out of the room. It just announced headphones that stick in your ears and run for hours without even being recharged! Frankly, at this stage of its growth, it’s actually more likely to make the next Edsel than the next Volkswagen Beetle. Also: So nearly 50 times more iPhones have been sold than Beetles.

The iOS-powered explosion of shareholder value and user passion probably won’t happen again, and if it does, it probably won’t be from Apple. Of course Apple will tell you different, because why wouldn’t they? And I love big new things a whole lot, but it’s time for everyone to stop hoping that one giant company will satisfy the consumer need for awe.

Story published on Sep 12, 2016.