Friday, September 22, 2017

Features vs. Innovation

I want to spend a couple of minutes talking about innovation and features. For the most part, Apple is focused on innovation. They add new functionality to products (like the dual cameras on the iPhone 7 and 8 plus, and the iPhone X). This is not to say that this functionality didn't exist before. But typically, Apple takes a different tact than others, and thinks about the value a feature can bring to a product from a systemic view.

The dual cameras was a feature which existed before on other handsets. It was used for various things, such as black and white photography and zoom effects. But it is important to note here that these are just features. They are not baked into the DNA of the product at a system level. That is often up to the Android developers to add this functionality.

As a further example, I have written about Apple's depth sensing technology. It is innovative, not because it didn't exist before, but it is so integral to the OS that developers can leverage it in new and exciting ways. Apple makes it easy for them to do this. Who knows what interesting Apps we will see in a years time that will use this functionality. This is not true of other handsets that have not thought system-wide about a new feature. Dual Cameras on an Android phone is an island. It is for taking pictures.

I think a lot of people confuse innovation with features. Features are new things that are added to a device, which may or may not extend functionality in integral ways that move the product significantly beyond where it was before. Innovation does just that - it is a point of inflection where it is clear that what came before is now hopelessly outdated. The touchscreen on the original iPhone is such an example. I think the depth sensing and AR are examples on Apple's newest phones and OS 11 are as well, simply because Apple has an integration between software and hardware that Android phone manufactures don't have. It is not that they can offer features that are innovative (sometimes they do), but it is harder to do so.

I have written in the past about Samsung and Apple, two very different companies that both make highly regarded handsets. Samsung often adds features (such as the curved display of the Edge), and sometimes innovates. So does Apple. But I think this comes from a different place for both companies. Samsung makes washing machines, refrigerators, Televisions and Cell Phones. They are often thinking about product differentiation in a crowded market. Apple sometimes thinks the same way, but more often than not, they don't. They come from a more solid design discipline, where you are always thinking about extending functionality in ways that don't just make the product different, but extend the capability in fundamental ways. Adding cellular to the Apple watch was an obvious thing to do, but what it really does is significantly extend functionality in ways that will continually delight it's users, such as Apple music integration. While it is indeed a new feature, it is also a moment of inflection that now makes what came before, including previous smart watches from Samsung, Apple and others, now outdated. It is the true rise of the wearable computer.

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