By Killian Beeler
Earlier this month Apple announced its new iPhone models and a new device, the Apple Watch. The latter will not be available until 2015, but the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus were released on Sept. 19. The biggest change for Apple geeks and design freaks is probably the enlarged dimensions. With it, Apple continues to break away from Steve Jobs’ dogmatic view that smartphones should stay small and tablets should stay big. Instead, Apple has decided to follow in the footsteps of Samsung and embrace the ‘phablet’ phenomenon. In this fusion of the phone and the tablet, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish the dimensional features between the two.
I was a lover of Jobs before I was a lover of Apple and I have to agree with the common criticism that the quality of design in the company’s products has significantly decreased since the death of its charismatic CEO. It is tough to say whether Apple’s willingness to conform to its major competitor, Samsung, on phone size was just an unavoidable change needed or a continuation of the tech giant’s recent track record of diluting much of Jobs’ dogma into a mere book of suggestions. If Apple does continue down this path, it could lose its unique character and the principles that have won it so much consumer loyalty and set it apart from the rest of the industry. But for now, the iPhone is still aesthetically superior to anything else out on the market and is still more user-friendly than its competitors.
However, the bigger long-term issue for Apple is the problem of innovation. Under Jobs, the company thrived off of the ability to either create completely new devices or recreate ones that had previously struggled to gain mass success, such as the tablet. For much of the post-Jobs era, the question for Apple was “Where is the new game-changing device?” The Apple Watch is supposed to be the answer. I do not doubt that the watch might find initial success, but how much is this innovation actually needed? And how much of an innovation is it actually?
The question poses a deeper problem with Apple and technological innovation in general. For the most part, we have Apple to thank for all of the revolutionary mass-market tech devices of the last 15 years — the MP3 player (iPod), contemporary smartphone (iPhone) and the tablet (iPad). Other companies may have eventually caught up to Apple in the smartphone and tablet markets, but none of them have any sort of originality or ingenuity. They simply try to differ from or improve the devices Apple creates. The world waits for Apple to announce the “next big thing.” But what happens when there is no need for the “next big thing?”
This is what Dr. Donald Cowan, the influential president of the University of Dallas from 1962 to 1977 answers in the first chapter, titled “The New Age,” of his book “Unbinding Prometheus.” Writing decades before the Internet or smartphone revolutions, Cowan suggested that the “world [was] moving . . . toward information rather than goods as the exchange force that binds its international market together. The communication-handling tools will be well developed . . . and the mini-computer will be as common, even in the home, as a telephone . . . when perfected [they] will become essentially invisible . . . What I am proposing then is not an increasing tempo of technological innovation, but a decreasing one – a substantially zero growth in new devices. There will be development and improvement all along, of course, but the urge for innovation in material things will be over.”
Why the decline in innovation? Cowan points to sports to answer the question. All of our major sports (baseball, American football, basketball, hockey and soccer) developed to their current state between a period, of roughly 50 years during the 1800s. They have essentially not changed since then, Cowan says, “because the games are adequate to our desires.” We perfected the essences of the games.
I believe we are nearing that point with our mass-market tech devices. Our phones essentially encompass all of what we have strived for with the telephone, radio, TV, computer and Internet and stuck them into one nonstop access device controlled by the individual. I believe the iPhone will be seen as the second – to – last great innovative push before we reach the final one of making our devices “invisible,” as Cowan suggested. However, we are not within one, two, or three years of this next push and for the tech world that feels like an eternity. Apple needs new devices to stay ahead of its competition and what it has essentially done with the iPad and the Apple Watch (and possibly a renovated Apple TV in the future) is force the concept of the iPhone onto different types of older devices. These are distractions, part of a marketing strategy, not innovations, and the least necessary one of them so far is the Apple Watch.
Apple is turning to “wearables” because it knows there are no more innovations left to accomplish. Just as clothing has essentially not changed in nearly a century and yet that industry keeps consumers buying its products at a rapid pace by changing fashion styles every six months, so too will tech companies use the new wearables to maintain their own existence. They will continue this until we are capable of moving to the last innovation of invisible devices, when hardware will disappear.