Apple’s crown as technology trendsetter a thing of the past?

Apple’s days as technology’s unrivaled innovation factory are over


Apple has a track record of taking not-entirely-original ideas and transforming them into something grander. Photo: Reuters
Apple has a track record of taking not-entirely-original ideas and transforming them into something grander. Photo: Reuters

Apple Inc.’s next hot product category may be...Google’s failed Glass project from 2013.

The company is considering glasses that could combine digital information with what a person sees, my Bloomberg News colleagues reported late Monday. If the idea sounds familiar, it’s because of the similarity to technology behind Pokemon Go, the hit smartphone game of 2016. It was also the aim of Google Glass, before the company now called Alphabet Inc. put that project on hold for reprogramming.

Apple’s possible foray into a similar field isn’t immediately inspiring. That’s not to say the company needs to be first in digital glasses or augmented reality—a catch-all term for technology that mixes real-world images with computerized information or digital images—to be the best. Apple has a track record of taking not-entirely-original and niche ideas and transforming them into something grander.

Apple cribbed the idea for the Macintosh from unused research at Xerox. There were digital music players before the iPod. There were smartphones before the iPhone. Tablet computers preceded the iPad. In each case, however, Apple made technology that was better, easier to use—even magical. That Apple magic turned fringe products into mainstream ones, and reshaped the trajectory of the technology industry.

That was the Steve Jobs version of Apple. After more than five years with Tim Cook at the helm, we’re still not sure if this Apple can make the leap from niche idea to world-changing technology. The first major product debut under Cook, the Apple Watch, hasn’t yet become an obvious hit. (To be fair, no other companies have found major success with wearable computers.)

More ominously for Apple, it’s no longer the technology trendsetter. Yes, Apple has brought us better smartphone cameras and fingerprint sensors, but there are more areas where it has whiffed. Cook has been saying for five years that the TV industry is broken and needs an overhaul. He was right. Now the way people watch television is being upended by Netflix Inc., by “cord cutting” and by video on smartphones. Apple is barely a participant in that transformation.

Apple is developing technology that could some day become the operating system for driverless cars, but it’s not obvious that the company has a clearer vision than Google, Baidu Inc., Uber Technologies Inc., Tesla Motors Inc. or other companies that are further ahead on autonomous driving. Apple bought Siri more than six years ago to bring voice-activated digital helpers to smartphones. Since then, Amazon.com Inc., Google and Microsoft Corp. have surged ahead.

Apple may never make digital glasses, and if it does, it won’t happen before 2018. But the technology will progress anyway. Augmented reality is what Microsoft is doing with its HoloLens headset, and that product exists. So does Pokemon Go. The parent company of Snapchat created a specialized camera built into glasses that lets people record snippets of video from what they see.

Snap Inc.’s Spectacles are no doubt less ambitious than any Apple plan for wearable computers on the face, but the point is that companies other than Apple are illuminating the path for the rest of the industry.

Cook has said that the doubling of Apple’s research-and-development spending in the past three years was in part devoted to cooking up Apple’s next big product. It certainly could use a dose of inspiration. The company just closed its first fiscal year of declining revenue since 2001. Its major products—the iPhone, iPad and Mac computers—may never return to the growth they once had.

We might look back at 2016 as a lull before a storm of ground-breaking product categories. More likely, though, Apple’s days as technology’s unrivaled innovation factory are over. Bloomberg

Gadfly’s Tim Culpan contributed to this column.

More From Livemint