For placing the internet in the palm of our hand and unleashing a revolution in mobile software, iPhone innovation emerged. Its multi-touch user interface, first useful mobile web browser, integrated iPod music player, and mobile YouTube app made smartphones easy and resourceful enough for everyone to have. Since 2007, Apple has been releasing successive better versions, expanding the market, revenue and profit. There is no doubt that Steve’s iPhone has shown magical performance in the smartphone market. Being a latecomer Apple caused upheaval in the market, making dominant players bankrupt just within two years. More importantly, Steve did it without inventing any new technologies. Instead, Apple relied on fine-tuning and integrating half-baked existing technologies, often stretching the apparent limit. Such core competence to turn ideas into magic is often overlooked to interpreting the iPhone’s magical journey and many other Apple products. n
In writing the obituary on Steve Jobs, The Economist published a cover story in 2011 titled ‘The Magician’. This is not the first time Steve showed up as a cover photo of a significant publication. In 1982, TIME magazine first put Steve on the cover. Since then, he kept appearing as a cover story in many high-profile publications due to his iconic innovations. As stated by the economist, “he was obsessed with product design and aesthetics, and with making advanced technology simple to use.” But how did he do it? Did he alone lead the inventions of all those underlying technologies? Or, instead, was he adapting, improving, and assembling existing technologies to translate his concept of aesthetically pleasant, easy-to-use high-tech products into commercial innovations?
Overview of iPhone innovations:
iPhone fans have been speculating the emergence of the iPhone 14 in September 2022 with features like the A16 Bionic chip, a sharper new primary camera, and the possible return of Touch ID. The journey of speculating, waiting, and getting lined up at the launch event began with the iPhone’s emergence in 2007 as a combination of phone, iPod, and internet browser. Despite its appealing features, Apple did not stop there. Verry soon Apple released 3G with mobile app store, Microsoft Exchange e-mail, 3G mobile broadband, and turn-by-turn GPS navigation.
The next release 3Gs with additional features such as a video camera, digital compass (integrated with Google Maps), voice control, and copy and paste features followed up. For increasing the appeal of iPhone innovation, Apple kept releasing versions like iPhone 4, 5, 6, and 7. Some of the notable features of those versions are retina display, FaceTime video calling, Airplay, Siri, touch id, and many more.
In this journey of releasing successive versions, iPhone innovation 8 & 8 plus showed up in September 2017. It revealed wireless charging with the glass cover on the back of the iPhone. On the 10th anniversary, the iPhone X showed up with an extra front-facing camera and many other imaging features. Subsequently, iPhones 11, 12, and 13 showed up. Among many features, the iPhone 12 Pro model’s LiDAR scanning and triple-lens arrangement appear excellent. It seems that iPhone innovations over 2016-2021 have high imaging components—offered by 3rd party suppliers like Sony and Largan. But how Apple has been succeeding in releasing endless iPhone innovations is intriguing indeed.
Core strategy to show magic in iPhone innovation:
To show his magic, instead of inventing new technologies, Steve repeatedly took existing but half-formed ideas—whether mouse-driven computer or multi-touch based user interface for the smartphone. He kept fine-tuning them, often stretching the apparent limit of perfection. Through this magical capability, he triggered upheavals in computing, music, telecoms, and news business that were painful for incumbent firms; but millions of consumers welcomed it with a loud ‘oh’. His incredible attention to detail often stressed the maturity limitations of underlying technologies to create unparalleled value for customers. His focus was not just getting hands-on technologies and one after another great idea. Instead, his intense attention to meticulous details in implementing ideas pursued by fine-tuning technologies was the core strategic focus.
The genesis of iPhone innovation:
Surprisingly, Steve conceived the iPhone not to show magic to the world. Instead, it was his survival strategy to counter the invasion of the smartphone in the territory of the iPod. The year 2005, witnessed an astonishing 20 million units of iPod, accounting for 45% of its revenue from Apple. With this success, he became worried about what could mess them up. He went to the board, “ The device that can eat our lunch is the cell phone.” He imagined that cellphones equipped with cameras decimating the camera market, were about to launch an assault on the market of portable music players, dominated by the iPod.
He stated to the board of Apple, “Everyone carries a phone, so that could render the iPod unnecessary.” That realization of imminent invasion gave birth to the concept of the iPhone—3 devices in one: phone, music player, and Internet browser. To make it a preferred device for Internet browsing, he opted for the option of replacing the physical keyboard with a large screen. In the absence of the keyboard, the stylus-based inputs required two hands. But busy professionals often prefer to send a quick e-mail with one hand, as the other hand often remains occupied either carrying an office bag or holding something else. To create the single-hand-based use, he had to opt for the multi-touch-based user interface. Not only multi-touch, but he also started feeling the necessity of many other technologies to implement his ideas of developing simple, intuitively easy-to-use three-in-one gadgets.
Long journey of technology acquisition, fine-tuning, and integration
To meet the growing technology need to show magic in iPhone, Apple has been out in the market by acquiring a series of technology companies since 2005. A few of them are below:
It was one of the key technologies to create a user interface without having a keyboard or a stylus—giving birth to the necessity of having a touch screen with the ability to process multiple inputs simultaneously. This user interface technology got a new name—Multi-touch. Apple Engineers took six months to show the prototype, but it was far from Steve’s requirements. The journey of finding suitable technology took Steve to the doorsteps of FingerWorks.
In 2005, Apple bought FingerWorks and did shut down the existing business. The company’s multi-touch trackpad showed promise but was a bit primitive compared to the need for iPhone. It took more than a year’s of work to establish a keypad for dialing a phone number and a typewriter keyboard for writing an e-mail, and then all they disappear when you’re watching the video. In the absence of FingerWorks’ half-done work, iPhone’s multi-touch could have had a different success story.
High Performing Processors:
To implement some of the common touch-based gestures like “Swipe to Open” or scroll up or down, a high-performing processor was needed to support the software. Apple made several strategic acquisitions to access underlying technologies to support the creation of robust, tiny processor series: A4, A5, A5X, and A7. In 2008, Apple picked up P.A. Semiconductor, followed by Intrinsity and Passif semiconductor acquisition in 2010.
App Store Genius:
With the app store’s launch, the number of apps in the Apple store started skyrocketing. It became a nightmare for the user to find a suitable app from the mega collection. Users found that a 3rd party application from Chomp was better than Apple or Google’s built-in search engine to discover new and relevant apps. To add another feature to iPhone magic, Apple snatched up Chomp for a reported $50 million.
With the release of the iPhone 4, Apple introduced high dynamic range photography (HDR). With this feature, the user could merge multiple pictures taken at different exposures into better-looking pictures with more details. In 2010, Apple purchased a UK-based company called IMSense to augment the core technology of HDR photography. Excellent HDR techniques are available to even novice photographers to show magic with iPhones.
Upon the expiry of the contract with Google, Apple decided to build its map solution. Several technology acquisitions helped Apple to get the ball rolling. Apple bought Placebase in 2009 and Poly9 in 2010. In 2011, Apple bought 3D mapping company C3 Technologies. To overcome the very poor performance of mapping solutions, Apple bought WiFiSlam, Locationary, HopStop.com, and Embark in 2013.
Among the iPhone’s magical features, iPhoto automatically finds faces and attempts to guess who is in each photo based on previous input. Such clever face detection and photo manipulation features are due to the technology of Swedish company Polar Rose, bought by Apple in 2010.
To add a magical voice assistant feature, Apple bought Siri paying $200 million. And Apple kept developing it further with Siri’s engineering team to realize the dream of the voice-based mobile-friendly, intuitive search engine.
iPhone innovation strategy:
The review of iPhone innovation reveals several characteristics. For example, it’s innovation out of reinvention of existing smartphones. But the creative wave out of reinvention grew as a disruptive innovation as incumbent smartphone makers like Nokia, RIM, and many others could not switch. iPhone is also a radical innovation as it brought utterly different user interfaces and experiences. On the other hand, iPhone has revealed its magical power through sustaining innovation strategy. The release of successive better versions as a bust of incremental advancements has been sustaining the iPhone in the market and expanding its footprint.
iPhone’s magic is not the show of Steve’s genius mind alone. During his lifetime, he led the process, and Cook has been following since his demise. Along the way, Apple needed a set of critical technologies. And Apple’s strategy has been to pick up half-done work and keep improving it to implement the envisioned features. The process of technology acquisition, fine-tuning, and integration appears to be at the core of Steve’s magical journey. Often such a meticulous, details part of technology and innovation management we overlook from the outside; as a result, it gives the impression that innovation is about the creative spark of genius. But in the absence of careful planning of technology needs, acquiring technologies, and improving them further, great ideas often get lost in oblivion.
Due to a lack of focus on this capability, many countries and firms have failed. They failed to translate their science and technology capability into successful innovation. It’s time to have a comprehensive look to understand the process of taking ideas to market. The focus should be on fine-tuning and integrating an array of technologies. Time to get rid of perceiving the success of innovation as a single creative spark in the mind of a genius.