Apple: Bringing You the Innovations of Others Time and Time Again

by Chris Seibold Sep 13, 2005

Sometimes greater concepts can be gleaned by first looking inside our own psyches. Hence at this point it is time for an exercise that involves a small bit of personal introspection. To fully understand the nature of innovation versus refinement you must ask yourself one question: Do I like ranch dressing? If your answer was “yes” then hopefully today’s column will be of interest. If your answer was of a more negative bent then your time will probably be better spent attempting to win a Mac Mini by posting in the forums.

Presumably all readers left at this point are fans of Ranch Dressing and won’t mind a retelling of the lore of salad toppers in order to illustrate a more Apple specific point. Ranch Dressing was invented at, surprisingly, a ranch known as Hidden Valley. While producing dressing was not the stated goal of the ranch enough visitors liked the stuff that there was soon a regional market for the buttermilk mayonnaise concoction. Clorox (bleach maker and foodstuff provider? An obviously symbiotic relationship) purchased the rights and recipe to the beloved dressing and spent ten years trying to bottle the amalgamation in order to appeal the broader market. The rub was that the product was not stable. The one way, it was felt, to make the product long lasting was to increase the acidity. This had the unfortunate side effect of impacting the taste in a decidedly negative manner. But consumers want their dressings pre-mixed so the acidity was left high and the product was shipped. This is the moment where things get interesting: even with a compromised taste the dressing soon became the best selling salad dressing on the market. It turns out that only a very few people had actually tasted Ranch Dressing the way it was supposed to be prepared so they had no frame of reference for the more acrid tasting version. In short Clorox had taken a relatively unknown product, made it inherently worse in the taste department, yet managed to give the consumer something they had never had before: a convenient manner to purchase Ranch Dressing. One would hardly call making a dressing taste worse innovation but it was the refinement of bottling that resulted in the ranch flavored world we see around us.

Apple follows in the footsteps of Clorox more often than most people would like to admit. In fact an examination of Apple’s supposed recent “innovations” reveals that the large majority of the time Apple merely refines products rather than actually coming up with new ideas. That notion might seem heretical in some circles where Apple is regarded as the only company truly capable of innovation but it, nonetheless, remains the truth. Honestly it is hard to find an example where Apple actually comes up with a new idea, instead we are faced with a reality where Apple refines a product to conform to the taste of the consumer. Apple may make something sleeker, easier to use, or more appealing but very rarely do they generate an entirely new product.

Update: Every time you see iMovie think Final Cut. iMovie was written gorund up, Final Cut was not. My apologies to the minds behind iMovie.
iMovie fits the analogy of Ranch Dressing the best. When iMovie version 1 was revealed people hailed it as a major breakthrough and an incredible innovation (I was among the loudest proponents) but the truth is that iMovie was fairly pathetic when first introduced, it only seemed great because the vast majority of computer users had nothing to measure iMovie against. The similarities don’t stop there. Not only was the original iMovie limited it was also a program based on an application conceived outside of Apple. The Cupertino giant did not invent iMovie they merely purchased an existing program and polished to a point where the masses would fall in love. Far from being the exception to the rule this is the norm.

Of course other examples abound. The GUI was first implemented by Xerox and made useable by Apple. The ubiquitous iPod was not the first digital audio player to market but it was the first digital audio player that was ready for mass consumption. Pick ten Apple “innovations” at random and it is likely nine of them will have been implemented first by others and merely refined for the consumer by Apple. Why even he amazingly cool iPod nano is not really that innovative. The concept of a flash based music player with a screen has been around for quite a few years. As much as many like to think of Apple as a company where innovation happens with enviable regularity it is closer to reality to note that Apple is one of the more talented companies when it comes to picking what the end user actually desires and delivering the concept in a palatable manner.

Surely someone will think that noting the obvious is somehow derogatory. Our society places a high value on innovation and those that bring us the latest and greatest gadgets are held in high esteem. Those that are perceived as merely implementing features others have invented are regarded as money-grubbing poachers willing to steal others inspiration just to cram a few dollars in the overstuffed coffers. Partly this is due to the concept of the American Dream where the underdog can invent something useful and retire to their own island in the Caribbean and partly because it is seen as a failure if a company misses out on some vital, and post introduction, obvious feature. This notion discounts the valuable work a company does by taking a concept that is simply going nowhere and presenting the idea in a manner that the public at large will understand and embrace.

Using the iPod as our working example (yet again) we remember that Apple didn’t invent the mp3 player or even come up with the iPod concept. In fact that honor goes to Tony Fadell. When Mr. Fadell approached Apple after being rebuffed by a few other companies Appe saw the promise and jumped on board. The story is long (though not uninteresting) but in the end what you have is a product conceived by someone outside of Apple, designed with a heavy dose of Jobsian input and then released to the public. This realization might seem to serve as a dampening event for the enthusiasm some people feel for everything Apple. Remember though that the iPod brings a lot of joy to a large number of people (not just Apple shareholders). Without Apple buying into the concept and promoting the iPod the majority of people would be without the seeming glee the iPod brings them. So one is forced to ask a question. Which is really more important: coming up with a new idea no one knows about or spotting the diamond in a field of coal? The answer is, obviously, the ability to take the unknown and present it in a pleasing fashion. After all an invention, no matter how cool, that remains relegated to the backwater of public consciousness does very little good. Apple may not be the fount of innovation people seem to think they are but they still provide a service other companies seem to be unable to master and that is more than enough reason to celebrate the folks in Cupertino.



  • yeah, I guess this article is proof of concept.  The story about Clorox just appeared 2 weeks ago in the New Yorker’s food issue in an article about creating the perfect cookie.  Granted, that story might be pretty well known to people in the product development arena, but it’s quite a coincidence to see it used twice in under a month…

    Personally I like to thing about Apple’s inovations in the framework of this famous quote: “good artists copy, great artist’s steal”. Apple’s ability to make the difficult seem easy, to take the obscure and make it accessible to the many, is as valid an innovation as creating the object in the first place.

    domarch had this to say on Sep 13, 2005 Posts: 12
  • Horrible comparison. It only works if Apple had taken others innovations and screwed them up. It hasn’t. Indeed, in every case, it’s greatly improved the technology. That counts as innovation, IMMHO. And the sales bares that out.

    breuklen had this to say on Sep 13, 2005 Posts: 31
  • Well breuklen that is kind of the point, Clorox didn’t really screw up ranch dessing. They changed it in a way which consumers found appealing (by bottling). I like ranch dressinng but I’m not going to keep a gallon of buttermilk around just to mix the stuff up. Sales bear the change out to be a very good one.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Sep 13, 2005 Posts: 354
  • Of course domarch I work in a complete vacuum so anything I write is completely original. While the Clorox story did appear in The New Yorker a few weeks back it is also on the web in various incarnations hence it is likely the person who wrote the article for The New Yorker read it elsewhere. (For the record the article was about designing cookies in three different ways one of the being the Linux model).

    I thought it was a nice way to illustrate a point. Your quote about artists is appropros. I think your last line sums up the article nicely.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Sep 13, 2005 Posts: 354
  • With all due respect to the writer, I think this whole article is based on a misconseption. The very deffinition of “innovate” is to “make changes in something established”. So by deffinition Apple does innovate more frequenty than stated in this article. Was the iPod nano new? Heck no, but they made enormous changes (metaphorically). I am not a “zealot” but I do get frequently annoyed with the increasing “reality-show-judge” mentallity that has to chew up talent and spit it out because of some minor flaws here and there. Everything is flawed. Apple innovates and they are one of the few companies, let alone tech companies that do - for which I am thankful.

    Grandpa Simpson had this to say on Sep 13, 2005 Posts: 3
  • In the real world, innovation doesn’t spring fully formed from a single inventor’s head. Workers in an area learn from each other, in a rapid process of refinement

    Edison knew of an earlier, electric arc light, when he invented his
    own electric lightbulb.

    Apple may have learned from Xerox, but Xerox in turn learned from Augment , Doug Engelbart’s system. Engelbart invented the mouse, after all. , and Augment in turn improved on borrowed ideas from Ivan Sutherland’s [url=“”]
    Sketchpad [/url] (1963)

    American Heritage Magazine Of Invention And Technology  had a similar story to your ranch dressing one, in their fall 2005 issue (not yet online) on how Post introduced a product called “Country Squares”, but lost out to Kellog’s more refined and more skillfully marketed copy: “Pop Tarts”.

    Similarly, iTunes started as the Cassidy&Green; SoundJam. Apple bought it, and drastically changed it, streamlining the user interface, hiding techy details, and adding iTunes Music Store.
    So, are you drawing an implicit paralllel between Apple and Microsoft, saying that the both just copied?

    DavidPhillipOster had this to say on Sep 13, 2005 Posts: 2
  • The original telephone is another example of a not-yet-ready-for-primetime device that needed much refinement to become indispensable.

    Alexander Graham Bell started with an original idea—changing voice into current and back again.  If you think about it, what he actually invented was the microphone and the speaker.  Telephony was the first obvious application, hence the name.

    Mr. Bell thought his invention would be used for broadcasting, such as carrying the sound of a symphony from the concert hall to another venue.  The idea for point-to-point communication came later.

    Thomas Edison provided improvements to the telephone, such as the carbon-grain microphone, a dramatic improvement at the time.  That microphone worked well enough to continue to be used in telephones for the better part of a century.

    The “iPodification”—for lack of a better term—of the telephone, I think, was the introduction of the “candlestick” phone.  No longer did one have to stand at the wall to use a phone, one could sit at a desk or on a comfortable chair and chat.  The rotary dial was the next great refinement, as was the all-in-one handset to follow.  Making the telephone user-friendly is one of the reasons for its ubiquity; ANYBODY could use it with minimal instruction.  Sound familiar?

    Even the oppressive, omnipotent, monopolistic AT&T (the Microsoft of its day) managed to continue to refine the concept.  Great thought went into the “G” series handset, which can still be found on payphones today.  Previous handsets looked cool, but the plain, boring “G” series handset has been in use for over 55 years now.  Part of the reason for that handset’s success was its flat-backed handle, which made it naturally cradle-able between one’s shoulder and tilted head.  Previous “E” and “F” series handsets, such as one might see in an episode of “I Love Lucy,” had rounded handles, require much effort to cradle.

    Sure, you can admire a refiner as much as an innovator.  Many of the great inventions we know were not instantly suitable for the end-consumer; aesthetics and ergonomics are extremely important selling points.

    sprocketeer had this to say on Sep 13, 2005 Posts: 4
  • Hmmm, wish I would’ve read the phone story a few weeks ago, it’s a perfect illustration

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Sep 13, 2005 Posts: 354
  • I think Apple was original for the Newton…and look what happened with that…

    Ruminator had this to say on Sep 13, 2005 Posts: 2
  • Yes, the telephone is a good illustration.  But keep in mind, the refinements I mentioned cover a period of time from 1876 to 1949 (original invention to the “G” series handset.

    That’s GLACIALLY slow.

    Now compare the first commercially-available MP3 player (I forget…), the first-generation of the iPod, and now the nano.  That’s about, say, six years?  I’d say competition is the difference there.  “Ma Bell” had a so-called “natural monopoly,” whereas Apple must keep making the iPod better as fast as possible if it wants to keep its lion’s share of the market.  As Apple hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, they’re going to remain “in the catbird’s seat” for some time.

    [Sure, the vertically-integrated “lock ‘em in” iTunes Music Store+iPod business model is a factor, but I don’t think that’s what’s stopping folks from buying more of the other brands.  Using myself as an example: I’ve never bought a track from the iTunes Music Store.  I still buy my music on CD, and rrriiipp!  Should the iTunes Music Store ever start offering higher bit rates (my preference would be Apple Lossless or WAV) for similar prices, then I’d start buying.]

    sprocketeer had this to say on Sep 13, 2005 Posts: 4
  • The Newton, unfortunately, could not leverage itself using Apple’s share of the desktop market.  The Palm Pilot, which could sychronize with a Windows computer, proved the concept successful.  Apple learned from this, and made the iPod Windows-compatible.  That’s a nice lever.

    Now, if Apple could introduce a Newton that could synchronize with either Windows or OS X, I think it’s chances would be good.  It would still need to be “insanely great,” of course.

    sprocketeer had this to say on Sep 13, 2005 Posts: 4
  • 2 points: 1. iMovie was an innovation. Being a limited first effort has nothing to do with that. I’m sure the first wheel left something to be desired, but it was clearly a new idea.

    2. Apple was first to use a track pad in a laptop. That’s innovation.

    matzentosh had this to say on Sep 13, 2005 Posts: 1
  • Apple’s ability to make the difficult seem easy, to take the obscure and make it accessible to the many, is as valid an innovation as creating the object in the first place.

    Then Microsoft is one terrific innovator.  It brought the GUI to the masses.  If that’s what innovation is, then there’s no greater innovator of the desktop than Microsoft.

    But that’s not what innovation is, since that’s obviously NOT how most Apple zealots would characterize MS’s success.  It’s a puny and weak defense of Apple’s riding on the shoulders of others.

    That counts as innovation, IMMHO. And the sales bares that out.

    So sales are proof of positive innovation as well?  Wow, then Windows is the greatest software product ever created.  Right?  *crickets*

    Don’t get me wrong.  There is no question that Apple innovates.  But so do countless other companies, including *gasp* Microsoft.  Software companies are constantly borrowing from each other, stealing ideas, incorporating what works.  Apple does it MS.  MS does it to Apple.

    I think Chris is right on the money.  Apple gets way too much credit for innovation while other companies get too little.  But PR management and a zealous fan base aren’t proof of innovation any more than high sales are.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Sep 13, 2005 Posts: 2220
  • Chris, any death threats yet?

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Sep 13, 2005 Posts: 2220
  • I think a silent moment should be taken to compare and contrast the concepts of INNOVATION and ORIGINALITY.

    macinfan had this to say on Sep 13, 2005 Posts: 2
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