Will Apple Finally Become the Innovator the Masses Want?

by Chris Seibold Feb 22, 2007

In the epic tale Beowolf, Grendel (the heavy) is beaten somewhat anticlimactically when Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm from his torso and the bully slinks home to die. The copious violence is mitigated by the fact that the story is a thousand years old and the narration is (unfortunately for ninth graders everywhere) bereft of modern technicolor depictions1 of tearing sinews2, spurting blood3, and flying bits of flesh4. Contemporary requirements of interesting fiction aside, the story is the classic bully beaten by underdog archetype and one with which Apple fans can fully sympathize.

Why can Apple fans so readily identify with Beowulf? In the world according to Apple sycophants, everything good is given by the beneficent geniuses living in Cupertino. The days until the good that is Apple triumphs over the evil that is every company that isn’t Apple or an Apple partner is unknowable, but the outcome isn’t in doubt; the question is “when will people wake up?” not “will people wake up?” The reason this sincere belief permeates Mac land is because of the undoubted truth that anything worthwhile was at a minimum refined in Apple labs if not invented by Apple. Which leaves us with a question: has Apple really brought innovation to the average technology user?

Let us start with the GUI. The Graphical User Interface is the thing that made computers usable for the masses. Joe Way Below Average (or as AppleMatters staff refer to him, “Chris Seibold”) couldn’t remember commands like POKE, ATTRIB, PRINT, PARK, and PLUNGE5, but he could click on pictures. Computing by clicking on pictures? That is the equivalent of hunting by pressing your palms flat against cave paintings! True, but it is all our example buffoon could pull off, so to him the GUI is the difference between using a computer for something and a very expensive doorstop. So, who took the GUI from cool concept to mass-market coolness?

The easy answer is that Apple did it and that they did it with the Mac. The easy answer is wrong. Microsoft was the company that pulled the GUI rabbit out of the proverbial hat. Here is where the disconnect comes in. Xerox PARC had developed the Alto, a point and click deal. The system was so great that Steve Jobs exclaimed something along the lines of “Why aren’t you doing anything with this?” upon seeing the technology. Apple then went on to develop two computers based on the concept. You could go and buy a Lisa or a Mac and taste the future. Microsoft, on the other hand, developed the tech for computers that already existed. Apple could have made a windows-based OS for the already popular Apple II but passed on the chance6.

Let that sink in for a moment: Microsoft didn’t ask that you buy a new computer, all Microsoft required of the user is that they buy some software. Yeah, the software was crappy, unbelievably crappy, so crappy that many preferred DOS, but all it required was a few hundred instead of a few thousand dollars. The notion that you could get a new user paradigm without an investment in hardware was an innovation.

Microsoft offered a flawed but usable product6 (some will argue that nothing has changed), but to run the perpetually compromised software you needed hardware. It was in the hardware world that Dell out-innovated every other company. Many are scratching their heads wondering where, exactly, Dell ever displayed a lick of innovation. Dell’s innovation didn’t concern ports, motherboards, or even clever case designs. Dell focused all the company’s energies where the biggest payoff was: price.

Dell decided that instead of a complex system of retailers where the computer changes hands (and incurs cost) at least once before getting to the consumer, Dell would sell the machine directly to the buyer. There was a ton of reasons the idea couldn’t work. Computers are expensive and buyers want service for a purchase that hefty, etc. But the idea did work: computer’s prices were driven down and computers went from boring plastic boxes sitting in offices across the land to boring plastic boxes sitting in homes all over the country.

Apple, of course, never considered selling the Mac direct to the consumer (Apple dealers were a source of massive profits) and even if the company had considered the option there is less than 0 chance Apple would have sold a machine with slim margins just to increase marketshare.

This leads us to one unavoidable conclusion. While Apple is rightly seen as the company responsible for the most interesting innovation in the industry, it is not the company responsible for bringing that innovation to the common computer user. That trophy of making things acceptable to the masses goes to Microsoft, Dell, and other companies that were every bit as innovative as Apple in more important areas.

Is Apple doomed to be the company that is always innovating and never gaining acceptance? The iPod story tells us that Apple has made note of past mistakes and isn’t relying solely on just a better product to sell gadgets anymore. The iPhone and AppleTV are attempts to leverage the already immensely popular iPod brand in an effort for the devices to become ubiquitous, with their own untrod upon formats and standards. Apple seems well poised to move from innovative niche player to electronic gadget behemoth with aplomb. As a major electronics company, will it be too much to hope that Apple keeps the user-focused innovation coming?

1 A lot of readers love gore for the sake of gore. As a service to said readers, below are examples of the worst descriptions of gore possible and could have (almost) been found in a cheesy horror novel.
2 a sound like a frozen, wet towel being prised from the ground
3 graceful crimson arcs…of death
4 bits of flesh and muscle flew around the room like aspirated feedings outside of a free beef jerky booth at an allergy sufferers’ convention
5 One of these commands is fictional.
6 GEOS did make the scene for the Apple II.



  • Chris, I hope you are wearing a flame-retardant suit.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Feb 22, 2007 Posts: 2220
  • Adolphe Sax, a Belgian, invented the saxophone not Charlie Parker, not Sonny Rollins. When he invented it, his first orders came from French military bands. However when I hear John Coltrane I don’t think of Belgium, nor of french bands, I hear something that was not there before and is here now, pure genius of creation.
    The thing is it’s there and I love it. Adolphe did his bit and more than that (he also invented the roto-toms, anyone?) but Coltrane, Parker, Rollins, Shorter and more, did their thing. And now its here for us to enjoy. Sony didn’t invent music, or recorders, in fact the Walkman was a tape recorder that couldn’t even record. But what a concept.

    WAWA had this to say on Feb 22, 2007 Posts: 89
  • Sorry, forgot Michael Brecker.

    And how about including Turing in the article.
    When it becomes to get the credit, Steve Jobs is the front man like Mick Jagger. It happens all the time. The editor of The Godfather was as important as Coppolla, but there you have it, I don’t remember the name.

    WAWA had this to say on Feb 22, 2007 Posts: 89
  • When it becomes to get the credit, Steve Jobs is the front man like Mick Jagger. It happens all the time.

    I don’t think that’s the point.  Xerox PARC invented the GUI and Microsoft brought it to the masses.  What exactly did Apple do to get the credit that Mac fanatics bestow upon them?  They brought it to market first, and that’s something, but it’s not everything.

    One could easily argue that inventing it (Xerox) and creating the marketing system to make it affordable for the public (Microsoft, IBM) are more important “innovations.”

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Feb 22, 2007 Posts: 2220
  • I agree on the fact that credits are usually wrongly attributed. Somehow it also seems impossible to include the people that really made the difference. The french Lumière brothers invented the cinema, however they are never thanked at the Oscars. Neither is the inventor of the chair thanked at any meeting. No-one however will doubt, that the movies are an artform that belongs and was invented the US and not in France. Could they have done it without the Lumière guys, no. Now what?
    The innovations Japan gave us were nothing more but tiny improvements of European and American Big Inventions. However they were important enough to change the use of these inventions. The iTunes store - idea was hardly an idea. “You can buy a song and pay for it.”
    But sometimes doing the obvious and doing it extremely well is innovation. The Godfather was, as a pitch, just another film about gangsters. But the people who made it lifted that idea to a higher level. Once it’s there, it seems like it always was there.
    So, my conclusion is like, if the predecessors were so clever, why didn’t they see it.
    It’s like with stock markets. Some people knew it would be going up, so why didn’t they bought the stocks ?
    A lot of people must have had the idea that lightning was a terrible force. Only Benjamin Franklin made something with that idea. And when people asked, yeah, but what’s the use of it / he said what’s the use of a newborn baby.
    Someone else then invented a lamp and around the world a lot of people said: that was my idea, the thing with the lightning and they stole it.

    WAWA had this to say on Feb 22, 2007 Posts: 89
  • First off, when was Beowulf the underdog?  Guy had a sword, armor, shield, etc and not only injured Grendel enough to let him die in front of his mother, but then proceeded to kill Grendel’s mother when she came looking for revenge.  This is not the story of an underdog.

    “The days until the good that is Apple triumphs over the evil that is every company that isn’t Apple or an Apple partner is unknowable, but the outcome isn’t in doubt; the question is “when will people wake up?” not “will people wake up?””

    Ever think this was nothing more than the unrequited optimism of a misanthrope? 

    My first Dell, a P200 back in ‘97-‘98 was not purchased on price… in fact it was more expensive than most competitors.  I bought it because Dell had *service* that trounced the competition.  When my CD drive broke, they actually sent someout out to my house in *Champaign, IL* to fix the thing for me.  After watching him I learned how to fix it myself, but at that point, the computer was a mysterious tan box that did things for me.  Remember - some of us did not grow up wiht the internet - computers had a steep learning curve.

    Why can’t we just accept th at Apple is innovative, not necessarily “The Innovator”, and that they have a skill at combining their technology with a keen business sense that just works for what they’re trying to do.  I have always like apple not because they’ve tried to overtly corner the market (although they have at times, Apple II, iPod), but rather that they just seem to straight-up like making the machines they make.

    Playing with my Mac is like cookies made by my girlfriend - sometimes you can taste the love.

    Is this a cardinal sin in the computer industry these days?  When was that change instituted, I seem to have missed the memo.

    Apparently Dell did too, judging from their current product line, which are about as generic month-old-baked-goods as you can get.

    Zamyatin had this to say on Feb 23, 2007 Posts: 7
  • I agree on the fact that credits are usually wrongly attributed. Somehow it also seems impossible to include the people that really made the difference.

    If you’re agreeing with my comment, then you’re saying that Apple fanatics wrongly attribute credit for the GUI to Apple when the real credit belongs to Xerox and MS/IBM, but I cannot possibly be reading that right.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Feb 23, 2007 Posts: 2220
  • So you want it in a written form.
    « I hereby, agree that Apple Computer inc, aka Apple Inc, were not the inventors -id est the first on earth- to have thought about GUI. GUI -as in, using icons in computers etc.- was as far as I know first done at Xerox.»
    I “believe” however, that they were the first and still the only to bring GUI to the best Human Interface I have seen until now.

    Just as Adolphe Sax did not invent Jazz, but the saxophone, his invention is far more important to jazz as he is (n)ever credited for.
    Just as I believe that the brothers Lumière invented the film, but the Americans tilted it to an artform, that together with Jazz were two new cultural “phenomena”  brought to the world by AmericanS. Two new “languages” were created. Around the world people, who were not American, picked up that language. Europeans mainly Jazz, Asians fantastic with the movie language. I have never understood the why of it. Why did Europe not pick up the Movie language and Asians did.
    However, as they say, I declare this to be my statement.
    This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship!

    WAWA had this to say on Feb 23, 2007 Posts: 89
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