October 22nd 2013 7:57 PM
As he was wrapping up his Macworld 2007 keynote — you know, the one with the iPhone — Steve Jobs quoted Wayne Gretzky, comparing his playing philosophy to Apple's: "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been." It was a testament to Apple's innovation, its ability to see three steps ahead of its competitors.
Critics like to point to this track record as proof that Apple is no longer innovating, no longer skating to where the puck is headed. There's a certain perverse logic this line of thinking: if tens of millions of people will rush out to buy a new iPhone just because it has a better camera or a fingerprint sensor, then Apple could conceivably rest on its laurels, failing to realize the tide is turning until it's too late.
If you believe this, you don't understand Apple. Whether we're talking about MacBooks or iPods, Apple has never deviated from its original design until there's a good reason.
Look at the iPad Air. Just three and a half years ago, Apple created a new market with the iPad, an impossibly thin and light tablet that changed our definition of mobile computing. The fifth-generation model unveiled today is remarkably smaller and lighter without sacrificing any of its screen or battery life, with up to 128GB of storage, a Retina Display, two cameras and a desktop-caliber processor. Nothing is reinvented per se, but it's better in every conceivable way.
Back in 1983, Jobs told Time magazine that Apple "could have introduced Lisa a year ago, but we wanted to make it perfect." Thirty years later, it's the same thing. Apple won't release a new product, or even a new feature, until it's just right.At Apple, iteration is innovation. Features and new models aren't unveiled until they're just right, even if it means delaying for months or years. Look closely and you'll find small innovations behind the iPhone 5s' camera and fingerprint sensor and the iPad Air's stunning enclosure. These take time. I'm sure Apple could have added a form of Touch ID to the iPhone 5 last year, but it wouldn't have "just worked."
The Galaxy Gear is a perfect example. It represents everything analysts think they want from Apple: a seemingly innovative product that opens up a new category while expanding the ecosystem. Except Samsung got it all wrong. Not only does it only work with the Note 3 — bringing the price of entry to a cool $599 —early reviews have been overwhelmingly negative, criticizing its laggy interface, poor design and questionable usefulness. And to top it off, its battery barely lasts through the day.
Just because something comes first doesn't make it innovative. Apple didn't sell millions of iPhones and iPads because it beat its competitors to the market; they were fully realized, expertly packaged roadmaps to the future. And it won't be any different with whatever's around the corner. I'm still not sold on the notion that Apple is developing a so-called iWatch, but if it is, I'm quite certain it won't be a rushed product that dupes unwitting customers into buying a clunky, limited accessory that doesn't work with Apple's most popular models.
And that's the difference: Apple's first-generation products may be head and shoulders above whatever they happen to be competing against, but Apple always leaves room for improvement. Not because it ran out of time or couldn't be bothered, but because it's better to wait than sacrifice or stumble. There's nothing groundbreakingly new about the way we use our iOS devices today versus 2007 — we still tap, pinch and click the home button to navigate between screens — but if you put the iPad Air next to it, the original model looks like an antique.
People may have wanted more from Apple today, but what we got — the iPad Air, Mavericks, the iPad mini with Retina Display — are Apple at its finest, taking great products and somehow making them better than we could have imagined.
If it seems like Apple isn't skating to where the puck is headed anymore, it might be because it's skating withthe puck. And it doesn't look like it's about to give it up anytime soon.