We’ve gotten greedy. We — the media, the industry watchers, the tech enthusiasts — have an insatiable hunger for novelty. The original iPad wowed us because it introduced an entirely new form factor. iPad 2 slimmed down and got a snappy cover. The new iPad shares nearly nothing with the iPad 2 hardware, according to Apple executives I spoke with. Its retina display has 1 million more pixels than a large-screen HDTV. The new A5X chip has, according to Apple, four times the processing power of Nvidia’s Tegra 3 chip. Compared with iPad 2, it has a nicer camera, a video camera, dictation input, and 4G, while still squeezing out 10 hours of (Wi-Fi) battery life. It’s a wee bit thicker and an ounce heavier. And yet, in my conversations with numerous reporters over the past few days, the theme they kept bringing up was “incremental innovation”: Will the next iPad be innovative enough to maintain Apple’s momentum?
If the iPhone 4S is a case study, the answer for consumers is a resounding “yes.” The 4S, though not as dramatic an update as the technorati hoped for, has been the best-selling iPhone ever. The new iPad will fly off the shelves too: We expect tablets, led by the iPad, to reach 60.7 million US adults by the end of the year, or 19% of the US population. The engineering feats accomplished in the new iPad would have been inconceivable in the early days of personal computing, when colored pixels were in themselves a revelation. We the tech watchers may be jaded, but Apple’s consumers still appreciate the mesmerizing beauty of an ever-nicer screen.
It’s also worth noting that the innovation behind the new iPad doesn’t stop with hardware. Apple’s product strategists also lavished attention on the software — a priority that differentiates Apple from competitors like Sony, Samsung, and Toshiba. Every single Apple app from email to Safari has been overhauled for enhanced resolution. The release of iPhoto for iPad (previously only available on the Mac) is in itself worth study: The multitouch gestures invented for the photo-editing software surpass even Adobe’s innovation in the well-reviewed Photoshop Touch app. Apple’s apps set the standard for third-party developers, who have now contributed more than 200,000 apps for the iPad to Apple’s App Store.
Apple’s insistence on blending hardware innovation with services innovation will keep the iPad at the front of the tablet pack for the foreseeable future. But as James B. Stewart of the New York Times argues, it’s just a matter of time before Apple’s growth confronts the law of large numbers. Forrester’s CEO, George Colony, has told me that he expects Apple’s growth to slow considerably by 2015. I suspect he’s right. Not because the new iPad is “incremental innovation,” but because our sense of what innovative products are has warped to the point where if Apple’s next product doesn’t make cars fly or enable mind control, we yawn and change the channel. Or . . . wait in line at an Apple Store to buy the latest, greatest, “incrementally innovative” new product.
The lesson for product strategists in any industry is to stay true to your own sense of what’s innovative. Phil Schiller, SVP of Worldwide Marketing for Apple, told me that Apple’s engineers and designers “won’t change a product for the sake of change” — it has to be better in a way that will matter to customers. Apple designs its products for its customers, not the press. Product strategists would be wise to heed the same lesson — if you’re asking if your product is innovative enough, make sure you’re doing it for customers, not for shareholders, reporters, or anyone else.