Apple vs. Open Innovation
By John Parkinson
It's become almost a religious belief that to get 'real" innovation you need a broad community of people sharing ideas and helping to improve whatever is being dreamt up. Free from stifling corporate constraints and management process overheads, "open innovation" can go fast and take unexpected directions.
That's what entrepreneurs do, isn't it? Many eyes help keep you from blind alleys. Peer review keeps you honest. Buzz gets you market, or at least mind, share.
And then there's Apple.
Back in the mid-90s I had to decide between Apple (the original Mac) and Microsoft (pre-Windows 95) for 90,000 people, half of whom used one or the other. I still get hate mail for dropping Apple.
It wasn't that I thought Microsoft was more innovative. It wasn't just price (although that was a factor). It was the "lock in" of a closed hardware architecture balanced against the ecosystem strategy of an open one. Even if only the hardware platform was truly open (which Windows was certainly not), we would have many more options than if we stuck with the Macintosh architecture. Not an easy choice because of the politics and sociology involved--we lost Apple as a client over the decision--but technically straightforward.
Back then Apple wasn't being run by Steve Jobs and was clearly floundering. That helped the decision. Jobs was off running Next back then--and going close to nowhere with some great ideas about how to combine hardware, software and user interfaces.
Now, however, Jobs is back, and so is Apple: iMac, the MacBook line, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, (maybe) iPad. Nearly a decade of iconic devices and hardware/software combinations that redefined both major categories of consumer electronics and what it is to be "cool."
And not an ounce of open innovation in sight.
Most of these devices and platforms aren't really all that great. But their designs are. They are highly "usable." Their aesthetics (and hence their desirability, to some degree) are outstanding. And their functionality is generally good enough. (OK, no hate mail, please. I own and like a lot of Apple products. A few really are great--but most are just good enough to get by). They are also part of a consistent brand system, cleverly tagged as "innovative," that sets and pretty much meets customers' expectations. That there is a sufficiently large market for this system might be a surprise, but it's clearly there, clearly loyal, and clearly willing to pay a premium to belong.
And the Apple crowd doesn't care that the system is run by a brilliant, moderately beneficent, maniacally focused dictator and isn't in the least bit "open" or interested in becoming so.
So you can "innovate" and win without an open ecosystem--if you are good enough. If you are really good, you can beat the "open" crowd most of the time.
It's just that most of us aren't that good.
John Parkinson, the former CTO of TransUnion LLC, has been a technology executive and consultant for over 30 years, advising many of the world's leading companies on the issues associated with the effective use of IT. Click here to read his columns in CIO Insight's print edition.