14 May 2012 by Chris Edwards
At the recent Future World Symposium in London, executives talked of the need for innovation to link together the various gadgets in the living room and wondered who would do it. You have to wonder what innovation is actually required given that networking protocols and frameworks for the job already exist. It turned out that, in this context, "innovation" actually meant "designing products that have compatible protocols instead of forcing everything into some walled garden" or simply "attention to detail".
A few weeks later in a conference centred on the concept of innovation, Frost & Sullivan analyst Jeff Thull point to the iTunes Music Store (iTMS) as innovative. Was it? Really? Or was the ability to execute on the plan the only thing that might be classed as novel?
It is not as if the idea of an online music store didn't exist when iTMS launched. The first ones arrived in the decade before Apple's effort got going. The idea of downloading paid-for audio files to a portable music player was not new even though the emphasis up to that point was to "rip, mix, burn", with the focus on ripping CDs. The iPod itself arrived some time after the first MP3 players.
Apple's choice of file format was comparatively novel but not an entirely popular choice. The use of DRM, largely imposed by the music industry even though it clearly stymied online sales, did little to help the development of iTMS and was more or less gone within five years.
The "innovation" was primarily about attention to detail -- things like finding deals that made the record industry majors feel they had one over on the technology sector and so fall in line or making it easy to get the music onto the iPod. Even today, the iTunes software is not wildly popular with Windows users. It shows how poorly executed the competition's efforts have been in comparison that people don't find other options and the degree to which invention without implementation is overrated.
In this context, "innovation" meant "working out the only way forward was to do deals others would find unthinkable". At the time, with respect to its non-computer lineup, Apple was focused on shipping iPods. If it meant giving a greater share of royalties to the majors than others were prepared to accept, that was fine. The important thing was to get enough of them onboard to get the public to think of iTMS as the only place they needed to go to find downloads. Having carved out a market-leading position, those same major labels now complain of Apple's market power and control over pricing.
Beatifying Steve Jobs into the patron saint of innovation, is not going to help the electronics technology industry deal with its problems. All the process does is hide what needs to change and consign the word "innovation" to the same ignoble fate as "excellence", which now apparently means "not entirely rubbish".
Posted By: Chris Edwards @ 14 May 2012 12:08 PM General
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