Apple Still Hungry, but No Longer Foolish

An early Apple designer looks at the company's directions today and wonders: Where's the next big idea?

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Today, Apple introduced another series of new products across its lineup. But just being “better, thinner and lighter” isn’t what the world was used to under Steve Jobs. As an early Apple designer who worked closely with Steve, developing the Snow White design language that shaped all Apple products from 1984 to 1990, one thing is clear to me about the company today. To put it in the terms of Steve’s famous commencement address, in which he advised young people to “Stay hungry, stay foolish”: Apple may still be hungry, but it’s no longer foolish.

The tradition of beautiful, simple design is still alive at Apple. But even the world’s best design cannot hide that the company already has fallen back toward a marketing-driven strategy, not an innovation-driven one. What we’ve seen from Apple since Steve Jobs passed away implies that Apple largely may be done innovating in any groundbreaking fashion. It’s all been refinement since then.

The main problem for Apple is that all its products (hardware and software) are now in a mature industry cycle. With Sony, Philips and music-content owners asleep at the wheel 15 years ago, Apple was able to integrate and exponentially improve the experience of people listening to digital music and buying titles online: the iPod and iTunes caught the entire industry by surprise. Mobile phones were in a similar place before Apple came out with the iPhone. And as the iPad actually had been conceptualized before the iPhone, Apple was able to create two totally new market and business segments in the 2000s. They still own a huge share of all of these product categories. That in itself is a historic achievement.

But history has its lessons. Deep innovation takes decades. When Steve and I worked on the Snow White project starting in 1982, we decided to project the future of Apple well into the future, paying no heed to what might be technologically feasible in five, 10, even 20 years. We wanted to envision the far-off future, and imagine how people would use futuristic products. In retrospect, many of the things Apple ultimately created — its true, industry-changing innovations such as the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad and even the MacBook Air — were all in development in one form or another all those 30 years ago.

Major technological developments needed to take place before these far-out ideas could be executed (quantum leaps in storage in processing, the Internet, color displays, longer-lasting batteries), but the germs of those ideas were there. In fact, the only idea from our dreaming that has yet to come to pass is the reinvention of television — something that many of us hope Apple has in its back pocket.

But, so far, there has been no sign of a new, world-beating innovation. Apple has to create a new category, or it will sink into normality — still excellent, mind you, but not industry changing. The signals I am reading indicate that Apple still is hungry, but no longer foolish in the spirit of Steve Jobs.

As someone who loves Apple deeply, I would hate to see it drift down the path that Sony did after its two visionary founders, Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita, retired and left us. But with all due respect to Apple’s current leadership, they seem to be missing a radical who will live, think, and sweat “the next big thing” — someone unshackled from business as usual.

Innovation is slow and requires long-term engagement. Apple could still surprise us in three to five years with a big project it’s been cooking up, far from prying eyes. But today wasn’t that day. As an Apple fan, I’m keeping the foolish hope alive.

Esslinger is the founder of Frog design. His book, Keep it Simple: The Early Design Years of Apple, will be published by Arnoldsche Verlagsanstalt in January.