Ask Dr. Copyright

Dear Doc:

For some time now, we have heard and read that Apple, Inc. has lost its famous ability to innovate. What does that mean, and do you agree?


Your College Friend Who Refuses to Use Any Apple Products, Ever!

Dear John:

As you know, the Doc bought his first Apple computer in 1979 (and he still has that Apple] [+, and it still works!). He has owned countless Apple products since then, and now uses an iPhone, MacBook Pro, iMac, AppleTV, AirPods, HomePods, Apple Watch, and owns stock in Apple. That said, the Doc also met Apple founders Woz and Jobs (a few times each), and Steve Jobs was a supporter of the Doc’s first startup venture, Infonautics, Inc. The Doc also served as Apple’s first “Legal Fellow.” The Doc has first-hand knowledge about the history of innovation at Apple.

Apple Inc.

So why do we see published statements like, “Once considered a synonym of innovation and prowess, Apple Inc. is under mounting scrutiny over its ability to sustain the crown of ‘tech industry pioneers’. Co-founded by Legendary Tech. magnet, Late. Steve Jobs, the company made its mark with the famous slogan “Think Different,” setting the stage for a series of groundbreaking products that reshaped entire industries. However, in recent years, Apple’s innovation prowess has come under fire and has made many of its loyal customers wonder – ‘Has their beloved brand lost its Innovative edge?’”

The Doc teaches his students at the Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering that innovation is both a noun (“tools and toys”) and a verb: a process of creating added value. While most people understand innovating by making new things, they fail to appreciate that creating value from investments of capital is the core of an innovative organization. Apple excels at both sides of the innovation equation and has managed to do so for a very long time.

Being innovative, however, does not necessarily mean being first. They say that you can usually recognize a pioneer by the many arrows lodged in his back. “First mover advantage” is, in many cases, overrated, because to benefit from it, the innovator needs to overcome many risks: technology, production, market introduction, supply chain, and many more. Doing this requires lots of capital and a large supply of plain old luck. Apple rarely attempts to be the first in a product category, preferring to allow others to pave the way, and then designing its product to solve problems encountered by the pioneers.

There were personal computers before the Apple ][, but you had to build your own before you could plug it in and use it. There were computers with graphic user interfaces before the Macintosh (the “Computer for the Rest of Us”), but they cost $15,000 (Xerox Star) or $5,000 (Apple Lisa). There were laser printers before the LaserWriter, but no software that turned them into printing presses (AppleWrite and PageMaker). There were cellphones that could email before the iPhone, but they had tiny keyboards and no useful web browser or music player. In each case, what Apple added was a focus on how humans would use the technology to be more creative and more productive. This “human-centered design” philosophy has always been key to Apple’s innovative success.

So, has Apple lost the ability to innovate? Hardly! Apple has, however, taught its competitors how to be better. Just as Windows was a copy of the MacOS, and gradually matured to be very successful (any version before 3.1 was, frankly, terrible), and Android is a copy of iOS (just look at the design PowerPoint from Samsung that was evidence in the lawsuit between Apple and that company to see how each icon and function was analyzed and copied, the competitive landscape is more innovative than ever.

By the way, with each new product that Apple introduces, it seems that the world has the same reaction: “It’ll never work.” Just look at the press about Apple’s newest product, the VisionPro.  That response is best summed up in the Doc’s favorite quote about innovation, from a book about telegraphs by Abraham Edelkrantz, published in 1796:

It often happens, with regard to new inventions, that one part of the general public finds them useless and another part considers them impossible. When it becomes clear that the possibility and the usefulness can no longer be denied, most agree that the whole thing was fairly easy to discover and that they knew about it all along.

So if you’re an innovator, give a shout to the attorneys at LW&H, each of whom is an innovator as well as a student of innovation. They can help to protect that value you create.

Until next month,

The “Doc”