Recently someone posed a very interesting question to me. They asked if I thought the iPad would have sold as well had it not been made by Apple. Had someone else made the iPad exactly as it is today and beaten Apple to the punch, would the product have bombed? Clearly, this person, would like to identify if Apple is successful because of it’s innovation or because of it’s brand and if the iPad really is all that innovative or does everyone just want to own the latest Apple product. Their stance was that it would have failed miserably.
To address this question a few things have to be considered first. The iPhone is really the first modern tablet computer and not the iPad. The question should really be, had someone else come up with the iPhone other than Apple would the product still have been successful. Once the question is asked in this way, the answer becomes a very definite yes. It would have been highly successful. I do not believe that the iPad, iPod touch, or iPhone can be split into different product categories. Apple originally began work on a tablet computer a little over a decade ago. Their designs evolved into the iPhone. All the work they had done made them think “wow this would make a really good mobile phone”. They then adapted it and released the very first tablet computer that was designed bottom-up to be used by touch. That is, they released the iPhone in the summer of 2007. The showcase for this innovative, yet intuitive interface was the mobile safari browser. This is really where the device’s multitouch user interface shined. It was no longer a hassle to use your mobile device to browse the web.
Before the iPhone there were a lot of smartphones. On paper they had many more features than the iPhone did. Recall that the iPhone had no third party apps, limited Bluetooth support, no infrared port, no picture messaging capabilities, no copy/paste, and the list went on. Actually there was not that much that you could do with it at the time. But what it did, it did well and for the first time many of those activities which I previously hated to do on a mobile device were actually pleasant on this one. Despite, seemingly being behind on features, Steve Jobs claimed the iPhone software was three years ahead of any other mobile platform. How could he say this?
Let’s consider what operating systems were available for mobile devices during that time. Tablet computers ran Windows XP or Windows Vista. Some ultra mobile devices from Sony ran Windows XP. Handheld devices used Palm OS or a mobile version of Windows. There were some manufacturer specific operating systems like Symbian. Blackberry was very popular in the enterprise space. Most interaction with the device was done via a stylus, with the exception of Blackberry which used a trackball. For mobile devices running Windows, yes that is definitely an advanced operating system. After all it runs on desktop computers and had been around in it’s present form since 1995, at least. But that was part of the problem. It seems that entrenched in the mind of developers was the way we interact with PCs. This could not be directly translated into an enjoyable user experience on a mobile device. Although, this is what they attempted to do.
Without realizing it the consumer was becoming fed up with the status quo. Really, it would have been a lot of work for any of the established players to come up with the iPhone OS. They simply were not nimble enough at the time. Something similar could have been said for the music industry back in 2001, when the iPod and iTunes store were still very new. For Microsoft, they simply were at a disadvantage as a result of their development history. They were veiled from being able to take a fresh look and approach to the development of the mobile operating system. Similar things could be said for Nokia, and the other large mobile phone companies. Actually, when the iPhone came out many thought that the touch gestures were obvious and should not have been patented. Yet no one else had done it. I agree that it was simple and obvious, yet no one ever got around to making a mobile device that actually worked in that way. Basically, it would have required that you start from scratch.
Had Microsoft or anyone else taken this approach to completely rethink the mobile operating system, they would have come out with a very successful product. There is no doubt that these devices are a success because of the innovation behind them and not just because of the Apple brand. The success Apple has had was up for grabs really by anyone. An incumbent, however, has less motivation to do this kind of innovation. And so we arrive at where we are today, with Google and Apple leading the innovation in the mobile space. Two companies whose DNA has been wrought with the principle of reinventing themselves. Google, even now is run very much like a start up and Apple is still considered to be one of the most innovative technology companies in the world.