Are Apple, Google, and Facebook Done Innovating? Readers Speak

Xconomy Boston — 

In the world of tech journalism, the fastest way to start an argument is to say something critical about Apple. When you throw in Google and Facebook, you really know there are going to be fireworks.

That’s exactly what happened over the weekend after we published my column “Don’t Panic, But We’ve Passed Peak Apple. And Google. And Facebook.” I made the case that tech watchers, including us journalists, expect too much from these organizations. We’re so accustomed to watching them roll out the Next Big Thing every couple of years that some of us have developed a kind of psychological dependency, as if the whole future of technology depends on just three companies.

But while each of these players has brought massive changes to the way consumers use computing technology over the last decade, it’s unlikely that they can continue to do so forever, I argued. That doesn’t mean the nation’s innovation machine will grind to a halt; it just means the next wave of game-changing innovations will probably come from other companies—maybe even ones we haven’t heard of yet.

My thesis wasn’t based on any inside knowledge about products that may or may not be in the pipelines at Apple, Google, or Facebook. It hinged instead on statistics, history, and the sociology of organizations. Every world-changing company loses its touch eventually—and the larger, richer, and more comfortable they’ve become, the harder it is to postpone that day.

The article got picked up by discussion boards like Reddit, Slashdot, and Hacker News, and was widely shared on Facebook and Twitter and passed along by big outlets like AllThingsD and the Huffington Post. That gave plenty of readers a chance to react to the argument—and react they did. While a decent number of commenters said they agreed with me, the predominant reaction was that I must be an idiot.

And it wasn’t just the inevitable trolls expressing that opinion. Plenty of readers took the time to spell out exactly why I was wrong, and why they expect Google and Apple, at least, to keep wowing us. (Facebook, alas, did not have as many partisans.) The article clearly touched a nerve, and while some of the critical comments came off as defensive—indirectly proving my point—readers also offered plenty of positive reasons for their optimism. Today I thought I’d round up some of the most interesting comments.

One group of readers made the entirely reasonable point that it’s impossible to predict the future, and that soothsayer is a hazardous profession. “Never say never,” wrote Kommentz, in the comment section here on Xconomy. “You cannot predict when the next big, life-changing thing will happen or wont. You have zero idea what might be up Apple’s R&D top-secret departments or Google’s.”

Quite a few readers expressed confidence that it’s only a matter of time before one of these companies falsifies my argument by bringing out the next Next Big Thing. “This article is bollocks,” a commenter using the pseudonym Thatsnotpc wrote on Reddit. “Before the iPod everyone said Apple’s glory days were done, and before the iPhone, and the iPad. The whole point about truly game changing innovation is that we don’t see it coming until it’s upon us.”

A Slashdot commenter called Watchamacallit pointed out that several years can go by between big innovations, especially those on the scale of the iPhone and the iPad: “The media forgets how long it took for these products to ship. I guess there was this long period of customer awe in between that’s dissipated lately as new products are not as stunning. That doesn’t mean there are not things in the R&D pipeline that will change the world!”

“These companies cannot easily or quickly go way beyond their current expertise, like for example investigating human genome related innovations, but that does not mean that they cannot be transformative again,” wrote another Slashdot commenter calling himself Camembert. “Apple as an example has released a lot of transformative products in a short time frame: iPod, iPhone, iPad, Macbook Air have all been hugely influential. It is perhaps too high an expectation to expect them to keep up the current pace. However I think that the smartwatch, once it gets released, can be another transformative step towards a world of in essence invisible, wearable computing. Google Glass falls also in this category.”

Ah, Google Glass. Quite a few commenters pointed to the wearable-display technology from GoogleX, Sergey Brin’s skunk-works operation, as proof positive that the search company has more tricks up its sleeve. Google’s self-driving cars and Project Loon—a balloon-based wireless Internet scheme announced on the same day my column came out—also won frequent mentions.

Google Glass “is not a game changer as it is now,” wrote Special Comment, here on Xconomy. “But the concept behind Google glass (Augmented Reality) may change the path of our tech world to another direction. After some years we might not be using touch mobiles. Instead, we would be using Holographic Mobile Devices.”

Reddit commenter Tehbored wrote: “Mapping and navigation technology are going to become big business for Google as self-driving cars become mainstream. If Google positions themselves as an essential component of the self-driving car ecosystem, that could prove to be even bigger than search.”

Hacker News commenter Jezclaremurgan drove the point home. “Google has Glass, self driving cars, Google Fiber, Loon, and every single one of them has the potential to be the most significant thing of this century—though these are mentioned in the article, their potential is highly underestimated. It’s true some of them will (I prefer might) turn out to be duds, but definitely not all of them.”

One interesting set of comments argued that there’s still plenty of innovation going on at Google, Apple, and Facebook, but that it’s under the hood, where it’s not always obvious. BLA wrote here on Xconomy: “You completely ignore all the engineering innovation happening (perhaps because you know little about engineering yourself?): the engineering on the Mac Pro is absolutely astounding! Likewise, Google has achieved tremendous breakthroughs in AI, relevance and distributed computing. All of it tucked away behind a search box.”

On Slashdot, BoRegardless seconded the point. “Innovation does NOT occur just in ‘big pieces’ in hardware and software. Arguably, the major innovations done today affecting the ‘big pieces’ are logistical and nano-structure components. Journalists often see only the forest, not the trees, so they can’t see what has just popped out of the soil. These innovations are leading to miniaturization at a fast rate, parts with new properties, electronics with new functions, multi-functions, faster performance and software that knows how to integrate functions across devices and time. The innovations inside the new MacBook Air don’t excite a journalist as he has ‘seen that before,’ but to an innovator there is a lot to see both in hardware, ICs, battery and software.”

But a larger group of Slashdotters—ever the contrarians—took issue with my basic premise that Apple, Google, and Facebook have generated most of the new ideas changing the face of consumer computing over the last decade. Innovation has always had a broader base than that, these commenters argued. Eravnrekaree, writing on Slashdot: “Google didn’t invent much, there were dozens of search engines when it came around. Web mail was already thought up when it came around. Even Facebook didn’t invent, the profile thing had already been implemented by numerous other people. It was mainly marketing and repackaging of existing ideas. All innovation has come from three companies? Give me a break.”

Deergomo, also writing on Slashdot: “Apple don’t invent. They refine, if you will. I think it’s fair to say that they made some of the first desktops, laptops, smartphones, and tablets that a wide range of people from the average Joe to professionals would want to use, and that is an impressive feat. But to say they invented any of the products they sell wouldn’t really be true.”

Still, a handful of other readers seemed to think I had hit the mark. Here’s my favorite comment from a supporter, someone writing on Slashdot under the name West: “Lots of companies innovate, including the big ones. But any given innovation only has a 1 in 10,000 chance of succeeding. If you get it right, then you’ve a decent shot at hitting the big leagues like Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook. But assuming because they managed a successful innovation once means they’ve got a greater chance of finding a second one is ludicrous. It’s like expecting a lottery winner has a better chance of winning a second prize. Of course, having said that, there are some companies that have managed multiple successful innovations, but they’re exceedingly rare. (I’d give Apple the Apple II, the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. I’d give Microsoft MS-DOS, Windows and Office. At this point, Google and FB are still one trick ponies. But they’re magnificent tricks. Criticizing such companies is like criticizing someone for only holding one world record.)”

But if I’m right, in the end, that Google, Apple, and Facebook are out of great ideas, then where will the next ones come from? My own intuition is that they’ll come from startups, but David Malek, commenting here on Xconomy, suggested an interesting back-to-the-future answer: IBM. “IBM’s Watson could be the next big paradigm shift. We are inundated with ‘data’ in these days, but getting the right ‘information’ we need from this massive flood, is something that even Google does not deliver right now. If Watson’s technology gets inexpensive enough to be available on your mobile device, that would be a huge deal and that comes not from a startup, but from a big player.”

Kristi Heim, also writing on Xconomy, said it’s time to look abroad. “Technology innovation is no longer the exclusive domain of the U.S. I predict that China, despite all of its inherent limitations on innovation, will actually produce game-changing technology. Companies such as Alibaba (Taobao), Tencent and Qihoo 360 are already doing so. To the extent companies based in Silicon Valley or other parts of the U.S. can take advantage of this new reality, the challenge of IP notwithstanding, they will be more competitive.”

Given that my column contained elements to offend or annoy just about everyone working in the tech world, the commentary was amazingly civilized and constructive—so, thank you to everyone who took the time to write something. As a big fan of products from Apple, and as a regular Google and Facebook user, I’d be happy to see my thesis proved wrong.

But all I was really trying to say is that in technology, as in politics, it’s natural to see the torch passed from one generation to the next. Apple has been holding it for an unnaturally long time, and even Google and Facebook aren’t as young and athletic as they once were. It’s time to see who’s warming up for the next lap.