What can Apple do to make lightning strike again for a product?

Apple's new hardware has become largely more iterative than transformative, with sales shrinking each year. Oblong CEO John Underkoffler talks about how the company can spark innovation.

TechRepublic's James Sanders spoke with Oblong's John Underkoffler about how Apple's new hardware has become largely more iterative than transformative, and how the company can spark innovation. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

James Sanders: Apple's product launches over the last few years have been largely uninspiring. The length of time between new Mac systems has since become longer, with new models more iterative than transformative. The iPhone is continuing at a yearly pace, though with sales decreasing, how can Apple turn this ship around?

John Underkoffler: I think we need to ask ourselves, what does a product launch really mean, and I think it means different things to different companies. Apple is at its best when its product launch equals a category launch, and you can start with the Macintosh itself, the birth of the GUI, at least in the kind of publicly consumable form that it still has today, the iPhone, the iPad, arguably the smartwatch, although that was less a thunder clap than the others.

I think it's fair to say that once a new product that also introduces a new category gets launched, if you're Apple, the next few years with product refinements are the equivalent of finishing the inflation of the balloon. That is to say, allowing the device to sort of grow into the thing that it should be. Once that's happened, and I don't know how many years old, let's say the iPhone, and therefore the modern smartphone is, probably 10 or 11 or 12, it's not really up to Apple, at least the way Apple is configured today, to bring the actual advancements. It's up to the folks who make the software that runs on it, the applications.

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Those applications, too, for a limited device like the iPhone, have a natural ending point, have a natural limit, as it's possible that new categories of apps for your iPhone, or smartphone more generally, are no longer easily accessible. So I think what Apple needs to do is introduce a new category or two. That's a tall order. It's a tall order for any company to do once, let alone three or four or five times, as Apple has succeeded in doing.

But the other thing that I think Apple could do would be to pay more attention, once again, to the professional world. There was a kind of almost palpable moment when Apple computers went from being the recognized and Apple-supported device of choice for professionals, let's say in the media industry, to the next moment when media creators were effectively ignored by Apple. The liability there is both a philosophical one and an actionable one, I think, if you're Apple.

That is to say, very specifically, if you're solving some of the hardest problems, in UI, in software, because you're effectively working for or working with people who are creating professional work, who are undertaking professional work, then you're solving the hardest problems that UI can solve, and all of that stuff, unlike Reagan's idiotic economic version of trickle-down theory, does have a very real trickle-down consequence.

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That is to say, the UI elements that you build to solve professional problems become powerful UI tools when applied to consumer problems, but if you only ever look at the consumer world, there are big parts of the territory, big chunks of the map, that you're never even getting to, so there's a lot of idea space that's simply left on the table. I would love to see Apple return to the idea that it makes some of the world's best consumer devices, but also the computational infrastructure of choice for the professional world, and that's something that might breathe life, if not a whole third lung, into Apple.

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By James Sanders

James Sanders is a technology writer for TechRepublic. He covers future technology, including quantum computing, AI, and 5G, as well as cloud, security, open source, mobility, and the impact of globalization on the industry, with a focus on Asia.