Under legendary cofounder Steve Jobs, Apple gained a reputation as a leader. While it wasn’t the first to create an MP3 player or a smartphone, the company is credited with redefining those product categories, forging new territory with technological innovation and exceptional design. Each time Apple introduced a new product, both consumers and other tech manufacturers followed, embracing Apple’s vision of each new device and the software that accompanied it. That’s worked for the company because its iteration of a new product category usually incorporates exceptional usability and great design in both the hardware and software.
Olof Schybergson wrote for GigaOM in 2013, as Apple unveiled iOS 7 at its Worldwide Developers Concert, that the fact that iOS has hundreds of millions of active users “is both a blessing and a curse for Apple. With that size, its priorities have moved from disrupting others to scaling and protecting what it has.” He explained, “Apple rose to prominence as a company that brilliantly anticipated customers’ future needs. But today Apple focuses mainly on serving their existing customers’ current needs.”
In the process of adopting and improving ideas introduced by others, there’s a fine line between being a leader and becoming a follower. In recent years, Apple’s announcements have fallen on both sides of that line; for every innovation it’s introduced, it’s also made a product or feature announcement that illustrates how the company sometimes succumbs to market pressure to follow trends instead of set them. Here are five times when Apple has gone from a leader to a follower.
1. Debuting Apple Music without any novel features
As Tech Cheat Sheet reported after Apple’s 2015 Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple’s music streaming service didn’t introduce anything new or surprising. Its interface was redesigned from the company’s previous music app, and the service was priced to compete with every other streaming service available to users, at $10 a month for a single user. Apple announced at the event that it would launch the service on Android, as well, setting the service up to be an option for a large user base.
While the preinstalled user base for Apple Music is one of its major advantages, its features are nothing new. Instead, Apple Music relies on “exclusives” and its deals with major record labels to lure users. Additionally, its curated BeatsOne Radio riffs on a concept that hasn’t been successful in the United States. And while not everything that Apple introduces needs to be innovative to take off, Apple Music’s launch felt like a missed opportunity to do something more surprising.
2. Releasing Apple Pay without real advantages over Google Wallet
Andrew Hamada wrote for Forbes that many people thought that Apple Pay was innovative, even though Google Wallet had been a part of Android for two years, because Google does a poor job of explaining what Google Wallet is and Apple does a much better job with Apple Pay. While Google’s explanation of Google Wallet has traditionally been scattered, and its value proposition abstract, Apple’s marketing of Apple Pay was masterful. Its story was concise and comprehensive, and reflected Apple’s emphasis on simplicity. And its marketing of the concept of mobile payments was so effective that even Google Wallet saw a significant uptick in usage in the months after Apple Pay was announced.
What was hidden in the disparity in marketing for the two mobile payments services was that the two systems are actually pretty similar. They both depend on NFC hardware — which Android flagship phones have had for several years and Apple just introduced with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus — which communicates with a payment terminal set up for contactless payments. (That means that while Apple Pay is available on only a small assortment of devices, Google Wallet is supported by years of devices by a variety of manufacturers.) Both systems enable you to enter the details of your debit and credit cards, and both require you to authenticate each transaction, Apple Pay with your fingerprint and Google Wallet with a numerical PIN code.
Each system offers users more peace of mind when it comes to the security of their cards and personal information. While Apple Pay and Google Wallet handle a transaction differently — Apple stores your information on your iPhone itself while Google stores them on its servers — the retailer where you’re making a purchase doesn’t get your credit card details. Again, Apple didn’t introduce a new technology, but just improved on what was already available.
3. Launching the Apple Watch without a killer app
When the Apple Watch made its debut, months before it would actually become available to shoppers, manufacturers had already been making a variety of smartwatches, many built on Google’s Android Wear, for several years. Samsung, for example, was the first to bring a smartwatch to market with the Samsung Gear line. The Apple Watch had the potential to reinvent the product category — to redefine what a smartwatch should do and how users can interact with it — but instead left users wondering why they’d want a smartwatch.
While the Apple Watch launched with a wide array of different apps for users to try, none of the apps created for the watch is so universally compelling that it seems to make the watch a necessity for a large user base. Though there isn’t a single killer app for the smartphone, which is regarded as a necessity by practically everyone you’ll meet on an average day, most people will need a compelling reason to shell out hundreds of dollars for a device that, so far, mostly offers functionality that’s easier to use on a smartphone. The Apple Watch’s hardware is undeniably high-end, with price tags to match. However, even though the Apple Watch can do a lot of things, none of those, so far, strongly differentiate it from other smartwatches on the market.
4. Debuting larger iPhones to compete with Android phones
Apple debuted the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus after Android devices had been available in a range of sizes for years. Many consumers want those larger phones, a fact that Apple ignored for many years as it held onto its smaller designs. The larger screens of the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus seemed a response to the success of big-screened Android phones from manufacturers like Samsung, even as some sources said that the project to build a bigger iPhone had been underway for several years.
But the fact remains that smartphone makers borrow features and functions from one another. And speaking of Samsung, Kristian Ramos reported for Computerworld as the larger iPhones were launching that Apple had famously been at war with Samsung, accusing the company of copying features of earlier iPhones. But many tech bloggers and industry watchers noted that the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus incorporated features that were found on Android phones and in the software that they run. “The iPhone 6 looks a lot like the Nexus 4, an Android phone that came out way back in 2012,” Ramos noted, “with a 4.7-inch screen, 760p resolution, notification action widgets, third-party keyboards, cross-app communication, cloud photo backup and battery stats — all to be found on the iPhone 6.”
The fact that competing smartphones have similar features is nothing new, but Cupertino wants the tech industry to view Apple borrowing from Samsung in a different light than the reverse. “Apparently, Apple’s view is that when Samsung does it, it’s patent infringement, but when Apple does it, it’s giving customers what they want,” Ramos explained.
5. Introducing the iPad Mini to compete with Google and Amazon
The 2012 launch of the iPad Mini may not be as fresh in your memory as the launch of the iPhone 6 or Apple Pay, but it was one of the first times that analysts noted that Apple was acting as a follower instead of as a leader. The debut of the iPad Mini, which had a 7.9-inch screen, was seen as a response to pressure from competitors like Google and Amazon rather than as an innovative move on Apple’s part.
Smart Company reported that David Kennedy, research director at Ovum, noted at the time, “Small tablets have been around in various forms for quite some time so I think for the first time it means Apple is entering a market where it is not the leader and the market is already populated.” Analysts were disappointed by the launch, noting that instead of catalyzing a new form factor or product category, Apple was following the trend toward smaller and cheaper tablets. In fact, it priced the iPad Mini to compete with the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire.