Even its staunchest critics might admit that Apple has been a company steeped in innovative system software and hardware ideas. Unfortunately, many of them (Publish and Subscribe, OpenDoc, and QuickDraw GX, just to name three) were commercial flops that hurt the company's credibility with its developers and its customers.
But the company has soldiered on, trying to keep its innovative focus while embracing profitability and serious marketing.
Since we are now about six months ahead of the release of Apple's make-it or break-it innovative system software, namely Mac OS X, this is a good time to reflect on whether or not Apple has figured a way to be both innovative and successful.
The QuickTime model
Of all of Apple's systemware, none has been more successful, in both Mac OS and Windows markets, than QuickTime. With the release of QuickTime 4.0, Apple has set the standard for multimedia recording, editing, and playback. Supporting a customer base of more than five million Mac and Windows users who downloaded the preview release, and a growing list of online publishers -- including Fox News Online, Fox Sports Online, and The Weather Channel -- QuickTime 4 is the hottest streaming technology on the Internet.
According to Apple, "over 17,000 software products are built with QuickTime, and 400 new QuickTime-enabled products are created every month. And more than 57% of Web sites that use video use QuickTime [to deliver it]." To make it easy for consumers to view QuickTime Web content, Apple's QuickTime Player sports an "LCD section including a Time display, a slider that shows you the length of the file being played, and a chapter marker. You can switch chapters on the fly (in essence, skip forward or back to different points in the file), even at the beginning of a video stream."
Not unlike Real Networks' RealPlayer, the Apple QuickTime Player lets you play favorite multimedia selections that you have bookmarked elsewhere on the Web.
In addition, QuickTime 4.0 can play MP3 content, as well Timecode tracks and MIDI formats such as the Roland Sound Canvas and GS format extensions. QuickTime also supports key standards for Web streaming, including HTTP, RTP and RTSP. QuickTime 4.0 also supports every major file format for images, including JPEG, BMP, PICT, PNG and GIF, plus built-in support for digital video, including MiniDV, DVCPro and DVCam camcorder formats, as well as support for AVI, AVR, MPEG-1 and OpenDML.
In short, if you do multimedia, you'd be crazy not to be doing it with QuickTime 4.0. And since the basic QuickTime 4.0 player package is free, it's easy for developers to get streaming content out to potential customers.
What price innovation?
But the price of QuickTime innovation, along with the Herculean efforts to create Mac OS X (which is, after all, the blending of two disparate OSes, one based on Mach and the other based on the existing Mac OS), has been a serious lack of innovative Apple efforts in other software (or hardware) domains.
While the lastest PowerBooks and Blue G3s are compelling (if somewhat overpriced) machines, and the iMac remains the darling of the inexpensive computer market, the pace of release of innovative Apple hardware has slowed to a trickle over the past year. How long have we awaited the consumer iBook portable Mac or a follow-on to the late-lamented Newton PDA? How long has Apple hinted that G4-based Macs are coming soon? And how long has Apple promised a real encore (not just a repackaged version) to the iMac?
Couple that with the lack of any interesting systemware outside of Mac OS X and QuickTime (whatever happened, for example, to the development work on AppleScript [AppleScript 1.3.7 ain't it, folks] or HyperCard? I can't tell you because Apple won't say much) and you have a serious dearth in Apple innovation as of late.
While I agree that Apple "over-innovated" in the early 90's with too many "cool" products that no one in their right minds would pay for, and that Apple needed the fiscal control that reduced product development has brought, I also see a real problem for the company carrying its brand beyond this year. Think Different is about real innovation, or at least it should be.
And that innovation needs a serious kick in the ass to get back on track. A serious kick that will cost time and money, to be sure, but can't easily be finessed around.