Give it to Apple, the company knows showmanship. Unveiling a new smart watch and iPhone in its trademark grand press conference — complete with a performance by U2 — gave the impression that the company was again at the cutting edge of digital innovation. As an engineer, I can say that, well, I liked the U2 performance.
The truth is that great marketing is no substitute for great engineering — as Jennifer Lawrence and all of the other stars who had their digital photo albums hacked would probably agree. Right now, there is a lot of great engineering out there, and any company that wants to keep its reputation as an innovator is going to have to fight hard for it. Our digital world is changing so rapidly that one company overtakes another before anyone notices.
Reuters’ story on Apple’s big iPhone and Apple Watch reveal pointed out in the first paragraph that “Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook seeks to revive the technology company’s reputation as a wellspring of innovation.” That had to hurt, but all tech company executives know that no one company is going to be left alone at the top of the innovation pyramid for long, but he who innovates best will last the longest.
Take the case of the celebrity photo hacking. The stealing of photos by breaking into user iCloud and iPhone accounts is just the kind of event that can turn a company’s fortunes. Just days before its new iPhone launch, Apple announced that scores of celebrity accounts had been hacked, but it assured customers that there was no iPhone or iCloud security flaw. Nonetheless, a lot of people started to wonder about their data storage options. Could their pictures be that easily hacked on other brands of phones? How safe is their personal information — their bank account passwords, photo albums, social media login info? This was not the best environment in which to unveil a new in-phone payment system, as Apple did. A hip phone is great, but not if it costs you your privacy.
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This is how Blackberry has held on to so many government and corporate accounts as other manufacturers attracted hip, young consumers. Its security features were, and still are, considered very strong. But others are knocking on Blackberry’s castle gates. Samsung spent four years developing its Knox security system, and the research has paid off in new government accounts, including the Departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security. All of a sudden, Blackberry is being seriously challenged in its last remaining stronghold.
That raises the question: What happens to Apple if its users come to doubt the security of their information the way Blackberry’s consumer users came to doubt the functionality of their devices? The easy backdoor access to user accounts through iCloud remains a serious concern. If you cannot satisfy the customer’s needs, he or she will go elsewhere. Just ask Hewlett Packard, which lost a ton of money with its purchase of once-dominant Palm Pilot right as the smartphone market was taking off.
How easy it is to forget that before there were smartphones there were these things called PDAs (personal digital assistants), the Palm Pilot being the perfect example. People needed both hands so they could use the stylus to clumsily communicate with the thick, bulky device. Good luck if you lost your stylus. Now we can store all that information in a wristwatch, which doubles as a phone. I say “now” because we do not have to wait for Apple’s new watch to hit stores. Samsung is already on the sixth version of its smartwatch, and the latest version does not need to be used in conjunction with a phone, as the Apple Watch does.
The company considered today’s leading tech gadget innovator is actually playing catch-up now — finally releasing a smartwatch and a phone with a large screen (a “phablet”), which several competitors like HTC, LG, and Samsung have had released for a couple years. It seems like only yesterday when everyone was trying to catch up with Apple. Now Apple is trying to catch up with others who adapted more quickly to rapidly changing consumer demand.
In the tech world, there are a lot of highly innovative, nimble companies that spend fortunes on research and development so they can survive in the hypercompetitive marketplace. He who does not employ the best engineers and put them to the best uses will soon see a rival passing rapidly ahead. And that is good for you and me. Who wants to be stuck using the last decade’s technology when there are companies eager to give us the next?
Matt Kayrish of Olathe is a former patent examiner with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.