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 … Next Page »

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