The Real Reason Behind Why Apple Is The Most Innovative Company in The World…

The difference between innovation and inventiveness

Bruce Ironhardt
Oct 15, 2020 · 5 min read
Business Insider

The other day I had mentioned to one of my friends that I thought Apple was one of the most innovative companies on the planet.

He turned to me and said “You know they haven’t ever invented anything right? How is Apple innovative in any way when all they do is take what’s there and resell it in a nice looking package?”

I thought about what he said and I couldn’t really disagree.

Technically speaking most of the technology that Apple produced existed before Apple ever turned them into a product. And I’m sure they’ve invented many minor parts, of course, they have like thousands of patents, but as far as the core product goes, they’ve never really made an ‘original’ product. Or have they?

So I got to Googling and it turns out that the terms “invention” and “innovative” get mixed up by people like me and my friend all the time.

The best explanation I found on the difference comes from this clip from MIT’s OpenCourseWare.

The TLDR though is that invention is the creation of something new. This can be a new idea, methodology, process, and of course some new patent.

Inventions don’t have inherent value though, at least not until they’re applied to a problem. And that’s where innovation comes in.

Innovation is fundamentally different. It’s different because it takes an invention and adds value in some way. It makes an invention useful to people and gives the invention a purpose.

The more value something can provide the more innovative the product and the better received it is by the people who end up using it.

Why Being An Inventive Company Isn’t Glamorous

The reality is that innovation really is based on that function above. And notice that the function is a product, not an addition. Why is that?

Inventions don’t have value intrinsically. By having a way to commercialize an invention you generate value and that’s how innovative companies are built. They see a need and fill it in the best way they can. Often times that means taking not one or two inventions and figuring it out a way to sell it. It usually involves hundreds of inventions and methods to build a product that can be meet a need.

You need the two together. So inventions in isolation aren’t innovative and an idea of solving a problem without the necessary tools isn’t innovative either.

Let’s take an example.

The invention of plastic. The invention in itself has no value. If you didn't have a use for plastic the invention would just sit ideally by in some patent office, never to be used. Let’s take another invention. The manufacturing process of encasing the end of small rope or laces with the plastic. Again, why is this useful? It’s not until we apply it to a need.

I need a product that helps fit through small holes in a shoe and can be easily tightened and tied to allow users to adjust how a shoe fits on their feet. If you don't know where I’m going with this, I’m talking about using shoelaces on shoes.

Before someone thought to use the two previous inventions in an application, they had no value. Now though, it's a hugely innovative idea. So innovative fact that the vast majority of footwear will incorporate the shoelace. This is obviously just an example, there are millions of useful ways to use plastic of course, but I want to illustrate how an invention without use lacks value but when it's applied to a need it has value and the two together build innovation.

In that sense Innovation can be defined as follows,

Innovation = Invention * Commercialization

I intuitively knew that despite Apple not being the most inventive company, it’s definitely one of the most innovative. I just couldn’t justify my position until I understood that definition.

So Is Apple Innovative If It Doesn’t Invent

The real question is, what requirement is there for it to invent?

Again this isn’t saying that Apple is constantly inventing, just that it doesn’t necessarily have to.

The equation from above has invention as one of its variables but it doesn't say that Apple needs to be the one to make the invention, just that an invention must be coupled with a way to commercialize it in order to build innovation.

When the early Macs and Windows PCs arrived they were hugely successful and loved by many but the main aspect that they were loved for was developed by another company.

People loved the graphical user interface. But neither Apple nor Microsoft came up with the graphical user interface.

Xerox is credited with having invented the GUI but Apple and Microsoft were able to take that invention and actually commercialize it in a product that made it consumable for everyday people.

They took an invention that already existed and made a device that was more intuitive and far easier to use than anything that came before. They brought personal computing to millions of people and dominated the market, Microsoft a little more than Apple during those times.

But Apple continued on this trend of taking technology that already exists and making the product more valuable for consumers. The early iPods weren’t all that different from MP3 players but they gave their owners far more value.

They allowed them to download thousands of songs and store them on their iPods. It synced to iTunes and let people download songs for 99 cents instead of pirating them online or spending money on whole albums that would need to be ripped and transferred to their device.

They took something that existed and made it simpler to use (for most people, my experience with iTunes has never been great personally).

Then of course there was the iPhone. We know all the technology for the iPhone existed before the iPhone ever came to market but the iPhone was still the most innovative device of its time.


Screenshot from YouTube

Simply put, it made smartphones easier and more intuitive than any of the phones before it.

It made browsing the web actually doable on a smartphone. The email wasn’t as clunky as it was on any of the devices previous. It solved problems that other manufacturers solved before. But the way Apple did it was fundamentally better and so consumers loved it.

The iPhone’s innovation came not from any invention it brought to the table but from how it synergized all those technologies in a way that leapfrogged past the competition.

The reason Apple stands at 2 trillion dollars isn’t that it produced the most patents. It’s because they focused on their biggest strength, making a product easy to use.

This meant people who may have never touched a technology before could all of a sudden use it with relative ease. And that’s what makes them innovative.

Mac O’Clock

The best stories for Apple owners and enthusiasts

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store