Apple's New iPhone is a Reminder That Innovation Doesn't Always Happen Where, When, or How You Expect


The future…of losing expensive stuff in Ubers.
Apple Airpods

Today's announcement of Apple's new iPhone—the iPhone 7, for those who are counting—has been regarded in some quarters as a little bit underwhelming. The biggest update, the removal of the traditional 3.5mm analog headphone jack, was widely predicted, and it's not entirely clear whether consumers will respond favorably to the removal of the port, which allows for a thinner, more water resistant device and some spiffy new wireless headphones—dubbed AirPods—with some digital features. (I shed a brief tear for my soon-to-be-obsolete collection of wired, tired, analog headphones.)

There are other changes too: The new iPhone is a little slimmer and a little faster. It has a fancy new dual-camera system, and it comes in a new color, Jet Black—though not, sadly, None More Black. You can now play a nifty new version of Super Mario with just a single finger. But overall there are not a lot of big, new changes. It's a steady, marginal improvement on the previous version iPhone, not a revolution.

You can, of course, interpret this as a sign that innovation is slowing down not only at Apple, the world's richest company, but also in the economy as a whole—another data point in the great stagnation, the slowing pace of economic growth. This is where we're at now: a slow progression slightly better products that fundamentally aren't much different from the products we already have.

But if you look at the birth and development of the iPhone in the context of the last nine years it suggests a somewhat different conclusion: that we never know where big innovations will come from, and that we may not even recognize them when they arrive.

When the first iPhone hit the market in 2007, tech critics were somewhat skeptical of the new touchscreen interface—particularly its keyboard. "Tapping the skinny little virtual keys on the screen is frustrating, especially at first," wrote New York Times gadget reviewer David Pogue, who warned that "text entry is not the iPhone's strong suit. The BlackBerry won't be going away anytime soon."

Less than a decade later, of course, the once-dominant BlackBerry is all but history—and every single major mobile smartphone device boasts a virtual keyboard like the one introduced on the first iPhone.

The first iPhone, however, was still a fairly primitive device. There was no true G.P.S. functionality. It came with the handful of software programs and apps that were loaded when you bought it, and that was it. The App Store, with its wealth of games and productivity apps and time-wasters and curiosities, didn't arrive until the next year, with Apple's second generation iPhone.

That iteration of the device was also seen mostly as a marginal improvement over its predecessor. As Pogue wrote in the Times upon its release, the second generation iPhone could take advantage of faster mobile web speeds, and had some software improvements, plus the inclusion of a true G.P.S.—but, he lamented, "there's not much you can do with it." And although he hailed the new App Store as a "towering tsunami of a feature" that would allow the iPhone to become "a dazzling hand-held game machine," he also noted that "plenty of Appleholics have expressed dismay at how little the handset has changed." Where was the next revolution?

In just a few years, though, the App Store grew into a massive ecosystem, creating tens of thousands of jobs for app-creators and app-creation companies. Some of the most promising, fascinating, and consequential of those apps—everything from on-demand car services like Uber to augmented reality games like PokemonGo to delivery services for liquor, home-cooked meals, and take-out—have been built around the iPhone's ability to provide location data using its built in G.P.S. Many, probably most, of the biggest changes in the tech economy and consumer opportunities over the last decade have been driven by these forces.

The point isn't that this year's iPhone is going to surprise us and reinvent the digital economy again—although, who knows, maybe the wireless headphone revolution will turn out to be the first step towards AR-contact lenses and direct-to-brain implants and the inevitable creation of MindTwitter—but that you can't always see major innovations before they arrive, and economic progress doesn't always proceed along a nice, linear ramp. Instead it arrives in fits and starts and spurts, some of which look like small changes at first, and then moves faster than anyone quite expects. The only thing predictable about it is its unpredictability.