Innovation often transpires from synthesizing existing ideas in new ways, as the following case study on the iPod will illuminate.
In some sense, the iPod wasn’t a breakthrough innovation at all. It emerged from Steve Jobs’s “digital hub” approach to integrating iMac software for playing, editing, and managing photos, music, and movies. According to Walter Isaacson’s masterful biography of Steve Jobs (2011,) when Apple designers learned that Toshiba had newly prototyped a tiny 1.8-inch hard drive that could hold five gigabytes of storage (that’s about a thousand songs,) they conjured up a digital music player. Apple found that existing gadgets were “big and clunky or small and useless” with “unbelievably awful” user interfaces.
Sony’s Walkman had previously proven the market potential of portable audio players, having sold 200 million units in the two decades before Apple conceived the iPod. Napster had offered digital audio file distribution for over five years. Finger-driven touchscreens were pioneered in the 1960s, and Citibank rolled out touchscreen ATMs in the 1980s. (Apple didn’t offer touchscreens until 2007 with the iPhone.) Hence, the iPod’s innovation was in bringing all these capabilities together in a way that was easier to use and relevant to the consumer. Dartmouth’s strategy professor Ron Adner writes in The Wide Lens: What Successful Innovators See That Others Miss (2013.)
Apple was three years late [behind Creative, SanDisk, Sony, and Samsung, who had previously launched portable music players]. As we’ll see again in the case of the iPhone, Jobs tended to be late for everything because he wanted everything to be ready for him. Reflecting on catching technology waves in 2008, he said, “Things happen fairly slowly, you know. They do. These waves of technology, you can see them way before they happen, and you just have to choose wisely which ones you’re going to surf. If you choose unwisely, then you can waste a lot of energy, but if you choose wisely, it actually unfolds fairly slowly. It takes years.” Jobs’s discipline paid off.