Apple's Jobs should be remembered as a product innovator, not an inventor

Michael Noll

A. Michael Noll

When it comes to product innovation, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) has been incredible. Apple makes all my computers and media players. But when it comes to invention, Apple has not done as well.

The graphic user interface that is implemented beautifully in Macintosh computers was invented at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center decades ago. The mouse was invented at the Stanford Research Institute. The operating system that underpins all Macintosh computers is a variant of UNIX, invented almost a half century ago at Bell Labs. I find it hard to identify any real inventions by Apple.

Contrast this with a research laboratory such as Bell Labs from which flowed a host of inventions, such as: the transistor, force-feedback tactile communication, digital computer music, speech synthesis, stereophonic audio, CCD imagers, and the solar cell, to name but a few. But Bell Labs was not very good at developing many of its inventions into commercial consumer products. Others had to do that.

The basic compression technology that made the iPod possible was invented not at Apple, but at Bell Labs. But Apple has excelled at taking the inventions of others and turning them into products that consumers salivate to hold and purchase.

When Apple uses the term "innovation," it is not the invention that flows from basic research that is meant, but rather product and marketing innovation. Apple did not invent downloading--but Apple with the iTunes store made the downloading of music and applications easy and inexpensive.

Years ago, Sony innovated products that consumers really wanted. The industrial design of many Sony products was glorious. But Sony also invented at its research laboratory, such as the in-line three-gun display tube for television. It was Sony, working with Phillips, that invented the audio compact disc. The small CD player innovated by Sony was a beautiful product, worthy of placement in a museum. Edison not only innovated products that consumers would want (such as the phonograph and motion pictures), but also invented the technology itself.

I wonder what wonderful novel products and services would have been innovated if Apple had acquired an invention factory, such as Bell Labs or Xerox PARC.

As Steve Jobs retires from Apple, he should be remembered for his innovation in designing products that consumers really wanted--and also for battling the giant Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT)--and ultimately winning.

A. Michael Noll is Professor Emeritus of Communications at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.