Sorry, but Samsung has not taken Apple's innovation crown

The Galaxy S 4 shows that both Samsung and pundits confuse features with innovation

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If Samsung isn't the new innovation leader, is Apple?
What about Apple? Is it an innovation leader that's been prematurely abandoned by a shortsighted tech industry because it's been unable to dramatically change the world in the last two or three years? That's less clear. Chowdhry doesn't know what Apple is working on -- nor does anyone else, no matter what you might read.

Chowdhry is very critical of Apple CEO Tim Cook's actions after Steve Jobs' death. Cook switched emphasis from users to stockholders, sending a signal that Apple was no longer focused on user-oriented innovation, he argues. Chowdhry cites Apple's decisions to issue dividends to stockholders, an action usually limited to companies that have stopped growing.

He also cites Cook's presence at trade shows and financial earnings calls, but not at the Apple Stores that have become the clubroom for Apple users and the Apple experience. Last year, Apple Store employees were highly demotivated as the management grew more traditional, and on Cook's watch, Apple opened its flagship new Apple Store in Palo Alto, Calif., without a bathroom for buyers -- Apple staff told them to go next door to Starbucks. "You never tell customers to go somewhere else," Chowdhry says. All that signaled a shift from Jobs' customer-centric style.

For Chowdhry, the most significant innovation is done by taking things away -- radical simplification, a Jobs hallmark that propelled the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, and iTunes, as well as reignited the Mac. If Apple returns to that thinking, its position as the innovation leader is more assured.

Chowdhry sees a few signs that Apple has learned from the ill-advised shift to the shareholder last year and is refocusing on user experience, though not always where you might expect. For example, one major frustration among Apple users is the wait -- often weeks long -- for a new Mac, iPhone, or iPad. Part of that wait is due to a centralized supply chain that requires everything be sent to China for assembly, then shipped backed out. He expects Apple to begin manufacturing in several locations across the globe, in factories that can adapt to demand more quickly, as automakers learned to do years ago. (Apple is already making some iMacs in California.) Chowdhry notes that 85 percent of the manufacturing work is done by robots that can work anywhere, and the talent exists nearly anywhere to manage them -- the Chinese have no lock on that. In fact, Germany and the United States are the leaders in such manufacturing.

Chowdhry also suspects the rumors are true that Apple will move at least some A6 chip production to Intel's Oregon fabrication plants, which would support such multipoint manufacturing. This action would further decouple Apple from Samsung, the rival that processes much of Apple's hardware and thus gets an early peek at Apple technologies it then figures out how to duplicate before anyone else.

Reinventing the supply chain could be an innovation of the magnitude of the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, or the iPad, each of which truly transformed their markets. It would also improve the Apple user experience.

That's one innovation Apple may be undertaking in what Chowdhry calls a "fix-it year." As new iPads and iPhones are revealed this year, we'll see if Apple is still the innovation leader. If not, the field's wide open. Samsung has not truly stepped into the role, nor have Microsoft, Google, and BlackBerry, even if each has contributed useful inventions.

This article, "Sorry, but Samsung has not taken Apple's innovation crown," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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