Nishant wrote a good piece on why Apple continue to outdo it’s rivals, he used a variant of a quote by Canadian hockey player Wayne Gretzky to make his point:
A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.
This is true as it stands, but I think the main reason why Apple can keep a pace and a high standard of inovation is because of how they manage the Lowest Common Denominator. And iPhone OS with App Store is the crown jewel.
Technology vs. User Base
The lowest common denominator is always of interest when developing applications and services for the end user with profit interests. The lowest common denominator is what defines your user base, and it is a hard game of balance. Sticking to the newest technology will allow you to progress faster with more elegant solutions, whereas using a more commonly available technology will give you a larger user base.
So the lowest common denominator should be as high as possible, while still economical. With Java ME a bold effort to rise the bar of the lowest common denominator is the MSA JSR-248. An effort to give Java ME developers a guarantee minimum of features. A noble effort, but in reality up to a year ago only Sony Ericsson was MSA compliant, making the aged MIDP 2.0 the de-facto lowest common denominator for any developer targeting a the majority of Java ME devices.
The lowest common denominator for an average Java ME developer is the MIDP 2.0 spec from 2002.
iTunes as a Hub
Apple has a different situation, largely due to it’s decision to use iTunes as the hub for all mobile devices, iPods as well as iPhones. All iPods and iPhones charges the battery by plugging in the USB-cable to your computer, this have some large but not obvious benefits.
Most notably Apple knows with 100% certainty that all users will have their devices on a reliable and controlled connection often, in most cases on a daily basis. As the users also use iTunes to synchronize their media, any other synchronization is not a hassle but rather a bonus on top of something they already requested.
Adding software updates on top of synchronizing media and data content through iTunes is just genius. It is a two click operation for the user, and as a result Apple virtually guaranteed that all iPod and iPhone users have the very latest software installed on their device.
Apart from the technology decision with iTunes as a hub, Apple have also made a business decision by always back porting their latest software to all iPhone OS powered devices. iPhone OS 2.0 can be installed on any first generation iPod Touch or iPhone, and with iPhone OS 3.0 this summer all three generations will be supported.
This back-porting model is the total oposite of almost all competitors, where instead new features are explicitly locked to the latest hardware in order to sell devices. So if the end users can get all the new iPhone 3.0 as a free download, why should they buy new hardware? Will not Apple loose revenue on unsold third generation iPhone devices?
In short term probably will, but the big win is the Lowest Common Denominator. Whereas the competition have a common lowest denominator of several years, almost a decade, Apple and all of Apple’s third party developers have a lowest common denominator of virtually weeks.
With a simple software distribution model that guarantees the lowest common denominator Apple has guaranteed that the common lowest denominator is the current software, period. This allows Apple, and all third party developer creating applications and services for their devices, the luxury of discarding all effort for backward compatibility, and technological compromises.
Apple and we are allowed to innovate with full steam ahead.