Innovation is Hard

Perhaps Apple’s greatest magic trick, if you will, is that for the past decade they’ve made culture-altering innovation seems positively easy. That innovation is actually really difficult by large companies should be the main takeaway from Kurt Eichenwald’s deep-dive into the Steve Ballmer-era at Microsoft, writes Matt Yglesias at Slate.

For example, Eichenwald notes:

Years passed. Finally, on November 14, 2006, Microsoft introduced its own music player, called Zune. Fifty-four days later, Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, which combined a mobile phone, a music player, Internet capability, a camera, and other features not available on Zune. But the iPod was still around for customers who didn’t want a phone. In fact, Apple had already introduced its fifth-generation iPod, its less expensive iPod Mini, and was about a year away from marketing the least costly of its music players, the iPod Nano.

Zune was blown away. By 2009, iPod maintained an astonishing 71 percent of the market, the kind of numbers rarely seen anywhere outside of a North Korean election. Meanwhile, Zune limped along with less than 4 percent. Last October, Microsoft discontinued it, in hopes that customers would instead purchase a Windows Phone that, like the iPhone, has a music player.

By the time Microsoft was introducing its iPod competitor to the world, Apple had moved on to the iPhone. That seems insane. “It’s at least possible that Windows 8 will be a huge hit and people will turn in drove to buy smartphones and tablets that seemlessly integrate with the still-dominant desktop PC platform and we’ll all look back on the ten-year Apple Bubble and laugh. Financial markets are betting against that, but it’s not a crazy story,” Yglesias notes.

Here’s the thing, while Microsoft is skating to where Apple is currently playing with the puck, Apple is skating to where they want the puck to be. A perfect example of that is with the new “Mountain Lion” OS X release. Most reviews have said it is merely incrementally better than the previous version, however, Wired’s Roberto Baldwin insists the OS is the perfect cord-cutting operating system.

As someone that is a “cord-cutter” and follows that technology trend with a passion, this fascinates me to no end. The AirPlay integration is a minor feature, but its potential is devastating.

Once your mirroring set-up is complete, anything you might play on your desktop can be displayed on your big-screen TV — and this is where all that unique, cord-cutting potential comes into play. Sure, you can start playing computer games on the big-screen. And you can also pipe Rdio tunes, or any other music, directly to your TV speakers. But most importantly, you can mirror all those free, streaming desktop services that would otherwise cost money (or not work at all) if streamed directly to a TV.

For example: Hulu’s free, PC-only streaming library is suddenly available on your TV without Hulu’s $8 monthly tax in the form of a Hulu Plus subscription (this tax is imposed on set-top devices like the Xbox 360 and Sony Playstation). And then there’s On the network’s website, you can watch (and now AirPlay mirror) tons of network TV shows. Yes, these shows also appear in the CBS iOS app, but the app doesn’t support AirPlay mirroring. The same holds true for ABC content: It can be mirrored via, but not via ABC’s iOS app.

How long will all this streaming desktop content remain free and unfettered? Only time will tell, but the latest evolutions in desktop mirroring could have long-term effects on the delicate relationships between Hollywood content producers, cable and satellite companies, and technology companies like Apple. Currently, desktop computers are somewhat of a bastion for free, streaming content, as evidenced by the Hulu, CBS and ABC policies above. Restrictions are tighter on mobile devices, and this even extends to YouTube, which disables mobile viewing — but not desktop viewing — for user videos that contain copyrighted music content.

Innovation is hard. Yet, Apple continues to make it look easy. [via @swartsr]

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