Could another company besides Apple have created the iPad?

by David Needle

April 2 2012

The Economist's Vijay Vaitheeswaran (left) and tech forecaster Paul Saffo of Discern Analytics discuss innovation. (Photo: David Needle)
The Economist's Vijay Vaitheeswaran (left) and tech forecaster Paul Saffo of Discern Analytics discuss innovation. (Photo: David Needle)

Innovation is the lifeblood of Silicon Valley, but according to two experts on the topic, coming up with a great idea is no guarantee of success. Take the iPad for example.

Santa Clara, Calif. -- “If someone at another company pushed the idea of a tablet that would require business people to input with their fingers, no that wouldn’t fly,” Paul Saffo, Managing Director of Foresight at Discern Analytics, told TabTimes. “Steve Jobs didn’t really answer to investors and the company executives trusted his judgement so even if the idea didn’t sound good, if Steve liked something, it got the green light.” 

Clearly it does often take a strong-willed leader willing to risk an unconventional idea to produce a hit product. Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak was repeatedly rejected by his manager and others at HP when he pitched his idea for a personal computer that would later launch Apple Computer.

But just taking chances on an innovative idea is hardly a guarantee of success. “Innovation is one of the most abused words in the English language,” said Vijay Vaitheeswaran, Global Correspondent for the Economist, who shared the stage with Saffo at the Churchill Club’s “Innovation’s Endless Revolution” event last Friday. 

“Innovation is not invention and it's not about getting the most patents,” Vaitheeswaran added. “It’s about fresh thinking that creates value.” 

Building on failure

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps along the way. Tablets weren't a big market, though a well-established niche industry before the debut of the iPad. One of the first things Jobs did on his return to Apple in 1998 was kill the Newton, a controversial tablet device favored by former Apple CEO John Sculley that never took off. A few years later, Microsoft and its partners launched the first in a line of Tablet PCs running Windows software that proved useful in niche markets, but never achieved broader acceptance. 

“Silicon Valley knows how to fail better than anyone else,” said Saffo. “That’s the reason you see so many two story buildings here, so that when you jump out the window you’ll only sprain your ankle” and keep going, he joked. 

Vaitheeswaran said for Silicon Valley and the broader U.S. to thrive, we have to embrace what’s become an “ideas economy” where brains not brawn are the key to success. 

In a later interview, TabTimes asked Saffo if there were innovative approaches companies competing with Apple should take. Just as Apple kind of went back to the future to recast touchscreen technology in the iPhone and iPad, Saffo says tablet competitors might be able to make hay with devices that work differently than the iPad. “There’s no stylus with the iPad. That could be an opportunity for another pad,” he said. 

In fact, Samsung is already making headway with its Galaxy Note, a 5-inch device that includes a stylus and specialized software designed to take advantage of it. Samsung recently said it’s shipped over 5 million Galaxy Notes since its debut last fall.

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