If you invent something, there's essentially two ways to protect your intellectual property from being ripped off. The first way is to work within the legal system, file patents, and enforce them when violated. The second is to make a product that's incredibly difficult to copy. The former method is often expensive, slow moving, and ultimately ineffective in preventing competitors from plagiarizing your work. The latter method is terribly difficult because ideas are cheap, even worthless, without execution.
Apple has faced a fundamental challenge protecting its intellectual property for almost all of its existence. Those who know tech history will remember this issue coming to a head, nearly leading to Apple's complete failure when Microsoft copied the Mac OS. Today, it's Samsung that's ripping off Apple's original products, but they won't get away with it like Microsoft did.
For most of its history, Apple has been a player in a game against its competitors, the media, and Wall St. The rules of this game state that in order to win, Apple must continuously release new products and out-innovate everyone. The game also allows for other players to copy Apple's moves without taking the associated risks. But after more than three decades playing this game, Apple has learned how to change the rules. These new rules are not fair and they will result in many players losing the game quickly.
Samsung is at the top of the list of players with the most to lose. The meteoric rise of the iPhone since 2007 led to Samsung's first 'crisis of design'. To address this crisis they willingly chose to infringe upon Apple's original inventions because they knew how difficult and expensive it would be to come up with their own. Samsung went on to sell millions of phones and tablets that looked just like iPhones and iPads. Since then Apple has successfully challenged Samsung's blatant plagiarism in court, resulting in a $1 billion settlement - a paltry sum considering the stakes involved.
Meanwhile, sales of Samsung's S4 tanked. Sales of the iPhone 5c equal more than all of Samsung's, HTC's, LG's, Blackberry's, and Nokia's high end smartphones combined. And the iPhone 5s handily outsells the 5c. A trend is beginning to play out, months in advance of the iPhone 6, where the high end smartphone market is essentially ceded to Apple.
The iPhone 6 will cement this trend. It will be the first Apple product that fits within a new and emerging formula - a new way of doing things. Its industrial design, the materials required, the manufacturing processes involved, and Apple-designed in-house components, will prove to be a combination that's very, very hard to copy. This new product formula breaks down into four constituent parts:
Last year, Apple inked an exclusive deal with GT Advanced, a company in Massachusetts and Arizona that has a proprietary way of rapidly growing sapphire crystals. Sapphire is harder and stronger than glass, but has traditionally been difficult to produce and therefore costs much more. Apple has used sapphire for the the iPhone's camera lens, but they're planning something much, much larger.
Sapphire will lead to a new generation of lighter, thinner, and stronger mobile and wearable devices, and this process is now in the hands of Apple.
Since taking over the GT Advanced factory, Apple has quadrupled its capacity and seems to be in the process of doubling that again. Whatever Apple has planned for its new sapphire plant, it's thinking big.
Then there's the A7 64-bit mobile CPU that powers the iPhone and iPad. The A7 is the most powerful, most efficient, and the only 64-bit mobile CPU on the market. It's designed entirely in-house by Apple. After being on the market for seven months, there's still no response from Intel, Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Samsung. Why? Because building power sipping 64-bit mobile CPUs is hard. Apple knew it needed better chips than the industry was producing, so it started working on the problem years ago with their purchase of P.A. Semi in 2008 and then Intrinsity in 2010.
The purchase of both these companies helped Apple catapult to the top in mobile CPU design. Apple now leads the industry in both raw performance, and power management. With iOS being vertically integrated to take advantage of The A7's features, Apple devices remain the most powerful on the market. Who'd have thought Apple would so handily win the spec battle while making 'niche' products? Before the post-PC era, it was nearly impossible for Apple to achieve such a position. In the post-PC era, it may prove equally difficult to unseat Apple from this position.
The iPhone and iPad run desktop-class 64-bit apps that simply don't exist for Android, Windows 8, or Blackberry et al. Apple has a big competitive advantage with the A7: A more powerful platform begets more capable software, which begets more customers - but that's a topic for another day. By investing in its own mobile CPU technology, Apple has leapfrogged its competitors and pulled away from the pack. Apple will likely release its second 64-bit chip, the A8, before its competitors are even able to respond to the A7.
Like a custom sapphire manufacturing process, Apple's competitors can't simply pick a CPU from their supplier's bins and compete with Apple's specifications. The A7 CPU shows the strength of Apple's vertically integrated manufacturing and design, while exposing the weakness of using OEM parts, (and an OEM operating system: Android, but that's another matter), and slapping together a competing design.
And the pressure keeps increasing. Apple's new Mac Pro is manufactured almost entirely by robots in Texas. Apple's iMac is robotically manufactured too, and now it looks like battery production is headed in the same direction In my last blog post, I wrote about how Apple transitioning to automated manufacturing is key to achieving status as a super-company.
By combining deep technologies like in-house designed CPUs, in-house manufactured sapphire, propriety battery technology, and robotic manufacturing, Apple will produce revolutionary products faster than its competitors can copy them. And the copies produced will wind up being a pale shadow of the real thing. Like the A7, by the time the competition responds, they're competing with products from last year. Apple's rivals will wind up competing with products from a previous era, and not just ones from last year.
Despite the prolific nature of Android, and the unscrupulous business practices of copy cats like Samsung, the iPhone remains the most popular smartphone and the iPad remains the most popular tablet on the planet. While Apple sidesteps its competitors with innovation in materials, manufacturing, and component design, its rivals are assembling phones and tablets just like the PC industry did for two decades: picking parts from bins, and producing designs that inspire nobody.
Because of major investment in R&D, Apple has the most powerful and efficient mobile CPU on the market. For the foreseeable future, Apple will offer the fastest, thinnest, lightest, longest lasting, and easiest to use mobile devices available. But they'll manufacturer them quicker, cheaper, in greater quantity, more efficiently, and with greater precision than competitors using traditional human labour and components sourced from OEM suppliers.
Apple isn't alone in developing new materials, processes, and components. But it seems to be unique among its phone, tablet, and PC competitors who make little to none of these investments themselves. Apple's competitors don't seem to have realized that the business models that made them so successful in the PC era don't work anymore.
Apple is racing to a finish line beyond their competitor's horizon. Microsoft enjoyed a long ride on Apple's coattails and Samsung has enjoyed a short one, but both have been left behind. In short, the future is grim for any competitor not nearly as invested as Apple is in design, materials, process, and manufacturing. The iPhone 6 will be a product that fully demonstrates just how peerless Apple has become.