Fast Company has named the 50 most innovative companies for 2011. Apple is number 1. Really? A company that designs beautiful and functional products using off-the shelf technology, resulting in almost no further innovation in the computing industry? (Imitation yes, innovation not so much.) For example: The graphical user interface, invented by Xerox Parc, brought to market by Apple, eventually copied – but not improved – by Microsoft and every other operating system. Apple I (a better Atari). The Mac (a better PC). The iPod (a better mp3 player). The iPhone (a better Palm Treo). The iPad (a better Kindle). iTunes (a profitable Napster). What am I missing here? Apple’s ‘innovation’ is improving existing technology, bringing it to market in compelling packages, and marketing the hell out of it. Don’t get me wrong. Apple makes great products. I’m typing this on a PowerBook, currently syncing with an iPhone. But they’re not Henry Ford, or Bell Labs, or DARPA, or even Mark Zuckerberg. Speaking of which, Facebook is less innovation than a better MySpace. Twitter is a just broadcast text messaging for attention deficit afflicted terminal narcissists. And Nissan at number four… uh, builds cars. Much like every other company builds cars. Oh, but they built the electric Leaf. Yes, after Tesla built their electric roadster, and 100 years after the first electric cars were manufactured.
Are we being to grumpy? Of course. But let’s ask the question: By what criteria should we judge corporate innovation, and which companies should actually be in the top fifty? Certainly some of Fast Company’s top 50, but probably not most of them. And then there’s this: What good are these companies doing in the world? Sorry to repeat ourselves, but innovation without public benefit is trivial at best.