More Apple coverage

Lots of people are wondering what Apple (AAPL) will invent next. If it's true to its own history, it won't invent a new type of product but will improve on one someone else already brought to market.

I've never questioned that Apple is an innovator. Its iPod, iPhone and iPad were all very innovative products. But all of them were improvements of other companies' products or concepts in the same categories.

(FILES)The Apple logo is seen in this September 11, 2012 file photo at the Yerba Buena Center for Arts in San Francisco.KIMIHIRO HOSHINO/AFP/Getty Images
(FILES)The Apple logo is seen in this September 11, 2012 file photo at the Yerba Buena Center for Arts in San Francisco.KIMIHIRO HOSHINO/AFP/Getty Images ( KIMIHIRO HOSHINO )

The iPod, introduced in October 2001, was not the first digital music player. Diamond Multimedia announced the Rio PMP 300 in 1998, and the Creative Nomad Jukebox and Archos Jukebox came out in 2000. None of these products would have been possible were it not for innovations in storage, compression and battery life from scores of scientists and inventors.

Apple did a great job by combining the hardware with its iTunes software and its music store. And that, plus Steve Jobs' brilliant marketing, is why the iPod soon became the dominant music player.

The iPhone, which came out in 2007, was far from the first smartphone. Depending on how you define "smart," there were products from PSiAn, Symbian, Nokia and of course Research In Motion (now BlackBerry), which debuted in 1999. The first Android phone didn't hit the street until 2008, but the open-source version of the Android operating system -- backed by Google (GOOG) -- was introduced in 2003 by Andy Rubin, who just recently stepped down as Android head at Google.

Microsoft Windows Mobile came out years before the iPhone. Apple wasn't even the first company to come out with a touch-screen smartphone. That honor goes to the IBM Simon Personal Communicator that was first introduced in 1992.

But, as with the iPod, Apple did it right. It was the first touch-screen smartphone to be highly useful. Sure, there was a lot of hype, but the phone earned that hype by delighting millions of users and becoming the gold standard by which other phones continue to be judged. Even now, when BlackBerry, Samsung or anyone else introduces a new smartphone, reviewers immediately compare it to Apple's most recent iPhone.

The iPad, which first came out in 2010, was also an incredibly innovative product. But there were plenty of tablets on the market from a variety of companies going back more than 10 years. I was at the Comdex computer trade show in November 2001 when Bill Gates announced Windows software for the tablet PC. Gates at the time predicted that the tablet would become the most popular form of PC within five years. That was more than nine years ahead of the Apple iPad.

Microsoft's early attempts at tablet operating systems were a bust. But after Apple reinvented the category, Microsoft is at it again with its Windows 8 operating system and its own Surface tablets. Apple does get credit for introducing the Newton MessagePad in 1992. It failed but it was an early example of a tablet-like personal digital assistant.

For a bit of perspective on tablet computers, search online for the phrase "YouTube Knight Ridder iPad" for a link to a 1994 video about the "Tablet Newspaper" from a design lab at Knight Ridder, which at the time was the parent company of the San Jose Mercury News and other newspapers. What you'll see in this 13 minute video is a tablet with a lot of features that ultimately appeared in the iPad. Of course, Knight Ridder never actually marketed the device so, once again, Apple deserves the credit for turning a good idea into a great product.

So when thinking about what Apple will do next, look around at products that already exist but could use some major improvements. Some say it will be a "smart" watch. Indeed, there are already plenty of those on the market but none are blockbuster products. It could be an Internet-connected "smart" TV if Apple can find a way to greatly improve on what other companies have done, including Samsung, Sony and LG.

Apple could also put its toe in the home automation arena, competing with lots of smaller companies. Might Apple try to compete with LG's "smart" refrigerator? I doubt it, but I do hope Apple will try its hand at automotive products. I don't expect to see an iCar anytime soon, but an iDash entertainment/communications/navigation unit would be a feasible and welcome competitor to all the not-so-great systems already on the market.

So let's hope CEO Tim Cook, along with Apple's engineers and designers, are busy looking around at other companies' promising products that don't quite meet up to Apple's high standards. Apple doesn't have to create new categories to change the world -- it just has to build products that people love and then convince us that we can't live without them.

Contact Larry Magid at larry@larrymagid.com. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.