This is the first essay in our series of 10 Lessons From 10 Years Of The World’s Most Innovative Companies.
There was a time when Google and Apple represented two very different, and opposed, models of technology. Googlers were the engineering brainiacs, adept with algorithms and champions of open-source, share-what-you-know code. Applers were design aesthetes, who kept their ideas behind guarded doors and only rolled out internally crafted, fully controlled end-to-end experiences. The Apple ecosystem was a precious and spare place; Google’s was all head, no heart. But a funny thing happened on the way to tech superstardom: These two meteors began to converge. While the cultures remain quite different, and their businesses have become broader (and richer), both companies have learned to embrace a more eclectic approach to problem solving. They defy easy categorization.
Apple and Google (or Alphabet, as the parent entity is now of course known) are the only two businesses that have been highlighted on each of Fast Company‘s World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies lists over the past 10 years. That is because, over that time, they have continually and consistently remade themselves. The world is changing so fast no company can stay on top, unless it is changing just as fast. What Apple and Google both represent is how relentless, and essential, the need for speed has become.
It may look like all that Apple has done is ride the wave of mobile connectivity: Just keep pumping out iPhones, and the dollars will keep rolling in. That simplistic view ignores the quite radical activities that Apple has had to undertake to both establish the iPhone and maintain its dominance. Remember when the iPhone first launched? It was a closed system, and users had to “jailbreak” their devices to add apps and customize the experience. But once Apple opened up the App Store a year later —giving up the close control that Steve Jobs historically insisted on—an ecosystem blossomed around the iPhone.
Then there’s the device itself. Every phonemaker on the planet has been gunning for Apple for a decade (and a bunch of them are no longer in business). Apple’s speedy and continuous reinvention has kept the competition at bay. New features, new materials, and new designs are cranked out like clockwork, year after year, and at a scale that has become truly astounding. The difficulty of the engineering, manufacturing, and marketing integration required is hard to overstate. And each year, Apple’s products get better.
Google too can be viewed simplistically: Search is the heart of its business model and revenue stream, and by just holding its ground it has reaped the benefits of the world’s growing digital obsession. But that misses how much Google has done to encourage that obsession (Android, anyone?), as well as its own obsessive attention to improving search (plenty of folks are gunning for that business too). Plus Google has enhanced its own design aesthetic–not the same as Apple’s, but represented in both the UX of its new photos app and the elegance of hardware like Google Home and the Pixel phone.
Google has taken a ton of risks, not all of which have shown a direct financial return. The company was a pioneer in self-driving cars, not to mention Google X projects like Loon, which envisions delivering bandwidth to all via stratospheric balloons. Neither have earned the company a dime. Investments in Google Fiber have been pared back after disappointing results. The $3 billion purchase of Nest has yet to yield meaningful profit. Yet all of these—along with the resources pumped into free services like Gmail and Maps—have had powerful second-order benefits: They have fed a growing ecosystem that sustains, nurtures, and advances Google’s larger interests. Perhaps the quintessential example of how all this comes together is Google’s early and now-decade-long commitment to YouTube, which is routinely underappreciated. YouTube is not only a beneficiary of the explosive growth of mobile and video, it is both harbinger and accelerant. While Netflix has recalibrated our expectations of TV and movies, YouTube has more fundamentally redefined entertainment, capturing an unparalleled and youthful audience that increasingly sees video and search as codependent.
Neither Google nor Apple has charted a path of unalloyed glory. For all the wonder and joy that the iPad has brought, it is a shadow of the iPhone as a business. Apple Watch remains a small player on the company’s balance sheet, in a still-nascent wearables market, and Apple TV struggles to invade the home the way its phone has invaded our pockets. Yet put it all together, and you can see a future unfolding—one that Apple continues to evolve to help bring into being. From Siri’s introduction of voice-based interactivity to the launch of AirPods, there’s a glimpse of tomorrow where Apple is far more ubiquitous and woven into our lives than even our phone-centric existence today.
Innovation is not a onetime activity. It is a philosophy and culture. The fruits of innovation do not unfold on schedule, in a single year, along a straight line. To stay up with—and ahead of—the changes in today’s world, you need to be always moving, trying new things, fueled by an internal restlessness. This is at the heart of both Apple and Google.
One last point, and it is not a trivial one: Given the pace and pressure of the changing business environment, how does an enterprise know which trends to react to, what adaptations to make? After all, we can’t do everything–we can’t wake every day and start from scratch (despite Jeff Bezos’s refrain that every day at Amazon is Day One). The critical corollary, then, to that need-for-speed: a need for purpose. Having a clearly understood mission behind an enterprise allows everyone to prioritize, in real time, to quickly assess which changes are worth responding to and what lens to use in addressing them. Apple and Google have always had this framework, from Steve Jobs’s mission of “making tools for the mind that advance humankind” to Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s pledge to “do no evil” while “organizing the world’s information.” Having a clear direction is an essential element for defining a distinctive culture of innovation.
This article is part of our coverage of the World’s Most Innovative Companies of 2017.