How great innovators leave themselves room to grow

Truly disruptive products often have unanswered questions at launch time

Tim Cook on stage at the September 9, 2014 Apple keynote, with a backdrop reading “One more thing...”

(Justin Sullivan/Getty)

The accelerometer in the original iPhone served a basic, albeit important, function. It told the device whether it was upright or sideways, allowing proper orientation of the screen. But over seven years and 10 iPhone iterations, the tiny sensor has fuelled myriad innovations, by both Apple and outside developers. There are now apps that work as pedometers, flight simulators, sleep monitors, CPR instructors and earthquake detectors—all thanks to some keen minds who saw unexploited potential in a single smartphone component. Apple’s products famously come in all-white boxes. Despite their well-earned reputation as control freaks, Apple personnel build technology with some white space as well—room for someone else to draw in something new.

That’s what makes it difficult to join the knee-jerk pessimists who dismiss the Apple Watch as a novelty product. The device, announced in September but not available until next year, needs to be judged on its promise as much as its initial abilities.

Apple is clearly counting on both consumers and, perhaps more important, app developers to look past the Watch’s short battery life and missing cellular connection to see what it could become. Apple is giving a head start to any industrious programmer who looks at the Watch and thinks, “hmm” rather than “blech.” As tech writer Ben Thompson recently noted, releasing the Watch now allows the company time to hone its interface and apps. “Then, whenever the Watch truly is standalone, it will be a complete package,” writes Thompson. As with the iPhone and iPad, Apple is betting users will discover its utility over time.

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Compare that with the recently announced BlackBerry Passport. Unveiled 15 days after the Watch, the latest product from the Canadian tech behemoth has clear utility. Its large screen will immediately appeal to anyone who’s ever tried to read a spreadsheet on an iPhone; other features, like a virtual assistant and refined physical keyboard, are similarly squarely aimed at the executive set. It’s a smart product designed to fill a very clear niche. If Apple’s Watch offers ambiguous possibilities, the Passport has immediate practicality.

The problem for BlackBerry is that the Passport, at the end of the day, is just another smartphone. It’s unlikely to catch the imagination of developers looking for new places to play. What BlackBerry has built is a beautifully appointed (if slightly boxy) downtown condominium, perfectly suited to its demographic. In contrast, Apple is selling a half-finished rooming house, with plenty of potential for tenants to move in and turn it into something special.

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This points to a fundamental divide. There are companies that develop a product, then innovate by endlessly refining it to its perfect state. A decade after its founding, Facebook is still essentially a single SKU business, forever tinkering with the product that made it famous. Google, on the other hand, is constantly throwing new ideas into the world, hinting at an incomplete future in which we wear computers on our faces and let the cars drive themselves. The most exciting aspect of BlackBerry’s recent announcement was Blend, its new technology that allows file sharing among its devices and operating systems—from Windows to Android to iOS—without a cloud connection.

That tech writers struggled to explain the exact utility of Blend is a good thing. It’s an idea with a little white space around it, waiting for somebody else to colour it in.