How Innovative Are Apple's Tech Rivals?

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- One of the constant complaints of critics against Apple (AAPL) in the past two years is that they're no longer as innovative with Tim Cook and without Steve Jobs.

But that critique isn't really fair when you start comparing Apple to other tech giants.

If Facebook ( FB) is that much more innovative than Apple in the last two years, what do they have to show for it?

It's still a big social network with a new mobile site. But it's only faster because their old mobile site had been so slow for two years.

Facebook tried to "innovate" with their mobile site two years ago but they did so by betting big on HTML5, which ended up being a total bust for them.

They bought Instagram because not enough people were using their homegrown Facebook photos. Post-closing, Facebook innovated at Instagram by urging the company to start selling users' photos to advertisers without user permission. It caused an uproar.

Facebook innovated by displaying your Facebook email address as your primary one and hiding all others.

Facebook innovated by putting more ads in your news stream.

All these innovations were designed to create profits for Facebook and therefore shareholder value. But did any of them make us stop and say: "Wow -- I didn't see that coming." Clearly, no.

Apple has introduced a lot of new stuff in the last two years: Macs, iPhones, iPads, iPods, Siri, Maps, iTunes, management changes, and a new dividend. Like Facebook, all these things have been geared towards generating a lot of profits and Apple has been very good at that aim.

But still the critics carp on the lack of Apple innovation.

Apple has made it routine to come out with a knock your socks off product every three years. Some companies only do that once a decade. Most are lucky if they can have one product like that in their whole lives.

So Apple gets held to an incredibly high standard that they themselves set. All other tech companies get a pass on innovation, as long as they've done one thing really well fairly recently.

This will continue until they show the world they can bring out a knock your socks off product again without Jobs. 2013 will probably be the year for them to do that.

But it's good to be reminded that Apple just doesn't bide its time between those three year product cycles. They are churning stuff out all the time to make their existing product portfolio that much more profitable and up to date.

We will keep holding Apple to an incredibly high standard but let's give them until the end of 2013 before we say they are losing a step.

At the time of publication the author was long in Apple.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Eric Jackson is founder and Managing Member of Ironfire Capital and the general partner and investment manager of Ironfire Capital US Fund LP and Ironfire Capital International Fund, Ltd. In January 2007, Jackson started the world's first Internet-based campaign to increase shareholder value at Yahoo!, leading to a change in CEOs in 2007. He also spoke out in favor of Yahoo!'s accepting Microsoft's buyout offer in 2008. Global Proxy Watch named Jackson as one of its 10 "Stars" who positively influenced international corporate governance and shareowner value in 2007.

Prior to founding Ironfire Capital, Jackson was President and CEO of Jackson Leadership Systems, Inc., a leadership, strategy, and governance consulting firm. He completed his Ph.D. in the Management Department at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business in New York, with a specialization in Strategic Management and Corporate Governance, and holds a B.A. from McGill University.

He was previously Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at VoiceGenie Technologies, a software firm now owned by Alcatel-Lucent. In 2004, Jackson founded the Young Patrons' Circle at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, which is now the second-largest social and philanthropic group of its kind in North America, raising $500,000 annually for the museum. You can follow Jackson on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ericjackson or @ericjackson.

You can contact Eric by emailing him at eric.jackson@thestreet.com.

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