Don’t worry, we’re not going to dwell on how Apple is a prime example of innovation – Apple has been overly used as an example and I’m sure we all know the ins and outs by now. A topic that is less covered though, is how one of Apple’s biggest innovations was to recognize Collaborative Innovation as the real game changer.

On July 10, 2008, Apple launched its App Store – a place where any developer, worldwide, could develop apps for users to install on their phones. The introduction of the App Store might just be one of the worlds biggest institutionalized examples of Collaborative Innovation. It effectively opened up innovation well beyond Apple’s corporate walls, and made Collaborative Innovation the driving force behind its offering.

While the idea of the App Store on itself is a brilliant move, discussing this idea would bring us back into the traditional stories of Apple’s power to innovate. The real value here lies in what the App Store actually represents, and how innovations originating from outside of Apple’s corporate walls are what really propelled the company’s smartphone offering. By expanding its app library with such diversity and speed, Apple dramatically increased the appeal of the smartphone, and successfully elevated it to a multi-functional device packed with functionality – functionality that could never have been paralleled if Apple would’ve kept its innovation behind closed doors. With the introduction of the App Store, Apple effectively demonstrated that the power of the crowds leads to some of the biggest leaps in innovation.

David and Goliath

While the App Store shows how crowdsourced ideas speed up innovation dramatically, it also shows how execution thrives. Some of the world’s most popular apps on the App Store are third-party calendar and calculator apps built by small teams. This is funny, because the big guys such as Apple, Google and Microsoft all offer calendar apps themselves. Still, consumers feel there are better alternatives on the market – alternatives, more often than not, built with way less resources than what the big guys are spending.

This presents an interesting paradox. While Collaborative Innovation on the App Store thrives so effectively that it actually defeats ideas from the large corporations, corporations themselves often don’t succeed in creating this culture inside of their own company walls. One striking example of this is Microsoft’s acquisition of Sunrise, a calendar app rivaling Microsoft’s own calendar app, built by a small Belgian startup, for a mere US$100 million.

While one might argue that acquisitions such as this happen simply because large corporations focus on spending their internal resources on bigger and more important projects, it seems hard to believe that a company such as Microsoft is unable to develop the world’s best calendar app itself with just a fraction of the budget it spent on the acquisition. When Microsoft, self-proclaimed leader in office apps, buys someone else’s calendar app, that, to me, shows how Collaborative Innovation on the App Store trumps the internal innovation processes used by the company. That a big part of the acquisition cost of Sunrise was merely a purchase of ideas is further proven by Microsoft’s announcement later that year to shut down Sunrise after it had copied Sunrise’s features into Outlook – Microsoft’s own calendar app.

So what?

It is shocking to see how even Apple, one of the world’s largest companies, recognizes that opening up innovation is a key accelerator, while at the same time, many – often much smaller – organizations still believe that innovation should be organized in closed circles only, centralized in a department or a handful of people.

Not every company has the reach like companies such as Apple, but this shouldn’t be an excuse to discard Collaborative Innovation, quite the contrary. Collaborative Innovation doesn’t necessarily need a worldwide population in order to be successful. Having an ideas engine, even if it isn’t at the scale of the App Store, is always better than not having one at all. Also, when opening up your ideas engine to the crowds, you don’t necessarily need to immediately target outside of your company walls. Starting with your employees might be a good start.