Apple's supposed "lack of innovation" has been a hot topic this year. Though the finger usually gets pointed at the loss of Steve Jobs, maybe that isn't the only force at play here. The recent report of an upcoming Google gaming console and smartwatch is just the latest example of a rival willing to gamble on beating Apple at its own game: seeing the future before anyone else does.

Apple hasn't yet thrown its full weight into gaming, and maybe it never will. But with the App Store being the casual gaming mecca that it is, the opportunity is there. Industry observers have been eying this potential for years, and it's one of those areas where the company could come up with an – ahem – game-changing product.

Familiar playbook

But here's the problem. After catching rivals off-guard three times in the last twelve years (iPod, iPhone, iPad), Apple became a role model of sorts for the rest of the industry. So now we have Microsoft re-branding itself as a "devices and services" company, Samsung throwing everything that hasn't been done against the wall in the hopes that something will stick (and some of it certainly has), and Google forging ahead with Glass, a smartwatch, and the gaming console.

One segment in the Wall Street Journal's scoop stood out to me:

    With the game machine and digital watch, Google is hoping to combat similar devices that Apple Inc. may release in the future, according to the people.

In the past, Apple snuck up on people. It entered markets filled with clunky, overly-geeky products, released groundbreaking consumer-friendly versions, and established its dominance before rivals had the chance to respond.

But today, we have huge companies investing millions of dollars in products that Apple "may release in the future."

If there's any area in which Apple can innovate, chances are, someone has already imagined it, written a blog post about it, Photoshopped it, and created a ready-made blueprint for any company that wants to gamble on it. And that's just the part that happens in public: we can all imagine what it looks like behind closed doors at the Googles, Microsofts, and Samsungs of the world.

Apple's success has made many of the company's principles (simplicity, elegant design, hardware/software integration) standard fare in consumer technology. What was once a battle of "Apple's way" vs. "their way" is now more complicated. It's more like "Apple's way" vs. "a bunch of companies who have studied Apple and can probably guess Apple's next move's way."

The rule of threes

In comedy, there's a principle called the "rule of threes." The first time you use a gag, it's an introduction to something funny. The second time you use the gag, it establishes repetition. Even funnier. The third time it happens, it establishes a pattern. Let the guffaws commence.

That's usually where comedic writers leave the gag alone and move on to something else. After the third time, the laughs aren't there, because the audience now sees the pattern. It now expects the gag, and the joke is dead. Occasionally they can squeeze a fourth laugh out of it, but it's usually because it threw the audience for a curve, changed the gag up in some way, and played with the new expectations.

You see where I'm going here. With the iPod, Apple introduced a game-changing product. With the iPhone, it established repetition. But with the iPad, it established a pattern. Now everyone is expecting that pattern to continue. So far, Apple hasn't been able to conjure up that fourth act, and that's what has the audience's underwear up in a bunch.

Can the company disrupt the pattern, throw us all for a curveball, and come up with one more showstopper? That remains to be seen.

Passing the torch

The list of areas where Apple can repeat its swoop-in-and-turn-the-industry-upside-down act is dwindling. TV? Microsoft beat Apple to the punch with futuristic voice and gesture control, and Hollywood doesn't appear willing to let anyone innovate on the content distribution front. Wearables? Everyone and their mother is making a smartwatch, and Google has Glass locked, loaded, and almost ready to fire. Mobile/desktop PC convergence? Microsoft has already put its chips in that basket.

... and then there's gaming. The established players Sony and Microsoft are continuing to innovate, and now that Google is reportedly making this Android-based gaming console, that's one less way that Apple can sneak in the backdoor and set the house on fire. Apple could still move in that direction, and it could make an excellent product. But, like just about every other possible area of innovation, it's becoming less and less likely that we'll see more Apple "trailblazing."

By the time Apple does it (no matter what it is), it will have already been done ... and probably much more elegantly than the pre-iPod MP3 players, pre-iPhone smartphones, or pre-iPad tablet PCs.

Steve Jobs injected Apple with his visionary DNA, but he also injected the entire industry with that DNA. Today's Apple is competing against its own disciples. That may not bode well for a dominant Apple future, but for consumers, I'm not sure how that could be seen as anything but a sweet, innovative victory.