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Innovating your way from inventions

(Illustration by Paul Rogers for The New Yorker. "Creation Myth," The New Yorker, May 16, 2011)

In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell wrote "In the Air," an essay suggesting that innovation and scientific discoveries aren't as rare as they are widely believed, and he continued his thesis in an article for The New Yorker earlier this year. That latter article, "Creation Myth," is now available for free on The New Yorker's website. If you haven't check it out, I highly recommend it.

In "Creation Myth," Gladwell looks at the differences between inventions and innovations, and how inventions feed into innovations. As a case study, he look at two examples.

The first example Gladwell focuses on—the more interesting and insightful of the examples in my view—is how Apple took the idea of the computer mouse from Xerox and turned it into a commercially viable product (with Microsoft subsequently turning it into a mass-market success).

(source: "Creation Myth" by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker. May 16, 2011)

In late 1979, a twenty-four-year-old entrepreneur paid a visit to a research center in Silicon Valley called Xerox PARC. He was the co-founder of a small computer startup down the road, in Cupertino. His name was Steve Jobs.


Apple was already one of the hottest tech firms in the country. Everyone in the Valley wanted a piece of it. So Jobs proposed a deal: he would allow Xerox to buy a hundred thousand shares of his company for a million dollars—its highly anticipated I.P.O. was just a year away—if PARC would “open its kimono.” A lot of haggling ensued. Jobs was the fox, after all, and PARC was the henhouse. What would he be allowed to see? What wouldn’t he be allowed to see? Some at PARC thought that the whole idea was lunacy, but, in the end, Xerox went ahead with it. One PARC scientist recalls Jobs as “rambunctious”—a fresh-cheeked, caffeinated version of today’s austere digital emperor. He was given a couple of tours, and he ended up standing in front of a Xerox Alto, PARC’s prized personal computer.

An engineer named Larry Tesler conducted the demonstration. He moved the cursor across the screen with the aid of a “mouse.” Directing a conventional computer, in those days, meant typing in a command on the keyboard. Tesler just clicked on one of the icons on the screen. He opened and closed “windows,” deftly moving from one task to another. He wrote on an elegant word-processing program, and exchanged e-mails with other people at PARC, on the world’s first Ethernet network. Jobs had come with one of his software engineers, Bill Atkinson, and Atkinson moved in as close as he could, his nose almost touching the screen. “Jobs was pacing around the room, acting up the whole time,” Tesler recalled. “He was very excited. Then, when he began seeing the things I could do onscreen, he watched for about a minute and started jumping around the room, shouting, ‘Why aren’t you doing anything with this? This is the greatest thing. This is revolutionary!’ ”


After Jobs returned from PARC, he met with a man named Dean Hovey, who was one of the founders of the industrial-design firm that would become known as IDEO. “Jobs went to Xerox PARC on a Wednesday or a Thursday, and I saw him on the Friday afternoon,” Hovey recalled. “I had a series of ideas that I wanted to bounce off him, and I barely got two words out of my mouth when he said, ‘No, no, no, you’ve got to do a mouse.’ I was, like, ‘What’s a mouse?’ I didn’t have a clue. So he explains it, and he says, ‘You know, [the Xerox mouse] is a mouse that cost three hundred dollars to build and it breaks within two weeks. Here’s your design spec: Our mouse needs to be manufacturable for less than fifteen bucks. It needs to not fail for a couple of years, and I want to be able to use it on Formica and my bluejeans.’ From that meeting, I went to Walgreens, which is still there, at the corner of Grant and El Camino in Mountain View, and I wandered around and bought all the underarm deodorants that I could find, because they had that ball in them. I bought a butter dish. That was the beginnings of the mouse.”

The other example Gladwell uses is the utilization of modern digital technologies to transform the military (apparently called Revolution in Military Affairs) by USSR, USA, and Israel. USSR appears to have invented most of the concepts or at least was the first to recognize their potential, while USA was the first to implement them, and Israel was the first to use them in a theater of war. Similar to how Apple's mouse was an innovation of Xerox PARC's mouse, USSR may have come up with the idea but USA and Israel were the ones to deploy them.

The essay goes on to tackle Gladwell's main point about how Apple was pursuing something quite different from the original. In other words, you are seeing innovation at work, whereby original inventions are innovated into new products and solutions. (I emphasized the original emphasis by the author with bold since italics is not as visible on the screen.)

Here is the first complicating fact about the Jobs visit. In the legend of Xerox PARC, Jobs stole the personal computer from Xerox. But the striking thing about Jobs’s instructions to Hovey is that he didn’t want to reproduce what he saw at PARC. “You know, there were disputes around the number of buttons—three buttons, two buttons, one-button mouse,” Hovey went on. “The mouse at Xerox had three buttons. But we came around to the fact that learning to mouse is a feat in and of itself, and to make it as simple as possible, with just one button, was pretty important.”

So was what Jobs took from Xerox the idea of the mouse? Not quite, because Xerox never owned the idea of the mouse. The PARC researchers got it from the computer scientist Douglas Engelbart, at Stanford Research Institute, fifteen minutes away on the other side of the university campus. Engelbart dreamed up the idea of moving the cursor around the screen with a stand-alone mechanical “animal” back in the mid- nineteen-sixties. His mouse was a bulky, rectangular affair, with what looked like steel roller-skate wheels. If you lined up Engelbart’s mouse, Xerox’s mouse, and Apple’s mouse, you would not see the serial reproduction of an object. You would see the evolution of a concept.

This is the crux of Gladwell's view that he has expounded on the two articles I alluded to in this post. Essentially, Gladwell suggests that innovation is very different from invention, and it may require different capabilities in an organization. Gladwell is painting with a broad brush—something I also have a habit of doing—so the question is how difficult it is for the same organization to carry out both activities.

(As a side note, one thing I wonder is if Chinese copying of developed companies' products actually involves the innovation of the kind exhibited by Apple in the 70's, or if it's just plain copying (anyone have any thoughts?))

In an interview with NPR's Robert Siegel on the article he wrote, Malcolm Gladwell expands on his belief that too much attention is paid to individual inventors (you can listen to the entire interview below). This view echoes his prior "In the Air" article he wrote on how frequent inventions and discoveries really are.
Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah. I mean, I think that we wrongly fetishize being first in a technological revolution, because, you know, the Soviets are the first to think about the revolution in military affairs. But the revolution is so complex that that means that they're not around when it actually comes to fruition in the field.

Similarly, Xerox PARC is first to come up with all these technologies, but the very thing that makes them first makes it difficult for them to capitalize on the technologies.

You don't want to be first, right? You want to be second or third. You don't want to be - Facebook is not the first in social media. They're the third, right? Similarly, you know, if you look at Steve Jobs' history, he's never been first.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GLADWELL: Wasn't first with the desktop computer. Wasn't first with the laptop. Was way late with the mp3 player, with the iPod. And was massively late with the iPhone, right? He was six years late to the smartphone business, and yet now he, you know, has this dominant position.

So, it's a very, you know - maybe we're wrong in - you know, we go around thinking the innovator is the person who's first to kind of conceive of something. And maybe the innovation process continues down the line to the second and the third and the fourth entrant into a field.

Gladwell is quote correct to point out how the inventor isn't necessarily the biggest winner. Sometimes it's best to be the second or third to enter a market. This has certainly been true in the computer market, and certainly the mouse as described above. It has also been true, as Gladwell points out, in the social networking world, with Friendster and MySpace hitting the market earlier than Facebook.

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