What it is: Innovation is about finding creative ways to solve previously difficult or impossible problems. Innovation is not inventing something out of thin air with no precedent whatsoever, but applied creativity, using existing technology in unique ways.
Many people criticize Apple for not being innovative, yet they almost always fail to define what innovation is. If they can’t define innovation, how can they possibly recognize when or when it does not occur?
Gary Krakow, a so-called senior technology correspondent for TheStreet.com once dismissed the iPhone because corporations had already adopted mobile phone standards. Gary Krakow said “Steve Jobs has to bite the bullet… He’s either gotta get BlackBerry on there or Windows Mobile on there. It’s the entire answer.”
Of course, Windows Mobile is long gone and Blackberry is slowly dying. In the meantime, TheStreet.com has conveniently deleted Gary Krakow’s video interview, presumably to avoid embarrassing themselves with his drastically wrong prediction as their technology expert.
If you look at innovative products like the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, etc. you can see that innovation is always recognized after the fact but is often resisted heavily upon its introduction. When you see anything being dismissed with cries that it’s not innovative, chances are it is innovative because people are slow to recognize innovation even when it appears right in front of their faces.
Alexander Bain invented the fax machine back in 1843, yet it took over a century for it to become commonplace. That’s because fax machines depended on inexpensive and reliable telephone service. Until that could occur, the innovative fax machine lay dormant for over a hundred years.
Sylvan Goldman, the owner of a Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain, invented the shopping cart as a way for customers to buy more groceries. Yet this was another innovation that men and women dismissed because they thought it looked too much like pushing a baby carriage. People had been used to shopping by holding a basket in their arms, not pushing a basket around on wheels. Despite the obvious benefits that a wheeled cart could hold more items with less physical strain, people still resisted shopping carts. The biggest obstacle to innovation is rarely technical problems but people’s resistance to changing their own behavior.
You can identify innovation in three ways. First, innovation replaces an existing product or behavior. That’s why innovative products often meet such heavy initial resistance because the very people whose lives are threatened by innovation are the first to attack the innovation as useless, often without using actual facts to back up their beliefs.
Second, innovation gives people more power and control. An innovative product is useless if it just makes life different. Turning a steering wheel into a keyboard isn’t innovative because it doesn’t give drivers anything better than what they had with a steering wheel.
In the computer world, you can see Samsung throwing out various ideas and calling them innovative. Samsung smartphones have a feature where you can bump two phones together to exchange data. While interesting, let’s examine it against our criteria for innovation.
Does bumping two Samsung phones together replace an existing product or behavior? Not really. It’s a faster way to exchange information, but you could just as easily text or e-mail that information as well. Bumping is faster and more convenient, but it only worked between two Samsung phones, limiting its effectiveness.
Did bumping give people more power and control that they didn’t have previously? Not really. Bumping was just a more convenient way to share information, but it wasn’t that much more difficult to do before. A good rule of thumb is that innovation must be at least ten times more effective than existing solutions to grab people’s attention. Anything less will be seen as merely an incremental improvement, and incremental improvements don’t convince people to drop their old solutions for a new one.
Before the iPhone, there were plenty of phones that flipped open, slid keyboards out, or offered built-in keyboards on the bottom like a beard of keys. When the iPhone appeared, its touch screen interface immediately made physical keyboards on mobile phones obsolete. Within a few years, all the previous mobile phone leaders (Nokia, Blackberry, etc.) went from leaders to has-beens.
The iPhone not only replaced existing mobile phones, but also gave people more control over their data. Instead of using clumsy keys to manipulate items through menus, the iPhone let people touch and manipulate items directly under their fingertips. People could pinch and zoom to enlarge or shrink photos, they could swipe to the side to delete items, or they could display different keyboards in various languages in ways that physical keyboards could never do.
The iPhone not only replaced previous mobile phones that were clumsier to use, but they also gave users more control and power than they had before. That’s innovation.
Samsung’s ability to bump two phones together to share information didn’t replace anything, and it didn’t give people any more power than they had before to share information. Before the iPhone, you couldn’t easily zoom and enlarge pictures captured by a mobile phone. Today, you can not only manipulate a photo with your fingers, but you can edit that photo as well. Try editing a photo using a standard Blackberry keyboard and you’ll see that it’s next to impossible.
Third, innovation makes life faster for the consumer, often by eliminating a middleman who was previously needed to deliver a product or service from a supplier to the customer. Eliminate this middleman and you eliminate the main bottleneck slowing everything down.
The printing press got books to readers faster, the telephone eliminated telephone operators so people could call each other directly, and the mobile phone cut the cord so people could talk to each other wherever they went. Eliminate a middleman and you eliminate inefficiency.
Another failed Samsung attempt at innovation is their Edge smartphone that has a curved screen on one or both edges. While that looks interesting, apply the innovation criteria to it and see if it succeeds.
Does a curved screen on the edge replace an existing product or service? No. It’s just a different way to display data. Does a curved screen on the edge give people power and control that they didn’t have before? No, because it’s just another way to view information on the edge of the phone instead of directly on the main screen itself. Does a curved edge provide something to the customer faster than before? Sort of, but not drastically so.
Now apply the innovation criteria to the iPad and Apple Watch. Does the iPad replace existing products or services? Before the iPad, manufacturers unsuccessful sold Tablet PCs that were basically laptops that could fold the screen over the keyboard to make a tablet. Such Tablet PCs were heavy with little software designed specifically for tablet use. When Apple introduced the iPad, it basically killed the entire Tablet PC market. When was the last time you saw any company market a Tablet PC since the iPad’s introduction?
So the iPad succeeds in replacing an existing product or service. Now does it give users greater control that they didn’t have before? A tablet lets you read e-books, play video games, type, browse the Internet, and send e-mail and text messages. In short, an iPad gives you all the features of a netbook without the bulk and clumsy form factor of a netbook clamshell design.
Using a Tablet PC was clumsy. Using an iPad is easy and fast, so that eliminates the inefficiency of unfolding a Tablet PC and waiting for it to boot up. An iPad could wake up instantly and be useful. A netbook had to boot up a standard desktop operating system and then be controlled by a minuscule physical keyboard. The introduction of the iPad essentially spelled the end of the netbook era.
An iPad gave people the power of a computer without the bulk. Restaurants quickly adopted iPads as cash registers so people could sign their bills when paying with a credit card. Restaurants also used iPads as menus so people could order directly from their table.
Filmmakers have captured video and even edited it directly on an iPad. Whatever you can do with a normal PC, you can also do on an iPad except in a mobile form that’s easy to carry and easy to use. An iPad gives you full computing power in places where even a netbook would be too cumbersome to use.
Innovation is easy to recognize in hindsight, but by applying these three criteria to anything new, you can see if innovation could also apply to any new product. The Apple Watch promises to replace dedicated fitness bands and health monitoring equipment. In addition, the Apple Watch allows real-time health monitoring that wasn’t possible in the past while eliminating the need to remember to carry an iPhone with you at all times, so the Apple Watch fits the definition of innovative.
Of course, many people won’t recognize the innovative features of the Apple Watch until everyone else has already discovered it, but now that you know two ways to judge any new product as innovative, you’ll no longer have an excuse for not recognizing innovation when you see it.
- Replaces existing products or services
- Gives people power and control they didn’t have before
- Eliminates a middleman and speeds up access between the supplier and the customer