Innovative or Not

Innovative or Not: the iPhone 5

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The launch of the new iPhone 5 was met with high levels of anticipation by the technology, investing, and consumer communities. The reaction to the launch has been mixed; with some saying it is a disappointment and others a major success. This makes it an obvious choice for another round of Innovative or Not.

Innovative: The iPhone 5 is thinner, lighter, and faster.  Does this make it innovative?  Since it largely gives the same experience as the iPhone 4S, it’s just more of the same, thus not innovative.  This argument is easy, right?  Not exactly.  The “easy” argument only speaks to disruptive innovation, but what about incremental innovation?  With the iPhone 5, Apple designers made dozens of changes, some of them incontrovertibly innovative.

Changes include a new display technology, integrated LTE voice/data on 1 chip, a smaller, faster processor, a smaller connector, better call quality with new noise cancellation technology, and vastly improved earbuds.  In the OS, we also see new features like Passbook, which ingeniously integrates all tickets, reservations, and store cards in one place.

Of course, some of the individual new features aren’t innovative, but just smart design. However, smart design decisions become innovation when integrated with novel technology, like the display/touch screen. Previously two parts, the new ‘in-cell’ screen technology integrates them into one.  This has never been seen in a phone before.  Like it or not, this is innovation.  It not only makes the screen thinner, but also optically superior.

Combining many smart decisions to achieve a design goal (thinner, lighter, faster) results in an incrementally better product.  When those decisions require innovative technology, you get incremental innovation.  Incremental innovation may only be incremental, but it’s still innovation.

Not Innovative: The long awaited release of the iPhone 5 has come.  But does it have the awe inspiring innovation that we expect from Apple?  To answer let’s first look at the definition of innovative: using or showing new methods or ideas.  Does the iPhone 5 do this?  As a current owner of the iPhone 4 I struggle to find what the new idea or method in the iPhone 5 is.  Yes it is longer, has an extra row of icons, a new accessory jack (which does not allow you to use your current apple devises without a special adaptor), a new camera, and is 4G LTE, but do these things make the phone “innovative”?  Most likely not as most of the competition (Android and Windows) already have these features.  Yes the iPhone 5 is the longest on the market (in which currently multiple apps do not work correctly with), but making it longer does not constitute the phone to be innovative.  The critics seem to agree.  Wired called the iPhone 5 “utterly boring”. The BBC ran a review stating that “Apple’s iPhone launches no longer excite.”  Instead of giving a new look to the iphone, or updated apps, it seems Apple just wanted to out perform their competition without having to think outside the box.  All in all, the iPhone 5 is an improvement, but lacks on the awe inspiring apple innovative which was expected.

Judgement: Not every round of Innovative or Not has a clear winner or a loser, and in taking on the iPhone 5 this is certainly the case. The merits of both cases are strong: yes, the product utilizes a number of new to the industry technologies, boldly deploying them along with a stunningly fast and efficient roll-out. This is impressive. At the same time, few features will excite the average user and some seem destined to annoy: new cables, connection, and size rendering the phone incompatible with most current accessories, and few new to the world ‘features’ since many competitors already carry the feature improvements that seem to headline the product. But, an answer must be found and, as the first writer argues, the iPhone 5 is the picture of incremental innovation. It represents the next step in the evolution of smart phone technology. Perhaps this is a sign that smart phones as well know them are ready to be surpassed by some new technology or format, starting a new race of innovation and growth in the industry.

Innovative or Not? – Dip and Squeeze

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Every so often we take a look at a new or iconic product to evaluate the innovation (or lack thereof) behind it. One of us will argue for good, one for bad, and the third will make a final judgement.

Have a suggestion for what we should do next or disagree with our assessments? Have your say in the comments.

Recently a Chicago based inventor filed suit again H.J. Heinz, claiming that it’s recently launched ‘Dip & Squeeze’ format for ketchup was infringing on a patent he has filed in 2005. Whether or not infringement has occurred we’ll leave to the courts. The more pressing question is: is the ‘Dip & Squeeze’ Innovative or Not?

‘Dip & Squeeze’ – Not Innovative

Dispensing fluids from containers is a problem that has plagued the foods industry among others for decades if not longer. If you’re a regular at a fast food restaurant or local Chinese delivery service you’re well acquainted with the myriad pouches, sachets, cups, and tubes used to delivery condiments for your food. Heinz, in combining the squeeze action found in a pouch of mustard with the dipping action found in a container of BBQ sauce, certainly struck a chord with fast food regulars used to struggling as they eat on the go. However, the ‘Dip & Squeeze’ doesn’t represent an innovative leap forward as Heinz might wish us to assume – it’s simply another incremental stepwise improvement for the packaging industry. Incremental innovation is defined as the addition of features to an existing technology in order to slightly improve the format. Just as Gilette added an extra blade, mp3 players added video, and cars added GPS to the standard feature set sustaining improvements are part of any development strategy. If we were to take a portable tub of sauce as a starting point, one of the first ideas we would find to improve it would be to add precision application.

The ‘Dip & Squeeze’ ties in to a very good consumer insight – that people want to eat in their car – but doesn’t take a massive leap forward to change how customers use the product. That is why, regardless who invented it, it is not innovative.

‘Dip & Squeeze’ – Innovative

You and your best friend are on the road and stop at a drive through for a bite to eat.  You both get your favorite, french fries and ketchup and then you realize… how are we going to eat these?  You like to dip your fries, while your best friend likes to squeeze the ketchup right on the fries, the solution a packet of ketchup that can be used either for dipping or for squeezing.  This is exactly what a Chicago inventor has recently been granted a patent on.  He has taken a format that has not changed in a long time, and has found a way to innovate on it (which often is the hardest).  If you are a dipper no more having to worry about where to put your ketchup, simply open the top and you have a container of ketchup to dip in.  If you are a squeezer, use the packaging as you would any packet of ketchup, rip open a corner and use as you would.  Given that a ketchup packet is really just that, a ketchup packet and someone has found a way to bring new news to such a simple product is why I believe this idea innovative.  Sometimes the simplest of ideas are the most innovative.

‘Dip & Squeeze’ – The Verdict

Essentially the arguments have boiled down to the question of how impressive a product advance needs to be in order to qualify for the tag of “innovative”.  All products change over their lifetime; most incremental changes are turned around so rapidly and impact our consumer behavior so minimally that we hardly notice them at all.  This “background noise” innovation is so pervasive that we tend not to label it innovation, reserving the phrase for the more impressive advances of our industries.  Is Dip & Squeeze simply background noise or does it meet the fuzzy criteria of innovative?  The answer may lie in two facts.  Firstly, Dip & Squeeze has met the requirements of the US patent office. For such a basic idea this is not insignificant as the examiners would have plenty of reference material along with real world experience with which to judge the novelty of the patent application.  The second is the length of time that passed after single serve ketchup first appeared before Dip & Squeeze arrived. Incremental innovation is normally rapid; often companies are working on improvements before they launch the first version of their product. For such an obvious improvement to have taken so long to be realized probably indicates that the improvement was a significant technical mountain even if conceptually it was a molehill.  Verdict:  Innovative.

Innovative or Not: Flameless Candles

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Every so often we take a look at a new or iconic product to evaluate the innovation (or lack thereof) behind it. One of us will argue for good, one for bad, and the third will make a final judgement.

Have a suggestion for what we should do next or disagree with our assessments? Have your say in the comments.

This week Reality Television comes under our microscope:


Flameless Candles: Innovative

Imagine soft music playing while only the flickering of candles illuminates the room. Sounds peaceful, right? In this atmosphere, it is very easy to slip into a relaxed and stress free mindset. However, as peaceful as they are, candles do pose a hidden danger. Statistically, it has been found that fires due to candles account for over 10,000 deaths each year. In almost each case, the root cause of this troubling statistic ranges anywhere from leaving lit candles unattended to placing them on unstable surfaces or near flammable materials. Perhaps this oversight is due to us assigning so much tranquillity to a candle – it is hard to imagine the destruction and loss they can bring when not used properly. So how can something containing an open flame become safer while still maintaining its ability to create the ambiance we have come to admire? Although it is hard to pinpoint exactly when they first appeared and by whom they were invented, we soon saw stores selling what we now know as battery powered candles. Not only are they completely safe, but they also have evolved to having bulbs that reproduce the flickering light, or even change colors. Sure, the lightbulb and batteries have been around for a while, but taking the step toward changing something that remained unchanged for decades (and centuries?) and modifying it to incorporate these “new” technologies requires innovative thinking. It is for that reason that I say flameless candles are innovative.

Flameless Candles: Not Innovative

Candles have been used by human beings since at least 200 BC to provide illumination prior to the development of electric lighting. Since then, candles have moved into a more niche role, mainly being used for ambiance, scent, or as a source of light during power outages. Flameless candles remove some of the hazards and inconveniences of lighting a wick candle, but at the end of the day are simply another form of electric lighting.

Most flameless candles use an LED to generate light. This technology has been around for some time, and is not disruptive or innovative at this point. LEDs have been used in many other applications that serve the same general purpose as flameless candles —nightlights and flashlights for example, that create low powered light with no heat or fire risk. Scent in these products is often delivered the same way as wick candles, being blended into the wax or material comprising the candle. So to mimic the fragrance of a wick candle, these products essentially have to do the same thing. That’s not particularly innovative in my book.

Electric lights taking the form of candles have existed as long as electric lighting itself, and provided many of the same benefits as the newer flameless candles. Though they have become more sophisticated and popular among consumers, they are not the gamechanger that electric lighting was to candle and oil lamps.


Sure, flameless candles have reduced the danger to the user, much in the same way that light bulbs did for everyday lighting needs 100 years ago. That candles persisted this long says more about the ambiance that they can offer a user – be it scent or color or mood – than their function. Modifying existing lighting technology to have a new ‘safer’ design (even that of a flameless candle) can’t be claimed as innovative when it’s already happened with numerous other lighting formats: light bulbs replace lamps; flashlights replace torches or lanterns; Christmas lights replace candles. There are innovative aspects to flameless candles, be it the incorporation of fragrances or the replication of the appearance of a dancing flame, but in its basic form the flameless candle is NOT INNOVATIVE!

Innovative or Not? Reality TV

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Every so often we take a look at a new or iconic product to evaluate the innovation (or lack thereof) behind it. One of us will argue for good, one for bad, and the third will make a final judgement.

Have a suggestion for what we should do next or disagree with our assessments? Have your say in the comments.

This week Reality Television comes under our microscope:

Innovative: Turn on your TV to a random channel any night and you’re likely to be watching reality television – a format that allows the viewer to watch real people go about their daily lives, overcome challenges, and showcase talents. Because reality television has been around since the 1940’s in various formats it would be easy to assume that shows like Around the World in 80 Plates or The Real World are the television equivalent of a new flavours of ice cream, just new riffs on an old idea. That thinking would be to miss the point entirely. The magic of successful reality television is that it is culturally relevant and utterly unpredictable.

Most entertainment, be it a drama, comedy, or thriller, has a set of conventions that the viewer can expect to see play out. Reality television tosses these conventions out. Shows like What Would You Do continue to thrill viewers because they offer raw and real emotion and behaviour through an ever changing lens. It is a format that by nature requires endless innovation. Producers constantly reframe what reality television is: who are the stars, what are the situations, what is the story. They must innovate to find new insights that connect deeply with the viewing audience. In an ever changing world this is no easy feat. Reality television is innovative because it is an ever evolving mirror of our culture and our norms with real people as the stars, allowing each frame to connect deeply with us as viewers.

Not: Reality TV is not innovative in any way.  Reality TV is simply society’s latest version of a very common and human activity, voyeurism. If we can agree that voyeurism existed before television (it did) then the argument for the affirmative has to be that putting it on TV is somehow innovative.

Reality TV; real people doing real things while the rest of us watch.  How new is this idea?  Can you remember Candid Camera?  Maybe not the original but it was the granddaddy of reality TV back in 1947.  Oh how our grandparents laughed at the confused faces of real people in real (albeit staged) situations (hum Big Brother theme tune here).  At least they would have if they had a TV,  which they didn’t,  because back in 1947 total television production was only 178,000 units.1

In 1947 the majority of Americans were actually listening to Candid Microphone2 on their radio set (yes, you heard me) and only wishing they had access to a TV. So here is the thing, reality shows were part of the original programming as television became popular in the 20th century and they built off the success of reality radio that had enjoyed many decades of success before that.  While reality shows currently seem to be ubiquitous they are no more an invention of the television age than sports, news reporting or game shows. Reality TV is today enjoying its moment in the sun but we cannot confuse popularity with innovation.

Judgement: Innovative! Although reality TV has been around for some time, it is the way in which it is currently delivered that differentiates it from its predecessors. Candid Camera was simply people doing staged stunts with a camera hidden somewhere. If you think about it, there was still some sort of script that was followed by the people who were “in” on the joke. A scene was set and actors were sometimes still needed to ensure events happen to trigger the response. However, in todays format, we have the camera simply follow people around while we sit back and watch the resulting social and emotional interactions develop (or fall apart). Another aspect of reality TV is the judging shows like Americas Got Talent and American Idol. Here we get to watch people place themselves completely out there and they either make complete fools of themselves, or we get new stars (think Susan Boyle and Kelly Clarkson). In both examples, no actors or script is followed and it is a complete deviation from hat was done since the beginning of TV. Therefore for that reason, I judge reality TV to be innovative.


2.  Beth Rowan.


Innovative or Not? – Kellogg’s Cornflakes

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Every so often we take a look at a new or iconic product to evaluate the innovation (or lack thereof) behind it. One of us will argue for good, one for bad, and the third will make a final judgement.

Have a suggestion for what we should do next or disagree with our assessments? Have your say in the comments.

This week Kellogg’s Cornflakes comes under our microscope:

Innovative – Kellogg’s Corn Flakes have been around for literally over a century, and may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of an innovative product. However, the brand produced both manufacturing techniques and advertising that revolutionized the industry.

Like many inventions, the story of Corn Flakes began with an accident. The Kellogg brothers, working at a sanitarium, left cooked wheat to cool for too long. Though the wheat went stale, they attempted to salvage it by pressing it through rollers to make dough. Instead, the wheat formed flakes, which were then toasted. Realizing the novelty of this method, the brothers patented it. Corn was later substituted for wheat.

Corn Flakes required no new technology to produce nor were they the first breakfast cereal available. In spite of this, they were able to disrupt the market with the new “format” of the ready-to-eat flake at a time when most cereals were hard biscuits that required preparation. Their unique product spawned countless imitators, and more importantly drove further innovation at both Kellogg’s and their competitors.

But the cereal itself was not the only innovative thing about Corn Flakes. Shortly after the cereal hit mass market, Kellogg’s started offering a premium “prize” to anyone who purchased two boxes. The prize was given in the store, but eventually became a mail-in offer. This not only helped spur growth at Kellogg’s, but also created a new way of incentivizing purchases that became one of the mainstays of the breakfast cereal business.

Not – Though highly successful, Will Kellogg’s Corn Flakes were not innovative.  He simply attached them to the bandwagon of breakfast cereals that started with Granula in 1863.  The first cereals were innovative, proving so popular that they’re now a staple in many countries, but Corn Flakes didn’t arrive until 1906, 43 years later.

In the intervening years, other innovations paved the way.  Following Granula, a ‘ready-to-eat’ breakfast cereal was introduced by Quaker oats in 1877, improving on the need to soak Granula overnight. Then, a major disruptive innovation arrived in 1879 when George Hoyt designed an attractive box for his Wheatena cereal, avoiding the less sanitary practice of selling breakfast cereal from barrels.  This was the birth of modern breakfast cereals.

Around the same time, Kellogg’s brother, John, developed a biscuit of ground cereals.  He was working on this product when he accidentally let soaked wheat go stale and found, to his surprise, that it could be rolled into wheat flakes.  John called it Granose, serving it and a corn version to patients at his sanatorium, but it would be another 20 years before Will would mass market Corn Flakes in an already burgeoning industry of breakfast cereal.

There is no doubt that Kellogg’s Corn Flakes was and is a strong, successful product, but this resulted from good marketing that stood on the existing innovations of ready-to-eat, convenient, sanitary, processed breakfast cereals.  Corn flakes and Android may be great products, but Granula, Quaker Oats, Wheatena, and iOS were innovative.

Verdict – Not Innovative!  The history of cereal is in itself a story of great inventions and Kellogg’s Cornflakes stands proudly amongst the best in this field.  Inventions are easy to spot but when trying to identify a great innovation within the history of a great business things can get a bit tricky.  How much success is attributed to the invention and how much to the strong business model?  For me the key here is in the time that Will took to mass market the invention.  There is not doubt that the brothers had stumbled upon a great invention but by the time the product was marketed to the public the cereal category was rife with competitors and substitutes.   What’s more, so much time had elapsed since the invention that no significant legal protection was left for the nascent business.  If Will had moved to produce his Cornflakes immediately upon discovery would I reverse my decision?  Probably, but all we really know for certain is that by the time the Corn presses started rolling the company was relying on its marketing message to out compete its rivals as the value in the invention, and thus its status as an innovation, had been diluted.

Innovative or Not? – The Segway

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Every so often we take a look at a new or iconic product to evaluate the innovation (or lack thereof) behind it. One of us will argue for good, one for bad, and the third will make a final judgement.

Have a suggestion for what we should do next or disagree with our assessments? Have your say in the comments.

This week the Segway comes under our microscope:

Innovative – In 2001, there was word of new technology soon to be unveiled that would become a whole new way of transportation.  Venture capitalist John Doerr claimed it would be more important than the internet, while Steve Jobs was quoted as saying it was “as big a deal as the PC”.  That December, the Segway was revealed in Bryant Park on Good Morning America.  Despite the hype and publicity, the Segway struggled to sell as many units as expected and still to this day remains in a niche market.  However, marketing and publicity aside, we must focus solely on what inventor Dean Kamen provided: a two-wheeled, self-balancing battery powered vehicle termed Segway.  By seemingly being able to read the riders mind, it will move in the direction desired by use of advanced sensing, smart battery management, electric propulsion, and dynamic stabilization.  Balancing is accomplished by use of dual computers utilizing proprietary software, two tilt sensors, and five gyroscopic sensors.  A feedback signal continually adjusting for deviations from expected behaviour moves the wheels forward or backward as needed for either balance or propulsion.  By leaning the Segway away from or towards the riders center of mass, it senses this change and adjusts the speed to accommodate maintaining the balance of the rider.  To turn, the rider manipulates a control on the handlebar right or left.  Considering that prior to this invention, a bicycle was the only other two wheeled mode of transportation, we have come a long way to make life easier.

Not Innovative –  Innovation is a multi-faceted process. Creating a technology, no matter how groundbreaking, is not innovative on its own. It is the application of that technology into a form that meets the needs of a market that makes a truly innovative product. In that regard, the Segway was successful as an invention, but not as an innovation.

The Segway begs the question: can something be innovative if no one’s buying it? Since its unveiling over a decade ago, Segway has found use in a niche market, but has not increased the efficiency or convenience of travel enough to justify its price tag to the average person. A better word to describe Segway would be “novel.” It might have earned some interested looks early on, but in the long run has not changed consumer habits. It did not disrupt the market in any meaningful way—Honda, Toyota, and company haven’t exactly scrambled to put out their own “people movers” in response. And for a device that promised to revolutionize transportation for the masses, that cannot be qualified as anything else but failure.

All innovation is goal-driven, and Segway’s hype may have created a goal that was unattainable. Perhaps with a more modest outlook, it would be easy to see Segway as an innovative product with specific applications (law enforcement/paramedic, factory use, mobility assistance) that could eventually trickle down to full scale consumer use. As it stands now, most consumers know it as the butt of jokes like Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

The Verdict– Innovative!  While it is true that the Segway has not lived up to its early hype, the story of the Segway is really more a story of over zealous advertizing than poor innovation.  Had the original predictions for the Segway been more tame, perhaps opining that its future was one of city tourism, mall cops and enthusiast groups then we would never be having this debate.  The Segway is not a bad product, it serves a use, is loved by some, used by few and even the counsel for the negative admits it is novel.  Can we rule a product not innovative simply because it didn’t deliver against overly ambitious sales forecasts?  I say not, the yardstick of innovation cannot be defined by the modesty of marketing executives.

Innovative or Not: The Toyota Prius

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Every so often we plan to take a look at a new or iconic product to evaluate the innovation (or lack thereof) behind it. One of us will argue for good, one for bad, and the third will make a final judgement.

Have a suggestion for what we should do next or disagree with our assessments? Have your say in the comments.

This week the Toyota Prius comes under our microscope:

Not Innovative: The Prius is a car that inspires some strong reactions – none of which should be an exclamation of ‘Its So Innovative!’ As one of the first efforts by a major car maker to bring hybrid technology to the mainstream the Prius has slowly achieved commercial success and cult status without doing anything innovative. When it was first launched the Cato Institute had this to say regarding the Prius; “With most subsidies, the government pays someone to produce something that no one wants to buy. But what happens when the government pays people to buy something that no one wants to produce?” and “News stories about the popularity of these vehicles simply aren’t true. There’s a waiting list … but that’s because Toyota will only ship 12,000.” In fact, for the first six years the Prius never sold more than 50,000 units in a year – even with extensive tax subsidies!

The technology used in the Prius isn’t anything unique or disruptive – it’s the same as that used in any number of hybrids on the market. And it certainly wasn’t the first hybrid car, with the brake regeneration technology based on an invention from the 1970’s. The Prius is a success not because it was innovative – it is a success because it became an emblem of the environmental movement. With the help of generous government subsidies and marketing the Prius was able to overcome high cost and limited consumer interest to become the kind of ‘innovation’ deservedly mocked by South Park.

Innovative: There are two types of people in this world, those whose car says something about them personally and those who drive Honda Accords.  Originally it was the ad men who told us what our cars stood for, and the Accord guys loved pointing out how much they were ignoring them…until the Prius.

Is the Prius innovative? Of course it is, but not because it is a hybrid (there are plenty of those) and not because it is the most successful (although it is).  The Prius is an innovative car because it created a new personal statement that a driver could wear on the road.  The Prius says as much about its driver as an F250 with a gun rack and Playboy mud flaps.  The Prius was designed as a hybrid; you don’t have to look for the badge on the back to see if that Prius quietly gliding past you is a hybrid because they are ALL hybrids, its shape makes that statement, unlike its competitors. The Prius was the innovation that changed everything.  Suddenly at wine tasting’s all over the suburbs the Accord drivers’ smug indifference to the might of Madison Avenue could be trumped by the simple statement “of course Steve and I went for the Prius”.  The middle class was rocked to its core and the malls would never be the same again.  A sports car says you are dangerous, a luxury car says you have made it and a Prius is the conspicuous consumption of politics.

Judgement: Not Innovative! Although the Prius has a different shape from its competitors, this feature alone is certainly not enough to consider it innovative.  There are many products that differentiate themselves from competitors via shape and colour, but fundamentally offer nothing new or unique.  As mentioned, the technology is the same as used by other hybrid manufacturers and it certainly wasn’t the first to lead the way for others to follow.  In fact, a quick Google search reveals that back in 1870, Sir David Salomon developed a car with a light electric motor and very heavy storage batteries[1].  As for its being embraced by consumers as a political statement; such statements bear no merit toward a reflection on the level of innovation for a product.  Consumers are known to embrace random products to either make a statement about or flock ‘en mass’ to madly purchase. In 1975 consumers went crazy for what was called the Pet Rock, earning its “creator” over 15 million dollars!  So even with its differentiated design and being considered the “conspicuous consumption of politics”, the Prius is still far from being innovative.

Innovative or Not: Google

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Every so often we plan to take a look at a new or iconic product to evaluate the innovation (or lack thereof) behind it. One of us will argue for good, one for bad, and the third will make a final judgement.

Have a suggestion for what we should do next or disagree with our assessments? Have your say in the comments.

This week Google Search comes under our microscope:

Not Innovative:  When someone tells you to look something up on the internet, you will most likely hear the phrase “Google it”.  Asking a Google user to try another search engine almost makes a person feel uncomfortable.  Although cited in numerous articles as being one of the most innovative companies today, was this search engine really innovative when it first started?  Back in 1998 (when Google went public) some of the top search engines used were AltaVista, MSN Search, and Yahoo!.  AltaVista used a fast multi-threaded crawler termed Scooter which covered numerous web pages and received 13 million queries per day.  It was a huge success and was earning millions within a few years of its launch.  Another powerful search engine at the time, Yahoo!, organized websites in a hierarchy as opposed to a searchable index of pages.  Yahoo! grew quickly along with its stock price.  Google emerged during this time with its own variation that returns based on priority ranking and offered Boolean operators for an option for customization.  Considering all the available search engines, and the power they had – returning web pages matching what a person looks for – why would one be considered more innovative than any other?  Although most utilized the same technology, some (like Yahoo!) were different and offered something unique.  Therefore if we were to consider the whole search engine landscape during this time, singling out Google as emerging with something more innovative than any other search engine is a rather difficult task to do.

Innovative: Google‘s main innovation was in ranking pages in a way that consistently returned higher quality results than the status quo.  This forced every other search engine to change their foundational algorithms.  In other words, it drastically disrupted the entire business of searching the internet; it’s the very definition of a disruptive innovation.

When Google began in early 1996, search engines still ranked results by an algorithm that counted how frequently search terms appeared on a page, and returned whatever page mentioned your search terms the most.  Today, we know this system is easily tricked and returns low quality results. Google’s innovation was called “PageRank”, a system that ranked pages by how often other pages linked to it.  Google treated every link to a page as a “vote” for that page, thus making the internet into a sort of democracy.  Also, when a page had lots of votes, its votes carried more weight, refining the system to be smarter and harder to trick.

Google went further though: their page worked faster than anyone else’s.  By building their unique homepage to be blank, except a search box, it loaded almost instantly.  In addition, their advertisements were text only, carrying the two-fold benefit of loading faster and being less annoying.

Google’s website offered a faster service that returned higher quality results, all based on a system in which people decided which websites were most useful.  Google didn’t just make a better, innovative search engine, they made the internet more democratic.

Judgement: Innovative! The definition of disruptive innovation is using existing technology to deliver what may appear to be an inferior product that meets the core needs of new and emerging market segments. When it first launched, Google, with its stripped down front page may have seemed lacking in comparison to existing (and successful) search engines like Yahoo! and Webcrawler. However, Google was actually disrupting search by identifying the core need of consumers – fast and relevant search results. Was this a radical innovation, incorporating new technology to outpace its competitors? No. But it was a massively successful example of disruptive innovation, transforming an industry by applying known technology in a new way. Doing search (and only search) very well allowed Google to become synonymous with the internet usage and to grow its business into all of its current segments.

Innovative or not: the iPod

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Every so often we plan to take a look at a new or iconic product to evaluate the innovation (or lack thereof) behind it. One of us will argue for good, one for bad, and the third will make a final judgement.

Have a suggestion for what we should do next or disagree with our assessments? Have your say in the comments.

This week the iPod comes under our microscope:

Innovative: Innovation is different from invention in that innovation always has a goal (often commercial).  One can invent for the sake of invention but you cannot innovate for the sake of innovation, the activity is not the goal.  Because of this I class the iPod as one of the best innovations in the electronics sector for the past 20 years.  People can claim that the iPod was just another mp3 player and that it wasn’t novel enough to really be considered innovative.  I argue that the iPod was not just another mp3 player, upon launch it became THE mp3 player, very rapidly and in such a definitive way that we don’t even use the term mp3 player any more.  You have to realize that this was the goal all along, but it was also the goal of all those other awful mp3 players we have long since forgotten about.  When we look back in awe at the innovative efforts of the Wright brothers we don’t let all those crazy nineteenth century flying machines that fell from cliffs and plummeted from the sky before them detract from the magnitude of their achievement.  Those broken wings and burned parachutes were the detritus of the inventions that lead to the innovation of flight, just as the IXI and MPMan lead to the iPod.  The presence of inventions that failed to meet the innovation goal does not detract from the invention that does.  Did iPod meet its goal?  300 million units and counting say’s yes.

Not: Arguing that the iPod is not innovative is akin to telling people that the sky isn’t blue – any argument you make is likely to be heard with a measure of skepticism. The iPod did transform Apple into one of the worlds’ great companies. However, I don’t think that is because the iPod itself was innovative. Why?

  1. When the iPod was unveiled in 2001 it wasn’t even in the first wave of digital music players. Beating it to the market were the Audio Highway Listen Up, the Diamond Rio, the iAUDIO, and numerous others. Compared to predecessors the iPod didn’t have more storage capacity, had less flexibility for file playback, and was compatible only on Macintosh systems.
  2. Subsequent launches of iPod didn’t contain ‘new’ features – for example the first mp3 player with video was the Archos Jukebox Multimedia in 2002 (Apple didn’t add this feature until 2004). Even the iPhone was launched 6 years after mp3 playback was first added to phones!
  3. The iPod relies on the iTunes store. Rather than giving consumers freedom to do whatever they want with their music player it actually gave them less.

Despite these failures in technical improvement the iPod has been successful because it was designed, launched, and marketed differently than its less successful brethren. The creation of the iTunes universe to go along with the beautiful and simple design of the iPod was a success in marketing and consumer engagement that allowed ‘iPod’ to become synonymous with ‘mp3 player’.

Judgement: Considering the arguments both for and against, I will confess that telling me the iPod is not innovative will certainly make me look at you with skepticism.  Even though I agree it was not the first portable music player and did require some fine tuning, it has become known as THE only portable music device one should own today.  Apple quickly identified its weaknesses and the versions released thereafter clearly addressed the consumer needs (e.g.: small size, large storage capacity, and easy user interface).  As the proud owner of an iPod, I do not feel any limitations of having to purchase music only from iTunes.  In fact, I see it as a huge convenience in its ability to download a song and immediately place it into your iPod.  Therefore, the winner is…..Innovative!