It’s that time of the year when the major tech companies try to flex their “innovation” muscles. Samsung tried kicking off the season early but it literally blew up in their face so they’re kicked to the curb for now. Let’s hope they get their shit together.
Google put its Fiber plans on hold and laid off more than half of its team in addition to firing off its CEO (he wrote a nice blogpost full of MBA jargon but call that Google’s exit interview). We are slated to get Fiber installed in our home very soon now but my enthusiasm is somewhat muted because you want to be assured that your utilities company is going to stick around. It’s not like your every other photo storage startup that abruptly shuts down and offers a zip file of your uploads.
Apple announced its ‘same old’ iPhone and ‘nearly same as before’ Macs minus the ports 1. But they added a ‘Touch Bar’ that added a smidgeon of touch interface to their vaunted Mac lineup. Everyone else has skipped straight to making their screens touch-based but Apple has (rightfully, in my opinion) so far resisted. Keep the touch controls where your hands always are, I say. In fact, many of the touchpad controls are located on the Touch Bar. E.g. no longer using the trackpad to select a menu item when it’s right there on your contextual touch bar. Apple is more likely to replace its hardware keyboard with a touch interface with oodles of haptic feedback before it makes the screen with touch interface. So if you want a touch screen laptop, you’re better off jumping ship right now but empirical evidence suggests no one is in a hurry.
Microsoft, on the other hand, egged on by its new young CEO is upping the ante on innovation. It launched the admittedly cool looking Microsoft Studio, a virtual drawing board with a hinge. The video looks great and it definitely seems great to use. But…you knew a ‘but’ was coming…it suffers from the Google Glass problem. Everyone you know says they are definitely not going to buy coz it’s not for them but they definitely see the use for ‘creative professionals’. Yup, that’s what they said about Google Glass and turns out only dorks ended up buying it.
I was a ‘creative professional’ once and have been around plenty in my life. If you think the Touch Bar will not affect or even adversely affect your carefully honed workflow and hence you still believe in the old workhorse that’s engineered perfectly to your current needs, you don’t know how OCD creative professionals can be. Many of my talented peers were using paper and pencil to draft their final year working drawings even after I had been using AutoCAD for three years and showed how clean and precise their work could be with half the artistic talent. If you think your average ‘creative professional’ is going to ditch their Wacom tablets and Final Cut Pro when in fact they stuck by them as Apple was nearly bankrupt in the 90s, then you don’t know how crazy they can be. Those people are less likely to change the software they use let alone explore a new platform with a whole new interface.
That’s not to say Microsoft Studio will not be popular. It will be bought by a few companies or in the way Microsoft works best i.e. contract with a large advertising company and get its procurement manager to buy a ton of Studios (see also, NFL and Patriots). It may in fact be popular and really great to use but will Microsoft have the patience to stick with it and continually improving it in while it waits for the ‘creative professionals’ to fall in love with it?
Innovation is often mistaken for inventing something radically new and different whereas the kind that works takes an existing task and simply incrementally improves it over time until it becomes the new normal. Big leaps occurs but they are few and far between the regular improvements (Read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s where you get the word ‘paradigm’ from and is said to be the most cited book after the Bible.) Innovation is not producing the greatest prototype much less a cool looking product video but rather it is producing the next 100 million within couple of months. It’s definitely, as Samsung proves, rushing to beat your nearest competitor 2.
Innovation is also knowing when the time for your idea may have come. At times, it takes a product many years to achieve its full potential. The iPhone came out in March 2007. Twitter launched a little before that and didn’t reach a critical mass until 2010. Angry Birds was launched in in late 2009; Instagram in 2010; and Snapchat in late 2011. Facebook ditched it web approach and went all in with mobile; Pokémon reinvented itself in 2016. These may the most-used apps on average on your smartphone. Most, if not all, use the camera and that’s the area where most innovation has occurred. The first camera phone was shitty even on the iPhone but within less than 10 years, it’s coming close to DSLR quality.
If you want your mind to be blown, check out the innovation in manufacturing processes. Poor Chinese people get blamed for stealing jobs but automation in these chapels of the industrial era are the real ‘culprit’. Right from the pickled jars to ice cream to your iPhones, innovation in manufacturing has unbeknownst to most has in fact changed the world. Making something is the easy part. Making a million exact copies of the same thing without compromising quality is where innovation comes in. You never learn to do this the first time. It takes several years even if you have the greatest minds working for you.
Just because you’re good at software doesn’t mean you may be good at hardware. It may have to be in the bones, pun intended, of the company to get it right. That’s why companies like GE, GM, and Toyota still flourish. They may not have the same market cap but they’ll persist (not an investment advice; consult your financial advisor). In the end, I’ll leave you with this prescient tweet:
Microsoft makes computers, Google makes phones and Amazon opens stores. Of course it's Apple that has the wrong strategy.— Horace Dediu (@asymco) October 28, 2016
To quickly correct myself, I’ll wonder too whether it is prescient or not. Time only will tell.