June 18, 2013

There’s plenty of talk about “innovation” these days: how some companies have it and others don’t; how some things are or are not innovative. What’s funny is that even when geeks (maybe especially when geeks) have a conversation about innovation, each of us often has a different idea about “innovation” actually means.

When I say “innovation”, what I mean is this:

A popular product that makes enough positive difference to change expectations.

Let me tell you why I chose those particular phrases.


Let’s start with an axiom: for something to be innovative, it has to be popular. I mean, really popular. A gadget stuck in a lab and accessible to a small group of researchers has little effect on the world at large.

Innovative things must touch the masses. They eventually become ubiquitous, even if they’re expensive.

Devices with resistive touchscreens had existed for years, but it wasn’t until Palm introduced their PDAs that they made a difference in most people’s lives. The Internet grew as a DARPA project for decades, but it wasn’t until ISPs bloomed around the world that it changed the way we work, shop, and play. Commercial aviation didn’t affect most people’s lives until tickets became affordable enough for middle-class families to fly to their vacations.


For something to be innovative, it has to come as a package that can be consumed by the end user. In other words, a product. Some tend to point out some new technology or component as being innovative (and they may be, in their own specialized fields), but people just don’t give a hoot about components. Your smartphone is more than a collection of displays, batteries, chips, software, and antennas. It’s a phone: a whole, integrated product with components that work together for the user’s benefit, and unified by a distinct set of aesthetics.

Put simply: a product is something whose name evokes its utility.

A product gives the user a unit of conversation. Only when people can name your product can they talk about it, and tell their friends about how awesome it is. And that’s how an innovative product becomes popular.

As an aside, innovative products inevitably spark the creation of new product categories. When this happens, there will be tons of me-too products on the market that will adopt similar design choices as the original, to varying degrees of success.

Enough positive difference to change expectations

You can feel it in your gut when something is significantly different, instead of just showing variations on a theme. An innovative product is different enough to make a difference in a user’s behavior. It puts the status quo on notice: “I’m nothing like you. I’ll show you how it’s done from now on.”

The jump from the 3.5” iPhone to the 9.7” iPad made a huge difference in what people expected to do with the two products. Reading books and magazines, watching full length movies, and displaying presentations are just better on the iPad than on the iPhone. By contrast, the increase from 3.5” to 4” on iPhones didn’t really make people use the iPhone in new ways.

Don’t get me wrong: product evolution is important. Retina displays, faster CPUs and GPUs, better battery life, software improvements, and other incremental changes are how you position yourself to make the next leap in innovation. (Software, in particular, has a way of creating astonishing leaps out of seemingly incremental change.) But that’s evolution, not innovation.

It’s on this point that many online pundits get it wrong. A bigger screen, a different skin, a different UI—very few of these things can be called “innovative”.

But if your your product somehow causes a large number of people to suddenly expect to be able to do something they couldn’t even describe before they saw it, then you may have some innovation in your hands.

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