There is a discussion whether innovation is really happening, or we have been stuck in the past 15 years. This fear stems from the unrealistic expectation that innovation should be sporadic, exploding and obvious. Truth is, it has always been happening slowly, one step at a time. Something gets created. Then it gets improved, over and over, until a horizon for a new thing emerges.
And that’s how the tech world has been working for the past 15 years. Every famous product out there is just doing the same thing as somebody else, only better:
- Google. They handled web search much better than Yahoo, AltaVista and Lycos. But it is still web search. It came to Larry and Sergey that the current situation can be improved, so they decided to crawl the web, thus improving on the existing search.
- Facebook. Yet another social network out there. There were lots of similar products before that, notably MySpace. But they were just not good enough. Facebook nailed a couple of cool features, combined it with the growth of internet population, and a dose of luck, and got to where they are today – the social network. But it is not, and was not fundamentally new. It was a slight improvement on existing social networks.
- iPhone. Not the first smartphone, not the first phone with GPS, internet or capacitive display. But it was better than everything else that existed, although it had nothing new. Just another phone, properly marketed, and built right.
- Skype. Neither the first chat client, nor the first to provide VoIP. But they did it much better than the rest – quality of sound, ease of use, and more importantly – p2p architecture.
- Pinterest. They are still not that huge, but are worth mentioning. Pinterest is basically a modern “delicious”. Delicious didn’t work out. Pinterest made it shiny, added pictures, pin buttons and a lot of “social”, and the thing worked. A new concept? Definitely not – it’s the same old web bookmarking, only done right.
I’m not trying to belittle the contribution of any of the above. On the contrary – they made very important improvements on the existing scene, which means today we are so much different than in 1995. But is this innovation? I say yes, because it enables further progress. All of the above (probably with the exception of Pinterest) bring a lot of possibilities for new ideas, that were not possible when you couldn’t find anything on the internet, when your social graph was not available as hard data, and when nobody had a power-tool like the smartphone. Not to mention the engineering foundations that these companies have laid for new ideas to come – nobody knew how to handle so much data before Google.
Slight improvements still drive profit, and that’s why many startups are focusing on handling these small improvements. If a tool saves people 30 minutes a day, it can be profitable even though it is not creating anything strictly “new”. The differences between the big successful examples above, and the small failed or sold-out examples, are: the need for the product and the quality of the solution. So are these small apps innovation? Not per-se, but they are part of the innovation environment, which allows real innovation to happen.
Henry Ford once said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”, which seems to contradict everything above. But it doesn’t. People didn’t know that the whole web could be indexed – they would’ve requested easier site submission to AltaVista; they didn’t know ads could be targeted by precise demographics and interests – they would’ve requested bigger banners; and they just wanted the emoticons of ICQ to stop changing. Yes, it is not comparable to building a car rather than using a horse, but it is conceptually the same. It is doing something new, that improves the lives of people, and nobody else has thought of (or was able to implement). And to juxtapose Henry Ford’s quote with the title of this article – he did the same thing as others – transportation, but did it significantly better. So don’t worry about innovation – it will happen slowly, by people noticing spots for improvement in the existing environment, and trying to implement solutions that nobody else has thought of.