Malcolm Gladwell Discovers That Innovation And Invention Are Not The Same

from the indeed dept

A few years back, Malcolm Gladwell penned a fascinating piece for the New Yorker, dealing with the fact that nearly all major technological and scientific advances tend to be “invented” by multiple, totally separate, people at the same time. This seemed like pretty good fodder for recognizing that patents for such things often don’t make sense, since the evidence suggests that they were the natural progression of the state of the art, and giving one a monopoly would significantly punish the others who came up with the same concept (and may have even done a better job). Yet, oddly, Gladwell used the piece to play up how wonderful giant patent troll Intellectual Ventures was. It seemed like a weird disconnect.

In his latest piece, Gladwell goes a step further in his exploration of innovation, in writing about the difference between invention and innovation, picking apart the classic story of Steve Jobs seeing the GUI/mouse combo at Xerox PARC and “copying” it for the Macintosh. Gladwell points out that the lessons that some take from the story aren’t really correct. Specifically, one of the standard lessons is the idea that Xerox had the personal computer revolution in its hands and let it slip away. But Gladwell points out that this isn’t really true. While PARC showed Jobs that idea (much of which was copied itself from Doug Engelbart and his famous work at SRI), it really was the implementation that mattered, and Jobs and Apple (along with Ideo) had to work quite hard to take the idea of the mouse — which cost hundreds of dollars and was fragile in the Xerox version — and make it cheap, reliable and easy to use.

It’s that part of the story that often gets overlooked. It’s that part of the story that matters, which thankfully Gladwell points out:

[The] striking thing about Jobs’s instructions to Hovey is that he didn’t want to reproduce what he saw at PARC. “You know, there were disputes around the number of buttons–three buttons, two buttons, one-button mouse,” Hovey went on. “The mouse at Xerox had three buttons. But we came around to the fact that learning to mouse is a feat it and of itself, and to make it as simple as possible, with just one button, was pretty important.

So was what Jobs took from Xerox the idea of the mouse? Not quite, because Xerox never owned the idea of the mouse. The PARC researchers got it from computer scientist Douglas Engelbart, at Stanford Research Institute, fifteen minutes away on the other side of the university campus….

The same is true of the graphical user interface that so captured Jobs’s imagination. Xerox PARC’s innovation had been to replace the traditional computer command line with onscreen icons. But when you clicked on an icon you got a pop-up menu: this was the intermediary between the user’s intention and the computer’s response. Jobs’s software team took the graphic interface a giant step further. It emphasized “direct manipulation.” If you wanted to make a window bigger, you just pulled on its corner and made it bigger; if you wanted to move a window across the screen, you just grabbed it and moved it….

The difference between direct and indirect manipulation–between three buttons and one button, three hundred dollars and fifteen dollars, and a roller ball supported by ball bearings and a free-rolling ball–is not trivial. It is the difference between something intended for experts, which is what Xerox PARC had in mind, and something that’s appropriate for a mass audience, which is what Apple had in mind. PARC was building a personal computer. Apple wanted to build a popular computer.

It really is a pretty succinct description that highlights how the idea is only a small part of things, and it’s the actual execution and implementation that matters.

It’s interesting to see that the modern day PARC has responded to the story directly, pointing to some key “lessons learned” that are demonstrated by the article, and with some additional background — including the fact that Xerox didn’t just create a mouse, but had actually explored a bunch of different pointing mechanisms, before settling on the mouse after doing extensive research.

The PARC blog also talks up the importance of “open innovation,” and sharing ideas outside of a company, recognizing (frequently) that others may be better able to take an idea and run with it by creating something really powerful on top of that.

Tragically, the Gladwell piece never happens to mention how patents get in the way of all of this — though it does quote Myhrvold a bit just about the nature of research. It’s really too bad, because the world could use a deeper explanation of how patents quite frequently get in the way of this whole process.

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Companies: apple, xerox

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Comments on “Malcolm Gladwell Discovers That Innovation And Invention Are Not The Same”

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Joseph Kranak (profile) says:

Many ideas

The lesson is that it’s not just one idea, it’s a whole bunch of ideas in tandem, plus the labor hours behind making them work, plus investing the money and taking the risk (and the risk is already bad enough, considering so man ideas fall flat, and the patents just new inventions more risky and more costly). That idea is such a small piece of the whole puzzle.

Bernt (user link) says:


Dear Mr. Gladwell,

I enjoy your writing and stores.

In Outliers I just wanted to make a few comments.

1. I believe the pivotal point in computers (personal and otherwise) was December 1968 when Douglas Engelbart showed to the world what the collaboration computer would be “Mother of All Demos”. I believe Steve, Bill, and Bill and many other friends who grew up in The Valley would agree. Steve got his showmanship from Doug, on Steve’s last MacWorld keynote Steve stopped after and saw Doug and said to the world press, “This is the guy who started it all.” Most of us who were there share that sentiment.

2. In 1968 Michael Larson — a contributor to my book Explorer Fractal — had unfettered access to a PDP Dec computer timesharing system. He was in third grade and later became captain of the US Math Olympic

Picture of the both of us as well as Doug Team.



darryl says:

How can you confuse Innovation and Invention ?

I dont see what your point is, it’s like saying.

Cheese is a different word than bread.

Ofcourse Innovation is not invention, and invention is not innovation.

Do you understand that they are TWO SEPERATE WORDS with two seperate and individual meanings.

Innovation is using your shoe to hammer in a nail.

Or using the light on your cell phone to find your key.

So the definition of innovation is using something for a different purpose, in an innovative may.

Invention is different, and is rarly acheive without innovation, but that is where the similarity ends.

An invention is an innovation that no one else has though of, it is therefore new, original, and if it meets the legal requirements that innovation will be ‘promoted’
to an invention.

The guy to invented television did not invent the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT), nor did he invent radio, voice of wires, antennas, telegraphy.

But he used the equivalent to using his shoe to hammer in a nail, and used the CRT to display images.

So he used innovation, by using another product that was allready available (the shoe, or CRT) and applied it to another technology (hammering nails, or making TV).

Now you are not going to be able to take out a patent of using a shoe to hammer in a nail, but if you innovation is original, then you can take a patented CRT and use that to patent television.

There is your english comprehension lesson for the day.

GUYS,,,,,, It’s NOT that hard !!!!

The eejit (profile) says:

Re: How can you confuse Innovation and Invention ?

+1 for the trying, but you still miss the point; it was the combination of ideas and the execution of those ideas that allowed Apple to join the computing market.

It seems laughable now, but back in high school (Brit here) we still used the old BBC microcomputers and the Apple Macintosh because they (mostly) were sturdy machines.

Darryl says:

Re: Re: How can you confuse Innovation and Invention ?

+1 for the trying, but you still miss the point; it was the combination of ideas and the execution of those ideas that allowed Apple to join the computing market.

That is exactly what I am saying, Apple as you know did not invent the computer, yet they were still able to join the computing market.

And they did that without even having a patent on the computer, or the IC, or the transistor.

Yet look at them now !!!!

So I do not think I have missed any point, as you have indicated.

If I had of missed the point apple would not have been able to enter the computer market as easily as they did, or with as much success.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: How can you confuse Innovation and Invention ?

As ever, you seem to post a big wall o’ text to either state the obvious or miss the point. In this case, it appears to be the former.

If your actual point was that while innovation and invention are different things, it’s the combination of both (rather than simple invention) that’s important, you have not only repeated what Mike said in this article, but what he points out on an incredibly regular basis. Only less succinctly and less readably.

Richard (profile) says:

Invention vs innovation vs implementations

Please please stop using the word innovation as different from invention. That use of the word is a recent invention (hah) of a particular school of economic thought – and doesn’t correspond with the regular traditional meaning of innovation – which is not much different from invention. Using the word innovation like this just confuses the issue.
Use the word implementation instead – that is what you actually mean – and will be readily understood by everyone.

That said I’ve no argument witht he sentiments expressed – just with the language.

Most innovations/inventions (see the words are really synonymous) consist of taking an established idea from one context and transporting it into another. Why such a step should entitle you to a monopoly has always puzzled me.

darryl says:

Re: Invention vs innovation vs implementations

an innovation becomes an invention when the man at the patent office supplies you with a patent Number for your idea, that you have expressed in a practical form.

Once you have that patent number, you innovation, or implementation is now an invention.

as you have seen you can use inventions in new innovations and you can use new innovations what include existing inventions to create new inventions.

From which other people will innovate from and possible spawn their own inventions.

So inventions, patents, IP or innovation does not limit or stifle further innovation or invention it promotes it.

Historically, that has ALLWAYS been the case, as it is still today.

The guy who invented a ‘cart’ probably did not invent the wheel.

He probably did not invent the ‘bit’ for the hourse, or its harness, or the equipment to cut wood, or the ability to make leather.

they would have been invented by other people, he just put all those inventions together and invented something else.

again, really, is this THAT hard for you guys ???

Did the Write brothers invent flight ? no
did they invent the internal combustion engine ? No
the wing, No.
The prop, No.

did they invent heavier than air flight ? no.

Did they invent canvass ? or the shaping and forming of wood ? no.

Did they invent wires, cables, levers, gears, seats ??

No ofcourse not..

Could they have built a plane without all those inventions?

No, ofcourse not.

Was any of those other inventions restricted to them for their application ? no of course not.

Did the Write brothers being the first doing powered flight stop anyone else from doing the same ?

No, it did the exact opposite, it created an entire market and industry.

Just as the invention of the transistor transformed electronics and computing, it did not restrict or limit it.

I would of hurt the technology industry if there had not been a system of patent protection for the transistor, as Bell labs would have had to keep their idea a secret to enable them to profit from it.

this did not happen as we all know..

So the ‘claim’ that patents hurt innovation, is just plain stupid.

If you wish to make such claims it would be good to provide some form of supporting evidance to confirm that.

So we can have something to shoot you down with.

darryl says:

Re: Re: Re: Invention vs innovation vs implementations

well thats even more confirmation that the system works as intended !!!!!.

Thanks for confirming that Lawrence.

So you are saying, that even though they might of tried to stifle innovation with patents, they did not suceed, therefore we have hundreds of thousands of air plains in the sky now.

Darryl says:

Re: Re: Re: Invention vs innovation vs implementations

Did the [Wright] brothers being the first doing powered flight stop anyone else from doing the same ?

The simple answer, and the correct one is


Did the Wright brothers being the first doing powered flight inspire, promote and confirm possible and initiate a massive aircraft/airline travel industry ?
(that transformed society).

Created millions of jobs, and massive technical advancement ? (won a couple of wars in between) ???


Did the person who invented television create a massive industry, employment, entertainment and communications and media, or did he stifle innovation.

Are we still watching mechcanical TV ? or are we watching high def digital or 3D TV now.

Would be have radio or TV or recorded music or the transistor if the people who invented those system knew if they told anyone about it, that idea would have been stolen ? (and often was) ?

No we have progress and innovation due to the fact that these people could go to the patent office and register their invention, giving them the ability to develop and refine their invention.

And making public the CONCEPT of the invention, that enables OTHERS to invent their own solutions to the problem.

After all an invention is a solution to a problem, there is usually far more than one solution.

So you might invent the phonograph, so you have solved the problem of recording sounds.

But that does not stop someone else inventing the magnetic tape, or the CD or DVD or video.

Edison did not invent ‘recording sound’ or patent ‘recording sound’ therefore he in no way limited others from seeking other methods of recording sounds.

He defined the problem and offered one solution to that problem, but in doing so he also opened up the problem for other solutions.

Edison did not invent ‘electric light’ he invented AN electric light, he patented it, but that did not stop technical advancement in electric lights at all.

He did not invent the fluro, or the LED or the metal halide, or the laser.

They are all ‘electric lights’ and again it shows time and again that an invention is only one solution to a problem.

The only way an invention will stifle you is if you cannot think of your own solution.

in that case, you concede the inventor is smarter than you, and you pay him for his brains.

Or you work and think harder and develop your own solution.

If Mikes world view was true, we would not have Neon lights, or LED’s or halogen lights because ‘electric light’ is patented.

Clearly, (in the light of day) that is not the case !!

If it were true that patents stifle innovation there would be millions of examples of it occuring.

Yes, I cannot think of a single example, where another solution to a problem could not be achieved.

I see that most (successful) inventions are massive technology seeds, and promote a vast and rapid technological rate of growth.

You would not be on this web page now if the transistor had not been invented and patented. (when it was). and we would not be at the state of technical advancement without that invention and the making public (by patent) of that particular solution to a problem.

(there are thousands of different types of transistors that have been invented) Bell labs did not invent THE transistor, they invented A transistor.

Lots of other people invented lots of other transistors and solid state devices.

So again, find some real world examples where progress has been stifled because there is ONLY ONE solution to a problem, and someone has a patent on that ONLY solution.

Then show me a problem that only has ONE solution !! 🙂

Gordon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Invention vs innovation vs implementations


The point which you’ve obviously missed again…is not that patents can and do stifle innovation.

It is however a question of, if two different people can come up with the same thing without seeing or knowing what the other is doing, why should one of them be given a patent on it, thus being able to stop the other from implementing their idea?

In THAT sense, patents can and DO stifle innovation.

It’s NOT that tough to get.

My 2 cents.

Darryl says:

Re: Re: Re: Invention vs innovation vs implementations

it is that easy, the one who is first wins..

unless 2 identical patents are lodged at the idential second of time, and I guess that does not happen very often, if ever.

and its 2011, you claim you invented something in a field of expertise, then claim you did not have access to the original idea. is stupid.

So it still comes down to who’s on first.

DannyB (profile) says:


Apple created quite a bit of its own original work.

Making a non-fragile mouse is a hardware engineering problem. There are tons of software engineering problems Apple had to solve to turn the Lisa and later Macintosh into products.

Automatic repainting of pixels uncovered when a window is moved.

Pull down menus and the menu bar.

Those are but two original ideas, fundamental to what has evolved into today’s GUIs, that Apple had to invent. Bill Atkinson invented the Region algorithm because he was trying to figure out how Xerox would automatically repaint what was once underneath a window after it was moved. Turned out, Xerox didn’t. They had a command that had to be manually issued to refresh dirty areas of the screen.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Invention and Innovation

GREAT examples of misdirection!
1. Using deductive (rather than the scientific inductive) reasoning, we can decide black is actually white (IP is always unnecessary, etc., etc.). We find an example in which our point is proven, and we treat that as the only example with any value. PROVEN!!!
2. The present IP system is hopelessly outdated and badly abused; it does damage innovation; no question about that.
So, we deduce that ANY IP is “bad”, ignoring such things as the marvelous contribution Hedy Lamarr made, or any number of great innovations that came to light BECAUSE of an organized system of encouraging disclosure!!!
Smart; very smart – like welfare for the wealthy (the REAL threat to our nation!)

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

Re: Invention and Innovation

Gene Cavanaugh:

1. Using deductive (rather than the scientific inductive) reasoning, we can decide black is actually white (IP is always unnecessary, etc., etc.). We find an example in which our point is proven, and we treat that as the only example with any value. PROVEN!!!

Sums up your own attempt at argument in a nutshell.

Dave says:


I’m glad to hear you call Intellectual Ventures out for that. I’m a Gladwell fan, usually, but I think that sometimes he gets a little too starstruck with these high and mighty tech people. Myhrvold is a very smart guy, but he has way too much money, and is thus unaccountable to anyone.

It was funny seeing his silly reaction when a food writer had the AUDACITY to criticize his massive vanity project, the huge cookbook that will sell 30 copies. How dare he put down the great and powerful OZ!

Ida Byrd-Hill (user link) says:

Innovation versus Invention

Before innovation comes invention. The innovation cycle would move a lot faster if young people in middle and high school were grounded in the invention process. When they arrive on college campuses their minds would be wired for innovation. I am in the midst of a charter school start-up named INVENTech Academy. Our goal is to create interdisciplinary curriculum based on case studies that forces young people to think about inventions and hence innovation.

Bill Alston (profile) says:

Invention and Innovation

Harold Evans provides a lucid distinction between invention and innovation in his book, “They Made America,” about the inventors and innovators who shaped this country.

The inventor solves a problem in a unique way, but the vision is most often limited to the immediate problem space.

The innovator (the Jobs-Englebart scenario is the one I most often use as an example) sees immediately the huge potential and acts on this much larger vision, bringing the invention to the world as a useful device or system.

The truly great inventor/innovators see the whole spectrum from the beginning, from concept to product (and revenues). Few can claim this combination. Such people shape the world.

patent litigation (user link) says:

"get in the way of"?

I know that you’re anti-patent, but I don’t understand how it follows from the rest of this post that patents “get in the way of” innovation. The whole focus of patents is on the difference between ideas and execution, which you have quite ably illustrated in this article. Ideas can’t be patented; only the execution of an idea can be patented. Therefore, if inventors are continually acting as Steve Jobs has done, i.e., taking an idea and “working around” or giving their own personal spins on the ideas of others and then getting patents on those innovative approaches, then doesn’t that encourage, rather than hinder, innovation?

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