The Difference Between Invention And Innovation In The Netbook Space

from the it's-all-about-the-tweaking dept

Business Week's Steve Hamm has a short post talking about the "sudden" success of "netbooks," those mini-laptops that are suddenly selling like crazy. As he notes, smaller laptops are not a new idea, and have been tried for many years in varying formats without much success. But, for some reason, after so many different experiments, it seems that the sweet spot in terms of size, usability and price have all been found.

This actually highlights something quite common in technology innovation: the difference between the idea, the invention and the actual innovation. Just the idea alone wasn't enough to actually make the product valuable. Finding that real sweetspot is a challenge for just about any product, and it involves an awful lot of experimentation to make it work. I've been reading about the early days of a number of inventions lately, and you see this story over and over again, where the initial versions really have no market, and it's a later, totally minor tweak that suddenly makes it valuable. And, of course, the best way to get that tweak to happen quickly (and thus expand a market, and improve the overall economy) is to let a lot of different players experiment to throw a lot of ideas at the market to see what actually does hit that sweet spot. Tragically, with a patent system that grants monopoly protection at the invention stage, this is often a lot more difficult, slowing down the attempts to actually hit that sweetspot.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    Brian Roy, Dec 17th, 2008 @ 4:09pm

    Execution not Innovation

    Every change in implementation isn't innovation either. Sometimes it is the quality of the execution that matters. I'd argue this is the case for sub-notebooks/netbooks. The execution has improved which has led to increased adoption. I don't see an innovation - Maybe I'm just missing it... what is it?

     

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  2.  
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    Cheese McBeese, Dec 17th, 2008 @ 4:13pm

    The size and usability of netbooks is hardly new, IMHO. I think there are two things driving the sudden interest in netbooks. Price is a factor for sure, but an even bigger factor is Web based services. A few years ago, the Internet was a lot more boring. No MySpace, Facebook, Hulu, YouTube, Twitter, etc., etc.

    The tipping point for netbooks was a critical mass of net-based applications combined with a good price for the device. The disruption is just beginning.

     

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  3.  
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    eleete, Dec 17th, 2008 @ 4:31pm

    PCG-C1XS

    My lil' Sony PCG-C1XS is still around and kickin' with Linux installed. The processor and RAM are quite weak but it works to this day. I think I purchased it about 8 years ago just before 9/11. If I pull this badboy out of my backpack I still get gasps and wows with the occasional "how cute", but I love my subnotebook. Why this hasn't caught on long before is a mystery to me. I thought the UMPC would take off too, but no cigar. Back to my ThinkPad, for now.

    I Love My Sony Subnotebook

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 17th, 2008 @ 6:23pm

    Netbook success

    patent litigation will soon follow

     

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  5.  
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    Sachin Balagopalan, Dec 17th, 2008 @ 6:28pm

    2009 will be the year of the NetBook IMO .. http://tinyurl.com/68ud7f

     

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  6.  
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    Mark Regan, Dec 17th, 2008 @ 6:38pm

    New Use for IBM PC and Microsoft OS products

    Great idea. I have come up with a great new use for the IBM PC and Microsoft OS -- hook a chain up to them and use them as anchors for my houseboat.

    Both invented products that had potential, except for the fact that their company management used the "proprietary" model of business, and LINITED the usefulness of their products so much that Japanese innovators came up with clones that did a BETTER JOB, and programmers all over the world found ways to ditch Microsoft's obsolete bloatware by developing products that did a BETTER JOB while consuming fewer resources.

    OPEN SOURCE products are customer-centric. Proprietary products are STOCKHOLDER-centric. In the long run, which model do you think will survive?

    Ask Lenovo and Linux and Google folks whether they will be around longer than IBM and Microsoft.

    Which company would YOU want to buy stock in?

     

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  7.  
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    steven, Dec 17th, 2008 @ 7:01pm

    Don't forget that Psion invented the netBook, which scored high on all three of idea, invention and innovation. It's just that not enough people really cared enough about the internet back then to make it a success.

     

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  8.  
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    Lonnie E. Holder, Dec 17th, 2008 @ 8:55pm

    What's in it for the inventor...

    Sometimes it takes time to build a market, which has little to do with "minor tweaks." Hindsight analyses always like to claim that it was "my widget that made the invention valuable." Sure it was. On the other hand, no invention, no innovation.

    The difference between invention and innovation can be quite real, and highlights one of the problems elimination of patents can cause. Most individual inventors are rotten marketers (if you want proof, try the Wright brothers, though there are thousands of other examples). Someone may have a brilliant invention that no one else would ever have created, but they lack the ability to bring the invention to market - even though the invention may already be ready for the market.

    Some people say, "take the invention away from the inventors. They have no right to keep the invention to themselves. We want to 'innovate' it." Well, if inventors keep getting the shaft from "innovators" (read parasites whose most creative thought was to paint the inventive widget blue (now that's innovation) and have Ron Popeil pitch it on late night television), eventually inventors will get the idea, and turn to more profitable pursuits, like raising alpacas or flipping houses.

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 17th, 2008 @ 8:57pm

    Just my opinion, but it does seem that the "minor tweak" giving rise to the increasing popularity of these products likely arose from the convergence of much greater wireless connectivity coupled with greatly reduced component cost, and not due to any significant innovation on the part of the system integrators. The former (connectivity) is to me more in the nature of infrastructure expansion, and the latter (components) the development of new technologies for their design, development, and manufacture. The latter largely mirrors what I have always associated with the term "invention". Re the latter, Intel and its competitiors in the CPU market obviously had to rely upon their inventive faculties to provide new generation CPUs. The same can be said of virtually all significant components that are contained in these products.

    I believe it is fair to say that in many of the complex technological areas the term "innovation" can also be used to describe the continuum from conception of an idea to the introduction into the market of a product that hopefully strikes a responsive chord with the user community.

     

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  10.  
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    tracelan, Dec 17th, 2008 @ 9:20pm

    Invention vs Innovation

    One other thing to consider is that being ahead of your time is sometimes a BAD thing. This is usually written off as "bad marketing".

    A product may be ahead of it's time but if the marketplace is not ready for it the product will fail.

     

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  11.  
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    gyffes, Dec 18th, 2008 @ 5:31am

    Indeed

    'zactly, Steven. Psion's devices were great but never really marketed over here.

    What we DID have that clearly came WAY too early were the Apple Newton devices, both handhelds and the eMate, which not only resembled the current netbooks in dimensions but STILL kicks their butt in features (built in handle, sturdy shock absorbing case, INSTANT ON, terrific handwriting recognition, fabulous battery life... list goes on).

    People looked at the (massive, I'll be honest) Newtons and asked, "WTF?", but those who tried them are dedicated to them, still. With the iPhone, Apple's essentially recreated their utility in a nicer package, but as a forerunner, the lineage is clear.

    Now I just need Apple to come out with an updated eMate (mine sits, too long disused but still useable, on the desk next to me, now) and I'll be a happy man. Even with all my Madoff-related losses.

     

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  12.  
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    Lonnie E. Holder, Dec 18th, 2008 @ 5:58am

    Re: Invention vs Innovation

    tracelan:

    You are so right about so many things you said.

    A great example is the diesel engine. The diesel engine is incredible for many reasons. However, the first several decades of its life, the engine was problematic, had a lot of issues and had minimal market penetration.

    Now, you can ascribe the issues with the diesel engine to bad marketing, or you can ascribe the issues to lack of market acceptance (people were distrusting of the "new" technology) and issues related to development of the engine, which is the real case.

    Here is the fascinating thing about the diesel engine and patents. The vast majority of the initial patents on the diesel engine expired in 1921, and yet, diesel engines still largely sucked (or did not, because turbochargers had yet to be developed) for another decade or two. Diesel engines need a lot more technology to be able to reliably work, and it took more than 40 years for the technology to get there (note that invention in diesel engines never lagged because the original licensors of the diesel encouraged invention - though they wanted a piece of the pie; apparently lessons learned from the James Watt disaster; of course, innovation - which Mike defines as getting the product to market, lagged, because of reliability issues and lack of market acceptance).

    The diesel engine finally came into its own during World War II, fifty years after the first diesel engine patent (which was expired for about 35 years at that point).

     

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  13.  
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    dinnerbell, Dec 18th, 2008 @ 1:33pm

    stop the shilling!!!

    Sometimes it takes the market time to catch on. Keep in mind if that’s the case the inventor may get nothing and the later companies are free to copy. In any event most small firms purposely look to joint venture with larger firms, but rarely are ever successful. The typical response is “don’t call us...we’ll call you.”, or “sorry, but we’re just not interested”. Two years later the startup proves the product in the marketplace and all of a sudden the large firm they tried to partner with is now making the same product, but paying the inventor nothing. Welcome to reality.

     

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