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.
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Filed Under: innovation, invention, netbooks

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  1. identicon
    Lonnie E. Holder, 18 Dec 2008 @ 5:58am

    Re: Invention vs Innovation


    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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