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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Filed Under: innovation, invention, malcolm gladwell, steve jobs
Companies: apple, xerox

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  1. identicon
    Darryl, 23 May 2011 @ 5:14am

    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 !! :)

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