What is “innovation”?

Another quickie.

Raymond has a comment that illustrates a common theme in the IT industry: it's one rule for Microsoft, one rule for everyone else. And some people would say that's fair, because we have a monopoly on desktop operating systems (and maybe office suites, too).

Innovation is another area where we get beaten down. Look at Apple's iTunes, for example. I'm not saying it's a bad idea, but it's hardly ground breaking. There have been subscription-based music download websites for quite some time, and it hardly took a genius to say “let's charge per song instead of per month!”

Yet it is hailed as the most innovative thing since sliced bread.

What was “innovative” about it? They simply took an existing idea (sell music over the internet) and improved upon it by combining it with another existing idea (sell individual songs rather than entire albums). Which is exactly what Microsoft does, and yet we are never seen as innovators, only imitators. (We also have some original ideas of our own, but we're often refining existing ideas, some of which originated here and some of which did not).

What does it really mean to be “innovative”?

Comments (16)
  1. Enhancing an existing idea, taking it to the "next level", could easily be called "innovation" in my book. Sure, it is not a new idea, but it is "introducing something new", as "to innovate" is defined by <u>The American Heritage Dictionary</u>. I reckon it is all in how you define what it takes to innovate. Does innovating mean a completely new idea that no one has ever come up with, or simply taking a good idea and making it better?

    Besides, some of the greatest business ideas come from enhancing existing products. Would you still like to use a hand-operated egg beater, or those nifty $15 electric models?

    Same thing here, IMHO. Apple has introduced many innovative produces, from the iMac, to their "cube" computer. They’ve learned the hard way that you don’t always make money by innovating in huge leaps. They’ve found success in innovating iTunes on a much smaller scale.

    I reckon that "innovation" could be like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder.


  2. Tim Marman says:

    The definition of "innovation" is creating something new or doing something for the first time.

    It doesn’t need to be revolutionary to be innovative. For example, I consider there to be a lot of innovation involved in .NET – and not because it was such a mind-blowing way of approaching it, but because it was essentially a lot of good ideas in the past distilled and done right.

    But then, I’ve said over and over for the past few years that Microsoft is innovative, so I guess you’re preaching to the choir with me πŸ™‚

  3. I think the big hoopla about iTunes is deserved. Yes, the technological and implementational ideas behind iTunes is hardly groundbreaking – what was groundbreaking was Apple being able to convince a bunch of record label execs that this was the way to go! No one has been able to do that prior…

    There’s a good interview with Steve Jobs on this on Rolling Stone’s Web site: http://www.rollingstone.com/features/featuregen.asp?pid=2529


  4. Peter Torr says:

    Thanks for the link Scott; it was a good read. Most of the stuff I’ve read about Jobs in the past has been very negative (eg, "Steve Jobs and the NeXT Big Thing").

  5. This thread kinda makes me think of the Purple Cow by Seth Godin. Great book about how important it is to have ideas that really stand out and do something in a way that noone else has yet. Using that concept as a framework I think that innovation can be something that is completely ground breaking or unique – but it can also be quite simply a much better way of doing something that already exists.

    The thing that transforms innovation into success is the value that is being delivered to a particular group of stakeholders and a company’s ability to communicate it.

    There may have been hundreds of companies attempting to sell music online but Apple was able to utilize its louder voice to really turn some heads – plus it already had some many people’s attention with its existing customerbase for ipod and itunes. In this case the innovation was more in the marketing not so much the technology I think.

  6. Dumky says:

    MS seems to be using the term "innovation" a lot, altough it is not very clear what it means.

    The only things that is sure, like in the case of iTune that you mention, is that it is not exactly invention or a revolution either. It’s more of a smart mix of existing technologies and ideas to bring an "innovative" solution. Same ingredients, slightly different recipe, add some good marketing and success: you get innovation πŸ˜‰

  7. I love iTunes and my iPod. It has convinced me of a few things:

    * Hardware and software can have a better relationship than they often do. Example: I love how the two products synchronize content your listenting too. If I listen to a speech on my PC and then go on the road with my iPod, it resumes right from where I left off.

    * Simplicity and usability can be accomplished. iTunes is amazing at organizing music files and the synchronization with the iPod is transparent.

  8. Peter Torr says:

    A cool article (from the future — January 2004!) about Apple’s innovation is at http://pf.fastcompany.com/magazine/78/jobs.html

    I once subscribed to the 30-day free trial of PressPlay, but bailed because the software was horrible and the music choice was worse. I’m thinking about trying Napster 2.0 (with the Samsung player) but not sure yet.

    One horrible thing — try downloading the Napster software. Does it have a digital signature? Does it fairy cakes!

    Blah. When will the industry wake up?!?

  9. Tony says:

    Microsoft itself offers one definition of ‘innovation’ as "a new way of doing things". I think that on this basis that iTunes qualifies. It has brought together a whole bunch of things, like the Amazon ‘One Click’ purchasing, previews, children’s accounts, gift certificates, purchasing/downloading direct from the iTunes software, etc. that makes buying tracks and albums easy for any novice.

    It has given the record industry hope that it can reverse the tide of declining sales. That must rank as innovation surely?

  10. Peter Torr says:

    Tony – indeed. iTunes is innovative. The question was mostly rhetorical. If iTunes is innovative (which I think everyone would agree it is), then a lot of what Microsoft does is innovative too.

    Kind of like security… if there’s a local root exploit found in Linux, it’s downplayed by all the fanboys as "no big deal" but if there’s a local root exploit found in Windows then it’s the end of the world.

  11. Tony says:

    I guess I was responding to Tim Marman’s comments rather than the thrust of your post, Peter.

    And, yes, Microsoft is innovating all the time. The irony is that it works at different levels – technical innovation may not be welcomed by the mainstream user if it makes life more complex and complicated. Doing more, or doing differently, isn’t always welcome unless there is a beneficial usability trade-off that software users can both understand and make to work.

    It is in this trade-off where I think Microsoft has difficulty. Do users care about a new file system? Mainly no, unless it offers, say, a guarantee that you will never ever lose information inadvertently through hardware or software failure, or by finger-trouble.

    I believe that after two decades of technical innovation what is needed now is a sustained thrust in usability innovation.

  12. mike says:


    Innovation is another area where we get beaten down. Look at Apple’s iTunes, for example. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, but it’s hardly ground breaking.


    Perhaps not from a technical standpoint, but it sure was from a packaging/business standpoint. Apple developed music software that fit its branding and customer expectations, bought a record company to back it up with content, and started selling it with a simple, one-click interface.

    It shows a committment to an actual problem the customer faces on a daily basis, and the guts to back it up with some out-of the box



    What was β€œinnovative” about it? They simply took an existing idea (sell music over the internet)


    What’s innovative about 99% of Microsoft’s software? The bulk of software ideas are not new, what matters is how they’re packaged and sold. That’s why Windows outsold the Mac, which outsold Xerox’s stuff. That’s why Word outsold WordPerfect… it’s all about the packaging.


    Which is exactly what Microsoft does, and yet we are never seen as innovators, only imitators.


    People are scared and resentful of Microsoft. If I, as an ISV, release a software package, there’s virtually nothing standing in the way of Microsoft replicating it, bundling it, and putting me out of business.

    That’s the most galling thing about what happened to Netscape. Those guys came up with and pioneered the commercial application of a generally new software category. Microsoft ramped its development team from 3 folks on MSIE to >500 in the span of a year, and then gave the result away for free. The browser business dried up for Netscape so they started selling servers; And guess what! Microsoft started giving its webserver away for free. And the rest is dismal history…

    Tell me, why shouldn’t I be scared of Microsoft when it seems like any true innovation will ultimately be subsumed into Microsoft’s products. It might be for the good of the customer in the short term, but I have to wonder how much venture capital has been driven out of the market for lack of an ability to compete with such overwhelming capability.

    Something else to consider: if you do believe that Microsoft’s market power has driven venture capital out of the market, what do you think that’s done for our country’s tech market. Albeit, there’s a recession going on too, but I have to believe that any slowdown in innovation and R&D plays direcly into the hands of cheap, overseas IT labor.

    Just my two cents.

  13. Peter Torr says:

    Mike — good comments (I assume you’re the same "mike" as who posted on the Linux entry too).

    Now we are seeing that our products (operating systems, office suites, etc.) are under competition from free alternatives…

    Someone pointed me to http://www.musicrebellion.com/ — they’ve been selling music per-track (NOT subscription-based like PressPlay) for over 18 months now, and they have a special demand-based pricing model. You don’t see massive press around that though πŸ™

  14. mike says:


    Mike — good comments (I assume you’re the same "mike" as who posted on the Linux entry too).


    Thanks, Mr. Torr. And yes, I’m one and the same as the other Mike. πŸ™‚


    Now we are seeing that our products (operating systems, office suites, etc.) are under competition from free alternatives…


    I guess that’s part of what bothers me: that the competition has to be free in the "free of charge" sense to be competitive. Since folks can’t make any money on the software categories in question, it seems like it follows pretty closely that investment into competitive products will have gone dramatically down, and with it, development of new, innovative ideas (There’s a reason that Linux/OpenSource software feels like a rip-off of both Windows and Unix). It’s for this reason that the presence of zero-cost competiton shouldn’t be taken as a very strong defense of Microsoft’s classical position that it has compeition.


    You don’t see massive press around that though πŸ™


    Apple has magical powers when it comes to pushing its brand image and getting the word out. πŸ™‚

  15. Jeff Atlee says:

    is innovation really what matters though. look at every big company today. very few big companies can innovate and sell their innovations.

    is apple innovative? it doesnt matter what would matter is that you make more

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