Phil Windley asks: Whither innovation?

Phil Windley asks: Whither innovation?

Summary: Former CIO for the state of Utah, Internet company executive (Excite@Home and...

TOPICS: Tech Industry

Former CIO for the state of Utah, Internet company executive (Excite@Home and iMall)

Topic: Tech Industry

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  • Whither Innovation

    I think corporate R&D and competition is the primary source of innovation. Secondarily, it's the academic community whose horizons are however longer-term.

    Enterpreneurial activities and VCs while critical, do not create innovation but bring innovation to the marketplace and thus make economies more efficient and effective.

    I'm not sure about the value Open Source brings to the table of competitive creativity. Too, academic and open source do not accrue to corporate competitiveness given the nature of their open domains.

    My metrics are more the marketplace indices, examples of which include the savings and investments in the economy, relative compensation paid to engineers and computer scientists (a proxy for the relative attractiveness of these careers) and their enrollments/graduations from universities, etc.

    On many of these,and other indices, the US seems to be in a state of innovative dissipation, if not decline.
    • Questionable

      Innovation - disruptive technology - seldom comes from within a corporate R&D department. The larger and older a corporation is, the more they focus on sustaining technology - making only incremental advances in their current product lines.
    • Corporate R&D

      Corporate R&D is a strange animal. It can produce innovation (Shockley's diode from Bell Labs, or WIMP interfaces from Xerox Parc), but more often innovative ideas from coporate R&D are stifled. Those two examples, don't forget, were successes because they did not compete with existing AT&T, or Xerox, products and services. It is almost impossible to give good examples for stifled inventions for the obvious reason that no corporation wants to make a name for itself this way... Please believe me though, when I say I have seen it many times.

      Comptetition is clearly a drive, but only so long as it does not rock the boat too much. Forget the press headlines, the real world doesn't like revolutions.

      Open Source? I have to agree. The best thing that can be said about Opso is that it shows that if a few poeple, with a little technical ability, can recreate something from a big supplier that's suppoesd to be the bee's knees - then in reality that big supplier is not reall being very innovative. But Opso as a source of innovation... no, can't think of anything.
      Stephen Wheeler
  • PC innovation?

    Bill Gates was one of the first to understand that as long as we use one-box systems using a generic OS (Windows, Linux, etc.) the hardware would remain a commodity. He has been quoted as saying that hardware will become virtually free.

    Once we start integrating hardware and applications in products (appliances) this will no longer be true. Consumers rejected the concept of having appliances scattered around the home and work place back in 1999. No one knows this better than National Semiconductor who had 20 or so appliances to show that year based on their Geode chip. The appliances were a huge failure and they soon sold the Geode chip to AMD.

    One of the reasons that appliances failed was that each one required a power connection (a boon for power strip mfg.) and another connection for data (great for USB/1394 hub makers). Even the wireless keyboard and mouse require a transceiver that requires another wire. Using today's technology packing, living in a wireless world is about as likely as having a paperless office.

    Everyone and their brother is once again building appliances (we have a very short memory in tech). They will fail again - unless the appliances are designed to become part of a comprehensive system; think component home entertainment without the wires. To be successful this system must make it simple (automatic discovery and integration) to add new products. Except for remote adaptors for legacy equipment these new products should not require any additional wires.

    Not a hard thing to do - we have the technology - it is a question of packaging and delivering it.
  • Phil's right ...

    The USA has always been, and continues to be, a nation of innovators. Ross Perot used to complain that 19 out of 20 chips in every PC was made in Japan but he failed to point out that those Japanese computer chips were invented in America and became commodities selling for $5 each. Chip #20, on the other hand, is the processor, it also was invented in the USA, is still made in the USA, and commands $500 apiece. Once something is a commodity, why do we care who manufacturers it or sells it? Today, your typical American car is manufacturered in Canada or Mexico but my Hondas were manufactured in OHIO! As long as we remain a nation of inventors, it doesn't matter who makes and sells the products which we invent.
    M Wagner
    • this is so short sighted....

      Your not caring who makes the products is so short sighted, as long as i got my job the rest of your fellow citzens can go screw themselves. Is that how you feel? Well its a slippery slope for everybody because someone with your mindset will be gunning for your job. There is enough money in laptops that we can make them here. And put some idle hands to work, that we are all paying taxes to keep them on wellfare. Attitudes like yours make me sick!
      • Does Someone Have a Plan?

        Some in this country have decided that in order to compete in global markets we need to eliminate the middle class. Thus, lowering our manufacturing labor costs. You see the middle class prevents "trickle down" economics from working by acting like a huge bowl that captures too much of the trickle down.

        Now before you scream that the middle class is who buys the products, think again. These folks are looking to the future and in the future the Asian and European consumers will be the most important consumer markets.

        This is also why you see changes being made to teach "corporate skills" not only in our colleges but in k-12. The liberal arts education - which gave us those innovative, creative minds - is going away. These folks want worker bees not creative minds.

        What is the US value prop going forward - if not innovation?
    • Phil's wrong

      If you accept that the innovation role is the top of the food chain, then you also have to accept that there are proportionately fewer innovation jobs than service jobs, and fewer service jobs than there are, or rather were, manufacturing jobs.

      This being the case, then by supporting innovation jobs going overseas, you are condemning that proportional American population to unemployment, or under-employment.

      That being the case, consider how much a reduction in taxes this gainful to under-employment slide represents to the government, as well as how much of a reduction in the size of the economy this represents (wages, compensation and benefits, etc. being reduced in the slide).

      Just by writing off products on this notion of commoditization does not mean that American workers can't complete on the global stage, nor that there is no profit margin when they do. Why are you just giving away all of these things?
  • Comments

    Every year, I have an argument with Phil on this.
    It's a little early for this year, but here goes.

    First, however, I want to address this myth about academic research.

    >"we don't capitalize on academic research as much
    >as we should"

    I have to take exception to that statement. For several years, one of my responsibilities was monitoring academic research for a major US investment firm for possible investments. In addition, we often invited many of the more interesting projects in to present. Many other firms also did the same thing.

    Simply because it is not widely discussed doesn't mean it isn't happening. As a matter of fact, without a PhD involved or a track record of successful startups (preferably both) you don't stand much chance of getting VC funding.

    Actually, though, that has little to do with innovation.

    I have spent years studying the competitive strategy of nations (as have many others), and most researchers have concluded that national innovation doesn't come from ANY of those sources.

    What inovation comes from is single individuals, whose courage and leadership form a nucleus from which national competance in specific areas grows.

    Take, for example, Phil's Utah. Right now, Governer Huntsman is trying to promote innovation by appointing an "innovation czar" to commercialize the University of Utah's academic research.

    Phil points out in his blog that the environment isn't right to encourage this.

    He is right, but not quite for the same reasons as he propounds.

    What Phil proposes is necessary...but not sufficient. What is missing is someone to "pick up the torch", to lead these professors from academia to the commercial world.

    You don't appoint people like that. As a matter of fact, you can't. Nobody capable of doing the job would accept, need or require an appointment. They HAVE to be self selected, not drafted.

    The National Innovation Initiative ( have made some interesting proposals in this regard, but they aren't specific enough. The proposals in the NII are too vague, and in several cases, are suspicously similar to political pork barrels.

    Nonetheless, it's a start.

    The thing about America is that it WAS relatively easy for such people to find fertile gound to grow. When they did, we got an Edison, When they didn't, we lost a Tesla.

    That's sort of "fertile ground" rarely exists anymore, at least in the United States. If we really want national innovation, we have to create "Innovation Centers" which are fertile enough that centers of national competance can take root.

    So far, in NII, J.O.B.S. or any of the other oroposed solutions, have I seen any proposal that has even the slightest chance of suceeding in achieving that goal.

    Without that "fertile ground", innovation and national competitiveness is strictly a probablity game, and frankly, with much larger labor pools, India and China are bound to win based on the odds alone.

    America needs to change that if it is going to survive.
  • Hold your nose and read on?.

    Creativity needs a nurturing environment that lowers the price of risk and raises the rewards of success. The more hospitable the environment, the higher the crank-up in creativity. US has been the "shining city on the hill" for masses of creative minds the world over, with the best (entrepreneurial and risk-taking minds) and the brightest (knowledge-envelope pushers) being attracted to the US.

    Over the past few decades, much of the creative output, particularly in academia, can be attributed to the endeavors of this imported cohort of graduate students (the brightest), while much of the entrepreneurial ecosystem has been enriched by the presence of these risk-embracing immigrants.

    The events post-911 have dissipated the shining-city allure, while also reducing the appetite for "alien" brains given the enhanced security-driven scrutiny that aspiring students and immigrants are being subjected to. The ensuing impact may not be apparent for a few years, but it is another negative, and not just at the margins.

    Over the long haul, I think, Iraq will turn out to be a HUGE net negative for the US. It will :
    1. suck mega $s from the economy in provisioning domestic security and fighting wars and terrorism (exacerbated by the Iraq adventure), thus reducing funding for R&D
    2. take a toll on social freedoms and individual rights within the US (the shining city syndrome), essential ingredients for nourishing creativity.
    3. make US a less reliable partner in the world, with negative consequences for all multilateral relationships (trade, finance, etc).
    4. destroy the goodwill and moral leadership of the US in the world(a huge asset painstaking accumulated over the past century).

    Many will argue this has nothing to do with innovation and creativity. I think it has everything to do with the crucible of creativity, essential to nurturing creativity, and without which, creativity withers, ever so slowly.

    I do believe however that the US has what it takes to shake off these attitudes of invincibility, omniscience and moral certainty, and reinvent itself. And when it does, creativity will reassert.

    Like trust, love, and other higher-order human aspirations and behaviors, creativity is a consequence, and needs an ecosystem to thrive in.

    (This brings to mind another ?higher-order driver of human behavior? that appears to be losing ground over the past few years?the trust in fiat currencies. With the gold standard replaced by the ?trust me, this paper currency has a store of value and is sound, because I say so, and I a responsible entity? a few decades ago, the accumulating and growing mountain of debt and deficits of the US economy are doing nothing to nourish this trust?nor are the prognostications of the past few days on the subject of budget deficits. Throw in the costs of the Iraq war, costs of other planned and unplanned wars to advance freedom, the ambitious arms and weapons acquisitions, the costs of social security, the maintenance of tax cuts, etc. ...and what do we have? A pessimist?s nirvana!)

    My apologies for the inadvertent, though pungent philosophical and political fumes this post delivers.
  • Define Innovation

    What was the biggest PC "innovation" in the last 25 years? They stood the box up on its end and called it a tower.

    What's the current big "innovation"? The laid the box back down and called it a media center.