Is innovation possible if you can't move the cheese?

Is innovation possible if you can't move the cheese?

Summary: Innovation means change, and consumers tend to react badly to change. (Look at how Windows 8 is working out.) Can technology companies innovate without moving the cheese...?

TOPICS: PCs, Smartphones, Tablets
Cheese. Delicious cheese. Just be careful how much you move it when you innovate.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how the problem for non-technologists when it comes to Windows 8 is because "the cheese has been moved." People, generally, don't like their cheese being moved.

But this raises a question: given that Microsoft needed to move the cheese in order to "innovate" their way out of the decline-slash-death of the PC, what are their options if they can't move the cheese?

This isn't a problem only Microsoft faces. As we move into a world where more "normal people" (i.e. non-technologists) use technology, how is any technology company supposed to innovate?

Surely any movement of the cheese, regardless of product, will be met with the same level of ill-feeling. People are not generally fond of change.


Let's take iOS as an example. People have been talking about the dated feel of the design for some time, and rumors abound of an overhaul of the UI.

A common target for criticism is the app launcher (SpringBoard) as being one of the things that makes iOS look dated. Let's say Apple wanted to change that.

For one thing, what do you change it to? The SpringBoard design — a physical button that resets state and a grid of apps whose individual positions never automatically change — is beautifully simple and part of iOS's appeal to non-technologists. You can't get lost with SpringBoard.

Let's imagine that Apple's engineers want to copy Microsoft's live tiles uses on Windows Phone. Technically,  that's very easy.

But then they'd find themselves in exactly the same position that Microsoft is in with Windows 8 — it's a huge change that results in iOS users feeling their cheese has been moved several ZIP codes away.

You can bet as a result of that move that Apple would not be applauded for its bold reimagining of its operating system in exactly the same way that Microsoft has not been for Windows 8. The focus would be on the countless users that have been put out and irritated by the move (even if in the long-term it's better for everyone.)

In fact, the situation would be worse for Apple, as iOS is designed as an OS that updates itself automatically. This is analogous to all of the Windows XP and Windows 7 devices out there suddenly upgrading themselves to Windows 8. Overnight, the SpringBoard would start disappearing from old iPad and iPhone devices out in the field.

Does that idea fill you with as much dread as it fills me?

OK, so Apple could add a switch to iOS. The user could have Old SpringBoard, or New SpringBoard, and thus some freedom as to where their cheese lives.

This is exactly what Microsoft was trying to avoid with Windows 8 — the way Windows 8 is is how the Microsoft engineers wanted the new "vision of the PC for a new age" to be. There is no switch.


Microsoft's reimagining of Windows was a result of needing to make the operating system live beyond the PC. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that a competitor worked out how to sell a tablet "PC," something that Microsoft had wanted to do for a long time but had failed at.

I suspect that statement is too simplistic to match the complex reality — however, the point is that Microsoft was pushed into reimagining Windows by events in the market.

The fact that what Microsoft's engineers did was so bold gives you some idea of how many Newtons of force was behind that push. Spoiler: there were many, many Newtons of force making their presence felt.

Given that any change you make involves some movement of cheese, is there a way that this can be done without alienating the customers that you're trying to retain?

In the fictitious Apple example, if they're trying to stop people from jumping ship to, say, Samsung, then actually going out of their way to make iOS less appealing is counterproductive.

(This is more or less what Microsoft has done with Windows 8, but Windows has less direct competitive pressure. Windows as a concept is threatened by a trend in how computers are used, whereas Windows 7 isn't directly threatened by OS X. Conversely, iOS has more direct and current competition from Samsung and/or Android.)

I mentioned "switches" earlier. The problem with switches is that the user will keep them stuck in the position that you as a vendor don't want them to be in. If Windows 8 had a switch to turn off Metro-style apps and turn back on the Start button, in 99.9% of cases that switch would stay stuck in "Old Windows" mode.

If users aren't moving the switch into the position that's best for you as a company, what's the point of you building the switch at all?

Adding a switch is fine if you had an ocean of time to play with, as you could let a natural drift affect the user base until ultimately everyone has more or less fallen for your new way of doing things. But the current market isn't exactly feeling time-rich.


So how does one square this particular circle?

I'm not trying to bash Microsoft in this article. If Windows 8 didn't have a bold New Windows, given the trajectory the PC market is on, they would (deservedly) be getting flack for sticking with Old Windows and hoping the problem goes away.

The cheese needs to move — we can't have a position where everything stays the same. Customers need technology vendors to serve them by creating better products. Customers and users have to accept change as part of the deal of getting increasingly better and increasingly cheaper products.

If I have one criticism to lie at Microsoft's door with regards to Windows 8, it's that the change hasn't been gentle enough. It has been "like it, or lump it." This works in the enterprise, but doesn't work in the consumer space.

Would Apple do any better with a re-imagining of iOS? I wonder. "Like it, or lump it" is part of their DNA and they're probably worse at that, culturally-speaking, than Microsoft. The advantage to Apple is that they have more of a demonstrable knack for delivering what consumers want, and thus people tend to fall into the "like it" bucket rather than the "lump it."

The answer is, I suspect, that there is no answer. Like Douglas Adams's ultimate answer ("42"), it's the question that needs reframing.

You can't innovate without moving the cheese, ergo for Innovation to be possible you have to move the cheese.

But it needs to be done with care and sympathy to the non-technologist users that are the target of the change.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Image credit: Wikimedia

Topics: PCs, Smartphones, Tablets

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  • It can't be moved because nobody can afford it

    Everyone hyperfocuses on "lowering cost", forgetting those are the wages that allow the workers to spend.

    And yet corporate profits and CEO pay/bonuses, for the companies that remain to engage in these price wars, are still quite high... talk about inflation...
  • Is innovation possible if you can't move the cheese?

    Sure it is, look at what Microsoft is doing. They are creating a unified operating system with Microsoft Windows 8. They have research labs where they design and test products and ideas. Sometimes those ideas make it into the main stream products. Microsoft brings a lot more to the table than what you give them credit for.

    "I'm not trying to bash Microsoft in this article." Summary line "Innovation means change, and consumers tend to react badly to change. (Look at how Windows 8 is working out.) "

    So yes you are trying to bash Microsoft in this article like you do in a lot of your other articles. Saying it doesn't mean squat if you are actually doing it.
  • You're initial premise is flawed

    People don't have a problem with POSITIVE change at all. Your problem, like most tech heads is that you think any change is, by default, positive. Your iOS example illustrates this perfectly. It was radical when first introduced; a whole new way of interacting with a mobile device, and people flocked to that change. Now you think that it should be changed again. Why? Well, because, it's old. Well, so is the steering wheel, so, what, exactly, is your point? Oh. Right. Your point is that it can't be because Windows 8 actually sucks. No, it has to be a problem with those users who are just too stupid and intractable to know a good thing when it smacks them upside the head.
    • What was radical about iOS, ever?

      What whole new way of interacting with their devices did iOS herald? I must have missed it.
      x I'm tc
      • Please, don't insult our intelligence

        You know full well what the smart phone market was like pre-iPhone. BB, Treo and Windows CE. Using them was a major PITA.
    • Thank you

      You beat me to it.
    • ? People don't have a problem with POSITIVE change at all.

      I don't disagree with your larger point. However, if you really believe your first sentence, then you've lived a different life than me. In my world I often have a use for phrases like "status quo" and "stuck in a rut". However, I like your world better.
  • Innovation is possible, if done right.

    For example, in Microsoft's case, they should have released Windows 8 Metro as a tablet and phone interface while retaining the Aero+gadgets interface for desktops. Alternatively, they should have continued the Windows 7 evolution for desktops/laptops and created an entirely new OS/UI for other devices from scratch. They missed the opportunity to create a new, tighter, and sleeker portable OS by taking the "one size fits all" approach with Windows 8. By limiting desktops to the capabilities of tablets, they have alienated the people who use their products most heavily.
    • Innovation is possible, if done right.

      Your comment hits the nail on the head. PC's are not tablets or phones. Apple realized this when they introduced the iPhone and they have 2 distinct OS's. You don't push a touch based OS onto an existing keyboard-mouse centric platform without having some serious push back.
    • Innovation is possible, if done right.

      Limiting desktops? How? By introducing new start menu? I think people spend significantly more time doing something else than interacting with start menu. Not being able to boot directly to desktop? Mhm... Right... Or is it that some people try to use it as tablet OS but then complains about not being able to achieve smooth transition between app and desktop application? No my friend - ignorance is what makes people hate win 8.
  • MS is not trying to innovate

    They are trying to protect their Windows/Office franchise while the IT world around them is going through a minor revolution, which they incidentally missed and ridiculed, like a few other important IT paradigm shifts of the past 10-15 years.

    That is the only reason for W8, and that is why it is failing. The sooner we get rid of the MS dinosaur, the better.
    • Windows 8

      In a couple months, Windows 8 will be passing Mac OS X in market share. It has already passed iOS recently and passed Android awhile ago.
      • Windows 8 hasn't even come close to iOS

        market share. 500 million iOS devices, 60 million Windows licenses.
        • Tablet market share based on web access

          According to StatCounter for April 2013
          iOS - 3.68%
          Windows 8 - 4.44%
          This is for operating systems, mobile OS are listed separately
        • 60 million in Jan

          The 60 million was back in January. Windows 8 has almost doubled since then.
  • The cheese does not need to move!

    Or rather APPL already moved it.
    The ordinary consumer wants a tablet ... give them cheap Cheddar (do RT on ARM right).
    The pro and diehards want Gorgonzola ... give them a new improved Gorgonzola (plus switches as a taster for Cheddar).
    MSFT is trying to sell Cheddonzola ... by 'sell' I mean force down our gullets at extra cost.
    • On reflection ...

      ... characterising MSFT's Windows 8 problem as 'innovation' and 'moving the cheese' is incorrect. APPL already moved the cheese ... indeed so successfully that MSFT is being forced to copy not innovate.

      MSFT needed to deliver a superior tablet and a superior workstation experience.
      Unfortunately it has fallen short on the former (an ARM tablet with RT and free full Office at $350 would have swept up this old cheeser), and corrupted the latter with unwanted features and expensive subscriptions.

      A losing strategy I suspect.
  • If it's a real advancement, I'm fine.

    If it's a real advancement, I'm fine.

    Bot not all "cheese moving" is advancement or innovation.

    The problem with Metro is not necessarily cheese moving - it's a little UI thing known as "discoverability." It's hard to discover all of the elements without training.

    Hiding navigation at the edges with no visual clues whatsoever that the edges had something was, and still is, a colossal mistake.

    Another problem is moving everything too far for the mouse. The Start menu pit everything within a few pixels. The Start screen spreads everything across the entire screen - which makes sense on a touch device, but not a mouse driven device.

    Microsoft didn't even *try* to accommodate the mouse. Windows knows full well when a mouse it connected and when a touch screen is available. There's no reason they can't make the UI a bit more intelligent when a mouse is connected.

    "The problem with switches is that the user will keep the stuck in the position that you as a vendor don't want them to be in."

    The vendor's goal should be to serve the customer - if a switch is in "the position that you as a vendor don't want them to be in," then you as a vendor have your priorities upside down.
  • To move the cheese... must be able to identify and locate it.

    Not so sure Microsoft has it in them.
  • Would you wear skirt instead of pants?

    If your favorite clothing store decides suddenly that the new fashion for men is skirt. While other stores still sell pants. What would you do?

    It's OK if Windows 8 is totally new. But it should not be named Windows and must not force the users to adapt to it. It is obvious that the majority of computers currently are not touch enabled. And W8 is hard to use with mouse alone. Not mentioning that there are users who hate touching their screen. Me for example, I get really annoyed by smudges on the monitor.

    I think MS should release two OS, the classical Windows and a touch-OS and leave the customer to make choice.