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

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...?
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor
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

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