What has killed technology innovation in virtualization?

There's a serious shift in which innovation is happening and is not happening in virtualization. My goal is to find out why the innovation spirit has bailed out of the virtual world.
Written by Ken Hess, Contributor

I just heard Paula Cole's, Where Have All the Cowboys Gone? on the radio and I started to consider that same question in terms of technology innovation. Some people call them mavericks, some call them cowboys and some call them misfits. I don't know the correct term for those who, and I really hate this phrase, "think outside the box" but I'm searching for them. I want to find the innovators and the people who make things happen in this industry — specifically, in virtualization. I haven't seen any new innovation in virtualization in the past two years or more and I just want to know, where, indeed, all the cowboys have gone.

"The paradox of innovation is that it is accepted as an innovation when it has become imitation." — Piero Scaruffi

Without mentioning any company names, I'm going to analyze what I think is happening to innovation in a few key companies in this industry. I'll leave it to you to fill in the blanks where company names should be.

The brain drain

"Keep in mind that imagination is at the heart of all innovation. Crush or constrain it and the fun will vanish." — Albert-Laszlo Barabasi

I think that there's a general exodus of the best and brightest talent from large companies. This has always been a problem but it seems that it's more prevalent now than ever. The true "rock stars" are leaving and they're taking band members with them on the way out. They're starting new companies, developing new products and getting bought out by the larger companies that don't innovate. It's a vicious cycle.

Death by acquisition

"Where all think alike there is little danger of innovation." — Edward Abbey

Some company executives might think that innovation is too expensive to do in-house, so they'll just buy their innovation. It's worked for other companies. Oracle, for example, has consumed dozens of companies including MySQL, Sun, Stellent, and PeopleSoft. There's no reason to spend years on R&D, when you can buy your innovations fresh. There's nothing necessarily wrong with buying innovation and innovative products as long as you acquire the talent, too. Often, though, the talent takes the money, the obligatory one year of "jail" time and then bails to create a new company bent on innovation all over again. It too is a vicious cycle.

No value in mental stock

"Our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road." — Voltaire

A lot of large companies just don't value innovation. And that's really too bad. There are people who would develop new products and share ideas if there were some reward for it. Of course, the official word is that they do value innovation and want innovation but the sad reality is that innovation isn't nurtured, it's suppressed. I have friends in companies of all sizes, from the Fortune 50 all the way to mom and pop businesses. The smaller ones value innovation but often see it as "part of your job" if you come up with something spectacular. For this reason, many seek opportunities outside the company walls and in their own businesses.

It makes me question if those renegade innovators value innovation or are they basically "one hit wonders". For example, a gang of geniuses depart a large company, form their own company to create some technology service or product, and become successful. Does that company value innovation? Chances are very good that it doesn't. It has its product or service and it doesn't want to deviate from that singular goal. That sort of mentality creates more splintering, new companies, new innovations, and more fodder for uptake by large, non-innovating entities. Yep, you guessed correctly, if you said, "vicious cycle".

Upgrades are enough

"Bureaucracy destroys initiative. There is little that bureaucrats hate more than innovation, especially innovation that produces better results than the old routines. Improvements always make those at the top of the heap look inept. Who enjoys appearing inept?" — Frank Herbert

Another reason I see for the lack of innovation is that company execs have grown lazy at their success. They feel that releasing a new version every couple of years is innovating. FYI, it isn't. Neither is releasing a new management tool. That's really not innovation. Upgrades are a natural progression of any product. Battle testing and feedback help drive that progression. The release-> upgrade-> release-> upgrade cycle isn't vicious and it isn't innovative.

Competition makes good business

"Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship...the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth." — Peter F Drucker

My grandfather used to say that "Competition makes good business". He was in business for himself for more than 40 years. He knew what he was talking about. But he also came from a time when the customer was always right too. Those days are gone aren't they? They shouldn't be. Innovation drives competition. Unfortunately, many companies have lost sight of that basic premise. These days price seems to be the only negotiating point that anyone has to work with.

Competition and innovation set companies and their services and products apart from the pack. You get ahead of the competition by innovating. You stay there by keeping the innovation engine running.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

"If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old." — Peter F Drucker

I used to believe that building on past successes would work forever. It won't. For example, when x86 first began via VMware's initial product back in the late 1990s, I thought that it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. That entry into virtualization was pretty cool. But VMware didn't just sit around and release upgrades to that original product every two years, it innovated. It developed new products.

Had it simply settled for that original giant, it would be a part of faded memory by now. Its success is a testament to the value of standing on the shoulders of one giant and then building another giant. And another and another and so on.

Innovation is the keystone to breakthroughs in any business or industry.

It seems that real innovation has halted, or at least slowed to an imperceptible crawl, in virtualization. Now, that said, I'm not in the secret loop of product development at any company. I don't know what anyone has up their virtual sleeves.

A time for solutions

"Chance favors the connected mind." — Steven Johnson

I'm not one to present a problem without also offering a solution. The solution to the lack of innovation is simple. To innovate, you must participate. To participate, you must listen. Listen to your employees. Listen to your customers. And listen to your competition.

You also have to offer some reward for innovation, some incentive that makes it worthwhile for your employees to come forward with great ideas. There are hundreds of great ideas in the minds of your employees that are busting to see the light of day. The problem is that they'll never see the light of day because no one's listening.

When you don't listen, employees get frustrated. When employees get frustrated, they leave and they start their own companies and they innovate.

I've focused on virtualization for this post but the concepts apply to any industry or business.

Virtualization is nice.

Cloud computing is cute.

What's next?

The answer to that question is the next multibillion-dollar idea. It could be the seed for a startup composed of frustrated ex-employees or it could be employees with a stake in the success of the company that they work for now. Don't allow your company's best minds bleed off. Retain them. Allow them to spread their wings and innovate, create, and expand. If you don't, then you only have yourself to blame for your falling value.

What's next in virtualization?

That's the question to answer.

Find the cowboys and they'll have the answer.

I've offered my ideas of why innovation has slowed. What do you think the problem is? Or alternatively, if you can cite some good examples of recent virtualization innovation, please talk back and let me know.

My own personal quotation:

"I'm glad that God wasn't satisfied with an empty universe." — Ken Hess

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