Paul C. Williams

Interfacing Technology & Business
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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Innovation is getting watered down

The Wall Street Journal has an article about the audacity of some businesses to tout their most recent product evolution as "innovations" by using the case of "Peanut Butter Pop Tart" being labelled as one.  This tendency of leaders to label such adjustments as innovation waters down the term and belittles the truth of innovation.

What is real innovation?

The last few weeks I've been reading "The Idea Factory", which describes the process of rapid invention and innovation at Bell Labs in the 30s through the 60s. This is the period of time in which modern electronics was invented, and the information age was launched.  If this can't be categorized as "innovative", it would be difficult to think of anything else as innovative.

I've covered the innovation topic before, but suffice it to say that the profound idea here are the following components:
  • Innovation must be rooted in invention.
  • Innovation usually makes a new product or service more accessible to a wider audience.
  • Innovation creates markets.
  • Innovations must be implemented.
Take RIM for example. Their core innovation in 2003 was to combine email and phones, allowing business people access to their most important communication channels no matter their current location. This made mobile communications accessible to a large audience, and the adoption drove the creation of a market of data-centric mobile services which we now take for granted.

In 2007, while RIM's improvements to their platform was to offer faster processing and network speeds, Apple released the first iPhone, which was innovative in the way that it embraced and democratized 3rd party applications, and included features that appealed to the general consumer market.  Apple's innovation was to create a low-friction market for "apps" that did not exist before.

What is so innovative about the Peanut Butter Pop Tart?

So, getting back to the Pop Tarts, while the product isn't innovative in that it won't change the way people consume breakfast, but there may have been real innovations required in the manufacturing process to make the product. But it remains disingenuous to call the product itself innovative, when it is really just another flavor of Pop Tart.

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