The “long nose” of Innovation

Stumbled on a really nice article in Business Week by Bill Buxton in which he explains his “long nose” theory of innovation.

Essentially Mr. Buxton believes that:

The bulk of innovation is low-amplitude and takes place over a long period. Companies should focus on refining existing technologies as much as on creation.

The thrust of this argument is that while in hindsight innovations seem to appear all at once at a single point in time, the reality is that they tend to evolve over time and are as much a product of refining ideas as having ideas.

More after the jump…

The Long Nose of Innovation is a nice explanation of what some of us already know… when it comes to technology innovation there are no shortcuts.

As an example Mr. Buxton takes us back to re-live the creation of the mouse – you know that thing under your right (or left) hand:

Think of the mouse. First built in around 1965 by William English and Doug Engelbart, by 1968 it was copied (with the originators’ cooperation) for use in a music and animation system at the National Research Council of Canada. Around 1973, Xerox PARC adopted a version as the graphical input device for the Alto computer.

In 1980, 3 Rivers Systems of Pittsburgh released their PERQ-1 workstation, which I believe to be the first commercially available computer that used a mouse. A year later came the Xerox Star 8010 workstation, and in January, 1984, the first Macintosh—the latter being the computer that brought the mouse to the attention of the general public. However it was not until 1995, with the release of Windows 95, that the mouse became ubiquitous.

On the surface it might appear that the benefits of the mouse were obvious—and therefore it’s surprising it took 30 years to go from first demonstration to mainstream. But this 30-year gestation period turns out to be more typical than surprising. In 2003 my office mate at Microsoft (MSFT), Butler Lampson, presented a report to the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Research Council in Washington which traced the history of a number of key technologies driving the telecommunications and information technology sectors.

If we take a step back and think about it… this is true of almost any technology driven innovation we care to think of. The internet, Voice over IP (or is that just another refinement of voice communications?), Client Server, IP networking, etc.

What you should take away from this is that innovation is hard work. No one should expect to – as Mr. Buxton puts it:

The path from staking a claim to piling up gold bars is a long and arduous one.

Innovation requires the effort of understanding the base technologies; being well rounded enough to see how other technologies may apply; the business acumen to be able to see an end product that has some value; and the fortitude to try, learn and try again.

If you want to create the newest most innovative search engine in the world – and you know nothing about search engines – you’ll need to start by understanding what already exists. Not with an eye toward copying it, but on fundamentally innovating what has been done before – and that is hard work, takes time, and probably won’t make you rich by the end of 2008.

Mr Buxton sums it up nicely… so I’ll leave you with his words:

Here’s the message to be heeded: Innovation is not about alchemy. In fact, innovation is not about invention. An idea may well start with an invention, but the bulk of the work and creativity is in that idea’s augmentation and refinement

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