Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The critical kairos

Wired has a great article on Corning, makers of Gorilla Glass -- the remarkably strong glass that famously forms the screen on iPhones and iPads (as well as products from a number of other companies). The entire article is a great read and well worth your time, but I took special pleasure in this line, toward the middle of the article:
Innovation at Corning is largely about being willing and able to take failed ideas and apply them elsewhere.
This is a great point that often gets overlooked in discussions of innovation. Back in the day I studied classical Greek, and one of my favorite words from that language is kairos, which refers to the right time for something. In my experience kairos is critical to the success of an idea -- it's not enough for it to be a good idea, and it's not enough for it to receive the necessary backing, it also needs the elusive element of kairos (a.k.a. good timing) or it won't have the impact that it deserves.

Functionally, of course, this can seem like a difficult requirement to satisfy, because you can work to make your ideas better but, unless you're Dr. Who, you have no control over time. The bottom-line lesson, though, is that you should keep failed ideas in your back pocket. When you put something out there and it fails, either it was a bad idea or it was a good idea at the wrong time. Put the good but failed ideas to the side, out of sight where they're safe, until the circumstances have changed and it's time to try again.

Sometimes innovation is a function of memory. Remember your failures, because tomorrow they might be the seeds of your success.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Follower fallacies

Wired has an article arguing that "focusing on hardware is the wrong way to compete with the iPhone." It's an indisputable point. The Apple aesthetic has always been a combination of hardware and software; the hardware on its own conveys a simplicity and elegance that has value in its own, but Apple's devices also show that a lot of thought has gone into how the hardware supports the software and the software supports the hardware. Imitate one and not the other, and you might get a good device but you're not going to get a great one. (Which is pretty much how I'd sum up the entire Android ecosystem.)

So  the point in the article is valid, even important. It's not new, however -- people have been making the same point for years now. The question, then, is why it never seems to stick. In part, I think this is a function of the engineer culture. For an engineer, flexibility and power are synonymous with quality, and if you have two devices that are otherwise similar the engineer will look for the one that has the superior processor power and other quantifiable specs.

However the primary reason, I suspect, is that followers are simply not in the position to do anything other than tweak the leader's designs. Apple personnel have testified that the iPhone was five years in development before it was released; meanwhile other smartphone designers were so far removed from what Apple was thinking that RIM's leaders responded to the first views of the iPhone by refusing to believe that the phone could be as good as what Steve Jobs demonstrated. Since then everything has flipped; nearly every phone that comes out is directly inspired by the iPhone. The designs we're seeing on the market today are rushed copies, rather than concerted design efforts. They're not the product of five years worth of iteration and refinement; they're me-too efforts in which the only chance for distinction is to say, "We're just like that other phone, only better!" When you're in a hurry, software+hardware is too big of a problem to solve. Instead you make the screen slightly larger, or the camera slightly better, and hope that consumers will see that as a compelling difference.

My hope for the market is that, behind the scenes, R&D efforts are going on at these various companies in which they pursue singular visions and are willing to tweak and fuss and polish until everything is just right. The first iPhone came out just about five years ago, which means that companies like Motorola and Samsung have had enough time to begin with iPhone inspirations and develop their own designs that marry hardware and software in unique and compelling ways. I have my doubts, but we'll see how it goes and hope for the best.