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We are excited when we see innovations succeed in the market. The inquiring mind, however, does not stop at admiration, but wonders how it can emulate such success.

In this blog, we will discuss how to learn from successes in the market, and apply them in our context. To illustrate the principles, we will look at evolution of photography from an amateur photographer’s perspective.

Before we begin, let us define two types of innovation:

  • Continuous innovation – improvement on existing offering with less time, less cost, more convenience, or a combination of these
  • Breakthrough innovation – cuts out an essential (and seemingly critical) module from the existing offering, thus creating value – often creating a different “experience”

When Polaroid camera came in, it cut out an essential part of the Photography life cycle – that of going to the studio – and of course, it created the thrill – it provided instant gratification – note that when there’s a jump in the experience (of instant results), then many other essential attributes like quality of photograph, ability to replicate, or cost, do not matter.

Lesson 1 – Do not shoot down an idea saying it’s inferior. It may be inferior in some existing dimensions but may be unique in an absolutely new dimension.

Digital camera, however, is an even more radical innovation, and we need not discuss why. What was this innovation about? It combined two universes – that of the computer with the one of photography. And together they created unique value.

Lesson 2 – Try and connect two different worlds, and you will create unthought-of values.

The automatic cameras arrived much before the digital camera. I remember camera connoisseurs rejected the auto-everything cameras and with good reason. But the resistance did not last – automating has tosucceed, eventually. But will there be a market for manually programmed cameras? There will always be a market for such a niche, discerning audience; but their quality of output better be significantly superior to the automated product. Similar resistance came in from assembly and machine language wizards to symbolic debuggers in the late eighties.

Lesson 3 – The preceding technology should always offer something unique, in order to exist, which the innovation does not provide.

Why is automating attractive? It’s not just about reduction in time, cost, and independence from human labor. I see it providing two distinct advantages – one, it brings in predictability, having cut out the randomness of human error. Two, it carries on without human intervention. It is this second trait that leads to scalability (but not the only way to scalability).

Next came camera on the mobile, and many people dismissed that as an inferior product, probably even a distraction – many offices banned it giving the skeptics another reason to avoid it, but only for a while. But what was the killer here? While Polaroid just bypassed the trip to the studio, the camera on the mobile eliminated printing altogether. For the first time, I realized photos are meant for sharing, not for printing. If printing was essential to sharing, so be it! Many of us were already sharing photographs in the computer (but still were slaves to paper) and did not realize this essential difference. Fortunately for the mobiles, social networking started evolving around the same time, and together they accelerated the demise of paper photographs. So we have another breakthrough innovation with an old lesson – connection of multiple universes – photography, communications and internet. If social networking did not come in at the same time, would it have been as popular? Or the reverse question – without mobile cameras, would Facebook have been as popular?

A bigger lesson for me is – I happen to miss the impact these inventions can make when they arrive.

  • Local Area Network eventually emerged more powerful than any multi-user computer.
  • Browser was more than just a convenient interface.
  • The internet is more than a collection of computers – together, these have created a different universe where we are doing a lot more today than we thought of 20 years back. (This phenomenon can be extended to a lot of other contexts, e.g. a network of diverse people is worth a lot more than sum of the abilities of those people.)
  • The mobile is more than a tool for instant access. It is now a medium of universal access and of empowerment. (Among the early indications of the magic of the mobile came in with Bombay fishermen learning about market prices reliably – the middleman could cheat them no more.)

I list these examples to show that the power of a new invention may not be immediately obvious, maybe even to its inventors. But we need to remain open to the impact that the current and emerging trends might have on our lives. An innocuous act like the Right to Information (RTI) can have far reaching impact on our society and democracy, for example.

Lesson 4 – Any solution that enables access to information or catalyses equality will be empowering and will have a far reaching impact.

The computer could have remained just an IBM machine had its functionality remained limited to number crunching and data organization. It’s transformational power lies not so much as an automation tool as in its role as a catalyst to information access.

Learn from the fallen successes, too

  • Fax was an attractive invention when it came, but it had a limited shelf life. Why?
  • Pagers are almost non-existent now.
  • Can we predict the death of the DVD (or CD or music cassette)?
  • Can we predict the death of the computer, as we know it today?
  • Why must the “telephone” disappear?
  • Why has the radio returned? Why does the copier (“Xerox machine”) refuse to go away?
  • Is it the end of Ludo, marbles, carrom, or Monopoly, for the next generation children? Why so?
  • Letter writing has already disappeared. Will families continue to go out for movies?
  • What are some such examples from different industries and societies?

In my next post, we will continue on this and will discuss on how we can apply these principles in different contexts.

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