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Innovation in the computer industry

Innovation in the computer industry

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The germ of this post was a comment I made on Robert Scoble's weblog, but it deserves broader distribution (that also explains why it's sort-of two ideas mashed together) :)

One of the memes that I see going on in the boards (especially on /.) is that Microsoft never innovates; it only ever copies what others have done before.  I find this meme rather fascinating because it is SO wrong.  The thing is that the people who cite this meme set the bar impossibly high - by their definition, if an idea isn't the very first example of an idea, then it was copied, and thus wasn't innovative.

The problem is that if the bar for "innovative" is that nobody has ever done it before, than the list of "innovations" in the PC industry is very, very, very small - the web is a repackaging of hypertext (HTML is a stripped down SGML), the MacIntosh was done before on the Lisa (which was done before on the Star (which was done before on the Perq (which was done before on the Alto))).

In the past 25 years, I can only think of two or three truly innovative ideas that weren't rehashes of previous ideas:
      Spreadsheets
      DNS
      Clippy/Bob. (Don't laugh. Innovative doesn't necessarily mean "a good idea" - it means a NOVEL idea. I believe that Bob was the first shipping social UI (I may be wrong on this one)).

Actually, the more I think about it, the number of things that are truly original is even smaller than I thought.

For instance GUI operating systems like the Mac or Windows don't count, since there were GUI operating systems more than 25 years ago (the Perq as mentioned above).

P2P filesharing like Kazaa or Gnutella don't count as innovative, because they are simply the Windows for Workgroups network browser extended to content and scaled up to the Internet, and WfW was just an extension of the Lan Manager browser made peer-to-peer.  Btw, to answer someone who posted in the Scoble comment thread: pure file sharing services like FTP have been around forever, but they have a discoverability issue.  The thing that makes a distributed data store (like file sharing services or the WWW) successful is the directory – consider what finding something on the web would be like without Google or its cousins.

CD's and DVD's don't count, they are just another storage medium based on older technologies (and CDs are 22 years old anyway).

Gnu/Linux isn't innovative by this definition; they're just rehashes of UNIX, which is almost 40 years old.

Neither are Flight Simulators or other games, most of the classes of computer gaming available today were available in 1980 (they weren't as pretty, but the concepts were there). MMORPG's have their origins in the MUDs of the late 1970's and early 1980's.

The bottom line is that defining innovation as strictly "Doing something that nobody has ever done before" is so restrictive that it's pointless. Instead, focus on what's new and different. That's where the TRUE innovation lies.

As a simple example, as Robert mentioned in one of his comments, Microsoft Office was innovative. Each of the applications bundled in office wasn't new, but nobody had ever thought of creating a suite by packaging other products together.  And Office wasn't just innovative marketing. Up until the debut of Office, developers created suites like Lotus Symphony, Claris Works, etc...You bundled a spreadsheet, word processor, and database into a single application, which did none of the features as well as the stand-alone applications.

The thing that made Office successful (and unbelievably innovative) was the incredible amount of synergy you got from the different applications - you could take a spreadsheet, drop a chart created from the spreadsheet into a word document, and have the word document be updated in real-time as the spreadsheet changed. For the PC industry, THAT was innovative, and 100% technical. And EACH of the applications was as full featured as the others - so you didn't sacrifice functionality for coolness.

The thing is that innovation isn't always being the first with an idea.  Sometimes it's the little things that make a huge difference.

The innovations in Windows NT are extraordinary (they really are).  Even the much maligned registry is innovative - before the registry existed, every app and its cousin had its own set of configuration files, each of which had its own syntax and standards.  This meant that it was extraordinarily difficult to write management tools to operate on disparate applications, which limited the ability of IT departments to manage diverse configurations.  In addition, there was no real story for per-user configuration in Windows; each application had to solve it in their own way (which usually meant that they didn't bother).  The registry provided a one-stop-shopping solution for a huge set of configuration issues.  This isn't to say that the registry couldn't be abused, it could.  But it was far better than the other solutions (when was the last time you lost a configuration change due to the filesystem not transacting writes to your config data - this was a common problem in pre-registry times).

NT's ACL infrastructure was just another ACL infrastructure.  But it allowed for a staggering amount of flexibility in implementation - you can do things with the NT ACL infrastructure that are way beyond the concepts that the original creators of the ACL infrastructure intended.

Robert's original post was a "letter to Bill" about upcoming innovations in content creation.  IMHO, Robert's 100% right-on - with the creation of blogging (and other similar forms of EASY content authoring like moblogging and audioblogging, and podcasting, etc), there is another wave of web content coming, and it's important for MS to be ahead of the curve and not catching up.

When the web first debuted, everyone talked about how the web provided a level playing field for content creation.  And in many ways that was the case,  But the reality is that barrier to entry for publishing content on the web was way too high - you had to find hosting space, then author pages individually.

This has affected me personally I've had hundreds of stories and dozens of articles pent up inside me for years now that I couldn't publish because the barrier to entry was too high.  Publishing by hand had too much overhead for me, I didn't want to take the time to design and implement the content management system to handle all the publishing aspects.  And then there was the issue of driving traffic to the site - there's no point in putting up content if people aren't going to read it.  Until services like Blogger.com etc came along, there wasn't an easy mechanism for updating content and informing consumers that the content had changed. Blogging/RSS/whatever gives all of these, which means that the complexity level required to produce content has been lowered again. 

But blogging and its friends have lowered the bar to the point where Abby could easily start producing content.  The barriers to entry are low enough that ANYONE can start a blog, and the creation of content has been democratized.  Creation of content is now trivial, and that's a good thing.