Revolution, Not Evolution Innovating The Next Killer App

Want the idea for the next huge product? Whether you’re in consumer electronics, industrial machinery, software or even animal training, the reality is that all of the technology that you need is already here. So take your R&D budgets and, well, keep spending them, because we still need the technological advances to fuel tomorrow’s next big thing, but to find today’s killer app, spend some time funding your mind.

While technology is what gets us all going in the morning, what revolutionizes an industry or a market space is more about application than new technology. What are the hot new technologies out there - wearable electronics, fluids and other materials with physical properties that can be manipulated with electrical charges. Cool stuff, yeah, but you can’t really sell them.

One of the hardest thing for us techno-geeks (yes, I admit it, I load anything Beta that I can find) to understand is that people don’t buy technology. People don’t buy products either. They buy visions. Offer a normal person a Blackberry and they will have no interest. Offer a person the ability to sit on a beach in the U.S. Virgin Islands sipping a Mai Tai while waiting for that email to come in, and you have a sale. Or to put it another way, people don’t care what it does, they want to know what it will do for them.

And if what it can do for them is something they’ve seen before, sigh, Yawnsville. You wow them by revolutionizing their life. The secret to innovation actually lies in using today’s technology in ways that nobody imagined. Let’s take some examples.

When it was first introduced, television was cool. And when I was growing up, I remember being told “It’s time to leave, we have to get home in time to watch Falcon Crest.” VCR’s were around, but they weren’t really popular until someone decided to cross a video tape recorder with a timer. At that point, we could stay out and watch the show when we got home. New technology? Not really, the TV stations had been using videotapes for a while, and timers, well they were sooo 20 years ago. But the revolution came when someone started selling the vision that you could record your shows and start living a little. It was at that point that life changed considerably, and virtually nobody lives without that VCR idea today. The technology wasn’t new; it was just a new application.

Fast Forward (sorry) a few years. Technology has entered the digital age, and everything is being stored on hard drives, digital cable provides content for the on-screen menus that VCR’s have been using for years. Then Digital Video Recorders (DVR) like TiVo emerge as a more user-friendly way to “tape” your favorite shows. A few DVR units go into the market. Nobody’s really happy about having to pay for a service, but then, something happens. The news media picks up on the fact that the underlying assumption of the VCR is no longer true. With the VCR the timer was used to record one, two, maybe a couple of shows (if you had a really nice one). Because of the limitations with tapes (limited space, declining quality the more you use them) you had a limited amount of taping that you could do. But with DVR’s built in logic (some simple programming), you can record all of the episodes of a show, you can scan a show listing in a few minutes and mark 10-12 hours of content to be recorded, you can easily watch and delete and find shows at random. TiVo even threw in the feature to let the DVR start recording things it thinks you’ll like. Now, all of a sudden, the way that people watch TV is totally changed. Some people (like me) let their DVR store their shows all day, and then watch TV when they get around to it. They watch what they want, who cares what’s on at the time. People now watch TV on their schedule. Yet others go to the other extreme, they struggle to find the time to watch all that they have found and stored on their DVR. They are finding shows that they never knew existed because they worked and slept. For both of these groups, life has changed, and DVR’s are flying off the shelves and filling the media.

The easiest way to find new and exciting ways to use products, is to understand how they are meant to be used, and then to use a process of reduction to find the true reasons why people really use them that way. Identify the intended uses, and the limitations and the constraints. Then, reduce these to the most basic assumptions, beliefs and foundational bases. Once you identify these basic tenets of this product, you can start to question whether those assumptions are still valid.

Apple Computer is certainly one company that is well known for innovation and when they change the world with another product, like the iPod, we can see where this innovation comes from. The iPod is really nothing more than a portable hard drive with a tiny little user interface and a headphone jack. The technology isn’t new, it’s all been in everyone’s laptops for years. What made the iPod such an incredible innovation, is that it questioned some of the basic ideas that people had. The Sony Walkman was revolutionary in it’s own right, challenging the belief that quality music had to come from a home stereo system with large speakers. The Walkman mobilized music listeners and brought music to those in motion. Nowadays, nobody exercises without one. Music has become an integral part of our lives. The iPod further challenged the notion and limitation of the Walkman that you can’t take it all with you. The cassette Walkman forced you to choose a tape to put in. My iPod convinced me that tapes and CD’s were useless, all of my music should be digital, and now it forces me to choose my favorite 22,000 songs to carry with me. Even the way we buy music is now changed because Apple questioned if we needed more little shiny coasters all over the house.

Innovation is nothing more than stepping back and putting ourselves under the microscope. Once you start questioning everything, you are free to realize that with today’s technology and today’s market and today’s customer, a lot of these assumptions are just not true anymore. We used to hold the assumption that “Bigger is better.” Judging by everyone’s excitement over nanotechnology and the new iPod Nano (think Apple might sponsor me?), I’m thinking that one is obsolete. The beliefs that people desire paper documentation is being challenged as more and more people sign up to get their statements and pay their bills online. These are two obvious, simple examples. What we need to do as designers, is to determine what assumptions underlie our design decisions and start reapplying our existing killer technology to design the next killer app.

Paul Gimbel
Business Process Sherpa
Razorleaf Corporation

Review Article
  • the idea isn't the only thing December 15, 2005
    Reviewed by 'Jay Koch'
    Gimbel writes clearly about what product development is about: we all know this, but seldom undertake the fundamental observation and inquiry it requires. He is eloquent in espousing self-examination, and suggests that it may come in a flash of fundamental insight.

    We all have personal examples of "why didn't I think of that?" My own personal favorite is the cardboard coffee sleeve, for example. With high tech products like the iPOD, though, there's another aspect to the problem: the innovator has to convince someone to invest in both development and product development. That is, to make a bet.

    There's a story going around that Steve Jobs tied up one year's supply of the mini disk so he could have a good runway to launch the iPOD. If you're making a bet it helps to have deep pockets and lots of guts, I guess.

    It also helps to be good: I think a good hunk of the iPOD's appeal came with the interface design of the wheel menu, or whatever it's called. (On this one, I have to go on slight observation: I have a tin ear, so whether it's ten or ten thousand songs in my paw it's a non-event.)

    Using the iPOD as an example, I wonder how many people it took to create the vision that became the original. I suspect there was one person who started it, but I also suspect there were a bunch of people who fleshed it out. I wonder how they kept their excitement at pay, and how they were able to keep the idea so relatively quiet. Apple is notoriously secretive and sensitive about the slightest premature--and unmanaged--disclosure. Perhaps if we could get Tracy Kidder or Po Bronson on the job we'd get a great story out of it.

    Ccoming back to Gimbel's thesis, innovation does come from examination, curiousity and vision. It's hard work to take ideas to reality, though. It takes guts, awareness, and a good bit of engineering savvy to pull the development part off, and it takes equal guts, tenacity and knowledge to make it into a successful product. Perhaps these latter qualities are equally rare to the true innovation, because its seems we have far too few innovations of the quality of the Walkman, the Tivo, or the iPOD.

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