The long nose of innovation

I just read this insightful article by Bill Baxton of Microsoft research. He talks about how long it takes for a new idea to mature and surface as a product. He cites the example of the mouse which started as an idea back in 1965 and did no get to mass popularity until Windows 3.0 in 1995. In between it went through various stages of augmentation and refinement. A typical span of 20 to 30 years is what it takes for this process.

Take the example of Relational Database, an idea first surfaced by the late Ted Codd back in 1969-70. By the time it was refined and productized was twenty years later (when it became a billion dollar business). So is RISC technology which took 30 years.

I like his statement about appreciating this process of refinement, augmentation, and goldsmithing. This is what he says:

The heart of the innovation process has to do with prospecting, mining, refining, and goldsmithing. Knowing how and where to look and recognizing gold when you find it is just the start. The path from staking a claim to piling up gold bars is a long and arduous one. It is one few are equipped to follow, especially if they actually believe they have struck it rich when the claim is staked. Yet the true value is not realized until after the skilled goldsmith has crafted those bars into something worth much more than its weight in gold. In the meantime, our collective glorification of and fascination with so-called invention—coupled with a lack of focus on the processes of prospecting, mining, refining, and adding value to ideas—says to me that the message is simply not having an effect on how we approach things in our academies, governments, or businesses.

Hence the new technologies of today such as the touch screen interface of the iPhone is already ten years old and will take another ten years to reach maturation via various products. This will indeed be the new user interface replacing the mouse.

Credit must go to the subsequent teams that take an idea through refinement and productization, a highly non-trivial task. Maybe we should reward such groups more vividly for highlighting their contribution.

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