This article about companies not getting the value from innovation that they were expecting, got me thinking. How do we know if an innovation is valuable? I would argue that the value in innovation isn’t in a specific innovative product or process, but the knowledge gained over time as the flow of innovation leads to new learning and further iterations.
In July of 2000, one month after I started working at Apple as a doe eyed graduate, they introduced the Power Mac G4 Cube. It drew lots of enthusiasts and fans because it stuffed so much into such a small package. The only other “Power Mac” in Apple’s line up at the time was an enormous 30 lb tower. Many point to the G4 Cube as being the beginning of the Apple’s modern golden age whereby design and hardware were so seamlessly linked that Apple was able to bring about products no other company could build.
I had several G4 towers in my office, so I was really excited when I was able to snag an extra Cube laying around. It was a show piece even in the company where it was made. But while it was lovely to look at, with its lucite casing and touch-capacitive power button, the thing would sometimes overheat. This was actually part of its design; it didn’t have a fan like a traditional computer, instead it used a convection cooling system, but that meant it put out about as much heat as a comparably sized space heater. It also lagged behind its less sexy siblings when it came to more processor intensive tasks. Still, it was simply amazing that something so small could even function as a decent desktop computer at all. It was a marvel of modern hardware and mechanical engineering. Unfortunately, merely functioning while looking lovely, was not enough to drive sales. The price tag was too high (it was quite expensive to make), and the Cube was discontinued a year after it was introduced. As a product, the Cube was considered a flop.
However, having gone through the process of building the Cube, Apple learned many foundational hardware and mechanical engineering techniques to make hardware fit into smaller spaces. It’s important to remember that at the time, no one thought powerful computers could be small, but one year after the Cube, Apple introduced the iconic PowerBook G4 Titanium (lovingly called the “TiBook”). At only 1 inch thick, the TiBook was groundbreaking. They took a page from the iBook design, added what they’d learned from the Cube, and came up with something smaller, sleeker, and much much more powerful.
By September 2001, Apple was directly competing with Sony’s Viao sub-notebooks: thin notebook computers that gave up power for compact and light designs. Apple wanted to demonstrate that its products were sexy, not because they could be small, but because small could be powerful. They were also directly trying to refute the main criticism of the Cube being underpowered. When announcing the TiBook, Steve Jobs famously said, “We have the power and the sex.” What he meant was that the TiBook was the whole package, not just a beautiful paperweight, like the Cube. And like every other Apple fanboy, I wanted that thing so badly when it came out. The TiBook laid the foundation for every single pro laptop Apple has built to this day. And as soon as they were available, every single laptop manufacturer bought one to deconstruct it and figure out how Apple had done it. It took years for other companies to copy the techniques that Apple invented with the TiBook, but the TiBook would never have been possible without the ‘flop’ of the Cube.
So, which of these innovations was more valuable? While sales is certainly a key goal, it’s not the only metric for measuring the success of an innovation. The value of innovation isn’t in the individual products or solutions you develop, but rather in knowledge you gain by going through the process. You may need to develop a Cube before you can create a TiBook, but you can’t connect those dots in advance and know the value of each “thing” unless you continue iterating even after you have a ‘flop’. A good innovation strategy requires these kind of course corrections from time to time. Otherwise, you may end up with the power or the sex, but not both.
Shashi Kara is a Partner and Chief Technologist at Sente Advisors, a legal technology consultancy specializing in innovation strategies and cross-platform solutions and support. Previously he has worked as a software engineer at Apple, an immigration lawyer at Fragomen, an international criminal law policy expert at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and VP of Solutions at Neota Logic. He likes strategy boardgames.