Innovation Illiteracy

Earlier this morning I tweeted the following:

Who said invention was easy? Oh, right. No one. Damn.

Then I read a great article from Horace Dediu about innovation illiteracy, something he coins as innoveracy. Horace said,

Rather than defining it again, I propose using a simple taxonomy of related activities that put it in context.

  • Novelty: Something new
  • Creation: Something new and valuable
  • Invention: Something new, having potential value through utility
  • Innovation: Something new and uniquely useful

To illustrate, here are some examples of the concepts.

  • Novelties: The choice of Gold as a color for the iPhone; the naming of a version of Android as “Kit Kat”; coining a new word.
  • Creations: The fall collection of a fashion designer; a new movie; a blog post.
  • Inventions: Anything described by a patent; The secret formula for Coca Cola.
  • Innovations: The iPhone pricing model; Google’s revenue model; The Ford production system; Wal-Mart’s store design; Amazon’s logistics.

I thought this a rather unique approach and was very happy to see that I had used the right word. Equals is an invention right now. With more time, I’m hoping it will prove an innovation as well.

Why A Healthy Microsoft Is Important For Software Developers

I’ve read quite a bit about Microsoft’s Build developer conference and listened to others talking about it. I’ve also been watching Microsoft’s moves very closely. All I am seeing is positive signs.

The release of Office for iPad and its immediate success is a very good thing. 12 million downloads in the first few days is absolutely amazing for any product, and while I’m sure a lot of people are only kicking tires, there are also a lot of people who rely on Word, Excel and PowerPoint for their every day activities.

Even more subtle moves are a good sign. Changing the name from Windows Azure to Microsoft Azure is fantastic news. It is clear that if Microsoft wants to remain relevant then minimizing the impact of Windows is a good thing. What Microsoft should be asking is what’s the operating systems [1] for the next generation of devices, not the last ones? The last ones all ran Windows. The next ones all run browsers and apps. Yes, browsers and apps run in an OS but the OS they run in is less and less important as time moves on.


It seems Microsoft gets this. From what I heard there were plenty of Windows 8 tablets on stage during the Build presentations, but there were also tons of iPads, iPhones and other devices too. Azure is a very interesting service to power the next generation of software and software services. Moving toward cloud-based developer tools and more services provided around Bing are exceptionally interesting moves. I’d like to see web-supported systems as easy to develop as desktop software used to be. That would be a huge step forward for us developers.

But this isn’t the only reason why Microsoft’s success is important for us. The reality is that Microsoft’s interests are the only ones who align with us developers, at least those of us who want to charge customers for the products they use. None of the other major platform players do that. Amazon charges for media. The apps — all free and on as many platforms as possible — are only how that media is delivered. Google and Facebook give away their software to get more eyeballs. Those ads are worth billions to them. Apple makes their money from hardware. Only Microsoft sells software, previously one-off but now as a subscription. And that’s how most software developers make money, too.

Remember, the key to success is to make money from your revenue stream and commoditize all the supporting elements. Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple all aim to commoditize software.

The latest moves are a positive sign for Microsoft. I believe a resurgent Microsoft is also a positive sign for us.

[1] Yes, plural.

What I’m Reading: The Technology and Business Book Collection

Yesterday I mentioned I watched the movie Jobs on the plane ride back from vacation. I believe it is based on the Isaacson book Steve Jobs. As I mentioned the movie was mediocre. The book was mediocre, too. A couple of other Apple non-fiction books I’ve read over the last couple of years:

The Steven Levy books were the best, the Isaacson book was one of the most mediocre. I enjoyed the Lashinsky book as well. Hackers is about far more than Apple. It’s an incredibly fascinating book about the early computer pioneers.

Other business and technology books I’ve read recently:

These books were all good. I especially enjoyed Make Art Make Money. I’ve even given it as a gift to a few people. Still on my list are Startup CEO and Dogfight. I’ve debated whether I want to read Hatching Twitter or not. I really like Fred Wilson and I’m worried the book will change how I feel about him. I don’t think it’s fair to sum up a man based on a book written by someone who was not there and didn’t get Fred’s involvement. There are a few additional books I started and haven’t finished for various reasons. I won’t mention those.

It’s kind of funny. I work all day at a computer and then, for fun!, pick up books about what I do for a living. I must be doing what I love to make it a 24-7 affair.

Would love to know if you’ve read something I haven’t. I always love a good book about technology or business.

Waiting For Something Amazing

I watched the movie Jobs, about Steve of Apple fame, on the way back from vacation this past week. Doing so made me realize something I’m not certain I have figured out before about myself. Maybe it is the fact of watching a movie, a condensing of his life down to bullet points, in essence, that brought this to light for me, but it is clear now. What the world lost when Jobs died was inspiration.

There has been a hole in my life since Jobs past away two and a half years ago. I think that’s why most people are clamoring for something new from Apple. Somehow, by releasing something new, we can all have that feeling of inspiration again [1]. Even this mediocre movie made me feel that way.

By the end of the movie all I can think was who is going to inspire us to be greater than ourselves?

It seems like the tech industry is all about the bottom line anymore. This ability to inspire great things seems to have past this generation of tech companies by. Maybe that could have been Google, but Google decided that the ad was greater than the relationship long ago. Same for Facebook and Twitter. They would just as soon sell our souls to make another dollar.

Maybe we can turn back to hardware. The closest we may have is Elon Musk, a man who dreams about cars and trains and spaceships, but his inventions don’t touch us like Jobs’ work did. Most of them are literally beyond our grasp financially, and the rest are dreams, something that Jobs rarely let us see.

One of my favorite scenes in any movie ever happens to be in a Pixar movie, The Incredibles. Earlier in the movie the father pulls in the driveway and, upset, lifts his car above his head. Turning he realizes a small boy on a Big Wheel bike is watching him and gently sets it down. Later, after being fired, the father pulls in the driveway in the same car, turns to see the boy, and asks, “What are you waiting for?” The boy replies,  “I don’t know. Something amazing, I guess.”

All the doubters say that Apple has lost its edge, that time has passed it by. I doubt that. I doubt that a company can just lose its edge over night like that. Maybe over time it will fade but that’s inevitable for everything. Once great things tumble all the time. I also think the doubters know that.

So what makes them doubt? Why so negative about a company that hasn’t missed a beat since Jobs’ resignation? I think the doubters are mad. We’ve all lost inspiration and we don’t know where to get it back.

[1] Whether you like it or not, you are inspired by Apple. Even if you don’t like Apple products, all the other consumer tech companies seem to follow Apple’s lead, which means at a minimum Apple inspired you by proxy.

A Shift To Web-First Development

As most of you know I’ve been “mobile first” my entire career. We developed our first apps for Newton and PalmPilot in 1997, although Apple cancelled the Newton before we shipped an app for it. We then developed for Windows Mobile and Windows, although our Windows version was designed for the pen-based tablets, not the desktop OS. This was followed by BlackBerry, iOS, and Android.

When we started developing Equals we started it as an iOS application. Multiple rounds of prototype development were done on iOS, where the web served primarily as connecting tissue, syncing templates across devices and giving our customers a read-only view of their notes so they could be followed.

I was always uneasy with this approach. There are significant problems starting a service on mobile devices. Here’s a few of them:

  1. Gives us massive scale immediately
  2. Requires a high level of polish
  3. Long release cycles
  4. Connects us only indirectly to the customer
  5. Offers only vanity metrics

When starting a new service, all of these are required in reverse. We can’t handle massive scale because we don’t know how or where to scale yet. Plus, we need to control who uses the app. We want a rough product to launch that can be revised quickly and easily. We need tons of customer touch points so we know whether we are on the right path. We need in-depth data and knowledge to refine our metrics, not vanity metrics such as downloads that tell us next to nothing.

Last year I fully realized the folly of my ways and we started making the shift to a “web first” approach. We had minimal skills here though. As of last summer I had never written more than three or four lines of JavaScript. I knew what responsive design was but had never thought about how to implement it. We did (and do) know Rails, CSS and HTML basics, so we weren’t completely starting from scratch, but all the same I knew it would be a difficult but necessary transition.

I lined up contract gigs that taught us HTML5 and got to use responsive design for the first time. We refined our skills for most of the year, iterating over development projects and working on Equals between the contract gaps. We have the skills we need now and are full-time on Equals. We will have a web version that runs on various desktop and mobile browsers available before April is out.

We still have plans for mobile-native versions of course, but this gives us the flexibility to build at our own pace, learning a ton, refining the features, and then make the best possible mobile apps we can when ready.