Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting article in the latest New Yorker. (Here is the abstract, but you have to subscribe to get the whole thing.) He relates the story of how Steve Jobs “stole” the ideas for the Macintosh from the Xerox research lab. The classic version is that Xerox had invented this amazing personal computer with the first mouse and the first graphical user interface, but they didn’t understand what they had. Jobs took their ideas, commercialized them, and made a gazillion dollars.
Then Gladwell goes to work, showing that it’s not quite so simple. In the first place, the culture and circumstances of different companies (or countries, or rock and roll bands, examples of which Gladwell adds to good effect) mean that they can only innovate in their own ways. Xerox was research heaven—the engineers were constrained to come up with great ideas, which they did. Apple was constrained to bring ideas to market at a cost consumers could afford—which they did. In a sense, they were both specialists that needed each other.
Then Gladwell takes it one step further, telling the story of Gary Starkweather, a highly innovative East Coast Xerox engineer who got completely frustrated by his company’s lack of interest in his ideas about how to print things straight from a digital image. It wasn’t until he met the Palo Alto Xerox engineers who had this amazing computer that anybody in Xerox could see a point in his research. The Palo Alto engineers were interested because they wanted to be able to print out things their computer could do. The result of this collaboration was the laser printer.
Xerox couldn’t figure out what to do with their great computer—Steve Jobs could do that—but they could figure out how to develop and sell a printer to go with it, because their company was in the printing business. They made tons of money doing so.
Gladwell quotes Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft exec: “Innovation is an unruly thing. There will be some ideas that don’t get caught in your cup. But that’s not what the game is about. The game is what you catch, not what you spill.”
Which reminds me of something I posted a couple of years ago “Is innovation like a fine gem, which must be carefully hoarded? Or is innovation like the Mississippi River, flowing by with such abundance that you can dip a cup any time you like and never know the difference?”