Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What is Innovation?

Mark Krynsky started it by writing a post entitled My Thoughts on the Current State of FriendFeed (which, incidentally, I learned about via Facebook) in his Lifestream Blog. This is part of what Krynsky said:

FriendFeed chose to pave a new path beyond solely being a Lifestreaming service. They quickly became a differentiating service when they decided to go down the SocialStream path and focus on creating conversations around the items that made up people’s Lifestreams. They did this by launching two features that would become their defining ones to achieve this. First they created a very quick and simple way to allow people to create comments on items. Then they changed the logic of just displaying a reverse chronological stream of items by introducing the “like” feature. As users of the service would click on the like button (or comment on them), that item would re-appear withing peoples streams. These two features (which were both subsequently copied and implemented by Facebook) are what propelled them to become a very powerful conversational platform that I feel has to this day not been matched in another service.

That parenthetical comment at the end of this passage resulted in a Disqus comment from traeblain. This is part of what traeblain said:

...Facebook knows one thing and that's to stay relevant, they need to constantly innovate. And that's the one thing that FriendFeed was stellar at. Let's be honest, Facebook hasn't innovated in a while. Even Facebook Connect (arguably the best product they've introduced) wasn't anything new, just a different approach. Now they have people that can take Facebook to the next level, and that's exciting.

Well, some bozo - you can guess who - decided to enter the conversation here.

traeblain, Facebook's incorporation of comments and likes indicates that they have performed a bit of innovation....

traeblain responded:

I disagree, Facebook's incorporation of comments and likes is an almost direct copy of FriendFeed's application. I would have said that the similarity was simply coincidence, but the reports of FF being courted by Facebook for the past 2 years tells me that Facebook's developers were watching what FF was doing and copied the best features.

This resulted in another comment, which I'm reproducing in full:

Innovation often consists of mimicry. Think of Elvis; in one sense, the only "innovation" of Elvis was his skin color. While I agree that Facebook's implement of comments and likes wasn't original, at least they took the step to incorporate this great idea that they found elsewhere. And to most of Facebook's 200+ million users who had never heard of FriendFeed, the idea truly was an innovation.

traeblain patiently disagreed - and again, I'm reproducing this comment in full:

Again, I'd have to disagree. Mimicry is the antithesis of innovation. The FF and FB likes and comments are essentially the exact same thing. Taking a current idea and present it or work it in a whole new way can be seen as innovative which is where Elvis's "innovations" more closely fell under. FB's likes and comments are direct copies, and a larger audience does not directly imply innovation (most often it simply means the credit for the idea gets skewed). Because FB had their eye on FF since 07 and status comments/likes have been integrated since then, it's not a hard assumption to make that these thing might not ever come about if FF hadn't done it first. (It is an assumption, but not a difficult assumption to make.)

If Twitter's newest feature was full media tweets or commented/threaded tweets, everyone would love the idea but there would be no argument over the fact that these features aren't innovations. Facebook doesn't get a pass on this because of it's size/reach, it got this size by it's original innovative ideas but has been very stagnate as of late. FriendFeed's maturation has always been through innovative thought, which includes applying old ideas in a whole new way.

So, is mimicry the antithesis of innovation, or merely another form of it? Janine Benyus appears to use the terms "mimicry" and "innovation" synonymously:

We foresee a world where biomimicry not only can change the way we design our planet, but also the way we value it.

That's why we created Innovation for Conservation, a unique conservation program whose funds are generated from bio-inspired innovation. After all, shouldn't we honor the organisms and ecosystems that evolved these ingenious, sustainable ideas, and thank them for showing us the way?

The program is managed by The Biomimicry Institute, a non-profit organization founded by Janine Benyus. Dr. E.O. Wilson of Harvard University and Ray Anderson of Interface Inc. serve as lead advisors.

But it's more common to contrast the two concepts, as is done in this 2005 article:

Indian science 'must shift from mimicry to innovation'
T. V. Padma
6 January 2005 | EN

India's prime minister Manmohan Singh has urged scientists not to repeat the work of others but instead to build on existing knowledge to generate new technologies and science-based solutions....

And there's another example from the tech sector.

"A leaked presentation has exposed Microsoft's tentative plans for its retail stores -- and the high degree to which they'll imitate Apple stores, down to their layouts and even the presence of a dedicated 'Guru Bar' for help," Aidan Malley reports for AppleInsider.

MacDailyNews Take: One thing is different: Anyone who makes a purchase in a Microsoft retail store is immediately locked in.

Let me get off-topic and interject something here for a moment. How can a so-called news publication talk about how Microsoft locks people in, and completely gloss over Apple's own record? Or perhaps the news is conducting a great conspiracy against Apple - in actuality, you CAN activate your iPhone on Verizon, developers CAN submit any app for download to the iPhone, and you CAN host the Mac OS on Dell, Hewlett Packrd, or Asus hardware.

But I digress. And I should get back on topic, because MacDailyNews does bring up a valid point:

The reference store seen by Gizmodo would have a Guru Bar -- in some slides labeled as an Answer Bar or Windows Bar -- that would directly copy the Genius Bars at Apple stores and let customers make appointments either for help or just to ask questions.

But then there's an interesting passage:

Microsoft's outlets would even revive the theater component that Apple has mostly tossed aside: an 'event space' at the back of the store would provide a dedicated screen and seating for training sessions or social events.

Just looking at this latter item - if Steve Jobs tries something and then stops doing it, and then Steve Ballmer starts doing it, is Ballmer being an innovative Renaissance man by restoring a wise idea from the past, or is Ballmer being such a bad mimic that he's copying a bad idea? I guess it depends upon whether you're drinking Apple Kool-Aid or Microsoft Kool-Aid.

At some future time I might explore the Renaissance itself and see whether we are properly celebrating it. Is it truly the high point of Western civilization, or is it the point where we fell back to copying stupid ancient stuff?
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