In my post on Hacking, I made the “assumption” that “innovation” was “pretty self explanatory” (boy, that’s a lot of quotes).  The question now is, was that a valid assumption?

What exactly is innovation?  What is an “innovative” new product or service?  Merriam-Webster defines innovation as:

1. the introduction of something new
2.the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods

(interestingly, innovation is currently the 191st most popular word looked up on M-W, putting it in the top 1%).

While technically true, that definition seems completely unsatisfying to me.  For example, while the iPod was new to Apple, the idea of a portable music player was hardly a new idea, numerous MP3 players already existed at the time and the portable music player industry had been pioneered by Sony with the Walkman in 1979.  And while the Google search engine is often sited as being innovative, one could hardly argue that it was “new,” it entered a very crowded search market when it was released in the late 90s.  Even the two innovations that made Google so much better than other search engines:

  1. Using “bots” to index as much of the WWW as possible
  2. “PageRank” which basically says that the “importance” of a page is determined by the number of other pages that link to it

were not new ideas, but rather a new combination of existing ideas.  Altavista had pioneered the idea of indexing as much of the web as possible (and was largely seen as the best search engine before Google launched) and “PageRank” took its inspiration from the academic community where the “importance” of an academic article is determined by how many other articles site it.

A third counter example to new = innovative is the Segway Scooter.  It was certainly new when it came out, and there was a lot of hype about “it” before it came out, but was it really innovative?  Besides some very specific use cases (mall & airport security, city tours, and factory/warehouse transportation) the Segway has not seen mass adoption.

Perhaps this is the key to innovation, something has to be not only new, but also widely adopted.  Yes, there were other portable music players when the iPod came out, but how many still existed a few years later?  And yes, there were other search engines before Google, but Google quickly took market share from them all and has managed to maintain nearly a 70% share for quite a long time.

But isn’t this really just putting the cart before the horse?  Aren’t we really just waiting to see who “wins” and then calling them the innovators?  As an academic exercise this could be useful, we can look back at the winners, see if we can come up the commonalities, develop hypotheses, and try to determine why they were the winners.  But it doesn’t really explain what innovation is.  I would argue that Blackberry was very innovative even though in the end it doesn’t appear they “won.”  I would also argue that both the Apple iPhone and Android based phones are very innovative.  But the three of these products have copied each other extensively too.  So where does copying end and innovation begin?

Perhaps innovation defies definition in the same sense as pornography did for former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in his famous “I know it when I see it” quote.

“I can’t define innovation, but I know it when I see it” – Rick Winfield

But here we come back to the idea of things not being black or white, but rather on a continuum.  Copying and innovation are not opposites but rather degrees on a single scale.


  1. I agree that the term is quite blurry, but I would be hesitant to ascribe mass adoption as a necessity to innovation. I have always viewed truly innovative products/services as offerings that are commercially viable. They don’t have to be adopted by the masses in order to achieve that. An innovation has to make a mark on a company’s bottom line or alternatively, and arguably, on society too. Minus these two, regardless of how many adopters there are, will lead to a invention and not an innovation.

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