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Innovation; what takes so long?

Posted: 06.19.13

The subject for today is innovation. Isn’t it always? Yeah, but innovation isn’t something that can be tapped like a maple tree; it doesn’t arrive just because you sent a trainload of cash to go get it.

After a long silence, AMD has unveiled new positioning and new resolve. At a recent meeting, AMD’s president Rory Read told analysts he wants a company that understands the market and the customer, made up of people who can declare, “I do what I say, I own what I say.” Apple’s Tim Cook unveiled a revamped, and surprisingly low-key Apple mission statement. Both companies put the emphasis on taking responsibility for their work and the products they produce.

AMD’s Read says his company is going to keep pushing to make their products better, and they have made big advances in 2013 including a clean sweep for the console business, but Read also said AMD is going to become a real innovator. The company is going to take it’s time and look for the best times and places to innovate.

It’s probably just one of those coincidences in which trends pop up because you happen to be thinking about them. However, there does seem to be a more reflective mood brewing as companies reassess and try to understand what comes next.

Or, maybe they don’t decide, maybe the market decides for them. Apple is coming to a point where it really can’t just come up with an iPhone 6 and expect the world to roll over for it. The fortunetellers are upset that their long predicted Apple TV once again failed to materialize, and they were pretty sure about Apple coming up with a new watch, too. Well, there are TVs and there are watches, and if Apple is indeed coming up with its own take on a standard product then, it does have to be different … and perfect. (And probably will be.)

Apple did have one surprising innovation to offer, a round workstation that’s going to cost a whole lot of money and include custom components. Apple’s Phil Schiller strutted across the stage and said, “can’t innovate my ass.” Well alrighty buster, it does look really cool, but is it innovating, to make it round? According to Apple’s new mission statement, their designers and engineers are going to take the time to make sure this workstation rocks the content creation world. But how much is a fancy case worth to an engineer on a time critical project?

Everything takes longer than you think it will

We were also visiting several CAD/PLM conferences in recent weeks. In the case of design tools, companies often have big ideas but they can’t move faster than their customers can and their customers have bigger worries than to make sure their tool vendors are selling enough products. It’s always striking to see how long companies can take to upgrade their mission critical tools. It’s not that they don’t want to, but it’s more important to finish designing that car or that round workstation or that office building than it is to change the process no matter how great the new process might be.

The vendors however, are offering their customers new ways to work and to collaborate. The idea of networking, which so transformed the CAD industry and enabled collaboration and the evolution of PLM, is getting super-sized with the whole giant Internet as the network and as that happens there are even more opportunities for innovation. Yes, on the one hand there’s just scale, but on the other hand there are opportunities for real innovation. The grid is going to mean more than one company’s strategy for virtualizing resources, it’s going to be a big engine in the sky that will interconnect suppliers and customers.

Or is it just scale?

E3 also happened last week too. Peace? Reflectivity? Hah! You can sleep when you’re dead, as Warren Zevon promised. E3 is all one-upmanship, my Xbox is better than your PlayStation, oh yeah, your Halo sucks and take that spear boy. And yet, who’s to say that kind of fierce competitiveness doesn’t drive innovation as well as headaches and anti-social behavior?

Maybe, but the old school game industry does seem to be thriving on repetition (and sadly the users are supporting that lack of innovation – where’s the protest?). Do the new consoles really look all that different from the old consoles? Do they promise all that much more? Will the games be that much better? The games will look better because there are more and shinier pixels to drive them, but will the games actually be better? The traditional game developers will be challenged once again to create bigger, more beautiful games and if history repeats itself they’ll lose a precious year or so in delayed games as they try to scale up to meet the demands of the new consoles. Meanwhile, something is gaining on them.

JPR’s Robert Dow came back from E3 thinking the real core of innovation for gaming is coming from the mobile industry. Is it wiser to put huge effort and money into building games for semi-siloed consoles with different capabilities or does it make sense to take advantage of that big engine in the sky and put the effort into innovating new games and new game genres?

If this is to be a summer of reflection, Fall is shaping up to be a pretty kick-ass period of innovation.