Good Nuff Electronics

The title proves the point.  My spell checker squealed but you could read it just fine and understand exactly what I meant.  Nuff was good enough.

Clayton Christiansen, in his famous book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” argues that disruptive innovations are often far from perfect products.  In fact, they are so unremarkable that in many cases they’re totally ignored by the companies whose products are, in fact, most vulnerable to the coming storm.  My favorite example from the book (I’m not alone – it’s used all the time) is how Sony’s simple, crappy little battery powered transistor radio took on the mighty RCA.  Obviously, that wasn’t Sony’s intent at the beginning.  But the transistor vs. vacuum tube battle that ensued is where the story resides.   The sound quality of Sony’s products did not, in any way, measure up to RCA’s.  But they were cheaper, portable and good nuff.  I won’t try to paraphrase the whole story because it’s worth getting the book and reading it thoroughly.  But suffice to say that, in the end, Sony completely disrupted RCA.  And it isn’t the only example.  There are many.  And the lessons are the same.  Perfection should not be the goal when thinking about disruption.  Speed, agility and a willingness to take risks are more important.

We’ve been trained over the past several decades to believe that electronics come to us in certain, basically immutable ways.  We like things hermetically sealed, cheap and ready to go.   Lately, Steve Jobs has dramatically raised the bar and forced CE vendors to match a breathtaking level of quality and workmanship to even get in the game.  And that’s a good thing.  How could I possibly argue against it.  But it’s not necessary for the vast majority of devices one would deem useful.   And for Apple, it could actually become a vulnerability.

ATT Dev Conf snapFor example, take the carriers’ latest smartphone offerings.  You’ll notice that they all look EXACTLY ALIKE.  I would argue that they ARE exactly alike.   And tablets?  There were something like 50 new tablets announced at CES this year and guess what?  They are all identical.  Check out this picture I snapped at the AT&T Dev Conference.  Er – if I’m a hardware vendor that’s a very scary slide.  There is literally no way to stand out.  All the value goes to the software and content guys.

When everyone starts to look and act the same, the time is ripe for disruptive innovation.  Mr. Jobs and Co. have convinced everyone that the future looks like the iPhone and iPad (and whatever else they bless in the coming quarters).  But if you lift your head a bit you will recognize that that’s bulls**t.  It’s like believing that Facebook will become the new Internet.  Uh.  No.

Electronics design needs energetic new thinking.  I would argue that the Internet has radically changed many industries but it has not worked its magic on electronic product design.  You can trace today’s smartphones and gee-whiz gizmos back to the Palm Pilot and Newton.  Seriously.  They are more beautiful and cool and wireless, blah, but are essentially the same.  We have yet to see a new generation of truly network-inspired products.  Devices that do to the world of electronics what Amazon and eBay and Google did to the world of information.  And the truth is, the innovators who will make the revolution happen are not the companies we currently know and love.  It will be a raft of newcomers.  And they will innovate in completely new ways using open source everything, leveraging net-connectedness in new/novel ways, and solve tech problems that have been thorns in our sides for decades – health care, energy management, home automation, the list goes on.

I’ll end my screed here.  But for the record, I think we (and I mean anyone remotely interested in making progress in this space – inventors, entrepreneurs, investors, regulators, etc) desperately need to recognize the opportunities that are available.   We just have to stop the group-think, leverage the new technologies that are now coming available for rapid innovation and productization and get on with the 21st century.   We need to try new things.  Make things good nuff to disrupt the status quo.  Think like Sony did in 1955.   And remember, almost a hundred years ago, cars were being called motorized wagons and airplanes hadn’t been invented :)

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