One of the more fatuous stories to pop up lately in the New York Times hit the streets today. In the wake of Apple's $1 billion judgment against Samsung's (and many other companies') imitations of the iPhone, reporter Nick Wingfield uncovered, in the mobile phone industry, widespread pessimism about the future of "innovation." (See: Apple Scores a Pyrrhic Victory.)
In parroting the presumption that a host of iPhone copycat products -- most of which flagrantly violate Apple's patents -- are "innovations," Wingfield warps the very definition of the word. However, ironically, he does no harm because "innovation," ever since it became one of the most flagellated buzzwords in the business lexicon, has suffered a thousand definitions and a million connotations, most of them cock-eyed.
I speak with some expertise because a couple of decades ago I served as ghostwriter for a book on innovation, called Breakthroughs. The book, whose official authors were named Nayak and Ketteringham, has a long subtitle that I can't remember. It was commissioned by the muckymucks at a venerable consulting company named Arthur D. Little, Inc., and it was pitched by its publisher as a guidebook to the "management of innovation."
The book, bless its heart, neither offered any actual guidance about innovation management, nor did it reveal much about innovation at all. To my delight -- as an interviewer, journalist, and writer -- Breakthroughs was really about inventions.
Among many stories, I got to write about an eccentric tinkerer at EMI named Godfrey Hounsfield who won a Nobel Prize inventing the CAT scan machine; about how a mad track coach in Oregon named Bill Bowerman re-created from scratch the simple sneaker and launched the athletic shoe dynasty that became Nike; and about how a veritable army of electrical engineers started at Ampex and threaded their way through a dozen companies until Sony and JVC, at the end, invented a videotape cassette that any ignorant consumer could use to copy, rent, buy, and keep forever his own personal copy of Casablanca.
When ordinary people realize they can do something that before eluded their wildest imaginations, the thing that makes this miracle possible is, truly, an invention. When ordinary people forsake that miracle -- say, the VHS cassette -- for an improved version -- say, the DVD compact disk -- that advance, accurately, is an innovation.
I don't know who invented the wireless mobile telephone. I do know that when, in movies from the 1980s, we see those early iterations of what's now a universal appliance, we laugh at how large and ungainly they were. But that clunky monster was the invention. All the refinements of the mobile phone -- its shrinkage; its improved interface; the buildout of the wireless network; its innumerable added features, including the ability to take and send photos, to receive and send data; its texting capacity, and so on -- were incremental improvements on the original form.
The reason Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) had grounds to sue Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC) and the "me, too" crowd who tried to clone the iPhone is that the iPhone is a genuine innovation. It combines, effectively, the multimedia functions of the basic mobile phone, and it includes, without hassle, many functions and applications that people expect from a personal computer. This great leap in portable technology based on two mature inventions -- computer and wireless phone -- is what I regard as a legitimate innovation.
The next mobile phone "innovation" for which we all yearn is not another of the countless apps already available on the iPhone and its copies, nor will come as a major expansion of computing power, or user interface, or any one of the myriad gimmicks conjured by the mobile industry to further addict users to its products and services. The real innovation, one that might even tempt me to buy a mobile phone, will be reception comparable to the sort of crystal-clear conversation -- no static, no sudden terminations -- that you can still get (if you can find one) from an old-fashioned Bell System Western Electric dial-faced landline telephone that's big enough and heavy enough to use as a murder weapon.
Yesterday, rather than talk for ten minutes to my wife as she boarded a plane for Tokyo, I ended the conversation after 60 minutes, because her every other word was either drowned by white noise or silenced by an erratic wireless connection. My wife uses the newest, spiffiest, patent-protected version of Apple's iPhone, which is great for filming video and reading The New Yorker, but still crappy if you want to talk on the phone.
A mobile phone that works like the stationary phones of olden times (the 1990s?) would be so revolutionary, exciting, and welcome that even I would be tempted to call it an "invention."