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Using Open Innovation to Be Competitively Unpredictable

During a Twitter Q&A organized by open innovation thought leader Stefan Lindegaard, Psion Teklogix CEO John Conoley posted this:

How interesting is that? Using open innovation to be “competitively unpredictable”. I love that concept. Let’s understand where John is coming from.

First, have you heard of Psion Teklogix? They make “rugged mobile computers”. Think Blackberry or iPhone, but industrial strength with specialized purposes, hardware, and made to withstand punishment. From an enterprise perspective, the chart below by VDC Research provides some perspective on mobile computing for work. I’ve outlined in red the section where Psion operates:

Psion’s computers are used in a variety of industries for inventory tracking, couriers, field service and other demanding jobs. The company is #3 in its industry (Motorola occupies the top spot). A key part of Psion’s strategy is to make its rugged mobile computers modular and customizable. This customization allows them to be adapted to different uses. Building on this modular and customization philosophy, the company has developed an ecosystem of third party vendors who make components that plug in with Psion’s products.

I had a chance to talk with Todd Boone, Director of Market Development for Psion. He described the company’s open innovation efforts.

Pace of Change in Mobile Has Accelerated

Before talking about open innovation, first understand this. Todd Boone noted that the pace of change of mobile computing has accelerated in the past several years. Anyone tracking the space probably gets that intuitively. This means is that the uses of mobile, the emergence of new competitors and the changes in technology change more frequently. As an example, on the consumer side, how long have Apple and Android been so influential in the mobile sector?

Indeed, VDC Research noted the changing dynamics of the rugged mobile computing market in a recent article:

Another critical challenge facing rugged handheld vendors is the increasing level of competition from smartphones and other emerging devices – especially for field mobility applications. While smartphones do not have the same level of integrated I/O capabilities nor the level of ruggedness offered by rugged handheld devices, their proliferation in the enterprise (and lower adoption cost) are making them target devices to support more sophisticated enterprise applications. Plus, in the field mobility market the rugged handheld community is most challenged from an OS perspective. Although there is a strong application and developer community supporting field mobility applications on Windows Mobile devices, customer expectations in terms of user interface and experience – especially for field mobility applications – is increasingly influenced by consumer oriented smartphones.

For companies operating in the mobile space, such dynamics make it harder to “know” everything, and to have the resources to respond accordingly. Nimbleness and flexibility are needed to address the unpredictable course the mobile sector takes.

As Todd Boone explained to me, Psion needed a strategy that leveraged their modular platform strategy while recognizing they can’t realistically know all the emerging use cases and technologies out there.

Answer? Open innovation.

Ingenuity Working

On March 4, 2010, Psion launched Ingenuity Working (IW), a site built to expand its open innovation activities. Psion CEO John Conoley described its mission this way:

The open, online community in Ingenuity Working brings us closer to our customers and their thoughts and will allow us to socialise and commercialise innovation. We are using social media to bring our developers and resellers together with our customers, all over the world. Essentially, everyone will be putting their heads together to help create technology that best fits a company’s individual requirements – that has to be a good thing.

In talking with Todd, I learned that the initial thrust of the IW community is focused on partner vendors, rather than direct feedback from end-user customers. In some ways, this is similar to P&G’s open innovation approach.

Engagement with external parties occurs via discussion forums, blogs and a “secure zone” for each partner. In these arenas, there is a two-way exchange of product ideas and use cases. An example can be seen in the section of IW devoted to discussions for developers of Windows/CE/WM/Embedded.

Now that’s some esoteric stuff there. But here’s the thing. It’s groundbreaking in the rugged mobile computing industry to have this all ‘hanging out there’. It becomes free research for competitors too, in a way. Which one may view as a risk of this whole endeavor,

Here’s how Todd describes the Psion open innovation vision:

Rather, we think it’s the opportunity to drive the market to a new reality. A market that drives itself in a way that is inherently beneficial to customers and partners alike based on the real-time, open dialogue that starts prior to any development activities taking place and continues through to product maturity. Real success will come, I think, when marketing and engineering no longer make product decisions but rather our community of customers, partners and developers does.

Psion is early in its open innovation initiative, and plans to improve and evolve its program. The company is engaging partners on hardware, software, standards and a wide variety of use cases. These efforts complement its existing offline channels and research.

Becoming Competitively Unpredictable

Finally, that great quote from Psion’s CEO about embracing open innovation to be competitively unpredictable. I asked Todd for a bit more context. What exactly does that mean?

He noted that typically, large companies describe their roadmap for the next several quarters or years in terms of product development. The challenge with that approach is that it’s company-centric, and its effectiveness is limited by the increasing rate of change in the industry.

The other dynamic is Psion’s orientation toward creating an open platform that can be configured for different uses. This platform philosophy is a core strategy.

So by engaging with external parties, Psion is looking to (i) stay on top of emerging market changes; and (ii) leverage this large collective intelligence to develop applications and hardware for its configurable platform.

Ideas which would be hard to forecast out over the next 6, 12 or 24 months. If you’re a competitor, this makes it harder to know what Psion will do.

In other words, they become competitively unpredictable.

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Phone Cameras + Social Are Expanding the Historical Record

"There's a plane in the Hudson. I'm on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy."

In a critique of the rise of Instagram (current photo sharing app du jour), Laurie Voss argues that the rise of cheap, low fidelity cameras on phones is undermining the data contained in them. And it’s not just that these pictures are lower quality now, it’s affecting their value for future generations:

With these rubbish phone cameras we take terrible photos of some of our most important moments and cherished memories. I am not complaining about composition and lighting here; I’m not a photographer. I am talking about the quantity of meaningful visual data contained in these files. Future historians will decry forever the appalling lack of visual fidelity in the historical record of the last decade.

I read that, and at first though, “Yeah, that could be an issue.” But then I realized that, well no, it’s actually the opposite. The rise of cheap phone cameras is actually increasing the historical record. This even has disruptive innovation undertones to it.

Why?

Picture = Moment + Equipment

When thinking about recording data for history pictorially, I consider two elements:

  • Moment
  • Equipment

"The line at 9 am at the Pleasanton @sfbart stretches for blocks. Huge crowd downtown today for #sfgiants parade."

Now moments are always going to arise. They may be significant moments, such as Janis Krums’ iconic picture above after a US Airways plan crash landed on the Hudson. Recently, the San Francisco Giants were celebrated for their 2010 World Series title with a ticker tape parade in downtown San Francisco. When I arrived at the Dublin/Pleasanton BART the morning of the victory parade, I was shocked by the number of people waiting in line for get to SF.

Just as important as the moment is the equipment. I’m not talking about the quality of the photographic equipment. I’m saying, “do you have something to take the picture?”

Before I got a phone with a camera on it, I had no way of photographing any moments. I could tweet about them, email a description of them and tell people about them. But there was no visual record at all.

I wasn’t carrying a camera around with me. Just not something I wanted to deal with as I also carried my ‘dumb’ phone.  And wallet. And keys. Just too much to deal with.

But a camera included with my mobile phone? Oh yeah, that works. I’ll have that with me at all times.

Which is a much better fit with the notion of capturing moments. They are unpredictable, and do not schedule themselves to when you’re carrying a separate camera.

As for the “quantity of meaningful visual data” being reduced, I think of it mathematically:

The X/Y variable represents the decrease in data per picture. If Y is the “full” data from a high resolution photo, then X is the reduced data set. The loss of scene details, the inability to discern people’s expressions, etc. Yeah, that is a loss due to low quality cameras.

The B/A variable represents the increased number of pictures enabled by the proliferation of convenient low quality cameras. If A is the quantity of photos with high resolution cameras, B is the overall number of photos inclusive of the low quality cameras.

Multiply the ratios, and I believe the overall historical record has been improved by the advent of phone cameras. In other words, “> 1″.

Sharing Is Caring

Something the higher quality, standalone cameras have lacked is connectivity. They miss that aspect we have to share something in the moment. The fact that I can share a picture just as soon as a I take it is extra incentive to take the picture in the first place.

I share my kids’ pics with family via email, and other pics end up in my Twitter and Facebook streams. You know how painful it is to upload photos from the camera and share them? Very.

Standalone cameras are like computer hard drives, locking data off in some siloed storage device somewhere. Good luck to historians in extracting that photographic data.

Convenience Wins Out

This is the disruptive innovation of convenience. People are swapping the separate cameras for the all-in-one mobile devices. And like any good low-end innovation, the quality will increase. Meaning more pictures with better detail and fidelity.

I mean, imagine if there were a bunch of phone cameras at Gettysburg?

Only known photo of Abraham Lincoln (center, without hat) at Gettysburg

We’d have thousands of pics, and it’d be a Twitter Trending Topic. As for the lower data per picture, damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead. Phone cameras will enrich the historical record for future generations.

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