About these ads

Bell Labs Created Our Digital World. What They Teach Us about Innovation.

What do these following crucial, society-altering innovations have in common?

  • Transistors
  • Silicon-based semiconductors
  • Mobile communication
  • Lasers
  • Solar cells
  • UNIX operating system
  • Information theory (link)

They all have origins in the amazing Idea Factory, AT&T’s Bell Labs. I’ve had a chance to learn about Bell Labs via Jon Gertner’s new book, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. (Disclosure: I was given a free copy of the book for review by TLC Book Tours.)

I don’t know about you, but really, I had no sense of the impact Bell Labs had on our current society. Gertner writes a compelling narrative intermingling the distinctive personalities of the innovators with layman points of view about the concepts they developed. In doing so, he brings alive an incredible institution that was accessible only as old black-and-white photos of men wearing ties around lab equipment.

For the history alone, read this book. You will gain knowledge about how the products that define life today came into being back in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. I say that as someone who really wasn’t “in” to learning about these things. Gertner, a writer for Wired and the New York Times, invites you into the world of these fascinating, brilliant people and the challenges they overcame in developing some damn amazing technological achievements.

Those stories really carry the book. But just as interesting for innovation geeks are the lessons imparted from their hands-on work. There are several principles that created the conditions for innovation. Sure, the steady cash flow from the phone service monopoly AT&T held for several decades was a vital element. But that alone was not sufficient to drive innovation. How many companies with a strong, stable cash flow have frittered away that advantage?

Looking beyond the obvious advantage, several elements are seen which determined the Labs’ success. They are described in detail below.

#1: Inhabit a problem-rich environment

In an interview with a Bell Labs engineer, Gertner got this wonderful observation. Bell Labs inhabited “a problem-rich environment”.

“A problem-rich environment.” Yes.

Bell Labs’ problems were the build-out of the nation’s communications infrastructure. How do you maintain signal fidelity over long distances? How will people communicate the number they want? How can vacuum tube reliability be improved for signal transmission? How to maximize spectrum for mobile communications?

I really like this observation, because it sounds obvious, but really isn’t. Apply efforts to solving problems related to the market you serve. It’s something a company like 3M has successfully done for decades.

Where you see companies get this wrong is they stray from the philosophy of solving customer needs, becoming internally focused in their “problems”. For instance, what problem did New Coke solve for customers? And really, what problems is Google+ solving for people that aren’t handled by Facebook and Twitter?

A problem of, “our company needs to increase revenues, market share, profits, etc.” isn’t one that customers give a damn about. Your problem-rich environment should focus on the jobs-to-be-done of customers.

A corollary to inhabiting a problem-rich environment: focus innovation on solving identified problems. This vignette about John Pierce, a leader in Bell Labs, resonates with me:

Pierce was given free rein to pursue any ideas he might have. He considered the experience equivalent to being cast adrift without a compass. “Too much freedom is horrible.”

#2: Cognitive diversity gets breakthroughs

Bell Labs’ first president, Frank Jewett, saw the value of the labs in this way:

Modern industrial research “is likewise an instrument which can bring to bear an aggregate of creative force on any particular problem which is infinitely greater than any force which can be conceived of as residing in the intellectual capacity of an individual.”

The labs were deliberately stocked with scientists from different disciplines. The intention was to bring together people with different persepctives and knowledges to innovate on the problems they wanted solved.

For example, in developing the solid state transistor, Labs researchers were stumped to break through something called the “surface states barrier”. Physicist Walter Brattain worked with electrochemist Robert Gibney to discover a way to do so. Two separate fields working together to solve a critical issue in the development of semiconductors.

The value of cognitive diversity was systematically modeled by professor Scott Page. Bell Labs shows its value in practice.

#3: Expertise and HiPPOs can derail innovation

Ever seen some of these famously wrong predictions?

Ken Olson, President & Founder, Digital Equipment Corp. (1977): “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

 Albert Einstein (1932): “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.”

Western Union internal memo (1876): “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.”

Now, before we get too smug here…haven’t you personally been off on predictions before? I know I have. The point here is not to assume fundamental deficiencies of character and intellect. Rather, to point out that they will occur.

What makes wrong predictions more harmful is the position of the person who makes them. Experts are granted greater license to determine the feasibility and value of an idea. HiPPOs (high paid person’s opinion) are granted similar vaunted positions. In both cases, their positions when they get it wrong can undermione innovation.

Bell Labs was not immune. Two examples demonstrate this. One did not derail innovation, one did.

Mobile phones

In the late 1950s, Bell Labs engineers considered the idea that mobile phones would one day be small and portable to be utopian. Most considered mobile phones as necessarily bulky and limited to cars, due to the power required to transmit signals from the phone to a nearby antenna.

In this case, the engineers’ expertise on wireless communications was proved wrong. And AT&T became an active participant in the mobile market.

Semiconductors

In the late 1950s, Bell Labs faced a fork in the road for developing transistors. The Labs had pioneered the development of the transistor. Over time, the need for ever smaller transistors was seen as a critical element to their commercialization. Bell Labs vice president of device development, Jack Morton, had a specific view on how transistor miniaturization should happen. He believed a reduction in components was the one right way. Even as development of his preferred methodology was proving technically difficult, he was unwilling to hear alternative ideas for addressing the need.

Meanwhile, engineers at Texas Instruments and Fairchild Semiconductor, simultaneously and independently, developed a different methodology for miniaturization, one that involved constructing all components within one piece of silicon. Their approach was superior, and both companies went on to success in semiconductors.

Bell Labs, pioneers in transistors, lost its technological lead and did not become a major player in the semiconductor industry.

With mobile phones, the experts could not see how sufficient power could be generated. Fortunately, their view did not derail AT&T’s progress in the mobile market. In the case of semiconductors, Bell Labs engineers were aware of the integrated circuit concept, before Texas Instruments and Fairchild introduced it. But the HiPPO, Jack Morton, held the view that such an approach could never be reliable. HiPPO killed innovation.

#4: Experiment and learn when it comes to new ideas

When you think you’ve got a big, disruptive idea, what’s the best way to  handle it? Go big or go home? Sure, if you’re the type to put the whole bundle on ’19’ at the roulette table.

Otherwise, take a cue from how Bell Labs handled the development of the first communications satellite. Sputnik had been launched a few years earlier, and the satellite race was on. The basics of what a satellite had to do? Take a signal from Location A and relay it Location B. Turns out, there were a couple models for how to do this: ‘passive’ and ‘active’ satellites.

Passive satellites could do one thing. Intercept a signal from Location A and reflect down to Location B. In so doing, they scattered the signal into millions of little bits, requiring high-powered receptors on the ground. Active satellites were much more equipped. They could take a signal, amplify it and direct it to different places it had to get to. This focused approach required much lower-powered receiving apparatus on the ground, a clear advantage.

But Bell Labs was just learning the dynamics of satellite technology. While active satellites were the obvious future for top business and military value, they were much more complicated to develop. Rather than try to do of that at the outset, John Pierce directed his team to start with the passive satellite. To start with an experiment. He explained his thinking:

“There’s a difference, you see, in thinking idly about something, and in setting out to do something. You begin to see what the problems are when you set out to do things, and that’s why we though [passive] would be a good idea.”

#5: Innovation can sow the seeds of one’s own destruction

Two observations by the author, John Gertner show that even the good fortune of innovation can open a company up for problems. First:

“In any company’s greatest achievements one might, with clarity of hindsight, locate the beginnings of its own demise.”

One sees this in the demise of formerly great companies who “make it”, then fail to move beyond what got them there (something noted in a previous post, It’s the Jobs-to-Be-Done, Stupid!). In a recent column, the New York Times Nick Bilton related this story:

“In a 2008 talk at the Yale School of Management, Gary T. DiCamillo, a former chief executive at Polaroid, said one reason that the company went out of business was that the revenue it was reaping from film sales acted like a blockade to any experimentation with new business models.”

Gertner’s second observation was this, with regard to Bell Labs’ various innovations that were freely taken up by others:

“All the innovations returned, ferociously, in the form of competition.”

This is generally going to be true. Even patented innovations will find substitute methodologies emerging to compete. Which fits a common meme, that ideas are worthless, execution is everything. It’s also seen in the dynamic of the first-to-market firm losing the market by subsequent entrants. After the innovation, relentless execution is the key to winning the market.

Excellent History and Innovation Insight

Wrapping this up, I recommend The Idea Factory. It delivers an excellent history of an institution, and its quirky personalities, that literally has defined our digital age. No, they didn’t invent the Internet. But all the pieces that have led to our ability to utilize the Internet can be traced to Bell Labs. Innovation students will also enjoy the processes and approaches taken to achieve all that Bell Labs does. Jon Gertner’s book is a good read.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

About these ads

Four reasons enterprise software should skip native mobile apps

The desire to “consumerize” mobile apps for their own sake is stoking today’s outsized enthusiasm with device-specific enterprise mobile apps at a time when HTML5 is right there staring us all in the face.

Tony Byrne, Enterprise 2.0 B.S. List: Term No. 1 Consumerization

The runaway success of the iPhone app store has demonstrated that people love mobile, and seek the great user experiences that mobile apps provide. You see these wonderful little icons, beckoning you to give ‘em a tap on your phone. You browse the app store, find an app that interests you, you decide to try it on and see if it fits.

And all the cool kids are doing the native app thing. Path is an iPhone app. Facebook wins high praise for its iPhone app. And Wired ran a story declaring, essentially, that apps killed the web star.

There has been a clear market shift to the apps market, and consumers have gotten comfortable with the different apps on their phones. It’s come to define the mobile experience.

So why doesn’t that logic extend to the enterprise? Because the native app experience isn’t a good fit with enterprise software. Four reasons why.

1. Lists, clicks, text, images

Think about your typical enterprise software. It’s purpose is to get a job done. What does it consist of? Lists, clicks, text and images. And that’s just right. You are presented efficient ways of getting things done, and getting *to* things.

This is the stuff of the web.

For the most part, the on-board functionality afforded by a mobile OS and native features are not relevant for the enterprise software. When trying to manage a set of projects, or to track expenses, or to run a financial analysis…do you really need that awesome accelerator function? The accelerometer? The camera?

The functions of mobile hardware and OS are absolutely fantastic. They’re great for so many amazing apps. But they’re overkill for enterprise software.

2. Enterprise adoption is not premised on the app store

A key value of the app store is visibility for iPhone and Android  users. A convenient, ready-to-go market where downloads are easy and you get to experience them as soon as they’re loaded. This infrastructure lets apps “find their way” with their target markets.

An AdMob survey looked at how consumers find the mobile apps they download. Check out the top 3 below:

Users find apps by search, rankings and word-of-mouth. Great! As it should be. Definitely describes how I’ve found apps to download.

Irrelevant, however,  for enterprise software. Distribution and usage of enterprise software is not an app store process. Employees will use the software because:

  • It’s the corporate standard
  • They’re already using it
  • They need to use it
  • It’s already achieved network effects internally, it’s the “go to” place

Adoption via the app store is not needed. The employee will already have a URL for accessing the app. For example, I use gmail for both my personal and work emails. For whatever reason, the second work gmail will not “take” on the native email function of my iPhone. So I’ve been using the web version of gmail the last several months. It’s been easy, and I didn’t need to download any app. I knew where to access the site.

3. Mobile HTML looks damn good

Visually, native apps can look stunning. They are beautiful, and functional. No limitations of web constructs means freedom to create incredible user experiences.

But you know what? You can do a lot with HTML5. Taking a mobile web approach to styling the page and optimizing the user experience, one can create an experience to rival that of native apps.

As you can see on the right, an enterprise software page presented in a mobile browser need not be a sanitized list of things. It can pop, provide vibrant colors, present a form factor for accessing with the fattest fingers and be indistinguishable from a native app.

Indeed, designing for a mobile experience is actually a great exercise for enterprise software vendors. It puts the focus on simplicity and the most commonly used functions. It’s a slo a chance to re-imagine the UX of the software. It wouldn’t surprise me if elements the mobile optimized HTML find their way back to the main web experience.

4. Too many mobile OS’s to account for

We all know that Apple’s iOS has pushed smart phone usage dramatically. And corporations are looking at iOS for both iPhone and iPads. Meanwhile, Android has made a strong run and is the leading mobile OS now. However, in corporates, RIM’s various Blackberry flavors continue to have a strong installed base. On Microsoft’s Phone 7 OS, “developer momentum on Windows Phone 7 is already incredibly strong.” (ArsTechnica).

Four distinct OS’s, each with their own versions. Now, enterprise software vendors, you ready to staff up to maintain your version of native apps for each?

37signals recently announced it was dropping native apps for mobile. Instead, they’re focusing on mobile web versions of their software. In that announcement, they noted the challenge of having to specialize for both iOS and Android.

Meanwhile, Trulia CEO noted the burden of maintaining multiple native apps for mobile:

“As a brand publisher, I’m loathe to create native apps,” he told me, “it just adds massive overhead.” Indeed, those developers need to learn specific skills to building native mobile apps, arguably having nothing to do with his core business. They have to learn the different programming code, simulators and tech capabilities of each platform, and of each version of the platform. By diverting so much money into this, he’s having to forgo investment in other core innovation.

A balkanized world of OS variants creates administrative, operational support and development costs. Not good for anybody.

While I’m sure there are enterprise software apps that can benefit from the native OS capabilities, such as integrated photos, for most enterprise software, mobile should be an HTML5 game.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

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.

Should I Buy the Apple 3G iPhone or Nokia N95?

I’m in the market for a new phone. And I’m pretty damn easy.

Apple has now released the next version of its phone, the 3G iPhone. With all the buzz around it, it’s hard not to consider buying one. But before taking the plunge, I wanted to understand what I’m getting myself into. I also wanted to consider what many people claim is a superior phone on the market, the Nokia N95.

But first, about my being pretty damn easy…

I’m a Mobile Phone Luddite

When I bought my current mobile phone, I really didn’t want all the fancy stuff. Just the ability to talk to someone. And that’s just what I got with my Nokia Sprint phone, pictured below:

Not much “smart” about that phone. Just cheap and functional. Any phone that does the things I list in the picture above will be a quantum leap forward for me. Obviously, I’m no early adopter.

Hence, I’m easy when it comes to smart phones.

Apple iPhone vs. Nokia N95

The crux of the argument seems to boil down to this:

  • 3G iPhone offers a superior web browsing experience
  • N95 offers superior camera and actually has video

Oh, there are other things…

Apps for the iPhone are supposed to be really cool. But I’m really not interested in Tap Tap Revenge. One thing I learned from Facebook is that most of these little apps grow boring quite quickly. However, there’s always the possibility that some interesting app will be developed.

There’s also Apple’s closed platform and restrictive DRM, which means all development requires approval of Apple. But considering that I’ve been using a phone without anything that would cause such concern, I’m mostly unconcerned about this as well.

The Knocks Against the iPhone

Here are the the biggest knocks I’ve seen on the iPhone. Gotta know what could ruin my day if I buy one.

Short battery life. This consistently comes up as a negative for the iPhone. It sounds awful, especially in comparison to my current lowly Nokia phone. The battery on that phone can last for days. But it sounds like any 3G smart phone may suffer a similar battery life issue. Here’s what GigaOm said about the Nokia N95:

The battery on this device [Nokia N95] simply sucks. It doesn’t even last the whole day, and that is when you are using it in GSM mode, WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS turned off.

Apple does provide tips for preserving battery life. In addition, Cyndy Aleo-Carreira reports that a simple change to one feature – push email – can dramatically improve battery life.

Crappy camera, no video. There’s no getting around this one. The iPhone’s 2 mega pixel camera is woeful compared to the N95’s 5 mega pixel. Here’s a picture that Fred Wilson took with the N95:

Look at that quality! And with two young children, I think great pictures would be nice. Not to mention the ability to do easy video.

Forced to go with AT&T. This is a big one for many folks. They don’t like AT&T for whatever reason. AT&T appears to have good 3G coverage in the San Francisco Bay Area. But outside the region, coverage gets dicey. As Robert Scoble tweeted about his drive from southern California back to the Bay Area:

Out of the past 7.5 hours of driving we have had 3G for less than an hour. AT&T needs to do a much better job at coverage.

My Sprint phone actually has pretty bad coverage inside my house. So I’m not sure AT&T can get much worse, unless I was unable to get any signal. I did ask about what happens when 3G isn’t available on FriendFeed (comment on Scoble’s tweet). Here’s what Zach Flauaus said:

The iPhone’s priority is 3G, then EDGE, then GPRS. Aka: Fast, ehh… And “Oh hell no!”

So even if I can’t surf the web, I get a phone signal. OK…I probably can live with that.

The new apps crash the iPhone. Let me repeat that: NEW APPS CRASH THE iPHONE! Tim O’Reilly describes the laments of iPhone users and their crashing phones. He includes a Summize Twitter search for iPhone crash. The search reults are frightening:

  • “so it seems writing mobile applications is not such a trivial task. On the iPhone they crash like crazy”
  • “first iPhone crash since I restored it 4 days ago, I guess my strategy has worked, and coincidently it crashed on a newly installed app”
  • “Experienced my first iPhone app crash tonight. Screen turned black. After a few tries the phone came back to life but I deleted the app.”
  • “Just had my first iPhone app crash. Facebook!”

Sounds like it’s best to avoid putting apps on the iPhone for the time being. But I am hopeful about  downloading some good apps down the road.

No copy and paste. Honestly, this one doesn’t bother me so much…yet. The iPhone doesn’t support a clip board to copy things you find. My initial reaction is “so what?”. But I”ll probably want that. One example: wordpress.com’s new iPhone interface. You can post blog entries from the iPhone. As you can see in this post, I’m a huge fan of copy-n-paste. Not having this feature could chafe.

The Nokia N95 Knock: Web Surfing Is Bad

The N95 does include web surfing and email. But this is what I’ve been reading about that experience:

  • “@Jonathan – does Nokia have a decent web browser?” – Yolanda
    “@Yolanda, no, it’s crap. But there’s Opera mini (http://operamini.com) which is somewhat decent.” – Guillermo Esteves (link)
  • Question: “If you could only take one device to a tropical island would it be a smartphone or a laptop?”
    Robert Scoble: “Assuming I am going on vacation to get away from it all? My Nokia N95. Good camera to take pics and videos of me drinking MaiTais. GPS so I can get around. But hard to use for Web and Email so I am not too tempted.”
  • “After seeing, feeling & experiencing the Web on the iPhone, I Know I need one, even though I have an N95 (hate it for browsing)” (link)
  • Yes, I borrowed a friends N95for a day and they had my Blackberry. Phone quality is important to me with a hearing aid. The web browsing sux on the N95, phone was ok. The camera and video were way cool though, nice but not necessary toys.” (link)

iPhone Gets Some Real Love Though

I’m impressed by the number of people expressing their affection for the iPhone, despite its limitations.

Ryan Spoon blogged: Confessions of a Blackberry Addict – I’ve Moved to the iPhone 3G

Yahoo EVP Jeff Weiner was raving to Tim O’Reilly about his new iPhone, urging him to write something that explains why the iPhone is such a paradigm-shifting device.

Gina Trapani of Lifehacker wrote this in a generally negative piece on the iPhone: “But Mobile Safari’s tabbed browsing convinced me to trade in my principles for convenience. This job requires me to be online everywhere I go, and as far as I could see, the iPhone was the best way to do that.”

And here’s the Twitter search for “love my iPhone“. Look at all that love!

What About You?

So I’m close to making a decision. My use case is more web browsing than picture/video taking. But there are definitely issues with the iPhone.

If you’ve got thoughts about the 3G iPhone or the Nokia N95, I’d love to hear ‘em.

UPDATE: ReadWriteWeb covers the Apple vs. Nokia issue this morning as well here.

*****

See this post on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/search?q=%22Should+I+Buy+the+Apple+3G+iPhone+or+Nokia+N95%3F%22&public=1

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 663 other followers