Innovation – An Open and Shut Case

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Nov 2015

Many, many years ago I gave a talk at the Federal Communications Commission.  I remember nothing of that day except for a passing comment made by the speaker before me – a software pioneer.  He said that the greatest achievement of the computer industry was not the personal computer, but the concept of an open platform on which third parties could innovate, and that this open platform was what the telecom industry lacked. I thought this was a very silly thing to say.  It had been easy enough for the computer industry to standardize the bus in a little steel box, but it would be quite another thing to create an open platform from a worldwide network comprised of a myriad of different technologies.  This would never happen.

A few years later I realized how wrong I had been.  This prescient comment had been made before the evolution of the Internet.  A simple protocol, TCP/IP, at the heart of a packet switched network had turned the vast network into the virtual equivalent of a little steel box.  Of course, regulatory and legal revolutions were also involved, but the end result was that users at the periphery were enabled – and even incented – to innovate on the telecom network.  And they did.

Still later, as an alumnus I returned to Bell Labs to give a talk in the auditorium.  “Once we controlled the network …,” I began.  I looked out on the audience with nostalgia.  The room was full of talented engineers and scientists, but this august assembly was a mere drop in the bucket compared to the millions upon millions of users who were now guiding the evolution of network services.  Once we had thought this had been our own exclusive charter.
I was recalling this chain of events in the context of a discussion about the automotive industry, which is edging towards an open platform as cars become more and more like computers with wheels.  Driving an open platform down the highway sounds a little scary, but maybe something similar could have been said about the telecom network too.

Through the years I have attended and participated in many meetings and conferences devoted to innovation.  It seems to me as if the subject is stuck in a do-loop.  Each year a speaker would begin his presentation by observing that in the past we had not known how to cultivate innovation.  Now, fortunately we do, the speaker would say, and then go on to describe a new organizational paradigm that was sure to increase innovation.  Fast forward a year and repeat.

I think that innovation occurs quite naturally, and would even be difficult to stop.  I imagine an organization putting out an edict that innovation would no longer be tolerated.  I could envision the engineers coming in at night and working on ideas quietly by candlelight. Given that innovation occurs naturally, a sure way to increase innovation is to have more people involved and empowered to innovate, and this is the power of an open platform.  However, there are both technical and economic risks involved.  Chaos, lack of control, and market loss loom as possibilities.  Sometimes it's a choice between open and innovative and closed and profitable.

I sometimes wonder if today there are college courses on technology business strategy.  When and how, and at what interface or levels, is it advisable to be open? There are many examples that can be studied, and it's an interesting and important question.