Is American Innovation Dead? Research Labs vs. Incremental Innovation

Is American Innovation dead? After reading Jon Gertner’s (@jongertner) recent book “The Idea Factory” that detailed the amazing frequency and impact of the innovation that was pouring out of Bell Labs back in the heyday you might think so. Just a few of Bell Labs “Gaming Changing” innovations include the first transistors; integrated circuits, fiber optics, lasers, satellites, cellular phones, and digital cameras (see complete list). These weren’t just incremental improvements in a narrow discipline but discontinuous innovations that created entirely new fields of science and engineering.

I just caught an interesting article from @ExtremeTech that detailed how the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner has introduced in-seat passenger entertainment systems that are powered by two powerful innovations: the Android Operating System (OS) and solid-state storage (69TB of storage). Are the Android OS and solid-state drives two examples of” game changing” innovations or just “incremental” improvements on previous work?

The Android OS was created as a mobile phone OS by Android Inc. co-founders Andy Rubin and Rich Miner, Nick Sears, and Chris White back in 2003. In 2005, Android Inc. was acquired by Google with everyone anticipating that Google was going to get into the cellular handset business. It might be worth recalling that at this time Apple hadn’t even announced their plans for the iPhone (January 2007) or launched the product (June 2007). The Android OS has now become part of the Open Handset Alliance a consortium of hardware, software, and wireless companies and is led by Google. While the Android OS has been primarily used in smartphone and tablet devices is has made its way into plethora of other products including: DVD players, cameras, game consoles, laptops, netbooks, smart TVs, and e-readers. What I think is more interesting is how the Android OS has moved beyond the typical Consumer Electronic (CE) devices, it has been found in watches, refrigerators, and even in treadmills. Much like how Bell Labs was able to allow ideas and innovations to marinade and mix between their different teams of scientists and engineers, through Open Source technology and consortiums new innovations like the Android OS are able to escape from one industry and cross-pollinate other industries even though they are not within the same company or on the same campus (i.e. Bell Labs, Xerox, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, or Apple).

Solid State Drives (SSDs) were originally invented in the 1950s but shelved for decades because of their prohibitive costs are a different story. Unlike a typical hard drive that uses metal platters and a moving arm to read from and write data to those platters an SSD has no moving parts. The significant benefit from SSDs is that they have no moving parts and thus are significantly less likely to fail, use less power, and generate less heat than traditional hard drive discs. In the early 1970s SSDs returned in some of the early supercomputers from IBM, Amdahl, Cray and others but it was still prohibitively expensive and was again phased out. By the mid-1990’s SSDs were being sold for use with the military and niche commercial customers but it wasn’t until 2007 when the first consumer PC was available with a SSD. Coincidentally it was in one of the most innovative PC projects in decades – the XO-1 also known as the OLPC or One Laptop per Child project that was funded to create a $100 laptop for use in developing nations. With the cost, power and weight restrictions placed on the project the engineers had to come up with a new creative solution while every PC manufacture was focused on traditional hard drives because of their price and ubiquity.

American Innovation is hardly dead but with both capital and human resources being significantly limited in the current economic climate companies are cutting back on (or in some cases eliminating) their R&D expenditures. Incremental innovation has become more of the norm in many industries but that doesn’t mean there can’t be significant breakthroughs. Companies will just have to embrace new models for driving innovation. How does your organization drive innovation? How are you seeking outside ideas and innovations to drive your business?

  • Are you leveraging Open Source technology or Alliances to move your new products/services forward?
  • Are you continually looking for ways to utilize existing technologies that previously weren’t feasible?

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2 replies to “Is American Innovation Dead? Research Labs vs. Incremental Innovation”

  1. Ethan | Jul 12, 2012, 6:23 pm

    This would seem to imply that innovation is alive and well in America. But what is perplexing is how a 15 year old student can invent design and test a product in such a highly technical field, a product that DRAMATICALLY improves upon its predecessors… products designed by teams of PHD’d engineers.

    My hunch is that youthful imagination applied to inspired interest and learning in the field enables unprecedented growth and innovation.

  2. Matt | Aug 22, 2012, 11:22 pm

    An update on this topic of corporate R&D… perhaps it is just the American companies that are not investing in R&D like they used to in the Bell Labs days but it looks like the Koreans are still ready to invest. Executives just gave the green light for $822m R&D HQ in Korea! Wow… maybe they feel they’re going to get a windfall in their litigation with Apple?

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