Innovation is a Cruel Game

So get your patent filed!

Sometimes the idea is tremendous but it fails because of the current state of technology or infrastructure.  Consider the common remote control for your TV set.  The Zenith Radio Corporation launched the first wireless remote control for TVs in 1955.  The ‘Flashmatic’ shone a beam of light onto a photoelectric cell in the TV.  Unfortunately, sunlight or other strong light could also activate the cell and cause the TV channel to change.  Zenith then introduced a remote device using ultrasound which worked better but the very high frequencies drove pet dogs crazy – something the company would not have anticipated when testing the idea in their research centre.   It was not until a quarter century later that TV remote controls became popular.  The advent of text services on TVs in the 1970s increased the need for remote devices and in 1980 the Canadian company View Star introduced an infra-red remote control which worked well and sold in millions.  Today the average home in the USA or Europe has at least four remote controls for consumer devices and annual sales are worth $25B.

The English mathematician, Charles Babbage, invented the idea of the digital computer with his design for a ‘Difference Engine’ which he started to build in 1823.  It required 25000 machines parts and would have weighed 15 tons.  This brilliant idea was never completed because the technology of the time was just not up to the job.  It was some 130 years later that electronic valves and then transistors allowed Babbage’s ideas to be realised.

In 1973 Martin Cooper, working at Motorola, invented the first cellular mobile phone.  Motorola brought it to market in 1983 but it was a heavy, clumsy device with a short battery life and very limited coverage.  It was years later that mobile phones became ubiquitous when technology advanced with touch screens and lightweight long-life batteries.  Motorola’s early success was surpassed by companies like Nokia and RIM in the 1990s who were then overtaken by Apple and Samsung.

The sad fact is that the real pioneers rarely benefit from their daring innovations.  The prize often falls to smart followers who learn from early failures and build a better solution on better technology.  Google was not the first search engine and Facebook was not the first social media site.

Innovation is a cruel and unpredictable game.  If you have a truly radical invention then patent it.   If the first few attempts to make it a commercial success flop then do not get downhearted.  In twenty or thirty years’ time the technology may arrive to deliver the promise.  You might just see a healthy reward to fund you in your old age!

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Paul-Sloane-780812Paul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation, and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader and editor of A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing, published both published by Kogan-Page. Follow him @PaulSloane

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