Innovation displaces invention

By: Perry Sink Marshall

Smokin’ R&B played on the radio as I drove home on a Saturday night. The husky voice of Etta James penetrated the night darkness, evoking steamy images of cotton fields and Mississippi Delta juke joints. “It sounds old but it’s actually brand new,” the announcer observed as he cued up another song. Blues is that way – whether it’s an old B.B. King LP or Etta’s latest release, it’s timeless yet present–tense at the same time. Chord progressions may be decades old, but moods never go out of style. Johnnie Taylor declares that “It’s Cheaper to Keep Her,” and his advice rings just as true today as when he made his first alimony payment.

Blues and technology seem worlds apart on the surface, but appearances can be deceptive. The term “high tech” is synonymous with “new” but, like the blues, new products and ideas are usually re–workings of old themes. Year 2002 automobiles put new polish on the 2001 designs, tweaking style, adding and subtracting features. Manufacturers play leapfrog with each other, making mostly cosmetic changes as often as they can afford. There are apparent exceptions, such as new hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius. Hybrid designs have powered locomotives for decades, though, so again, old technology has really just found a new home.

Ray Charles lends his voice to the kid’s movie, Blues Clues Magical Musical Adventure. He teaches his toddler audience to write a song. Do my 3–year–old and 5–year–old know that Ray is older than dirt? No, but he can still teach them the musical ropes, with the help of Steve and his dog Blue. The kids are mesmerized, glued to the TV screen for the whole two–hour episode. Yes, even an institution like Ray Charles can be re–engineered for a generation yet too young to have heard much R&B.

The Internet is 30 years old, Ethernet is 25, and CAN has been networking automobiles since “Material Girl” was on the pop charts. Madonna seemed new, but she was really self–styled after Marilyn Monroe. The movie Independence Day, with its plot about aliens taking over the world seemed new until you realized it was a mere variation on War of the Worlds. In Orson Welles’ story, a biological virus stops the aliens. Now, in the second telling, it’s a computer virus. In Matrix, 22nd century protagonist Neo parallels Jesus with deliberate accuracy. Most people think Steve Wozniak (or worse, Bill Gates) invented pop–up windows and the computer mouse, but Xerox created them a decade before. Email was new to most people five years ago, but my 1963 encyclopedia predicted that “someday your letters will show up on a screen instead of a mail truck.”

Ebay puts new pizzazz into auctions, but auctions themselves have been around as long as farmers have faced bankruptcy. Bose would have you believe that their Wave Radio is a radical breakthrough, a virtual anomaly in the laws of acoustics, but diagrams of similar designs lurk in textbooks from the 1930s. The dynamic loudspeaker itself was invented in the 1920s, and though literally millions of designs exist, the concept itself has not fundamentally changed. Sophisticates scoff at Solomon for saying “There’s nothing new under the sun,” then buy toothpaste with baking soda. Eve ate the apple so she could be like God. Shirley McLaine is hardly innovating, much less inventing, when she stands on the beach and shouts “I AM God!” In the astute words of my co–worker Gary Marrs: “If you need a new idea, read an old book.”

The latest rage – bubble, if you will – is wireless. Investors converse about the marvels of Bluetooth between dropped calls on their digital cell phones. Do you remember when we all had analog, then got tricked into the “crystal clear” quality of digital? Perhaps it’s nostalgia, but I think the phone I had in 1996 worked better. For many years, there was an electronics construction magazine called Wireless World. The name fell out of favour and was changed to Electronics World. I think it’s time to dust off that old name and launch a new magazine!

Consider Schneider’s Web server + controller patent. Just like Amazon’s OneClick, this patent is about the combination of two “obvious” things, not the invention of anything original. Legally defensible? Let the courts decide. Strategic and important? Recent developments such as Synergetic’s multi–network chip actually don’t claims much to be really new – inside is “plain vanilla” stuff: 186 processor, RS232, Ethernet and CAN ports. Beyond a few tweaks, the only thing that’s new is blending those things together. The entire “System On a Chip” trend in electronics is all about mixing and matching existing technologies within smaller, less expensive components. In all cases, innovation lies in finding parts that construct a more valuable whole. While originality has merit, the true value lies in packaging. How the individual pieces are assembled into a whole is more important than the pieces themselves. Even Moore’s law – the shrewd declaration that transistor density in chips doubles every 18 months – points to packaging more than substance.

My niece, Maggie Rother, is a twenty–something high school science teacher in rural Nebraska. A while back she described her students’ disinterest in “figuring things out” – if they can’t look up easy answers on the Web, they just give up. Though I concur that their laziness is the scourge of America and the impending downfall of our collective prosperity, I still saw the advantage. I played devil’s advocate: “OK Maggie, but imagine that for the next ten years, they put a moratorium on research, and we were only allowed to use and share the knowledge we’ve already got. Would it hurt the march of progress that much?” She had to agree that it wouldn’t: enough wheels already exist that we could get away with not inventing new ones for a while. And it really does indicate the nature of 21st century technology: there will be far more innovation than invention, more reinvention than research. The Internet conditions the newest generation to think that way, and for sound reasons.

Technology, like blues, is not about invention – rather, it’s about innovation. Every endeavour has its shining luminaries, its Thomas Edisons and Albert Einsteins. We all admire such people and we should. But they appear in very small numbers. Innovators are more plentiful – Bill Gates and Jimi Hendrix, Henry Ford and Muddy Waters. All found ample audiences for their brand of genius. Like them, those who apply, package and merchandise the originality of others stand to profit far more than the inventors themselves.

Perry Sink is a founding member of the Industrial Ethernet Association.