Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Blackwell's Espresso Book Machine: A Disruptive Innovation in the Printing of Books?

The English company Blackwell has demonstrated a revolutionary machine that can print and dispense a single book on demand in about 5 minutes, selected from many thousands of possibilities. It's like an ATM for books. News comes from a story at FastThinking.com:
Blackwell believes the introduction signals the end to the frustration of being told a title is out of print or not in stock. The Espresso offers access to almost half a million books, from a facsimile of Lewis Carroll's original manuscript for Alice in Wonderland to Mrs Beeton's Book of Needlework.

The company hopes to increase the catalogue to more than a million titles by the end of the summer, the equivalent of 23.6 miles of shelf space or more than 50 bookshops rolled into one. The majority of these books are out of copyright, but Blackwell is working with UK publishers to increase access to in-copyright writing. So far the response has been overwhelmingly positive, the firm says.

"This could change bookselling fundamentally," said Blackwell's chief executive, Andrew Hutchings. "It's giving the chance for smaller locations, independent booksellers, to have the opportunity to truly compete with big stock-holding shops and Amazon ... I like to think of it as the revitalisation of the local bookshop industry. If you could walk into a local bookshop and have access to one million titles, that's pretty compelling."

Amazon.com and other services have already provided the disruptive benefit of consumer convenience in ordering and the ability to choose from vast numbers of titles. Now the added convenience of getting the book in a few minutes instead of several days could add disruptive potential to this innovation.

Before Amazon or other booksellers begin to worry, though, there are some limitations that may keep the product at the curiosity level rather than mushrooming to disruptive status. People still need to be physically present at the machine. Five minutes for a book isn't long, but it is when there are three people ahead of you in line. I haven't seen the printed product, but it may lack some of the pizazz (4-color dust jacket, quality of the paper and binding, etc.) that people value in a printed book. Will it really meet the needs of non-users or low-end market segments? Maybe not when the premium price for the on-demand books is considered. Much depends on the execution and the details of the business model. Given the premature hype about this being the biggest revolution since Gutenberg, I suspect it will fall into the category of the Segway. Great innovation, but not yet poised for disruptive dominance.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The ParaJet SkyCar: Potential Disruptive Innovation?

The British company, Parajet, has developed the Parajet Skycar, a flying car running on biofuel (ethanol or biodiesel). It is is currently a prototype that has been the subject of dramatic demonstrations, such as flying over the Sahara (from France to Timbuktu) and over the Amazon rain forest. This high-efficiency, eco-friendly flying car differs sibstantially from previous attempts to add collapsible wings to automobiles or to modify winged aircraft to be suitable for ground driving. Instead of using solid wings, the Parajet is essentially a powered parachute. It uses a paramotor and a parafoil attached to what looks like a dune buggy, but one that can achieve sustained level flight.

The parafoil can fold up and fit in the trunk of the vehicle. Converting from an on-ground vehicle to a flying car takes about 3 minutes. Not bad! Safety is a big plus. If the engine fails, the vehicle can slowly glide back to the ground. If the canopy rips, there is an emergency reserve ballistic parachute that can be deployed. The prototype is said to be fully road-legal.

FutureCars.com has a great review of the car. They like it, but want a better design. The current dune-buggy design is not likely to be a hit, but their next generation body will be more stylish. There have been numerous attempts in the past to make small airplanes for personal flight, including ones that can serve as automobiles as well. The breakthrough is using a paramotor and parafoil (essentially a powered parachute) for that purpose.

In my opinion, this has the potential to be a disruptive innovation in the classical sense of the term as taught by Clayton Christensen of the Harvard School of Business. It is an innovation that is "worse" in terms of standard metrics and the expectations of the market that the established incumbents are trying to meet - such as high speed and the full control offered by winged aircraft - while offering new levels of convenience and ease of use. Yes, a parafoil can't perform anywhere close to a winged aircraft in terms of pilot control and speed, but it is easy, stable, safe, and can meet the needs of low-end users and many non-users. The incumbents in both automobiles and airplanes will not be threatened by this at first and will have neither motivation nor capability to respond, making it possible for this innovation to get off the ground, so to speak, without significant head-to-head competition in its area, assuming that they have adequately handled the intellectual property issues needed to maintain a competitive lead in the powered parafoil area. The combination of intellectual property strategy with disruptive innovation theory, by the way, is one of the key topics we cover in the forthcoming book, Conquering Innovation Fatigue by Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins, and Mukund Karanjikar (John Wiley & Sons, July 2009), with some related information about to be posted on the new website, InnovationFatigue.com. Once the innovation can get a foothold, then the normal process of sustaining innovation can kick in, allowing generation after generation to add advances in diesel motor design, materials, lighting systems, communications, control systems, etc., to add improved features, speed, power, control, and so forth.

While seizing a new market, this vehicle could also make inroads into the helicopter business, allowing low-end users and non-users to gain some of the lower-end benefits of helicopters for aerial surveillance and short trips when roads are inadequate.

The car is likely to appeal to aviators and hobbyists already familiar with paramotors, but if the regulatory environment can be properly managed (one of the areas of innovation fatigue also discussed in the book), this could have the potential to spread to a surprisingly large market. One could see this becoming an indispensible tool in regions where roads are unreliable (much of Africa, for example), giving business leaders, civic leaders, relief workers, hunters, and others the opportunity to travel or survey areas from the area. Interesting air taxi business models could also be envisioned. Stay tuned to see if this innovation takes off!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Saying "No" to Innovation? Sometimes that Is the Right Answer

In a New Product Development discussion group at LinkedIn.com, Monika Wingate called our attention to the story, "Post Shredded Wheat Celebrates Non-Innovation." Ogilvy is emphasizing the original, unchanging nature of Shredded Wheat as a virtue that stands out in this era of constant change and questionable innovation:
A new campaign from Post Shredded Wheat promotes the product's lack of change as a virtue, turning the trend toward enhanced, "super ingredient" food and beverage products on its head.

Developed by Ogilvy, the campaign with the tagline "We Put the 'No' in Innovation" emphasizes that the cereal has been made with "one simple, honest ingredient" -- 100% natural whole grain wheat, since it was created 117 years ago.

"There's been a marked change in American values, with a greater desire for honesty, trustworthiness and security during a time of economic and societal uncertainly," Kelley Peters, director of integrated insights and strategy for Post Foods, tells Marketing Daily. "Post's marketing messages underscore that Shredded Wheat has always been a simple, honest brand, and one of the healthiest foods on the grocery shelf."

There is a lesson here. Innovation is not always the answer. Change is not always desirable. When things are working and needs are already being met properly, innovation can be harmful. When it comes to financial services, we've seen some recent innovations can be disastrous.

Sometimes what is hailed as innovation is a return to failed systems and products of the past. Innovation by doing away with Constitutional checks and balances, for example, can lead to the old failures of tyranny. Innovation in monetary policy can lead to the age-old failures of debased currency. Innovations in the arts sometimes bring hideous results. And some innovations in health care and other areas bring unexpected dangers that take time to explore and understand (though the delays arguably have become excessive and bring the risk of blocking life-saving innovations - the risks of delay need to be more carefully weighted, in my opinion).

Change comes at a price. There are risks to be weighed against touted benefits. When things work and work well, as Ogilvy wishes to remind us, why introduce change?

Personally, I like Shredded Wheat and am glad that it and a few other products have stayed relatively constant over the years. These are unusual exceptions.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Your Future in Print: The Evolving World of Printed Electronics

Printing is an often overlooked area when people think of high tech, but some of the highest technology is found there. I'm not just talking about all the excitement from advances in digital printing or flexographic printing, for example. I'm talking about the world of electronics coming to printing. The opportunities started to come into view many years ago when conductive inks were developed for simple structures such as antennas for RFID tags or other electronic article surveillance (EAS) applications. Then conductive polymers were developed which led some companies to explore other variations of printed electronics or electronics integral with packaging. Transistors were printed and demonstrated, but there were limits to what could be achieved with conductive polymers and inks. Many tried printed electronics, but face painful barriers. Matching the opportunities afforded by silicon just seemed out of reach.

Now comes printed circuits made of - you guessed it (wait, did you??) - silicon itself. Read "With New Silicon-based Inks, Kovio Is Poised to Make Gins in Printed Electronics" and read their press release announcing the world's first RFID system with silicon-based inks.

Friends of mine in the RFID world say Kovio's technology is fascinating. Hats off to the Kovio team for some added excitement in the world of printing. Let's stay tuned to see where this technology and competitive technologies go.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

When Internal Communication is Poor, IP Value Can Tumble

Over at the IP Asset Maximizer Blog, guest blogger Scott Garrison provides a dramatic story of wasted IP within a large corporation. Basically, after spending a large sum of money for IP in a breakthrough area, a major corporation took a series of missteps that eroded much of the value of the acquired patents. Ultimately, they had to give royalty-free licenses for the technology. The disaster came as a result of multiple parties taking independent steps without communicating with each other, and without central oversight and strategy. Garrison wisely suggests that a Chief IP Officer would have helped.

In addition, our experience suggests that when there is a moribund lack of communication between entities that ought to be communicating, there may be cultural and other issues that also need to be corrected. Sometimes fixing the org chart by adding central oversight isn't enough. We have found that Value Network Analysis can be an extremely useful tool in mapping out the exchanges of intangibles (knowledge, tips, informal communication, relationships, trust, loyalty, etc.) as well as tangibles (required reports, funds, formalized exchanges) that define the ecosystem -- in this case, the internal ecosystem. When healthy networks of intangible exchanges do not exist between parties such as business units and legal departments, steps must be taken to nurture the ecosystem and to help create stronger ties, better information exchange, and alignment of objectives and goals. When the ecosystem becomes healthy, a lot of things happen that make the corporation look a lot smarter than it used to be.