Technological Innovation (or not)

The entrepreneurial world is always talking about innovation.  If you just offer the same thing or a minor tweak on the same thing as others are providing, you are taking the biggest risk of all.  It is very hard to break into a field with a me-too product in an area that others have already staked out.

What is most interesting is to see this play out with the big boys.

In the technological world, we have had three major announcements in the last week or so.  The first was Wolfram Alpha.  Wolfram took the idea of search and really turned it on its head.  It is not a Google killer, as was first surmised, but an entirely new paradigm.  While Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, Wolfram wants to take formatted, vetted data and make it available in useful formats.  Wolfram Alpha takes on hard questions like “What was the top wind speed for Hurricane Dolores in 1966? “, “What is the life expectancy for a female living in Ghana compared with the US?” and even “Where do babies come from?“.  It provides answers in easy to understand tables, maps and graphs.  It even tells you where it got the answers to your questions, so that you can make a determination if the source is solid.

The second announcement was Google Wave(Disclaimer:  Google Wave has not been delivered yet.  What we have seen has been demoware.  But it presented to a group of 4000 developers, so chances of it getting to live status is pretty good.) Here Google asked the question “If we were designing communications like e-mail today, what would it look like?”  Total innovation.  Here they did not use the same metaphors that people have been using like inboxes, subject lines and chain letters.  Remember that email was developed over 40 years ago.  Instant messaging is no better.  It was designed to automate telephone conversations – one to one, wait for one person to stop talking before responding.  Don’t get me wrong.  Email and IM are both great tools, but they are based on old thinking.  Google took a new look at how we communicate and developed a program that leverages the technology of today to provide a totally new experience that has the potential to dramatically change how we work (and play). The entrepreneurial play here is that Wave was developed in the Sydney office with a team that maxed out at 50 engineers. In addition, the product will be offered as open source, which means that anyone can take it, enhance it, install it on their systems, interoperate with others and benefit from the open source community.

The third announcement was from Microsoft, announcing Bing.  Bing is the latest incarnation of Live Search.  They are trying to solve a problem that Google has already solved.  But, they have a cute new name (Bing!, your search is done) and will use a reported $100 Million advertising campaign to try to woo users to use it instead of Google.  Hello!  Microsoft has 8% of the search market, even with the dominant browser and Google has 62%.  How much market share can Microsoft really steal with a me-too product?

Kudos to Wolfram and Google for developing innovative products that change the way that we can use the internet.  Brickbats to Microsoft for spending $100M (on advertising alone, not to mention development costs) on a problem that has mostly been solved.  My guess is that $100M would pay for the engineering teams of both Wolfram Alpha and Google Wave for a couple of years, which would likely create new, useful products.

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