About the "long nose of innovation"

Reading the PDFs that accumulate on my computer desktop (see picture above), I ran across two columns by Bill Buxton. Both addresses a constant pattern: the very slow diffusion of technical innovation over time.

The first one, from January 2008 is about what he calls the "long nose of innovation", a sort of mirror-image of the long tail that is "equally important to those wanting to understand the process of innovation". Like its tail counterpart, the "long nose" is an interesting metaphor to describe the diffusion of a certain technology. It complement the list I've already made here by taking a different viewpoint.

To Buxton, the long nose states that:

"the bulk of innovation behind the latest "wow" moment (multi-touch on the iPhone, for example) is also low-amplitude and takes place over a long period—but well before the "new" idea has become generally known, much less reached the tipping point."

In his column, Buxton grounds this notion in research conducted by Butler Lampson which traced the history of a number of key technologies driving the telecommunications and information technology sectors. They found that "any technology that is going to have significant impact over the next 10 years is already at least 10 years old.". Research about technical objects diffusion often refers to this kind of delay (some says 10, other 20 but one should also remember than some technologies never make it) and Laurent gave another example this morning.

The conclusion the author make is the following:

"Innovation is not about alchemy. In fact, innovation is not about invention. An idea may well start with an invention, but the bulk of the work and creativity is in that idea's augmentation and refinement. The newer the idea, the coarser the granularity of most analysis, and the more likely people are to say, "oh, that's just like X" or "that's been done before," without any appreciation for how much work and innovation is involved in taking an idea from concept to wide practice. (...) The heart of the innovation process has to do with prospecting, mining, refining, and goldsmithing. Knowing how and where to look and recognizing gold when you find it is just the start. (...) those who can shorten the nose by 10% to 20% make at least as great a contribution as those who had the initial idea."

In a second column, Buxton applies this to the frenziness towards "touch technology" that appeared after the iPhone. He describes how "touch and multitouch are decidedly not new". It was first discovered by researchers in the very early 1980s and staid below the radar before some peeps "recognize the latent value of touch".

But there's another good lesson from this article. He starts by mocking executives and marketers who rush on saying "It has to have touch" (I guess you could replace "Touch" by 3D back in 1998, or Second Life back in 2005 or Augmented Reality in 2009). He then recommends that "true innovators needs to know as much about when, why, and how not to use an otherwise trendy technology, as they do about when to use it." What this means is simple: one should not dismiss the technical innovation, but simply have a more specific/detailed approach. As shown by his example of touch interfaces on watches, saying that "something should have a touch interface" is pointless because "The granularity of the description is just too coarse. Everything—including touch—is best for something and worst for something else". Therefore, his lesson is that:

"Rather than marveling at what someone else is delivering today, and then trying to copy it, the true innovators are the ones who understand the long nose, and who know how to prospect below the surface for the insights and understanding that will enable them to leap ahead of the competition, rather than follow them. God is in the details, and the details are sitting there, waiting to be picked up by anyone who has the wit to look for them."

Why do I blog this? Good material for my course about innovation and foresight, as well as insights for an upcoming book project about failures.