Don’t Do Safe! Why Innovation Isn’t Always Disruptive

| Technology

Everywhere I go, someone is on a Samsung or Apple mobile device. A few years ago, I first started seeing people on planes working on their iPads; today I see iPads at every meeting I go to.  More and more, I see Samsung Galaxy S3s.  I’ve seen a lot of Surface advertising and I’ve had a hands-on try of a Surface several times at one of the many Surface demo booths.

But, in spite of all their advertising (Microsoft actually spends as much on advertising as Apple), I have yet to see anyone on a plane or at a meeting using a Microsoft Surface.

In the past, Microsoft has been a superb fast follower. Bill Gates invented the concept of shrink wrap software apps back in the 1970s, but I can’t think of a significant user-centered concept where Microsoft has been the originator of an idea. Microsoft is one of the world’s greatest companies: It hires some of the most talented people and it has created huge wealth for its stockholders over four decades.

So why haven’t they been a fast follower in mobile?

Copy, Improve, Expand

Google and Samsung have been the successful fast followers in mobile, much as Microsoft and Intel were very successful fast followers with easy-to-use PCs 23 years ago. The formula of a fast follower is to copy, improve and expand. It shouldn’t be to protect your cash cow. Yet that’s exactly what Microsoft has done. While Google and Samsung moved immediately to capitalize on Apple’s mobile innovations, Microsoft was slow to react. When it did, Microsoft was conflicted with a desire to protect and justify the relevance of their Windows/Office cash cow in the new era of mobility.

In so doing, Microsoft may have ended up creating a contrived product for a non-existent market.

Real disruptive innovation happens on the bleeding edge of opportunity. It’s always about high risk, so undivided focus is key.

It’s easy to assess why a very disruptive innovation was successful. It begins with solving a really big problem before it becomes obvious to others – think iPad.  Analysts were very skeptical when rumors were first heard about Apple developing a tablet.  Was Steve Jobs creating a cool but contrived product for non-existent market?

Looking back, it’s clear that a light-weight, high resolution display tablet solved a real problem – mobile viewing of internet broadband media on a screen bigger than a smart phone but with all the cool smart phone apps.

Missing the Boat

Microsoft waited too late to respond to Apple; it was so concerned about protecting its Windows/Office franchise that it compromised with a facelift of an old product concept, Windows PC, to make it look like an exciting new product. Microsoft Surface tries to convince prospective users that putting a tablet touch screen on a PC would make a cool hybrid. What Microsoft created was wheels on a boat.

They did it because they could, not because it solved a big user problem in a good way.

As a mobile Internet viewer, Surface is too big compared to increasingly lighter-weight tablets from competitors. Suggesting a PC is cool at just the time when PCs are becoming irrelevant commodities is not a believable brand marketing story.

The real test for a new product innovation should be, would you recommend this product or service to a friend?  So far, no one has recommended I get a Microsoft Surface!