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Innovation Insights
by Stephen Shapiro

Squished Like Grape

In a previous blog entry, I discussed why the middle of the innovation bell curve is a dangerous placeI even quoted The Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi who said, “Walk on road. Walk right side, safe. Walk left side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later [makes squish gesture] get the squish, just like grape.”

This prompted a question from Gareth Garvey, a great English innovator based in Copenhagen.  He asked, “What happens as the products in the middle get squashed? Are we talking about a narrower road where we need to walk even closer to the edge to survive/succeed or is the middle ground recreated by new entrants?”

Great question.  From my perspective, the middle ground is constantly shifting and getting recreated by new entrants.

Although using computers as an example is hackneyed, it does allow us to see the shifting dynamics in a short period of time.  Regardless, these concepts apply to all innovations.  Here are the dynamics…

The right-hand side of the bell curve is constantly shifting further to the right. That is, investments in innovation help premium product become better, faster, and higher quality. PCs now have the computing power of computers that once took up an entire room.  There will always be a need for high end computers, whether it is for business, science, or gaming.

The left-hand side of the bell curve constantly moves too. I wrote before about netbooks that cost about $300. These computers will continue to increase in power squeezing out current mainstream computers.

Here’s the wrinkle…It was just announced that India has developed a computer that costs $20. Of course these have significantly reduced processing power, but will serve the needs of a larger audience. As these $20 computers increase in power over time, they will squeeze out the netbooks.

Mobile phones also need to be taken into consideration.

Right now, mobile phones have their own bell curve. Low cost simple function phones on the left (which have greater capabilities than the high-end phones just a few years ago). And the iPhones and Blackberrys of the world on the right.

What’s interesting is to see how these high-end phones can leap from the right-side of the mobile technology curve to the left-side of the computer curve.

iPhones and Blackberrys have basic computing functions now. But soon they too will become more powerful. I assume that in the near future they will also have the ability to display on larger screens – either through projection capabilities, expandable screens (like on the Jetsons), plug in monitors, or low cost wearable goggles. The data entry abilities will also improve. When this happens, and as costs drop, mobile phones will move formally into the left-hand side of the bell curve for computer innovations.

The curves are always shifting in many directions. What is a premium product today will become old quite quickly. What is considered budget will improve over time and become mainstream, eventually to be squeezed out by a new low-end entrant. What was on one curve (e.g., mobile phones) can shift to another curve (e.g., computers).

The key is to choose which side of the fence you are on.  Premium or Budget.  High-end or mass-market.  Sophisticated or up-and-coming.  Just try to avoid getting squished…

I will continue to address the “bell curve of innovation” in future entries.