Friday, May 30, 2008

Future of the Internet

Many people see the Internet and the applications that leverage it maturing into a system and a service similar to electricity, television, or the telephone network. They present this as a good and natural change which will make the system more ubiquitous, reliable, and predictable. However, Jonathan Zittrain at Harvard University is worried about this change. He points out that the power of the Internet has come from its openness and the ability of any person or company to create a product or service that takes it in a new direction. He argues that really innovative, valuable, and powerful products come from strange and unpredictable corners. What centralized approval board would have given the green light to projects like Facebook, Flickr, Second life, and Digg? These are the 21st century equivalents of the Web Browser, VRML, and Google search of the 20th century. Most established users of the network do not see real value in these new applications. But their value comes from the fact that they appeal to people who are not interested in what the Internet did for their parents, but are looking for something entirely different – preferably something that their parents “don’t get” or better yet, something their parents “don’t approve of”. A standardized, stable, commodity product stops growing and changing. There was very little innovation in the telephone network while AT&T held a monopoly on it. In fact, AT&T litigated against a number of innovators who dared to create a product that connected to their telephone system. Zittrain fears that the era of innovation, anarchy, and reinvention on the Internet is coming to a close. He is in favor of a “generative system” that is unruly and always changing itself rather than a platform that must maintain its reliability so that “the big boys” can reliably run their businesses on it.

The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Johnathan Zittrain.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Lead User Innovation

In most industries, R&D is done by a specific in-house department. However, for many products there is a leading edge group of users who buy the product and immediately make modifications to meet their very unique needs. Eric von Hippel (2005) of the MIT Sloan School of Management has studied the impact of "lead users" on the development of new features for products. He describes this effect in windsurfing, mountain biking, and open source software. These customers are effectively an external R&D lab for the company’s products. von Hippel argues that they need to be enrolled by the company as partners in identifying and developing features for the next generation of products. Three criteria must exist for this to be effective: (1) the users must have an incentive to innovate, (2) they must have an incentive to reveal their innovations and share them, and (3) their work must be at a competitive level with innovations created internally and by competing companies.

von Hippel’s book Democratizing Innovation is available as a free download on his web site:

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