Eight Innovators That Shook the World

on January 3, 2014
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Note: This article was updated to correct the omission of Google.

There’s no more tedious subject on the internet than an endless discussion of which companies are or are not innovative. If you doubt it, pick a random Tech.pinions comment thread; if the thread is of any length the subject is sure to come up.

The main reason these arguments are so fruitless is that people are not bothering to define their terms, so they end up arguing more about what innovation is than who does it. So to end the year by rushing in where angels fear to tread, I want to take a look at the most innovative companies of the personal computer era, going back to around 1980.

But to start with, I am going to define just what I mean by innovation. Unlike invention, innovation does not require major technological breakthroughs. Instead, it is the process by which inventions, perhaps yours, perhgaps those of others, are turned into novel and useful products and services. The companies I am talking about here created products or services that changed the world in important ways, though many of them invented little or nothing. Here, in no particular order, is a look a eight companies whose personal electronics innovations changed the world for the better.

Apple ][+Apple: Apple may, as its critics claim, not be much of an inventor but the company has an unparalleled record as an innovator. From the Apple ][ to the Mac to the iPod to the iPhone, the iPad, and  the new Mac Pro, Apple has (except for a few grim years in the mid–1990s) an unparalleled record of innovation. Apple simply made everything it touched work better. Even its occasional flops, the Newton MessagePad and the QuickTake camera, for example, were interesting products that made significant contributions. And when Apple wasn’t doing breakthrough products, it was revolutionizing the retail experience and, as Harry C. Marks points out here, customer service.

Google: In some ways, Google is the anti-Apple. Where Apple is tightly focused and highly selective in its product development, Google seemingly will try anything and many of its projects go nowhere. Its spectacular innovative success, of course, is web search. Sergey Brin and Larry Page did not invent the mathematical approach of the Pagerank algorithm, but they tamed it and made it usable, and Google has never stopped  refining  search. Nor has Google ever stopped finding new ways to put search to work, both providing services and making money. The outstanding example of a search extension was Google Maps. There were plenty of digital maps before Google came along, but it took the combination of location awareness and search to make them truly useful. Google’s mobile maps on the iPhone and later Android phones helped turn smartphones into indispensable information tools.

Intel: Intel is an exception, both a major inventor and innovator. The company invented the microprocessor and, if you count the work co-founder Robert Noyce did at Fairchild Semiconductor, it can claim the integrated circuit as well. Intel’s microprocessors condensed the complex computational guts of computers onto a single chip and enabled the personal technology revolution. But Intel added innovation by developing a production process focused relentlessly on manufacturing efficiency. The company was often not the first to use the newest new chip technologies, but it was organized so that once a technology was adopted, it could move into production very rapidly and at massive scale. The result was a steady increase in computing power and decline in price that transformed the industry.

kindleAmazon.com: Amazon’s most significant invention is the notorious “one-click” patent. But as an innovator, it has revolutionized retailing. It also turned a decade of failed attempts to create e-readers on its head by making the purchase and consumption of digital books a simple and seamless experience. And along the way, it turned some surplus computing and storage capacity into a Amazon Web Services, multibillion dollar business that has allowed countless startups to get off the ground and scale, sometimes to spectacular size (see Netflix), with minimal capital investment.

Microsoft: No leading tech company has been more reviled for lack of innovation than Microsoft. It’s true that the company has not been a deep fount of invention, though it’s done more than most critics will allow, but innovation is another story. The most significant contribution of Microsoft was the democratization of business computing, which in turn made the wxplosion of personal computing (and the commercial internet) possible. Having cleverly negotiated a non-exclusive license deal form MS-DOS with IBM, Microsoft worked with Compaq and other clone makers to make computig cheap enough to put a PC on every desktop. The development of Windows, especially Windows 95, dramatically increased the accessibility of computers to non-techincal users. And though it was late in recognizing the importance of the internet, it was Microsoft that gave hundreds of millions of users the wherewithal to connect.

dynatacMotorola: Motorola didn’t quite invent the cellphone by itself. AT&T Bell Labs scientists came up with the idea of cellular networks years before there phones to use on them. But a Motorola team headed by Martin Cooper developed the first practical cell phone, the DynaTAC. Because of the size and cost of early handsets, most of the first cell phones were permanent installations in cars. But Motorola came up with the pocketable (if you had a fairly big pocket) MicroTAC and then the “miniature” StarTAC (still a lot bigger than today’s smartphones) that turned cellular telephony into a true consumer industry. After dominating the industry in the early years, Moto lost its way during the transition from feature phones to smartphones and now is a division of Google, but its innovative contribution is undeniable.

Hewlett-Packard: No, not the computer PC operations, which turns out competant, mostly boring machines by the millions. HP’s big innovation was making laser printing universally available. Apple actually produced the first desktop laser printer, the LaserWriter, but it was very expensive and worked only with Macs. HP took the same Canon printing engine and produced a hit for offices of every size and soon after, for home use too. As a bonus, the early HP LaserJets, especially the LasetJet 4 series, were monsters of reliability and durability. HP’s big fail: Failing to do much to make connecting computers and printers simpler since about 1990.

Handspring TreoPalm/Handspring: Neither Palm nor its offspring and later acquirer Handspring were ever phenomenally successful companies. They were chronically underfunded, and Palm suffered from terrible corporate ownership. Yet for all of their soap-opera struggles they managed to bring to market two tremendously important firsts: The first useful PDA and the first practical smartphone. The Palm Pilot wasn’t the first PDA, but it was the first one people wanted to use, mostly because of designer Jeff Hawkins’ relentless focus on a simple user experience. Qualcomm came out with the first smartphone by combining a Palm with a cell phone, but the sleek, integrated Handspring (later Palm) Treo set the stage for the revolution.