Eight Innovators That Shook the World

Steve Wildstrom / January 3rd, 2014

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.

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • Thank you for this great article. I have two comments.

    Firstly, I’m sure that many people are going to have an issue with the fact that you left Google out of the list. I personally agree with your omission, but I expect a lot of discussion on this.

    Secondly, Clayton Christensen recently talks about “empowering innovations” and “efficiency innovations”. He says that what we really need are less “efficiency innovations” and more “empowering innovations”. He’s pretty critical of “efficiency innovations”, saying that “almost always reduce the net number of jobs in an industry”. Even “sustaining innovations”, “have a zero-sum effect on jobs and capital”.

    http://www.inc.com/christine-lagorio/clayton-christensen-capitalist-dilemma.html

    It would be interesting if you could re-categorize your Innovators based on Clay’s distinction.

    My take is that your selection is predominantly on the “empowering innovations” which is a good thing. The exceptions are Amazon’s retail and e-book businesses. Amazon’s “empowering innovation” is AWS, but the rest are mostly “efficiency innovations” or at most “sustaining innovations”.

    • steve_wildstrom

      Leaving Google off was an oversight that I am going to correct right now. They were on my list, but somehow I failed to include them in the article.

      I have not read the Christensen article, but I will.

      • BradMueller

        Oh. You meant recently.
        I always admired the guy who built the antikythera.The ability to generate accurate gears must have required mastering a number of skills.

  • probooster

    I wish it was more recognized how innovative the new Mac pro is. It’s like it was designed in 2017.

  • klahanas

    Extremely well put throughout.
    I pity HP. It was once arguably THE best instrument company, until accountants and MBA’s decimated it.

    • macyourday

      Like they decimate virtually every other industry and service, but they are servants to greedy masters and shareholders. Screw the shareholders I say. Buy shares in companies if you want, but don’t expect them to serve you directly.

  • Herding_sheep

    The only problem I have with putting “innovation” and “invention” in separate silos that have no relation to each other, is that the process of innovation does require invention in every sense of the word. Just because Apple did not “invent” the concept of a smartphone (ignoring the fact that Steve Jobs essentially described smartphones in the 80s when talking about the future of computing), does not mean they did not “invent” when pioneering the iPhone. Hell, they invented the damn iPhone, I’d certainly call the iPhone an invention. It did not “invent” the concept of putting software onto a mobile phone, but it damn near invented practically everything else about the iPhone design.

    Invention is such a tricky word. Rarely is an idea or concept completely new, never dreamed of before. It’s easy to say “I thought of time travel before anyone else” but the challenge is in inventing the process and methods to achieve that, not in daydreaming about having the ability to travel through time. Not just that, but just making something thats BETTER is difficult. iPhone didn’t invent the touchscreen, it just blew away what anyone else ever dreamed of doing with a touchscreen. That right there is the true display of talent, when making something that is worlds better than anything else before it. When something already exists, your mind can become tainted to whats already in front of you, and blinds you to imagine how much better something could be if you threw away conventional wisdom and status quo. Nobody ever did anything remotely fascinating with touchscreens before iPhone, because everyone just accepted as gospel that touchscreens would be used similarly to PCs, click-drag-click except with a stylus instead of a pointer. It took Apple to break that mold and show the potential, by incorporating physics/momentum, swiping, rotation, etc into the touchscreen metaphor.

    Ok, enough rambling.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I will admit that the distinction I made between invention and innovation is somewhat arbitrary. But I would never argue that they have no relation to each other. Innovation, in my rubric, is the process of making invention useful. Innovation does not exist without invention, but invention without innovation is futile.

    • I think that it is prudent to resist any urge to widen the definition of “innovation”. This word is commonly abused to the extent that it loses any real meaning. Separating innovation and invention is critical.

  • Bob Huenemann

    In recent months, I have seen several accounts in
    the press discussing Martin Cooper’s role in the development of the cell phone.
    I worked for Martin at Motorola Communications and Industrial Electronics
    (C&IE) from November 1959 to June 1960. Motorola was developing the latest
    in a series of two way radio products of ever smaller size. These developments
    were part of an evolutionary process that led eventually to the cell phone. I
    was fresh out of school and my contributions were of no particular significance.

    But let me tell you about something I observed on a
    daily basis at Motorola’s plant in Chicago. Motorola C&IE had two black
    employees. They tended an incinerator on the opposite side of the parking lot
    from the plant. They were not allowed into the building. Not to take a break or
    eat lunch. Not to use the rest rooms. Not to warm up in the middle of Chicago’s
    sub zero winters. And my fellow employees would take their breaks at the second
    floor windows overlooking that parking lot, and they would make insulting,
    racist comments about the two black employees.

    I went to human relations, and in the most
    non-confrontational way that I could muster I asked why Motorola did not employ
    on the basis of ability, without regard to race. And at my six month review, I
    was terminated.

    You don’t have to take my word concerning Motorola’s
    employment policies. In September of 1980, Motorola agreed to pay up to $10
    million in back pay to some 11,000 blacks who were denied jobs over a seven-year
    period and to institute a $5 million affirmative action program, according to
    the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

    I have a question for Martin Cooper. Marty, what did you
    ever do to challenge the blatant, toxic racial discrimination at
    Motorola?

    Robert Gilchrist Huenemann, M.S.E.E.
    120 Harbern
    Way
    Hollister, CA 95023-9708

    • steve_wildstrom

      Do you have a bot that posts this exact same comment every time Marty Cooper’s name appears on the web?

      Motorola,like many companies, has a less than splendid history of fair treatment of African-American employees, especially prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. It is a sorry part of American history.

      Marty can certainly defend himself; he’s one of the few people from that era still alive and active in the field. But his position in engineering gave him no particular responsibility for Motorola’s HR policies and if he remained silent when he should have spoken out, it is a sin he shared with tens of millions of others.

  • In discussing Google maps, you state “it took the combination of location awareness and search to make them truly useful”. Although I agree to this, I would argue that this is Apple’s innovation, not Google’s. Combining location awareness with maps (which was actually pretty standard on Japanese feature phones) was enabled by Apple including a maps app on the iphone. You could even say that the reason that Google maps grew so popular compared to other solutions, was because Apple used them as the default.

    • klahanas

      Wait a minute…
      If I understand you correctly, combining location awareness with maps was present on Japanese feature phones as a standard issue, but Apple’s the innovator of that feature?
      Please allow me to suggest that Apple “popularized” the feature. Maybe.
      In sports, we credit the player that scored the goal, not the announcer.

      • The issue is about innovation and not invention. If you are discussing invention, then the entity that first made that invention is credited. That is how the US patent system works (in other countries, the first entity that filed for the patent is credited.)

        In innovation however, the entity that made an impact on the market should be credited. Innovation is all about how a product changes peoples lives. Since the Japanese had very little hope of penetrating the worldwide market, they did not innovate in the same way as Apple did.

        Look up the definition of “innovation” in wikipedia. Breaking into a market is a key aspect of innovation as opposed to invention.

        How to credit people depends on what you are talking about. Even in soccer, do you want to credit the striker who touched the ball last, or do you want to credit the midfielder who kicked the beautiful pass just in front of the striker? Or do you want to credit the defender who tackled the ball away and initiated the counter-attack? It depends.

        Going further into the issue of location awareness in maps, as far as inventions go, this isn’t one of them. The patent system awards patents only to inventions that are non-obvious. I doubt that location awareness in maps would pass that test. Anybody would think of that if they had a GPS on their phone. Therefore, discussing who was first in location awareness is without merit.

        • klahanas

          Thanks for the opportunity to revisit what I used to do in the early 2000’s. I just dug out my old HP iPAQ 4705. I used to put in a CF GPS (later a Bluetooth one) and drive around with it, with map built into an SD card. There was also MS Streets and Trips, both mobile and laptop versions.

          • Yes. I don’t think location awareness should be included as an innovation here. We can’t credit neither Google nor Apple. Apple may have significantly contributed to bringing it to the masses, but I agree that even that is stretching it.

          • steve_wildstrom

            It’s not just location-aware mapping. That goes back to the 90s. It was the approach of pervasive location awareness combined with search to get a new and better user experience. I’m going to give primary credit to Google, even though this was first achieved on an Apple device through partially Apple software.

          • steve_wildstrom

            But do you remember another fact about those early GPS units: They sucked battery power at an alarming rate, which severely limited their usefulness in mobile devices other than in cars. It also took a long time for them to get an initial fix. They became much more practical as successive innovations dramatically reduced power requirements and combined the high-resolution GPS with the much lower resolution but faster cell tower triangulation (aGPS).

          • klahanas

            No question. The improvements are evolutionary innovations that followed the revolutionary one.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I’ll confess to ignorance about the quality of maps and location services on pre-iPhone Japanese phones.

      The division of credit for maps on the iPhone between Apple and Google is a complicated subject. It was Apple’s app, but relied on Google’s service, and it is very hard to tell from the outside just who did what. I decided to give this one to Google.

      • I suggest that you do a thought experiment where you imagine what would have happened if either Apple or Google didn’t exist.

        If Apple hadn’t existed, there would have been no iPhone. Without an iPhone, we would still be on Blackberry or Nokia like devices. They would most likely have a maps feature and a GPS. The maps data might have been from Google, but given that Nokia was working on maps from 2001, it is more likely that the majority of devices would be on Nokia maps. Apple’s contribution to location aware maps was packaging it in a wonderful UI inside a device that was very popular. Without this, the number of people using maps on a regular basis would hardly be where it is today.

        If Google hadn’t existed, Apple would probably have used Yahoo maps or something similar. Google had pioneered a very nice Ajax-based maps UI for the web, but in terms of data quality, I doubt that Google had a significant edge compared to Yahoo. At least in Japan, Yahoo had much better public transport information at that time. Google’s web UI was irrelevant on the iPhone because Apple had developed a far superior UI on a native application. Therefore, it is unlikely that Google data was a driver of the popularity of iPhone’s maps and hence location aware mapping.

  • Mauryan

    How about Xerox? Xerox created the Mouse. It made the GUI that shifted computing to a new level. AT and T? It Bell labs created the CCD that has revolutionized the Digital Photography technology and giants like Kodak disappeared in its wake. How about Sony? Sony introduced the Walkman. Its Walkman is the equivalent of the iPod when it was introduced. Sony also made the Beta-Max which was a better quality video tape technology. Sony made the Blue Ray DVD as well. Sony is still there. The GPS is another innovation that has made driving much easier compared to the days of the printed maps. All these are technological innovations that made paradigm shifts. I’d add Hybrid cars in the same category as well.

    • steve_wildstrom

      All very important innovations, but outside the time window I set (to coincide, more or less, with the launch of the IBM PC.)

      But a few specifics: Contrary to what is widely believed, Xerox did not invent the mouse. That honor goes to Douglas Engelbart of SRI. (Xerox did design the first device that used a mouse. and the Xeroxz innovation that really changed the world, xerography, came in the 1950s.

      Honors for popularizing home video tape are split between Sony (Beta) and JVC (VHS), but videotape technology was first developed by Ampex.

      GPS was developed by the U.S. Navy for military navigation and a large number of companies were involved in its commercialization.

      The Blu-ray disk was an evolutionary development of optical storage technology that goes back to the CD and ultimately the LaserDisc. Credit is shared by Philips and Sony, but again, the invention is outside the time Window.

      If I had been trying to list the most innovative tech companies of all time, AT&T and IBM would surely head the list, but their great contributions were earlier, probably followed by RCA, Raytheon, DEC, and Sperry Rand.

      • klahanas

        GPS, in fact, was made possible by none other than Einstein whose theory is used to make the needed corrections to make it work at all.
        I leave out things like CPU innovations because you could achieve the function by other means (even if they are undesirable) like using vacuum tubes. GPS wouldn’t work at all without knowledge of the General Theory of Relativity.

      • klahanas

        In R&D those were the big R little d days. Today it’s “r&D”. Penzias and Wilson discovered the cosmic background radiation while working at AT&T (by accident), which was the most concrete proof of the Big Bang theory of the universe, and earned a Nobel for their fortune. The point is that corporate R&D, in those days, not only enriched their companies, but also made contributions to society as a whole.
        I humorously wonder if Penzias and Wilson would be fired today for wasting their time trying to find the source of that annoying hiss. Some non-tech manager or CEO would be saying “the effin’ thing is broke, why waste your time”.

      • Guest

        In R&D those were the big R little d days. Today it’s “r&D”. Penzias and Wilson discovered the cosmic background radiation while working at AT&T (by accident), which was the most concrete proof of the Big Bang theory of the universe, and earned a Nobel for their fortune. The point is that corporate R&D, in those days, not only enriched their companies, but also made contributions to society as a whole.
        I humorously wonder if Penzias and Wilson would be fired today for wasting their time trying to find the source of that annoying hiss. Some non-tech manager or CEO would be saying “the effin’ thing is broke, why waste your time”.

        • steve_wildstrom

          If you read the excellent account of the Penzias and Wilson research in Jeremy Bernstein’s Three Degrees Above Zero, the two physicists we working on what was something like Google’s 20% time. The got permission to use a giant microwave antenna that had been built as part of a communications satellite experiment but was sitting unused at Bell’s Holmdel, N.J., lab.

          But it is also true that AT&T had the luxury to indulge in a lot of basic research with very a tenuous connection to telephony because of the profits guaranteed to it through its status as a regulated monopoly. I will argue strenuously that until technology made the monopoly arrangement untenable, both AT&T and the American people benefited enormously from the deal.

          • klahanas

            That, and they were allowed to publish it.

          • steve_wildstrom

            AT&T was always very generous in publishing, something they were able to do in part because they had no competition to worry about. The company published a great deal of interesting research itself in the wonderful Bell System Technical Journal, every issue of which is on line at the Alcatel Lucent site. For example, Claude Shannon’s seminal work on the mathematical theory of communication was first published as two long articles in the BSTJ.

  • Lou Milrad

    Great recall and mix of innovative products over the years – had them all and still using Google. Thanks for the memories!

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