Invention, Innovation and Imitation

I have come to the conclusion that there are basically three types of technologists: Inventors, Innovators and Imitators. Inventors advance technology to the next plane. Innovators push the vertical plane of existing technology, typically inspiring new inventions. Imitators broaden the horizontal plane of existing technology, frequently driving innovations.

All three overlap to some degree yet define a distinct approach. For example, the invention of the computer chip involved a technically innovative way to use transistors that advanced technology. Similarly, innovation uses, combines, or improves upon existing products often simulating a newly invented technology. Imitations can involve slight changes or extensions initially appearing to be innovative, even inventive, but in essence merely expand upon a copied premise. Many true innovators, including Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, are also considered inventors. While both had the vision to recognize how existing technology could be combined, enhanced, and packaged in new ways that would revolutionize its use, most of their key contributions proved to be more innovative than inventive in concept.

Steve Jobs did not invent the microcomputer. Together with Steve Wozniak, he envisioned a better “mousetrap” and built the Apple. Having the vision to recognize the appeal of a mouse driven graphical user interface, he lead Apple to design and release the Lisa and the Macintosh, both based upon the Alto Graphical User Interface (GUI) concept developed at Xerox PARC. His passion for providing unique end-user experiences resulted in Apple’s greatest innovations. Apple introduced products that combined, enhanced, and re-packaged existing technology with wide customer appeal and subsequent demand for portable media players (the iPod), cell phones (the iPhone), and computer tablets (the iPad).

Bill Gates did not invent the first microcomputer operating system. Recognizing the potential of Seattle Computer Products’ QDOS (a.k.a., 86-DOS), he bought, improved, packaged, and sold it to IBM as the operating system for their new Personal Computer (PC-DOS) and as MS-DOS to PC compatible manufacturers. Sharing a similar competitive vision of the market with Steve Jobs, Gates combined DOS and the Alto GUI concept developed at Xerox PARC into the initial Windows release. For the next generation of Windows, the core of which continues through Windows 7, he utilized technology resulting from the collaborative efforts of IBM and Microsoft on OS/2. Likewise, he did not invent the first word processor, spreadsheet, database, or suite of office applications yet Microsoft’s Office continues as the most widely used application in business.

Inventors are a rare breed and critical to the advancement of technology. Innovators help advance technology, often to its greatest achievements, pushing creators towards the next plane. Imitators make technology more accessible by offering alternatives while also challenging innovators to find ways to make their products push the envelope.

Our country has long been the world’s leader in invention and innovation. However, the shortcut imitation mentality becoming more pervasive in the industry threatens that standing. One can only hope that in our rush to quick success, we do not forsake invention and innovation.
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