Path Dependency of Innovation Platforms

In Creation Myth,  Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article, we get an in-depth telling of the original story of how Steve Jobs gained access to Xerox PARC’s Alto project and re-engineered the concept for a mass market. The article doesn’t discuss the Mac,  but instead the story of Xerox’s internal dynamics that led to major inventions in their mainstream product line.

Yes,  Xerox could have created the most successful WIMP (Windows-Icons-Mouse-Pointers) personal computer from the Alto and Star.

“If Xerox had known what it had and had taken advantage of its real opportunities,”  Jobs said, years later,  “it could have been as big as I.B.M. plus Microsoft plus Xerox combined—and the largest high-technology company in the world.”

This is the legend of Xerox PARC. Jobs is the Biblical Jacob and Xerox is Esau, squandering his birthright for a pittance. In the past thirty years, the legend has been vindicated by history. Xerox,  once the darling of the American high-technology community,  slipped from its former dominance. Apple is now ascendant, and the demonstration in that room in Palo Alto has come to symbolize the vision and ruthlessness that separate true innovators from also-rans. As with all legends, however,  the truth is a bit more complicated.

But really? There are many counterfactuals that do not work out.  Had Xerox gone ahead with a computer line,  they would have run smack into Apple’s rapidly moving marketing machine,  as well as the powerful IBM PC. People do not remember now that the first Mac (and Lisa) had relatively poor penetration.  Xerox would have split the cool early adopters with Apple. but businesses standardized on IBM and PC software almost exclusively.

Xerox was right to avoid the computer market themselves,  but why didn’t they patent and license the hell out of the technologies they designed? They had working software and hardware!  Xerox (indirectly) DID eventually sue Apple,  but came way too late to the party (2007) for a 1991 filing, and the claims didn’t hold up.

There are so many other prevailing constraints involved with bringing innovations to market.Rather than counterfactuals for a given case (that is, what might have been possible),  let’s consider real constraints that always exist for this class of decision.
  • Path dependency is double-edged. Following a successful strategy to its conclusion guarantees a lessened capacity to invest in a competing strategy.
  • More types of products are never a better strategy,  for the market perception of a company and their capacity to execute.
  • The business must have a platform for the sales and support of the new line.
  • They must coordinate multiple product lines into a coherent brand and multi-year marketing strategy,  or risk losing their venture to single-focused competitors.
  • They must create an organization that doesn’t compete with the mainstream business lines.
  • The brand rationale for the new product line must make sense to the customer (why IBM was so uncertain about the PC business and in the end, spun it off).
  • And a large, successful firm’s values are never going to change toward embracing innovation in time to support the innovations that count. Values in-use take 3-5 years to change, with a desire and reason to change. Innovations are launched and buried before then.
The counter-examples you might cite will be exceptions that prove the rules. IBM is a good example,  but they spent years of internal innovation to divest the “machines” side of the business to become a services company. Companies espouse innovation,  but they love predictable market success.  They usually are hoping for one big product improvement that sustains their position. But big innovation is an inside job – the firm must decide whether it can change its identity and its customers.

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