On innovation, and how choice is not always good

JP Rangaswami is writing about how innovation should happen as a dialogue between the developers and the users of the product. As an example of how innovation used to happen, he dug up Henry Ford's early automobiles and assembly lines.

With these early Fords, the customer choice was limited to having your car "in any color as long as it is black". And judging how since then cars have diversified to come in so many different forms, specialities and colors, this thinking must be flawed, no?

As Tim O'Reilly pointed out, JP Rangaswami's blog talks about enhancing the consumer experience in markets that are already out there and are mature. In less established fields, the lone inventor must still press on:

In a talk I attended many years ago, Joseph Campbell said that the Knights of the Round Table were the archetypal myth of Western civilization, the idea that each of us, alone, must go off into the deepest, darkest part of the forest, populated by monsters, on a quest to make the world a better place.

An interesting comparison with Ford at another, still quite immature and emerging field is Apple. Apple provides a full range of computers from servers to mobile phones and in most cases seeks to control the experience through the whole way. The devices are beautifully designed and work well as long as you use them as intended, and not for anything else.

This is a big contrast to the rest of the computing world, where everything comes with a bewildering number of choices. And these choices rarely work so well with each other. And so Apple is able to utilize their singular vision and attention to detail to make very good business.

In the free software world, the same distinction has traditionally been between the GNOME and KDE projects. GNOME has focused on a controlled environment with strong usability and accessibility, while KDE has been about the freedom to tinker and configure.

At some point users will want to manifest their personality or a tribal identity through how they set up their computers. But at the moment I believe we still need more the working systems that we can use, don't have to spend too much time configuring, and that let us focus on whatever we want to accomplish.

This is what originally drove me from my HP Linux laptop to an iBook four years ago. When I ran Linux I found myself constantly tweaking settings and installing new interesting applications that were supposed to improve my life. With Mac, once some basic necessities had been set up, I have very rarely touched any settings.

Now the iPhone experience has got me to feel the downsides of Apple's total control, and I'm again looking over the fence to see if free software is greener on the other side. While with Linux I would have full control of my environment, the whole synchronized release business keep things fresh enough. Given that a new GNOME desktop and a new Ubuntu would be out in just a few months, I should be able to fight the urge to start upgrading bits and pieces on my own, ruining productivity and potentially breaking my work environment.

If SubEthaEdit wasn't locking me to OS X, I would definitely be trying this out.

As an afterthought

All this talk of Ford got me to think a little about the car problem. Cars make cities unlivable and pollute the world, but at the same time they let people accomplish and experience things that they couldn't without personal transport.

Now the conventional thinking seems to be that what the world needs is more energy efficient, cleaner cars. But to my point of view, that is quite close to what Ford said:

If I'd asked people what they wanted, they'd have said "faster horses"

So how about solving the problem in some other way? Segways tried and failed to make mobility more even more personal and less space-requiring - but not very appealing in chilly Helsinki weather. But how about making the world require less mobility in the first place? Maybe World of Warcraft, Skype and Second Life - the field of telepresence - are better answers to the car problem than Prius or Tesla.

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