Monday, July 30, 2007

Are complexity and design harming innovation?

At some level, it's makes sense that technological advances and the open-source movement have made tinkering with and improving on our favorite products easier. Think of Google Maps mash-ups, Firefox add-ons, videogame hacks, etc.

Yet the proliferation of closed, highly-designed manufactured products (think iPod) limits much of the innovation on these products to the companies that create them (and perhaps select partners). Such is the hypothesis posed by G. Pascal Zachary in Sunday's New York Times--"In a Highly Complex World, Innovation from the Top Down" (link).

And I can see his point. Think about cars. When I was a kid, you could open the hood of a car and see the engine's parts clearly; there was plenty of open space to work, and parts were easy to buy and, to some extent, install. Lots of people worked on their own cars.

Now open your car's hood. Chances are the engine is hermetically sealed, surrounded by wires and electronics and plastic, with not a square inch of empty space inside the hood. When's the last time you even changed your own oil?

On the other hand, the web and most recently the web 2.0 tools that have come into wide use can make everybody an innovator in terms of virtual goods--wikis, photo collections, videos, playlists, etc.

So, as manufactured products close up, information products open up. Whereas a teenager in the 1970's had a Radio Shack electronics project kit, now he has Facebook's API. The net result to innovation is hard to calculate. But the emergence of Google, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, etc., would argue that innovation is alive and well.

That's progress for you. You just hope your car, or your iPod, doesn't break.