The Invention vs. Innovation Conundrum

As part of a school project, my 13-year-old son was asked to come up with an idea for an app, then do a competitive analysis, work out how to make money off of it, and how to market it. After two days scouring the net, he declared: “There is nothing left to invent, all that could be invented has been invented, this is hopeless…” That got me thinking – if there is nothing left to invent, does that mean that innovation is dead? And when it comes down to it, what is the difference between invention and innovation?

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. It’s a natural human instinct to try to think of solutions to the problems we encounter. Sometimes humans even invent solutions to problems that don’t yet exist and may never exist, but that’s also part and parcel of human nature. So my son’s declaration that “everything that could be invented has already been invented” might simply reflect that there are solutions to almost all of the problems that we currently experience day to day. However this does not mean that there is no room for invention and innovation, because while we may have today’s problems under control, tomorrow’s problems are yet to come…

Going back to my original question, what is the difference between invention and innovation? As digital entrepreneur Tom Grasty explained, invention is “the creation of a product or introduction of a process for the first time.” Thomas Edison, for example, was an inventor. On the other hand, innovation is when someone “improves on or makes a significant contribution” to something that has already been invented. Steve Jobs, by this definition, was an innovator.

‘Invention’ might therefore characterize the few, groundbreaking ideas and technologies that do not occur on a daily basis, but innovations (often incremental improvements to what already exists) happen all the time. More solutions are continuously being created to address problems that did not even exist when the original solution to the original problem was created. The best and most successful innovators are the ones who have simply found the best combination of existing ideas and technologies, and combined them to create a better version.

Let’s consider the example of SMS and WhatsApp. SMS was an accidental “invention”, a solution to the problem of how to communicate with someone in real time without using voice. When SMS was king, few phones had cameras, fewer had enough internal storage to save pictures, let alone videos, and most phones had a simple numeric keypad. Sending a message using as few letters as possible became an art and created an entire new language (Txt speak).

As handsets evolved and users got more and more used to communicating online using computers, users started to miss things they took for granted when using computer messaging applications. Users soon realized that with SMS, you couldn’t tell when a message was received by the other party, when they opened it or even when they last checked their messages.

This need to know became a problem and it needed a solution. As a result, a number of mobile messaging applications appeared to address these very problems; they showed you when your message was sent, when it was delivered and when it was opened. The best ones worked across many mobile handsets and allowed users to attach pictures and videos, relying on a data connection to do all of this which meant that users could easily escape roaming charges whenever they had WiFi. But one of them added two key ingredients. Firstly, it used the mobile number as a unique identifier, which meant that you never had to remember your friend’s username or email address, just the mobile number, which you already had in your contact list. Secondly, it had an incredibly efficient Erlang-based software engine, that could reliably, securely and quickly deliver billions of messages across the globe. Erlang was a somewhat obscure proprietary programming language invented by Ericsson, and when in 1986 WhatsApp sold for $19 Billion Dollars many said that the reason for its lucrative sale was because of its engine.

I am a biologist by training, and one of my favorite quotes often attributed to Charles Darwin states that, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”. This principle applies perfectly well to SMS vs WhatsApp. For a time SMS dominated but it could not evolve and adapt to the changing needs. On the other hand, WhatsApp dominates the current crop of mobile messaging services because it is better adapted to the way we communicate and it builds on what we are used to.

Ironically, it is not the lack of solutions that drives innovation, because too many solutions create problems that in turn need solutions. As humans, we like the idea of having as many choices as possible, but at the same time we cannot cope with too many choices. When the internet freed us from the shackles of having few sources of news, entertainment and shopping, we were soon rushing to aggregators who simply collected all the information and presented it back to us in short and easy to read format. Similarly, we like the fact that we can find better prices on shopping websites, but we cannot be bothered to look for them, so we simply go to price comparison websites and trust their algorithms to find us a bargain.

If you have read this far, there is a strong chance that by know you’ll be wondering what all of this has to do with telecoms. The answer is in turn a simple question: Why does one of the most technically advanced industries, which enables the digital way of life of billions around the globe, struggle to find new products or solutions that create revenues to pay for the huge costs of running their networks?

Many will argue that the reasons are too many to count and will run to the usual excuses, i.e. economic downturn, rise of the OTT players, shifting technology trends, etc. To me, the elephant in the room is the lack of innovative thinking; Telcos are still trying to entice millennials with SMS bundles that they never use, while restricting their data packages to a few Gb per month. At one time an operator in the UK offered an unlimited data package (although the speed was severely throttled once you consumed a certain amount of Gigabytes), and this package turned out to be incredibly popular with teenagers. My daughter even told me that some of her friends at school were setting up their phones as hotspots in exchange for a small fee, while others offered free hotspots as a way of increasing their social status.

Moreover Telecom innovation does not have to focus solely on low ARPU millennials, as homeowners could greatly benefit from IoT-enabled smart homes. But acquiring sensors, connecting them and integrating them into the WiFi network is such a chore, if only there was a tech company that homeowners already knew and trusted, that could take all the highly complex individual components of an IoT solution and package it as a simple ”Plug and Play” solution. Furthermore, what if the same company’s solution worked out of the box in their home with the existing WiFi network, was paid for with the same mechanism through which they already paid their telecom bill, and was supported by the same call center as their telecom provider… I wonder who could play that enabling role and go from Quad Play to Penta Play?

So, to go back to my original point, there is infinite room left for invention and innovation, but sometimes we need to look up, down and sideways to find inspiration, rather than in a single forward-facing direction.

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