An Idea is Not an Egg: You Don’t Just Sit On it Until it Hatches
A smart idea sounds great when it’s in your head. Even before it’s made, we can imagine how great it will be–there would be no iPod, no PC, and no Super Mario Bros. without imagination.
But just because you can already see the finished idea, don’t think that the steps in between “smart idea” and “transformed future” are insignificant. They eat most smart ideas before they hatch.
The next time you hear that someone “stole” someone else’s idea, look at the in between first, and ask: how much of that–the business strategy, the way the product was built–was really stolen?
Blatant theft? Or recognizing a smart idea?
Three Four companies, one idea.
Here is a timeline of the gory details:
- 1984 – The original Macintosh, featuring widget-like desk accessories, is released.  
- 1998 – Arlo Rose comes up with concept for Konfabulator, after looking at a skinnable MP3 player, according to his account.
- 2001 – Microsoft releases a paper on UI design that discusses “Peripheral Awareness of Important Information–” a foundation for later “widget” development. 
- February 10, 2003 – With the help of Perry Clarke, Arlo releases the first version of Konfabulator.
- November 8, 2004 – Konfabulator releases its widgets for Windows.
- April 29, 2005 – Apple releases Mac OS X 10.4, which features Dashboard, a widget hosting system.   
- July 25, 2005 – Yahoo buys Konfabulator. 
- Also 2005 – Microsoft Gadgets is announced and unveiled in Vista.
Does it really matter if Yahoo stole the idea from Apple, or MS stole from Arlo Rose?
Not really. I’m sure that most of the people involved in each of these projects would have been able to come up with widgets on their own; MS, Yahoo, and planet Earth are all full of innovative and capable engineers *(and I would hate to see a patent war kill widgets).
What really matters, though, is this; how much have they learned from the past? Yes, that’s right; perhaps all these gadgetmakers should be looking at their competition.
Assertion 1: Making a good product is not the result of creating something new; most often it is the result of doing something well.
The widget is a relatively simple idea. Instead of having to visit a webpage every time you want to check the weather, why not have a widget that’s always there? Less distracting and yet always available. This would save space on the screen and yet keep little bits of useful information always accessible.
A bright idea doesn’t make a product though. Once you have the inspiration, it’s still nothing more than a paper tiger. Anyone can come up with bright ideas.
As one good example of an innovative idea that flopped, look at PDAs before Palm. People developed the technology and lots of people were thinking about handheld computers, but it was only when a team took the ideas and made them simple that the technology took off.  [8: How can a gorilla learn to fly?]
Fig 1. Put too much in a palm device, and you make a mistake made by many before you.
Think back to Edison–1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. Bright ideas are incredibly cheap to produce, but taking them and putting together an actual market is hard work and hard thinking. That’s where the $ is.
Assertion 2: Simply copying an idea == copying all the mistakes of that idea.
Up unto the Palm, every pocket mobile device tried to be too ambitious. Newton, anyone?
If that doesn’t sound familiar, let’s try a more well recognized example:
There were plenty of products before the iPod. The Rio shipped three years earlier.  In both cases, the difference was that the new product was far simpler than its predecessors and its competition.
If you copy a product that hasn’t succeeded before, you will run into the same problems that others had before. Not just making it simpler. There are business problems, design problems, and engineering problems.
Assertion 3: Making a successful market isn’t about having the best engineering.
The original idea for a mouse driven interface wasn’t created at Apple or at Microsoft. As computer history buffs will tell you, the original Graphical User Interface (or at least, the mouse part of it) was created at the XEROX Palo Alto Research Center  Nevertheless, nowadays, we don’t buy our operating systems from the company with the most innovative engineering.
Then, the Mac came along, and made a new idea into a great product. The original Mac was an exciting, innovative device, and you could buy it in a store. It took 6 years for Microsoft to come up with a product approaching it. 
So why are we using Windows now?
Look at assertion 3 again.
Making a successful market isn’t about having the best engineering.
Windows took a no longer new idea, modeled it after a great product, and turned that into a profitable business.
It’s not romantic to build a distribution network that will warehouse your new toy so it doesn’t sell out right after it hits stores in downtown Manhattan. It’s not romantic to make your product compatible with version 1 of a huge corporate customer’s obsolete operating system. It’s not romantic to figure out how your brand new shiny social network that is, by the way, sooo much better than that other social network that everyone still uses for some reason, will get customers.
But you still have to do it.
Remember that before laying the egg.