If you want a device that can do a pretty good of chopping veggies, opening bottles and cans, extracting small screws, cutting paper, sawing small pieces of wood (very small), chiseling even smaller pieces of wood, and picking your teeth…then the good ol’ “all-purpose” swiss army knife is what your looking for! It may not be the best at any one of those things, but then you just want something that covers all the bases adequately, right? Who knows what you’re going to want to do at any given moment, and you want to be ready to do it all, right? It’s not as if today’s individual actually has the time to plan their activities and intentions in advance, is it?

However…

If you know what you want to do in advance, and you’re the type of person that prefers to focus on one activity at a time, with minimal distraction, then it stands to reason that you should select the best tool for the job. For example, if you have a particularly thick steak that you wish to enjoy eating, your swiss army pocket knife is going to be a messy and challenging device to deploy, resulting in a less than exquisite dining experience. A well-crafted, high-quality, high carbon stainless steel knife is the only option in this case. It does one thing…reeeeaaally well.

iPad: The Victorinox of tablet devices.
Kindle: Yup – the steak knife.

I do not want my car to have email functionality on the driver side; I do not want my oven to do my laundry; I do not want my book to play movies. Not yet. Not until the car drives perfectly, the oven bakes beautifully, and the book reads crisply. I prefer my devices and tools to be as cost effective, robust, elegant, and functionally precise as possible, so that I may have the liberty to develop a relationship with my products that assures me the highest degree of satisfaction, at the best price.

At a moment in time when consumers are desperate to bring order to the chaos in their lives, when people are eager for simplicity; when companies such as Flock and Pip.io are growing their user base of evangelists intent on collapsing the layers in their social worlds…why isn’t Amazon’s marketing department focusing on the fact that their product is built for one main purpose, and it accomplishes that purpose with an elegance that the iPad’s multifunctional personality cannot pretend to approximate, except perhaps via the Kindle App itself? The e-ink differentiator is a worthy advantage, I agree, but perhaps it’s time to focus on the big value advantage: the Kindle knows what it’s supposed to do and, a few minor tweaks notwithstanding, it does it very well.

I know where my steak knives are. I use them regularly. I have a Swiss Army knife, but have no idea where it is…never use it anymore.

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As pundits across the Internet continue to post their predictions for 2010 (what’s the cut-off for this, by the way? It’s bad enough that Christmas starts in October now, but aren’t “predictions” supposed to take place BEFORE the year in question?), I am struck by two things: the struggle between our growing desire for less clutter and our impulse to acquire and hoard, and the continued admiration for truly innovative activity, regardless of its commercial or technological viability.

We persist, as a society, to seek the newest and most disruptive opportunities, if only to engage in flights of fancy. Attendees at this past week’s CES show in Las Vegas will be the first to testify that much of what was touted there as “the next big thing” will never move beyond the prototypical. This is not necessarily due to the nature of the prototype itself, however, but rather the willingness (or lack thereof) of a business venture to invest in that emerging offering.

Before we start delving too deeply in to the obvious realms of technological invention, let me stress that innovation is a concept that permeates every industry and market sector. Whether you are semiconductor company seeking to maintain (and even best) Moore’s law, a TV or film producer hoping your property will have just the right “magic sauce”, or a car manufacturer investing in one alternative fuel research pipeline, as opposed to another:  innovation is an “agnostic religion” which has unfortunately become somewhat synonymous with instant viability, and not with process-oriented supportive infrastructures of creativity. In an incessantly bottom-line focused business world, truly supportive nurturing of bright ideas was replaced by desperate flash gambles: far better to throw small investments at multiple opportunities, hoping for speedy returns on one, than to put all one’s proverbial eggs in one basket, and wait patiently for nothing more than the possible…right?

So is there actually a timeline for innovation? Can we plot the building blocks for innovation or, by process of elimination achieve the same, by identifying the obstacles our business culture may have erected, in its past 3 decades of greed (and I do not use the word lightly)?

Businesses today have become too tightly focused on short term ROI, leaving little or no room for creativity or invention. The investment required to support an innovation pipeline is no longer being made by most traditional technology providers, product developers and R&D labs, now focused on saving themselves to prosperity by milking their IP portfolios as efficiently as possible.  Admittedly, a few companies, studios, and other enterprises have invested very small sums in “incubator” ventures, recognizing very cautiously the value in maintaining *some* sort of connection to long-term growth models. Others, such as Google and Facebook, hold a commitment at their very core to embed the pursuit of innovation as part of the daily task list of every employee. As a result, the consistent commitment to process and product improvement, regardless of sources or roles, leads to what I call “3M moments”: true innovations realized by everyday employees seeking to meet market needs, supported by companies fostering “permitted bootlegging” policies, rather than R&D investments made only on the basis of direct ROI.

I suggest that – with the exception of military imperatives (World Wars and the like) – the greatest business and social growth has occurred historically when the least pressure has been applied by the businesses “hosting” the research and development leading to that growth. We are now entered in to such a time, when an economic downturn of such harshness has released companies from the day-to-day “make me a buck” pressures imposed by day-trading shareholders of past. The next two to five years present a fantastic opportunity for businesses large and small to integrate innovation pipelines back in to their midterm and long term strategies. There is no distinct single formula for innovation, however, nor any marked timetable. Instead, invention occurs at the confluence of myriad flexible solution environments, be they fiscally, technologically, or socially driven.

People will always come up with brilliant ideas. It then falls to business or academia to incubate those ideas, until such time as the market is able to make best use of them. Take, for example, the seemingly never-ending saga of the e-book. This is not some newly emerging wonder toy. The e-book has existed for more than 20 years. Indeed, over 15 years ago, it was fully recognized as a tangible replacement for print journalism:

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/17295950[/vimeo]

I believe that e-books and e-magazines will be mainstream in the very near future, rather than early adopter indulgences. Will print journalism disappear? I don’t know. I can’t see a reason why we should continue to invest in deforestation, unnecessary hard distribution costs, or ink, when the alternative permits us to invest in more sustainable environmental and business practices. E-journalism allows us to pay our reporters more, lets us deliver information under multiple revenue generation models (advertisement-based, subscription-based, single POP-based), and makes more sense in a world seeking less clutter and more time.

Whether we end up holding Kindles, Nooks, Ques, Skiffs, Apple Tablets, or Sony Readers in our hands, our physical relationship with information will continue to evolve, at a pace governed by the consumer, and the speed of adoption will sometimes be influenced by very un-business-like elements. Software elements such as Kurzweil’s Blio may accelerate or arrest this evolution, and if there’s one thing that trumps humanity’s drive for innovation, it is its nostalgia. eBay built an empire on the back of this certainty, and political parties feed off of our thirst for non-existent “good old days”.

Our job as thinkers and business leaders is to balance our responsibilities to our shareholders with our younger dreams, born perhaps when we were bright-eyed undergraduate visionaries: imaginings wherein anything was possible. We were once able to construct whole worlds absent of patent trolls, stock valuations, or balance sheets. Perhaps the greatest innovation of the next 30 years will be the discovery of a formula that elegantly balances commerce and creativity once more, heralding a new and thrilling renaissance. Not so much the undeniably great advances of this past century, but the more balanced and measured movement that brings forth whole societies. Now that would be a great “Reset” to look forward to!

(*William Shakespeare; Hamlet; Act 3, Scene 1)

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