Some Things Never Change: Searching for Quantum Innovation
There was a crate on the floor. “Here, let me play it for you,” said my dad. He reached down and pulled out a dusty album jacket, carefully removed the record, and placed it gently on the player. The needle dropped. Music.
I don’t know what happened to my Dad’s records—they’re probably in a box somewhere in the garage. I do however know what happened to the CDs. They’re still stacked on a shelf, untouched for years.
The discs still work, they still play the same music, but they’re “obsolete”. Demand for music hasn’t changed. In fact, bands are shipping more albums now than ever before thanks to decreasing costs of recording and producing. Only, not many people are still engraving vinyl.
Steve Jobs set a time bomb for the music industry when he unveiled iTunes in January, 2001. Now you can fit “1,000 songs in your pocket” for just $.99 per song. Why bother with stacks of CDs and crates of records?
Imagine the different mediums we’ve created for playing music over the years: vinyls, 8-Tracks, cassettes, CDs, mp3s, (I know I’m missing some). The method in which we experience music has changed vastly, but the fundamental experience is exactly the same.
Making Quantum Leaps
Somewhere in Paris in 1857, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville made a paradigm-shifting breakthrough as he successfully recorded sound waves from the air. It would be another three years before anyone was able to play back those initial recordings.
The hunt for “real innovation” is alive and in demand. Silicon Valley is littered with tech companies “disrupting” markets. 157 after Édouard’s first recordings, I can now record and play back both sound and video with an electric device smaller than a note card. I wonder what he’d say if given but a few minutes to play with an iPhone.
As far as we’ve advanced recording technology since the days of Édouard, it pleases me to know that what he was working on is still valuable today. That’s real innovation. In other words, styles come and go, but clothing is here to stay.
What makes a valuable company? Ask yourself if what the organization’s working on is at the front line of innovation. That’s not to say that there aren’t brilliant investment opportunities in companies that corner some niche market and create products for those customers (there are), but the staying-power of company is correlated to size of the problem it solves, and the quantum leaps of innovation required to get there.