Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison are rarely talked about in the same conversation or even the same sentence. Yet while over 125 years apart in general, the two men share a profound approach to innovation that we all can learn from today. Both followed the Innovation Lifestyle where they lived ideation and observation their whole lives, integrating vast amounts of accumulated life experiences and analysis to test theories of markets to create ultimately products that transformed our world and it’s history. The keen observation is not of their inventions, but rather it is of their unique recognition of massive opportunities, the core invention pool that already existed to serve them and the initial market need that while interesting and recognized simply by the public was only a mask over the massive opportunity that transcended their own competitor’s perception as well as that of the the general population.
Edison did not develop the light bulb per se. Thomas Edison was interested in power and how power, readily available globally, would be transformative and personally enriching to whomever controlled its development and distribution. While Edison was competing at the time with Tesla over current, Edison saw a bigger game some argue Tesla did not see. Edison saw that whoever developed a recognized need for power would ultimately win the long game, no matter what current was chosen. The light bulb then? That product opened up businesses 24 hours, lit up homes for better lifestyles.
Power consumed by light is today around 10% to 12% of all electricity used. Edison saw the bigger market was everything else that might use power – like machines, equipment, vehicles, appliances and the like. The light bulb was only the initial draw. Get people to want lighting and prove that it was safe and then everyone might realize electric power could be used for dozens, hundreds of other applications.
To drive the point home, Edison did not invent the first electric light bulb. Rather, Edison tried 1000 ways to make one, seeking and inventing the first commercially practical incandescent light. Earlier inventors included the patent he purchased from Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans, as well as Moses G. Farmer, Joseph Swan, James Bowman Lindsay, William E. Sawyer, Sir Humphry Davy, and Heinrich Göbel. Some of these early bulbs had such flaws as an extremely short life, high expense to produce, and high electric current drawn, making them difficult to apply on a large scale commercially. Edison knew innovation for it’s own sake was useless. It had to be practical, profitable, safe and easy to use.
So Edison and Jobs? Jobs accomplished the exact same thing with personal computing. Steve Jobs realized that today’s inventions already existing coupled with Moore’s Law could transform computing into hand held devices whose uses could be exponentially larger than electricity’s. At the time of the first foray, the first test, the iPod was a way to get this technology into everyone’s hands whom mattered for the next decade’s world transformation. While other’s copied the product to best extent they could, few realized the real game that today is dominated by Apple and Samsung and thoroughly missed by Microsoft. If people became enthralled with, find it a must to have and easy to use those iPods, then they would be ready for Jobs’ next stage – the iPhone.
Almost all of uses the iPhone 90% of the time for anything but actually making a phone call and yet Steve Jobs called it a phone because everyone knew what that was. The iPad was the final coup de grace. Steve Jobs, like Edison, saw a massive, world-changing opportunity few other did and then drew us slowly, inexorably into his web that some say he first conceived of when first seeing the object oriented interface. As noted by Arie de Gues in The Living Company, when steam shovel cable actuated tractor manufacturers tacked on a single hydraulic arm to one product saying “who wants hydraulics?”, Blackberry stuck a screen onto an immediately antiquated phone, not realizing what was happening.
The lesson here? The Innovation Lifestyle, for the true innovators, revolves around not simply inventions and technology. In fact, at an innovator’s heart lies a deep and profound interest and capability to understand the socio-demographic trends in the world around them and the ability to recognize the massive opportunities a cobbling of those individually unique inventions enables. Keep it simple, even in the boardroom. What’s going on in the world? Is it real, persistent or false and unreal? What do the major technology trends enable not simply alone, but in combination? Finally, can any of this make true a simple story about how a life is simplified, exhilarated or made richer or how a company can persistently make more money via better products and or lower costs is what we need.