No better mousetraps, II

In thinking more about the mousetrap problem, it seems that the the most successful innovations actually draw their value not as stand-alone inventions but rather as products or processes that connect users to broader networks of existing products and services that were previously inaccessible or unassembled.Â

The Apple iPod is a great example. It has been called a better mousetrap–design and business critics have praised it clean lines and ease of use. But what I think gives the iPod its real value is the network behind it: the music software, the ability to buy new music online, the clean connections to computer hardware, even the music itself. Importantly, there’s nothing technically new about it.  I made this argument in an article in The Design Management Review (Winter, 2005):

…Behind its clean form and ease-of-use lies a network that connects hardware (Mac or PC), software (iTunes), music distributors, and even artists in ways that no other competitor has matched. Â
The iPod’s truly inspired design lay in first seeing the value of this new network, and then creating a venture which brought it all together. While each piece of the overall system adds value, together they create an offering that defies replication, let alone commoditization. Companies will keep knocking off bits of the system—online music stores, digital players, jukebox software—but few can recreate the entire network Apple put together. Sony, with their own Walkman experience, PC group, music labels, and vast distribution had the best chance yet, to date, they’ve failed. And what did Sony learn from the process? That integrating the different resources of their own organization— from the design of the box to the software to the digital content management—was too difficult a task. In fact, Sony just created a new venture, Connect Co., dedicated solely to bridging their product and media businesses. Â
Like the iPod, new products and services will increasingly have to draw their value from the networks that surround and support them. And the design process will have to address this entire venture, not just the box: what it looks like, what value it brings to each participant, and how it evolves.

There was nothing new about each of the original pieces of the iPod network. Mp3 players were already on the market, as were the software programs for managing your digital music. And Napster provided free (albeit illegal) sharing of music. Apple’s innovation was creating the network that brought all those pieces together for the user. This much was apparent when the cover of Fortune showed Steve Jobs and Sheryl Crow yucking it up. That image was more telling of the value proposition that lay in the network than the thousands of product-porn shots of the little chrome and white iPod.  What’s the most beautiful design feature in the iPod? Ultimately, my money is on the digital rights management technology that made the music executives decide to join the network. It’s the same DRM that will, soon, entice the movie and television executives to join as well.

John Helferich brought up a great example–or challenge–in thinking about an innovation as a network (see his comment): RFID. Walmart made a heap of announcements about how their suppliers needed to begin using RFID, but almost immediately there was push back: the cost to Walmart for the tags and readers–relative to its revenues–was nothing compared to the costs to individual suppliers.  RIght now it’s a great technology and there are lots of hardware, software, and systems providers out there pushing their products. But the real solution will break through when someone figures out a design that benefits not just the Walmarts of the world but also the CPGs, distributors, smaller retail shops, and who knows who else (maybe the end users?). RFID looks still like a fragmented network in which all the gains have been designed to go to just a few of the nodes.Â

2 thoughts on “No better mousetraps, II

  1. Yeah your right with the rfid thingy. I belive that rfid will become big, when I am able to throw my rfid tagged empty toothpaste tube into my bathroom wastebin, and the local store is notified that I need new toothpaste!! Yeah the extact same size flavour and what not !!!
    ABH — I’ll settle for RFID providing something of value that keeps the local Mom and Pop store in business…

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