Malcolm Gladwell Looks At Technology Innovations

Innovation and originality are close cousins. We think of creative innovators as people with new ideas. But to read Malcolm Gladwell on the subject is to be reminded of a distinction: An innovator may not be the one with the new idea — but with a new take on an old idea. Robert Siegel interviews Gladwell, who wrote "Creation Myth: Xerox PARC, Apple, and the truth about innovation" in the May 16th issue of The New Yorker.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

Innovation and originality are close cousins. We think of creative innovators as people with new ideas, but to read Malcolm Gladwell on the subject is to be reminded of a distinction. An innovator may not be the one with the new idea but the one with a new take on an old idea.

Gladwell's article "Creation Myth: Xerox PARC, Apple and the Truth About Innovation" appears in the May 16th issue of The New Yorker. And he joins us from New York. Welcome to the program once again.

Mr. MALCOLM GLADWELL (Author): Thank you.

SIEGEL: You deal with a fabled and you would say somewhat misunderstood event in the history of Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs sees a mouse. What happened?

Mr. GLADWELL: Yes. Well, there was Xerox in its heyday, when it was one of the great American tech companies in the late '60s. Sets up this legendary R and D facility in Palo Alto, in Silicon Valley called Xerox PARC, and staffs it with the greatest computer scientists in the world.

And over the course of the '70s, they essentially invent virtually everything that we associate with the personal computer - the desktop computer, the mouse, windows, the ethernet, the laser printer. Everything comes out of there.

And in 1979 Steve Jobs, who is then 24-year-old entrepreneur from down the street comes to visit and he sees the mouse. He's never seen a mouse before, and he says - he starts jumping up and down and says: This is the future, right?

And he also sees the fact that they had icons on the screen and they would click on icons on the screen with the mouse, and they would open and close windows. And he's never seen this approach to computing before. And he drives back to Apple, this little tiny start-up company...

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GLADWELL: ...and he says: Stop what you're doing, this is the way to do a personal computer. And the result of that is the Macintosh.

SIEGEL: Right. The rest is folklore now.

Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah.

SIEGEL: He had a deal, actually. He wasn't stealing something from them. He...

Mr. GLADWELL: No, he was - yeah, he gave them - they invited him in in exchange for the right to invest in Apple Computer.

SIEGEL: So the folkloric moral of this story is that the nimble, future-oriented Apple picks the pocket of the hide-bound dinosaur Xerox. And you say that's an extreme reading of what happened.

Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah, that's the way this story has been told a hundred times. I mean, it's a staple myth of Silicon Valley. And it's very often told in a way to suggest that Jobs is the thief in the night and Xerox is the hapless dupe. And I think that's an uncharitable and inaccurate reading of that narrative.

SIEGEL: And we should say here that Steve Jobs came away from looking at a very expensive and somewhat clunky mouse...

Mr. GLADWELL: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...and saying we've got to make one that works better and that's much, much, much cheaper.

Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah, so when the mouse that Jobs sees and so inspires his curiosity costs about three or four hundred dollars to make; was this sort of big, clunky thing with three buttons on it, and didn't work very well. Because, you know, it only works in a kind of pristine environment when you were rolling it on the right kind of surface.

And Jobs realizes that he has to transform that if he's going to make it a commercial product. And he famously goes to this guy named Dean Hovey, who was one of the big industrial designer in Silicon Valley who had worked with Jobs for years. And he says: I've seen this thing, but my version can't be $300, it must be $15. And my version can't have three buttons, it must have no buttons. And my version has to work on everything, including Formica.

And, you know, the notion - that's why I so object to the notion that he stole the idea from Xerox PARC. He didn't. He understood that it had to change in a dramatic way before it could be commercially viable.

SIEGEL: Now you invoke an analogy here, in terms of innovation, as to how the revolution in military affairs took place. And you talk about three different militaries that took part in a revolutionary development of drones and AWACS and a variety of things. The Soviet military that thought it up, the U.S. military that built it, the Israeli military that used it all.

Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah, this an argument that's made in a really brilliant book by a guy named Dima Adamsky, called "The Culture of Military Innovation." And he simply points out that it's the Soviet Union in the '70s - a cadre of intellectuals there - who conceive of this on a conceptual level; who realize that digital technology is going to change the way we fight wars. But they don't do anything with it.

And then in America in the '70s and early '80s, all of these technologies are developed. They actually make the gadgets. You know, they make the drone and they make the precision-guided missile. But it's Israel that really puts all these things together and uses them in a war, in the Lebanon war of 1982, for the first time.

And Adamsky's point is that there's a reason why that revolution happens in a different way in three separate places at different times. And that is that the thing that makes you good at conceptualizing makes it difficult for you to make the object.

I mean, modern technological revolutions are so complex that one party can only ever master or innovate in one sort of specific area. So we shouldn't think about revolutions having an inventor. We should only think of them as having inventors.

SIEGEL: So those three roles in the development of the modern arsenal would roughly have analogies in industry here.

Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah. I mean, I think that we wrongly fetishize being first in a technological revolution, because, you know, the Soviets are the first to think about the revolution in military affairs. But the revolution is so complex that that means that they're not around when it actually comes to fruition in the field.

Similarly, Xerox PARC is first to come up with all these technologies, but the very thing that makes them first makes it difficult for them to capitalize on the technologies.

You don't want to be first, right? You want to be second or third. You don't want to be - Facebook is not the first in social media. They're the third, right? Similarly, you know, if you look at Steve Jobs' history, he's never been first.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GLADWELL: Wasn't first with the desktop computer. Wasn't first with the laptop. Was way late with the mp3 player, with the iPod. And was massively late with the iPhone, right? He was six years late to the smartphone business, and yet now he, you know, has this dominant position.

So, it's a very, you know - maybe we're wrong in - you know, we go around thinking the innovator is the person who's first to kind of conceive of something. And maybe the innovation process continues down the line to the second and the third and the fourth entrant into a field.

SIEGEL: Well, Malcolm Gladwell, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. GLADWELL: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: And Malcolm Gladwell's article in the May 16th issue of The New Yorker magazine is called "Creation Myth: Xerox PARC, Apple and the Truth About Innovation."

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