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Malcolm Gladwell Looks At Technology Innovations

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Malcolm Gladwell Looks At Technology Innovations

Technology

Malcolm Gladwell Looks At Technology Innovations

Malcolm Gladwell Looks At Technology Innovations

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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.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

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.

SIEGEL: 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.

M: 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?

M: 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.

A: 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.

M: ...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.

M: Yeah.

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

M: 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.

M: 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...

M: Yes.

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

M: 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.

A: 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.

M: 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.

M: 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.

M: 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.

M: 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."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: This is NPR News.

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