Creativity, Innovation, Copying and Variation

I was reading news summaries of new tablet products announced by hardware companies (mostly southeast Asian companies such as Asus) and something about it just kept getting under my skin. I think I may have sort of distilled what exactly bothers me: they haven't changed their core culture to enable real innovation, but what would that even look like?

Asus and other hardware makers just copy one thing at a time! Just as a Chinese clone of StackOverflow appeared in the wake of SO's success, whereas SO copied four ideas (wiki, reddit, discussion forum, Q&A) to create something truly new and improved: the Chinese SO cloners failed to really understand what made what they were cloning great in the first place. Perhaps that's the definition of innovation: create something new and improved, and since there's nothing new under the sun, your best bet is to put to old ideas together in a new way: not just slightly improving one idea (SO but in Chinese).

Apple blended many ideas in creating the iPhone, some of which were anti-ideas: iPod, real finger operated browser, smartphone, tablet, modern Unix, no Desktop legacy GUI baggage. Perhaps Apple can innovate because their engineers and leadership are just more widely read, talented, resourceful, alive people with widely varying ideas and backgrounds. If that explains even a fraction of their lead it's a difficult position for competitors to be in: how do you attract and hire cultured engineers except by starting with such engineers in the first place?

Copying with variation (in other words crossover of two different ideas or genes) is literally the spice of life—think of mankind's agricultural endeavors and the plants we’ve cultured. Taste is the difference between artificial selection (design) and natural selection (increase the specs and throw it at the market to see if it sticks) and orders of magnitudes of orders of magnitude more powerful: thousands of years verses geological timescales.

Consider decades of Windows tablet PC failure and Microsoft dragging down hardware makers with them. Now compare Apple's iPad: Apple proactively cuts off bad ideas (stylus required, any Desktop app backwards compatibility) in the service of other elusive goals (battery life, true mobility, awesome finger operation).

So in 2011 tablet makers have a better (actually successful) tablet paradigm to copy. Unfortunately tablet makers aside from RIM and HP are unwilling to see the real problem and change that, a misunderstanding of what constitutes innovation: taking charge of their own software destiny so they make decisions about what to make better. Instead of the linear trajectory of SE Asian hardware makers: incremental spec updates and software partners with conflicting goals—Microsoft and Google—who are trying to commoditize the tablet and smartphone markets, taking the profits while the hardware makers race to the bottom. Yawn.