Killer-app is the name we give to those IT applications that turn out to be unexpectedly useful and help propel the success of a new product or service in the marketplace. Most everyone will agree, for example, that spreadsheet and word processing were the first killer-apps of the PC era, helping transform PCs into must-have business and personal productivity tools.
Customer self-service is my preferred candidate for the killer-app of the early days of the Web. These kinds of apps were relatively easy to implement, yet so useful that they helped convince companies that the Web was something real that they had to pay attention to. The universal reach and connectivity of the Internet were enabling access to information of all sorts for anyone with a browser and an Internet connection.
Any business, by integrating its existing databases and applications with a web front end, could now reach its customers, employees, suppliers and partners at any time of the day or night, no matter where they were. Companies were thus able to engage in their core transactional activities in a much more productive and efficient way. And they could start very simply, initially just web-enabling their legacy applications and databases.
Customer self-service is an excellent example of recombinant innovations, which UC Davis professor Andrew Hargadon defines as innovations that “rather than chasing whole new ideas, [are] focused on recombining old ideas in new ways.” The basic premise behind these kinds of innovations is the search for breakthrough ideas that might lead to the creation of new products, markets and industries based on novel combinations of existing technologies
We generally associate major breakthrough with new technologies coming out of R&D labs, like the transistor, penicillin, DNA sequencing, TCP/IP protocols, and so on. These breakthroughs are typically made by researchers working on new theories, technologies, algorithms and inventions that will hopefully, over time, find their way from the lab to the marketplace. Such lab-based breakthroughs are at one end of the innovation spectrum. At the other end are market-facing innovations, which we generally associate with entrepreneurs, startups, and established companies working to develop new products, services, businesses and industries. Many such market-facing innovations are recombinant in nature.
According to Hargadon, entrepreneurs and inventors have long embraced recombinant innovation going back to the days of Thomas Edison and his Menlo Park, N. J. industrial research lab. “From 1876 to 1881, that lab produced innovations in high-speed, automatic and repeating telegraphs; telephones; phonographs; generators; voltmeters; mimeographs; light bulbs and filaments; and vacuum pumps. . . In six years of operation, the laboratory generated over 400 patents and was known worldwide as an invention factory.”
How did he do it? What made his Menlo Park lab so successful? “Edison was able to continuously innovate because he knew how to exploit the existing technologies of his time in ways that his competitors couldn’t yet see. . . Edison’s advantages lay not in his ability to build something out of nothing, but rather, his ability to exploit the network - he implicitly, but certainly actively, pursued a strategy of technology brokering. . . Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and now their modern counterparts were able to create one breakthrough after another because they built innovation strategies around recombining existing technologies rather than inventing new ones.”
Recombinant innovation is all around us in the digital economy. The Internet has become one of, if not, the most prolific innovation platforms the world has ever seen. A great deal of its value is the way it enables us to relatively quickly integrate new and legacy technologies to create applications where the whole is far bigger that the sum of the individual parts. Let me offer an example from my personal experience with IBM’s Internet Division in the mid-late 1990s, when we developed our e-business strategy, succingly captured by the tagline Web + IT.
As part of the growing dot-com frenzy, many were saying that in the Internet-based new economy, born-on-the-Web startups had an inherent advantage over existing businesses. Older companies could not possibly compete in the fast-moving digital space because their legacy assets were a noose around their neck. They were destined for extinction.
Our clients told us that their business operations were totally dependent on the IT infrastructures that they had built up over many years at great effort and expense. They saw no possible way to replace their infrastructure, as many were advising them to do. They were happy to embrace the new, innovative capabilities of the Web, but it all had to be done in an evolutionary way while continuing their present operations and leveraging their existing IT infrastructures.
Our e-business strategy assumed that every business would benefit from embracing the universal reach and connectivity of the Internet, not just startups. Unlike the prevailing hype, we also believed that the IT infrastructures and installed customer base that companies had built over the years would be even more valuable assets when combined with the new Web capabilities. All companies could benefit, - whether large or small, new or mature. Our position was not very popular at the height of the dot-com hype, but once the bubble burst a few years later, it was clear that we had developed the right strategy and had given our customer the right advice.
Many Internet-based innovations are recombinant in nature, even more so now with the advent of smartphones, cloud computing, and the myriads of apps built on them. Given the more ordinary feel of many of these innovations, questions have been raised whether this means that we’ve lost our hunger and capacity for addressing truly big problems, like The Apollo program that put a man in the moon 45 years ago and similar 20th century big science & engineering projects. Is innovation accelerating or slowing down? Have we stopped solving big problems, or is this recombinant approach to innovation enabling us to solve bigger problems than ever before?
MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andy McAfee recently explored these questions in The Innovation Dilemma: Is America Stagnating?. The article discusses the increasingly recombinant nature of digital innovation and whether it’s a good thing. In this view, they explain, “the true work of innovation is not coming up with something big and new, but instead recombining things that already exist. And the more closely we look at how major steps forward in our knowledge and ability to accomplish things have actually occurred, the more this recombinant view makes sense.”
The mobile Internet, the Internet of Things, cloud computing, data science and social networks are combining with the existing Internet and IT platforms, giving rise to a kind of perfect storm, where these various digital trends are each gathering speed while interacting with and amplifying each other. This is leading to major new research and market initiatives, including smart cities, healthcare systems, digital money and payments, media and entertainment, and sociotechnical applications of all sorts. Data Science is now emerging to take advantage of the big data being generated by all these digital devices, systems and applications, promising to usher an information-based scientific revolution across a number of disciplines and human endeavors.
“This progression drives home the point that digital innovation is recombinant innovation in its purest form,” write Brynjolfsson and McAfee. “Each development becomes a building block for future innovations. Progress doesn’t run out; it accumulates. And the digital world doesn’t respect any boundaries. It extends into the physical one, leading to cars and planes that drive themselves, printers that make parts, and so on.”
“Moore’s Law makes computing devices and sensors exponentially cheaper over time, enabling them to be built economically into more and more gear, from doorknobs to greeting cards. Digitization makes available massive bodies of data relevant to almost any situation, and this information can be infinitely reproduced and reused because it is non-rival. As a result of these two forces, the number of potentially valuable building blocks is exploding around the world, and the possibilities are multiplying as never before.” In this innovation-as-building-block view of the world, building blocks don’t ever get used up. “In fact, they increase the opportunities for future recombinations.