“First-mover advantage” has been the rallying cry of the innovator for generations. But it’s being replaced by a very different (and longer) one:We need to integrate each new product or service within an ecosystem — even if that product is second- or third-to-market.
Yes, it’s a mouthful.
The best example of this new approach is Google. It’s as if the company launches a new product every week, even though you often have the feeling that you’ve seen the product somewhere else first. This week, it was Google Drive, and before that, it was Google Play, Google Tablet and Google+. So just how innovative is Google these days?
On the surface, Google Drive looks like any other cloud storage solution: Dropbox, Apple iCloud, Microsoft SkyDrive or Amazon Cloud Drive. In the same way, Google Play is basically an alternative version of the iTunes Store, the Google Tablet is a variation on the iPad or Kindle, and Google+ is reminiscent of Facebook. Sure, they are strategic moves intended to keep competitors — Apple, Amazon and Facebook — from at bay, but aren’t they just the type of “me-too” innovations that other players in Silicon Valley routinely produce to loud criticism?
Naysayers can claim that Google Drive is just another “me-too” innovation and a possible sign that Google is perhaps starting to cede a little bit too much ground in areas from social to mobile to cloud computing. On the other hand, though, Google Drive may offer important lessons about the future direction of innovation. Now more than ever, the future is about operating systems, platforms and ecosystems. For Google, this means doubling down on their Android operating system, emphasizing search as a core to the overarching strategy that each new product should support. Unlike Dropbox, which had no ecosystem to plug its product into when it launched, Google created Google Drive as a way to connect Gmail, Google+ and Google Docs. You store documents and you swap them with friends, and you do it all without leaving the Google ecosystem.
The Internet, in its earliest iteration, was all about being first and all about being fast. But, in no small part, Google’s overwhelming reputation as an innovator has been built on its ability to embrace the “always in beta” mentality, in which new products were launched into the wild even if there were a few bugs. Perhaps one of Google’s most successful products ever, Gmail, was the most famous example of a product in perpetual beta. For the fast-changing world of the Web, this “perpetual beta” concept was part of a fundamental shift in thinking.
That’s starting to change.
As product development cycles continue to shrink, and as it becomes easier to reverse-engineer products once they appear in the marketplace, one could argue that the need to be first has faded into the background. The “first-to-market” mentality has been replaced by a broader, more strategic imperative: to create a truly global ecosystem that encompasses devices, platforms and operating systems. It’s okay to introduce a tablet after everyone else, as long as that tablet runs on your operating system and helps your overall ecosystem perform.
Even when Google introduces a seemingly outlandish concept such as Google glasses, the move is intended to create a new way of keeping users within the Google ecosystem. The glasses, which would give users an augmented reality view of the environment around them, are nothing more than a way for users to “search” the real world for information, the same way they might search the Web. While Google may have shut down its Google Labs, it still has the mysterious Google X, which is a potential treasure trove of new concepts for everything from robotics and artificial intelligence to, yes, space elevators.
In many ways, Google’s current innovation strategy is almost textbook MBA: focus on the core, innovate at the edges. There’s one other small wrinkle, though, that they may not teach you in business school: At least for now, it’s more valuable in the short term to build a copycat product that plugs into an existing ecosystem than it is to build a first-to-market innovation. Scale matters, and networks and ecosystems give you that scale. To be a great business in today’s digital world, it requires spotting all the emergent technological trends on the borders and edges and transforming them into new, scalable market opportunities that build on existing strengths in a unique way.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web's first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called "Endless Innovation, Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful."
Disclosure: The Washington Post Co.'s chairman and chief executive, Donald E. Graham, is a member of Facebook's board of directors.
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