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Posted at 12:49 PM ET, 07/22/2011

NASA vs. China

NASA Image

GALLERY: Click the image above to view the past innovator match-ups.

If it’s Friday, that means it’s time to vote for the week’s greatest innovator. We narrow the week’s news down to two contenders as part of what we hope will be a long-running series. So take a moment to vote in our entirely nonscientific poll, or weigh in with your thoughts in the comments.

Last week’s match-up was between movie delivery and streaming service Netflix and music streaming service Spotify. According to our 100 percent nonscientific user poll, Spotify is the clear winner. But the polls stay open, so feel free to keep voting.

This week, it’s NASA vs. China. If you need a refresher as to why these two should be in contention, we have some background for you on how they moved the needle this week:


This is one of the photos snapped by blogger BirdAbroad of a fake Apple store in China. (BIRDABROAD)
China: If you haven’t heard, fake Apple stores are popping up around China. The stores look almost identical to the certified Apple stores in the United States — stores that attract long lines of customers waiting for the latest Apple hardware or, as was the case this week, software.

The stores, however, have a few flaws. As a blogger who lives in China and goes by the name “BirdAbroad” wrote on Wednesday:

... This was a total Apple store ripoff. A beautiful ripoff – a brilliant one – the best ripoff store we had ever seen (and we see them every day). But some things were just not right: the stairs were poorly made. The walls hadn’t been painted properly.

The post and the accompanying pictures were circulated widely around the Web, including on this blog. A salesman at the unauthorized Apple store has since spoken out, saying that the fake Apple store sells real Apple products at retail prices even though it is an unauthorized storefront. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the salesman went so far as to boast that he did not receive complaints about the quality of the products. Reuters also reports that customers are none too happy about being fooled by the unauthorized store’s nearly identical look and feel.

The news of these fake Apple stores landed the same week Apple made its record earnings announcement and revealed that China was a major driver of those earning. But is the creation of these fake Apple stores innovative?

It has been argued that imitation is a legitimate path to innovation. However, in this case, the copying of an entire Apple store is not only in violation of trademark, but it is about as groundbreaking as laying a piece of paper over the Mona Lisa and tracing it. But the late economist and Harvard Business school Professor Theodore Levitt argued that “by far the greatest flow of newness is not innovation at all. Rather, it is imitation.” There was no Apple store in Kunming, China, before this one. The town is small, and nearly 1,000 miles from a certified Apple store. The people there clearly wanted to purchase Apple’s products. This store gave them the opportunity to, at the very least, believe they could do so. This is not an excuses for trademark violation — just as coming up with innovative ways to hack into Web sites is no excuse to break the law. But it does speak to a fundamental part of the innovation process.

While I am not arguing on behalf of copyright infringement, the question stands: If copying is an essential part of innovation, was the creation of a fake Apple store in China innovative?


In this image provided by NASA, the space shuttle Atlantis is seen shortly after the rotating service structure (RSS) was rolled back at launch pad 39a Thursday at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (BILL INGALLS/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
NASA: The last operational space shuttle, Atlantis, landed safely Thursday, bringing its final four-person crew of astronauts home to Earth — a planet where the United States no longer operates a space shuttle program as of Friday. Atlantis’s successful mission was the 135th and final shuttle flight.

NASA made a strong effort, following the launch, to convince the American people that this was not the end of the American space program, and that children who dreamed of becoming astronauts would still have a chance to work for NASA — perhaps as the first person to walk on Mars.

However, some NASA employees who currently work on the shuttle program have a much bleaker future ahead. There will be 1,500 employees who work at the Kennedy Space Center who will be out of work starting Friday. Some companies have pledged to absorb some of the technicians, engineers and others who worked on the shuttle program. But those companies cannot absorb them all.

The shuttle program was a font of innovation, introducing Americans to an endless number of possibilities both here on Earth and in space. But how innovative was NASA this week, considering they will be shuttering a program that had been in operation for 30 years?

The comments are yours, and here’s your chance to vote:

By  |  12:49 PM ET, 07/22/2011

Categories:  Business, Invention, Innovator of the Week, Technology

 
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