Monday, 22 July 2019

The Edison Conjecture: Why Successful New Technologies Offer Unfamiliar Solutions to Familiar Needs

The Google Glass and Apple Watch were launched in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Both devices were “wearable tech,” both embodied leading-edge technology, and both were launched to much fanfare with sophisticated marketing campaigns. But while the Apple Watch sold millions of units in its first quarter on the market, Google’s Glass flopped. What led to such different outcomes for these two innovative technologies?

To provide a thoughtful answer to this question, let me wind back the clock to 1878 when Thomas Edison and his employees were conducting pioneering experiments into electricity.1 Edison faced a tremendous challenge, described in a classic research article by Andrew Hargadon and Yellowlees Douglas:2 electricity had the potential to be put to numerous possible uses, but it was deeply unfamiliar to the general public at the time. It was regarded with a mix of curiosity and fear. The risk of death by electrocution was salient in the public’s mind after some high-profile incidents. Why should people let electricity’s mysterious, ghost-like presence into their home or workplace?

Part of what underlay Edison’s success in commercializing electricity was in how he framed it as a solution to familiar needs. Rather than launch with an immediate wave of electricity-powered domestic gadgets (which, indeed, came later), he focused on the familiar problem of providing light after the sun has set. There was an existing solution for this: natural gas was piped under streets to feed gas lamps which created light as a by-product of combustion. Rich people’s houses had gas lines in the walls feeding lamps on the walls and ceiling.

Edison’s success came partially from the pioneering inventions of his laboratory, which created the first carbon incandescent light bulb in 1879. But Edison’s success was also due to his savvy commercialization strategy. He organized the Edison Electric Light company under existing statutes that applied to gas companies. This allowed him to install underground lines and compete directly with gas companies, many of which would have happily seen him fail. Electric lightbulbs were launched as a direct substitute for gas lamps. Electric light fixtures were designed to resemble gas lamps, including the installation of lamp shades, which are not functionally needed for electric bulbs, but retaining them increased the sense of familiarity to the users.

A lamp shade's original function was to prevent
soot from gas lamps ruining the ceiling and walls

Edison’s success in commercializing his laboratory’s ideas is one reason we revere him as one of the most influential innovators in history.

What else can we learn from Edison’s success? I have previously written about how innovation can be viewed as a matching process in which needs are matched up with solutions (see here). The stories of Edison and Apple and Google point towards a powerful lesson for would-be innovators. When innovators match up needs and solutions, the general public may be more or less familiar with the needs they tackle and the solutions they proffer. The general public also have only a limited tolerance for things that are unfamiliar. For this reason, an innovator offering an unfamiliar solution to an unfamiliar need—even if it is a very real need—is unlikely to succeed. I refer to this as ‘The Edison Conjecture.’3
In this two-by-two matrix, the sweet spot is applying an unfamiliar solution to a familiar need. Applying a familiar solution to an unfamiliar need can also work. Applying an unfamiliar solution to an unfamiliar need is a ‘bridge too far’ for most potential adopters.

Returning to the Apple versus Google example: both companies launched technologically pioneering consumer electronic products that fall in the category we now call “wearable tech.” Both solutions were unfamiliar at the time they were launched. The biggest difference, I suggest, is that Apple’s Watch is couched in the familiar, much as Edison’s electric light bulbs were launched as a replacement for (familiar) gas lamps. The Apple Watch solves two familiar problems: telling the time (for which we’ve used watches for over a century) and receiving notifications (for which we had used pagers since the 1980s and mobile phones since the early 2000s). Google’s Glass, on the other hand, holds potential for numerous hypothetical applications, but did not solve any clear, familiar problem for the user.

As always, there are other important factors that helped the Apple Watch succeed and other factors that led the Google Glass to fail (e.g. Google underestimated the seriousness of privacy concerns relating to the Glass’s integrated camera4). But the analysis of the (un)familiarity of needs and solutions carries what I think is a valuable message for managers aspiring to introduce ground-breaking innovations. If you want to introduce an unfamiliar solution, it better be matched up with a familiar need, otherwise resistance to it will simply be too great.


Footnotes 1 Edison was not a lone genius; rather he ran a successful organization which churned out inventions. It has been said that “Edison is in reality a collective noun” (see the article referenced below).
2 Reference: Hargadon, A. B.; Douglas, Y. (2001). When innovations meet institutions: Edison and the design of the electric light. Administrative Science Quarterly, 46(3), 476-501. (link)
3 I refer to it as a conjecture because it has not, to my knowledge, been tested in a large sample study.
4 An interesting post-script in the story of Google Glass: the concept has been pivoted to address a market in which privacy is less of a concern. The Glass has been relaunched as an B2B service for enterprise productivity applications.