The Bleeding Edge: When Innovation Fails

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In 2002, in the early days of Bluetooth, I toured the Bosch white goods factory in Germany. They presented to us their concept of the washing machine of the future which had Bluetooth connectivity. The idea was that your washing machine could communicate with your cell phone and you could control its activities.

I remember thinking at the time, what problem are they trying to solve? Who needs this technology? My washing machine buzzes when it’s done. That’s all I need. I don’t really want my appliances texting and calling me in the middle of the night with all their problems. To Bosch’s credit, I don’t think they ever commercialized the concept.

Fast forward to 2017, Samsung is now widely advertising their new FlexWash and FlexDry Laundry System. According to the ads, these Wi-Fi-enabled appliances will allow you to start and stop the units remotely with your smartphone as well as monitor the progress of each cycle. CNET calls it, “the wackiest innovation we’ve seen yet.” My reaction is pretty much the same as it was in 2002. The question I continue to ask is, who is looking for this kind of technology in their washer and dryer?

Don’t get me wrong, I love technology. I’m an engineer. By law, I’m required to get excited about the latest gadgets. I’ve also served as an R&D manager several times in my career. What I don’t like is new technology that doesn’t make things better or easier. What the Samsung case reveals, in my opinion, is the dark side of innovation, what I like to call, “The Bleeding Edge.”

Maybe Samsung will be wildly successful with their new washer and dryer, but I don’t think so. In my view, they are heading toward the bleeding edge which is characterized by three main failures:

  • Innovation that fails to solve a problem.
  • Innovation that fails to make money.
  • Innovation that is ahead or behind market demand.

Let’s look at these three points:

Innovation that fails to solve a problem. Einstein is credited with saying, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” I think innovation is similar. If you can’t easily explain how it helps the end user, it probably won’t. Take the example of a toilet brush with a flushable head. It’s not hard to understand how this helps make cleaning a toilet easier. It solves a problem. The value of controlling a washing machine remotely is a little harder to explain. Just because you can create technology doesn’t mean you should.

Innovation that fails to make money. Unless you operate a charity, the goal of a business is to make money. Even if you create an innovation that solves a problem, if you can’t make money selling it, you have also failed. Look at the Segway. It’s an amazing innovation but it took 7 years to sell just 30,000 units which was far less than its first-year sales goal. And even with the high price tag, Segway is still not profitable. Like it or not, customers will place a perceived value on your technology. If your perceived value is low and your cost is high, you won’t be making very much money.

Innovation that is ahead or behind the market demand. Timing is everything. This is especially true for innovations. Being “ahead of your time” is just as bad as being behind. I learned this lesson the hard way during the so-called Smart Grid revolution. We had the right technology that solved a major problem on the grid and we could make money selling it. The problem was the market wasn’t ready. Instead of embracing these new solutions, electric utilities took a more cautious and conservative approach. They experimented with pilot projects around the country but they never purchased the technology in the volumes predicted by the experts. The market just wasn’t ready to embrace this change.

Innovation is great but there is a dark side that needs to be avoided as well. Developing a new technology that fails to solve a problem, fails to make money, or misses the market demand can cost companies millions in profit. Just because it’s possible to do something, doesn’t mean you should. Innovations need to be carefully planned and executed to ensure business success.

What do you think? What am I missing? Is Wi-Fi the future of laundry? Is this just part of the IoT revolution that will make a huge improvement in people’s lives? Have you personally experienced the “Bleeding Edge” of technology? What was that like? Let me know in the comment section below.

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