The history of humankind is full of groundbreaking ideas and brave innovators. We owe them industry revolutions, economic growth and technological progress. Among them, there are many forgotten stories about concepts and visions that should have disrupted the world, but something went wrong. In search of a success formula of today’s technology pioneers.
Creators against the world order
Fire, wheel, printing machine, aeroplanes, computers, social media – every discovery has a long story behind it. Crazy ideas, often ridiculed by others, frequently turned out to be great inventions. Innovators usually have to face resistance and scepticism from scientists and society. The first car, or rather a steam-powered machine, caused anxiety, not a fascination. In 1896, Alfred Sennett (British Association for the Advancement of Science) warned: “We should not overlook the fact that the driving of a horseless carriage calls for a larger amount of attention, for [the driver] has not the advantage of the intelligence of the horse in shaping his path, and it is consequently incumbent upon him to be ever watchful of the course his vehicle is taking.”. The opponents lamented the loss of 100,000 jobs. Posters in England informed about reckless motorists who kill children. Another example: Alexander Fleming didn’t even realise at the beginning, how the discovery of antibiotics will change the history of medicine forever. And he had to wait 17 years to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Overcoming resistance and thinking different are the most important keys to success. Well, looking at the history of inventiveness, we could say that if there is no resistance, there is usually no significant innovation. Today many young companies, and I don’t mean only startups, follow what Mark Zuckerberg said once: “Move fast and break things.” Most developers aim very high. For millennials, a small innovation developed after years of hard work is far less attractive than a disruptive technology that amazes.
Today you don’t have to be a scientist to influence the history of medicine. Nonetheless, being an innovator in healthcare requires humility. Although test-tubes were replaced by computers, long experiments by algorithms and laboratories by tech accelerators and hubs, the art of being an innovator in healthcare haven’t changed a lot. It needs patience, research, evidence and empathy. It also requires a small dose of modesty. Circa 1592–1593, Galileo Galilei invented a water thermoscope. For the first medical mercury thermometer, designed by Gabriel Fahrenheit, we had to wait 200 years more, till 1712.
Geniuses, brave thinkers and losers
You have probably seen this picture many times: an enthusiastic inventor of the wheel proudly presents the idea to the colleagues who are too busy to take it seriously. So they continue their hard work using a cart with a square “wheel”. Sometimes it’s impossible to say already at the early stage of development if a new solution will work. In July 2003 Mark Zuckerberg created a FaceMash. At that time, he didn’t probably imagine that quite awkward “hot or not” game for Harvard students could one day become the most significant social network platform in the world. We should also remember that the idea evolves over time, and it’s hard to predict the potential paths of development and its disruptive impact. Even the best intentions can lead to hell. Nuclear energy was to solve the problem of electricity forever, but an atom-bomb used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 killed over 230 000 people. For Enrico Fermi, scientist considered as the father of atomic energy, it must have been a nightmare.
With Facebook, many hoped that universal communication between people from different countries and continents can make the world united; we should have become more tolerant and respectful. What has remained from those dreams? A vast problem of what to do with fake news, data leaks, discrimination and hate speech. Another example is Microsoft Flight Simulator, which allowed millions of users to feel like a real pilot, flying around the world, landing on more than 20 000 airports. How a game made for a useful purpose can be misused, we experienced on 11th September 2001. It reminds us that every innovation is always a double-edged sword.
The endless fascination with technology, admiration from the investors, generous funding and trust from the future users should be followed by prudence, hard work and reliable evidence. Otherwise, it’s so easy to commit one of the many sins that led even the most celebrated innovators astray them. Here are a few big ideas that went wrong and lessons for the tech community.
Dream big but walk on the earth
Idea. What would science be, or rather science-fiction, without Hugo Gernsback, an inventor, member of the American Physical Society, editor, publisher of the first science-fiction magazine? One of his ideas was a bizarre mask called “The Isolator”. In the modern world, densely populated cities and cramped offices, it should isolate the noises from outside, helping the user to concentrate on the work.
Conclusion. Even without UX/UI designers on the board, a solution should meet the needs of the users, but not at all costs. Not always the ends justify the means. Wearing a massive helmet with oxygen supply can be more distracting than the disturbing noise.
Right time really matters
Idea. “Teleyeglasses”, also envisioned by Hugo Gernsback. This pocket-size, portable television goggles were unfortunately impossible to implement when they were invented, viz in 1936. What do they remind you? Answer: Today’s 3D virtual-reality glasses.
Conclusion. When technological development doesn’t catch up with your imagination, all you can do it to… speed up the technological evolution or to register a patent and wait for better times.
Listen to improve. Don’t stick stubbornly to the first prototype
Idea. I remember my first computer. It was almost like a magical technology. How to use it? Where to start? But there was someone, something, always ready to help you: Microsoft Clippy. Intentionally, Clippy’s was to help first-time computer users to navigate different applications. He used to pop up in the most unexpected moment and ask: “Would you like help?” Before judging Clippy, we have to understand the challenge. In the ’80s and early ’90s, computers were finally within reach of individual consumers. The technology was much faster than the knowledge on how to operate it. First, Microsoft introduced a Bobby, cute virtual dog that had some hints for users. Bobby was personally launched by Bill Gates in 1995 and then replaced by Clippy.
Conclusion. Some loved Clippy, but the majority hated it. For advanced users, Clippy was merely annoying; for beginners, it offered rather a confusion than a solution. As a default setting, for first-time users, it was even complicated to switch it off. In the face of massive criticism, Microsoft removed Clippy by 2007. Why did it take so long? It seems like a personal story behind the invention led to blind love towards an initial idea.
Hide your ego
Idea. Medicine of the 21st century lacks excellent stories that can occupy daily news. Technology needs new inspiring leaders like Steve Jobs. If you feel like a tech-hero with a need to become the next celebrity, think what your real motivations are. Hide your own ego and set the right priorities. Elizabeth Holmes, Ex-Theranos CEO, sold us a fascinating story but nothing more. OK, we can learn from this case something – how to create a good pitch deck and how to make global PR campaigns. Theranos – having only a promise in the pocket – has raised a total of $1.4B in funding over 10 rounds. Not bed.
Conclusion. The rise and the fall of Theranos is not only an unpleasant lesson and financial loss for the investors. It also puts a shadow on the entire startup’s scene, gives good arguments to those healthcare organisations that hesitate to establish cooperation with an unknown young company. For the founder of the Theranos, the adventure ends really bitter. She and the former president of the company face 20 years in prison, not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Did the founders know – already from the beginning – there was no chance to develop a device to conduct hundreds of tests from a single drop of blood? There are still many question marks. However, once more: first evidence, then PR.
Brace yourself. Can you beat your competitors? Do you know how?
Idea. With millions of Gmail users, YouTubers and bloggers, Google wanted to build a social network to let them stay connected on a single platform. The beginning was not bad. Launched in 2011, after one year Google+ had already 400 million signed-up users and 100 million active users. At least, officially. In the same time, Facebook had 750 million active users. Unlike Facebook, completely new in the internet business, Google had much bigger experience in the virtual world, including a leading search machine and prosperous email service. The success was within reach.
Conclusion. The strategy was easy – let’s make all the Google services’ users also the Google+ users. This way the number of Google+ members increased to over just 2.2 billion in 2015. Apparently obsessed with the number of users, Google forgot to deliver real value for users, which made Facebook growing fast. Besides, Google+ was unintuitive, user-unfriendly and complicated. Finally, Google+ was shut down in 2019. I’ve never really understood why I should use it. An ordinary rule often overlooked even by the leaders: if you want to beat a strong competitor, you have to be better in every little detail. And first, you have to measure the chances of market success.
Some users’ needs are more important than the other ones
Idea. Computer screen directly in front of your eyes – the next big thing after computers, tablets and smartphones. Like in the science fiction movie, private users of Google Glass could access information without keyboards, everywhere. Visionary innovation that could change the way we see the world, search information, communicate; a super-modern gadget for tech fans allowing the augmentation of the reality.
Conclusion. Not every cutting-edge technology is cool and useful. Sometimes designers seem to remain closed in an imaginary bubble being firmly convinced how great is the innovation, forgetting about other issues like privacy. Would you like to be observed by someone wearing Google Glass? It’s like someone on the street would take photos or videos of you without your permission, secretly. Confusing, isn’t it? Google Glass wasn’t accepted by private users. Following Microsoft’s HoloLens strategy, in 2019 Google announced a new version aimed at business promoted as “hand-free device for smarter and faster hands-on work”. Lessons learned.
Get off your high horse (unicorn)
Idea. Who doesn’t like fresh-squeezed fruit or vegetable juices? They are healthy, nutritious, delicious. There is only one obstacle on the way to well-being: it’s a real hassle to make juices at home. You have to buy all these green things, wash, peel and cut them. Finally, your old juice squeezer is merely outdated.
What’s more, you have to clean it yourself! Let’s be honest – making juices and smoothies is a horror. This problem needs appropriate, Silicon-Valley-standards compliant, trendy solution.
Conclusion. Imagine a new standard of making juices. You buy plastic bags with liquid inside, put it into a machine that pretends to be a juicer. The machine squeezes the bag, and fresh juice flows straight into the glass. But wait… isn’t it better to buy juice in a bottle? No, bottles were yesterday, today is Juicero.
What’s more, instead of squeezing the bags containing your portion of juice by yourself, you can have a unique gadget for 700 USD. Brilliant and environmentally friendly, isn’t it? I leave the idea for review by readers. Anyway, some call it “the greatest example of Silicon Valley stupidity.”
Do not try to replace the original with a substitute
Idea. You want to be a hero. You want to save the world and solve challenging problems. And you know that love is in the air, so people are ready to pay every price for it. The target group: billions of people on each continent. Feelings make them travelling hours and days to meet their beloved. Since smartphones make it easier to stay in touch, the distance between lovers got smaller. But is sending kisses emoticons enough? For some, obviously not.
Conclusion. Kissenger comes to the rescue – long-distance kiss device or a robotic phone accessory which can physically simulate a kiss between friends and loved ones. Such original, funny ideas, designed perfectly to make people laugh, draw attention which does not guarantee market success. I still appreciate the originality and courage of the Kissenger developer, Emma Yann Zhang. Two years ago the scientists from Imagineering Institute in Malaysia promised us to make kissing easy again. Unfortunately, until today all the lovers must meet personally to kiss. Love is not in the air. Or maybe I’m wrong?
I have a small favour to ask…
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