Innovation has always been defined quite differently from invention. It used to be that innovation was “the introduction of something new; a new idea, method or device; a novelty.” In a more modern and revised definition, innovation is “the creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies or ideas that are readily available to markets, governments, and society.” The definition of innovation has now changed to reflect its differentiation from improvement, in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something differently rather than doing the same thing better.
The question of whether innovation is still happening is hotly debated in Silicon Valley circles. There are those, such as mega venture capitalist Peter Thiel and serial entrepreneur Max Levchin, who argue that the United States, which holds itself up as a beacon of innovation, is somewhere between “dire straits and dead.” There are also those such as Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil who believe that the Singularity is near, and our modern definition of innovation has only just begun. Others ask a broader question still: how much innovation do we really need?
Technically, nothing Elon Musk has done is inherently unique. Electric cars were manufactured in 1996 when General Motors (GM) prepared to sell the EV1. This electric vehicle’s second generation could travel between 80 and 140 miles before recharging. (It is largely believed, although there is speculation over what really happened, that GM self-sabotaged the electric car to avoid potential losses in spare parts sales, and caved into pressure from the oil industry.) Musk realized that was an underserved market in electric cars as there were consumers who were environmentally conscious , but who wouldn’t be caught driving the unsexy Toyota Prius. So, the question remains: did Musk really invent, something new or did he simply innovate upon what already existed?
I think few on the street would disagree if it was suggested that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates aren’t the paramount innovators of our time. But if you wanted to split hairs, neither man really invented the products that initially marked them as entrepreneurial icons. Steve Jobs’s and Steve Wozniack’s fourth-generation computer—the Apple Lisa—was very much influenced by a three-day visit to Xerox PARC in Palo Alto. Jobs was convinced that the future of the computer was going to be its graphical user interface (GUI), and wanted to see what Xerox PARC engineers had done with GUI technology, although the GUI had been earlier invented by Doug Englebart, who was at the time an employee of Stanford Research Institute. Xerox granted Jobs, Jef Raskin, the man best known for starting the Macintosh computer and Apple engineers access to its GUI in exchange for an opportunity to purchase 100,000 shares of Apple at the pre-IPO price of $10 per share.. The result was that Jobs and his staff were able to replicate, enhance, and in 1984, successfully mass produce and commercially market what Englebart had invented and Xerox PARC engineers had innovated.
Bill Gates and Paul Allen first licensed Unix, a multitasking computer operating system, but gave it the original name Xenix, which Microsoft licensed from AT&T in 1979. They didn’t commercially market Xenix to consumers, but rather licensed it to other software companies such as Intel, Tandy and Santa Cruz Operation (SCO).
In July 1981, a month before the PC’s release, Microsoft purchased all rights to 86-DOS from SCP for $50,000. It met IBM’s main criteria: it looked like CP/M, and it was easy to adapt existing 8-bit CP/M programs to run under it, notably thanks to the TRANS command which would translate source files from 8080 to 8086 machine instructions. Microsoft licensed 86-DOS to IBM, and it became PC DOS 1.0. This license also permitted Microsoft to sell DOS to other companies, which it did. The deal was spectacularly successful, and SCP later claimed in court that Microsoft had concealed its relationship with IBM in order to purchase the operating system cheaply. SCP ultimately received a 1 million dollar settlement payment.
In 1981, Microsoft acquired the CP/M (Control Program/ Monitor) clone called 86-DOS from Seattle Computer Products (SCP) for $50,000. It branded it as MS-DOS, and worked with IBM to get it up to the CP/M standards that IBM was in the market for. Microsoft then licensed 86-DOS to IBM, and it became PC DOS 1.0, but the licensed also allowed Microsoft to license it to other companies in the process. The acquisition turned out to be a windfall, so much so, that SCP took Microsoft to court and claimed “Microsoft had concealed its relationship with IBM in order to purchase the operating system cheaply.” SCP received a $1 million dollar settlement for its pain. These early shrewd business decisions are what help solidify Microsoft’s early dominance in the marketplace. Regardless, it is irrefutable that what these men did remarkably altered the course of the world through the technological innovations that they were able to commercially market for both industry and home use.
Deborah Perry Piscione is a serial entrepreneur, author of three bestselling books on innovation leadership, and a popular business speaker.