what’s it for?

kitchen computer

Chris Anderson from Wired is pretty much always worth reading. His article in the July issue on managing using concepts of abundance rather than scarcity is one of his more interesting recent pieces. He lays out a bit of the argument behind his latest book, Free (and you can download an audio version of the book, for, well, for free!). Anderson makes a number of good points throughout the article, but the one I want to pick up on here comes right at the start:

In 1969, the Neiman Marcus catalog offered the first home PC, a stylish stand-up model called the Honeywell Kitchen Computer, priced at $10,600. The picture shows an aproned housewife caressing the machine, with this tag line: “If she can only cook as well as Honeywell can compute.” That image should be on every cubicle in Silicon Valley; it’s a testament both to what technologists get right and what they get badly wrong.

To their credit, they understood that Moore’s law would bring computing within the reach of regular people. But they had no idea why anyone would want it. Despite countless brainstorming sessions and meetings on the subject, the only application the Honeywell team could think of for a home computer (aside from the perennial checkbook balancing) was recipe card management. So the Kitchen Computer was aimed at housewives and featured integrated counter space. Those housewives would, however, require a programming course (included in the price), since the only way to enter data was with binary toggle switches, and the machine’s only display was binary lights. Needless to say, not a single Kitchen Computer is recorded as having sold.

This story illustrates an extremely important point about innovating. In many cases, even when we have a working version of our idea, we don’t actually know what it’s good for – just like Honeywell. In most cases, innovations are discovered in use. Intel didn’t know that microprocessors were for personal computers until after a lot of experimenting. Honeywell never did learn what personal computers were for – it was up to other hardware and software firms and users, experimenting together, to figure that out.

How do we reconcile this with the idea that we have to embrace constraints? This is another of the tricky balances that we need to find when we’re managing innovation. On the one hand, we need to experiment to figure out what our innovation is actually good for – which is much easier to do when we have unlimited resources. The solution comes from finding ways to experiment as cheaply as possible, to fail, and to learn from the methods that don’t work. A second avenue to explore is to get the innovation into the hands of users as quickly as possible (the actual innovation – not a focus group description!). This is often the only way that we can actually figure out what our own ideas are supposed to do!

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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4 thoughts on “what’s it for?

  1. Fascinating stuff, Tim. I’m a bit of a mad fiend for the history of the Honeywell Kitchen Monstrosity, and regard it with a wonder that such a fabulous flop rightly deserves. By the way, the “integrated counter space” that Anderson mentions is alleged to have included a built in cutting board—quite possibly its most useful feature.

  2. Tim, there’s two magnificent, not-oft realized points in this post. One is that constraints make better designs, not worse. The other is that systemic change does not keep up with movements from scarcity to abundance (and vice versa).

    I found the article very interesting, thank you for linking it. I noticed in the comments there is an abundance of criticism leveled at the author for misunderstanding various things. The thing I think he misunderstood is that the appeal of Youtube and the appeal of professional, time-limited programming are two different things, so it’s not fair to call them scarcity and abundance of the same thing. Another thing I noticed he neglected to mention is that Youtube costs its owner, Google, an enormous sum yearly that economists have still never figured out how to make back. It’s possible that bandwidth will become so cheap that it will lessen the issue, but it seems for every step forward in bandwidth abundance the sizes and quality of the video are right there to keep up. I suppose there is an equation at work – we can afford to stream x amount of video and only lose $X per day, and every time there is an increase, it increases everything while keeping the cost balanced with what the company can bear.

  3. Good points Amber. I think in some respects Anderson knows that he is overstating his case – it seems like his primary objective is to get people thinking about what happens when prices move towards free, and when supply moves towards abundance. I agree with you that not everything that he discusses as analogous actually is, but I guess I cut him a bit of slack in that he’s moving people in a direction that I think is important, and it seems that hyperbole is a necessary part of doing that. I wish it weren’t…

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