Apple once owned it, but officials there now cringe at its utterance. Nearly every tech company chants it, as if in a rote-like trance. Reporters roll their eyes.Innovation is a simple enough word, though it’s tossed around in high-tech circles as much as paradigm, synergy, pivot and disruptive.
Over the next few weeks, the “I” word will be front, center and backstage at three high-profile events in San Francisco: a Samsung Electronics digital-health announcement (May 28), Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (June 2-6) and Google I/O (June 25-26). If there’s one thing all three competing companies can agree on, it’s that innovation season is upon us.
“Google is in a renaissance period for audacious, so-crazy-it-might-work ideas,” says Astro Teller, who runs GoogleX, the ultra-secretive shop for Google’s far-out “moonshot” projects such as self-driving cars and Google Glass. “Innovation is not something you think or say, but what you do.
“It’s about risks, and learning from mistakes.”
The events underscore a faster pace of innovation in Silicon Valley, despite some R&D cuts at major tech companies. In the ever-escalating arms race for supremacy in tech, ideas and concepts are the most devastating weapons.
Inside Samsung Strategy and Innovation Center here, in the epicenter of the region’s venture-capital industry, modern art and meetings among start-ups attract the most attention. A “secret floor” (second — I spied) is strictly off-limits. “Innovation and art are connected,” says Stefan Heuser, vice president of operations and innovation at SSCI, motioning to artist Nick Cave’s Soundsuits sculptures.
The center — developing technology in the realms of digital health, the Internet of Things, human interface, and storage and data — is where Samsung’s nine product divisions can tap into the valley’s innovation economy. Samsung employs roughly a quarter of its employees worldwide — 69,000 – in R&D.
“The speed for new tech — and from different companies — is increasing,” Heuser says. Samsung’s “open, collaborative” approach to innovation is underscored by investments of up to $5 million in 14 early-stage start-ups.
Innovation is a funny thing, industry sage Esteban Kolsky points out. Consumers clamor for it, but aren’t always willing to pay for it. “We want the latest and greatest, but also we want to pay the least amount for it,” he says. “This creates two camps: those that innovate as part of their corporate DNA, and those that copy the innovation at 1/10th of the cost.”
Consumerization of tech has yielded more innovation in all shapes, sizes and colors. “The growing power of developers has created an exciting time for consumers,” says Max Schireson, CEO of software company MongoDB.
There are now at least 400 million entrepreneurs in 54 countries, and that number is growing. “Other countries are applying the lessons of Silicon Valley to the Old World model,” says David Batstone, co-founder of anti-slavery organization Not For Sale, which has numerous tech projects in Europe.
All of which shines the Klieg lights on a certain company based in Cupertino, Calif. For years, under the gilded rule of Steve Jobs, Apple invented everything in-house. Not so much anymore.
Apple increasingly is buying or investing in smaller companies — and is rumored to be on the cusp of acquiring Beats Music for a company record $3.2 billion. Since August 2011, when an ailing Jobs resigned from Apple, it has bought or invested in 18 companies, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data from S&P Capital IQ.
“We’ll continue to innovate by investing in research and development and capitalizing on our strength and hardware software and services,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in April.
Of course, short of an anti-gravity product, the company may disappoint its rabid fan base. When it comes to Apple, the bar for — yes — innovation is set exceptionally high.
Swartz, USA TODAY’s San Francisco bureau chief, has covered Silicon Valley for more than 25 years.