The Framework

Technology Epiphanies

A particularly effective type of innovation strategy is when technological breakthroughs merge with radical innovation of meanings.

Every novel technology embeds the potential for a variety of applications. Some are more immediate and obvious as they answer to existing market needs, such as the substitution of an old technology to improve a product performance.  Other more profitable applications are not visible at first sight and are only detected by firms that are willing to question existing market needs and redefine through the new technology what a product could mean for people. When a firm unveils the most powerful quiescent meaning of a technology, it celebrates a technology epiphany and becomes the market leader.

Think for example at the technology of quartz movements for watches introduced in the late ‘70s. When quartz movements for watches were invented, Japanese pioneering firms substituted them for the old mechanical movements, but it was Swatch that eventually led the competition by realizing that cheap movements allowed to redefine the meaning of watches: not timekeeping instruments, but fashion accessories that could be owned in multiple exemplars. Or think to the MP3 technology. It was interpreted by early adopters as a substitute for old cassettes and CDs to improve performance of portable music players: early MP3 players in 1997 were conceived as substitutes for a Walkman. It was Apple in 2001 that unveiled the quiescent meaning of MP3 technology: allowing people to produce their own personal music through an entire system: the iPod, the iTunes application, the iTunes Store, the business model for selling music – that let people discover, taste, buy, store, organize, and listen to music in a seamless experience.
The implications are that:
(1) The full potential of a technological breakthrough is therefore achieved only when a firm uncovers the more-powerful quiescent meaning of a new technology. The impact on competition of a technology epiphany is usually much more relevant than is the technological breakthrough itself. If a firm does not unveil the quiescent meaning of a technology, another firm, sooner or later, will do, and will become the leader.
(2) Therefore as soon as a new technology emerges, companies should rapidly look for the technology epiphany before their competitors do. They should ask, “What is the hidden meaning of this technology? How can we exploit its full potential? How could it enable a new, more meaningful, reasons for customers to use a product? What breakthrough changes in needs (and therefore in market and competition) could it drive?
(3) Given that technology-push and design-driven innovation are closely linked, design is critical for high-tech firms and their R&D departments. If investigations into radical new technologies should go hand in hand with investigations into radical new meanings, then R&D cannot be immune to design, as examples in Bayer, Material Connexion, and Nintendo clearly show.