‘And the Truth Is Plain to See’
The electronics revolution ushers in new progressions of innovation
by Peter Merrill
Celebrating 50 years of Quality Progress got me wondering about what was happening in the late 1960s. Specifically, I thought about the music being created then. About that time, a band called Procol Harum had come on the scene in the United Kingdom with its No. 1 hit, "Whiter Shade of Pale." The psychedelic, trippy song had stayed on the music charts for weeks and eventually became Britain’s most-played song in public places in the past 75 years.1
The remarkable song was certainly different than other music on the radio at the time, and many listeners wondered what made it so special: the intriguing lyrics or the beautiful music? It was certainly innovation musically. Often dismissed as the output of a bunch of druggies, when we look more closely, we see a classic story of innovation.
For example, consider the song’s connection to the world of Bach for inspiration, with the opening notes of "Air on the G String" and collaboration between lyricist Keith Reid and organist Gary Brooker. The hooks into Bach were magical, and the lyrics had a rhythm that came together in a short space of time. Lyrics flowed from the title, "Whiter Shade of Pale," which stemmed from a party conversation.
Sadly, the connection and collaboration were later replaced with something that happens all too often in the world of innovation: a court battle over who owned the intellectual property.
8-track vs. cassette
Staying with music and moving to the 1970s, the recording world has showed us what it takes for an innovation to succeed: The offering must by easy to use, and price matters. The legendary battle between 8-track vs. cassette tape formats, for example, ultimately led to the demise of the 8-track. The 8-track was the first type of music tape. But the 8-track became a classic story of launching a product with serious limitations that could not be improved.
When you hear a song that you like, for example, you often want to play it again. An 8-track does not rewind. The life expectancy of an 8-track unit was short, the size and shape bulky and its operation clunky. Some listeners argued that 8-tracks offered good sound clarity, however, and cassettes did not produce as good of a sound.
But the cassette tape was seen as a more flexible product, and sound quality steadily improved. Importantly, it had a much longer lifespan. One big advantage for the cassette was that it was smaller, cheaper and could fit in your pocket.
The Sony Walkman cassette player arrived in the 1980s. Now heavy and oversized by comparison, it opened up a world of portable music outside of stereo systems inside houses and cars.
The lesson for the innovator: Price and ease of use will define the uptake of your new offering.
Innovation between the late 1960s and 2010 was very much defined by advances in electronics. The story of 8-tracks and cassettes is just the beginning. We now refer to this period as the third industrial revolution. But this revolution had been brewing for many years.
The vacuum diode, which was fundamental to the world of radio, had been invented in 1897, but advances in communication technology were not dramatic in the ensuing 40 years.
World War II, as with most wars, led to increased focus on communication technology. The "radio man," for example, was one of the most critical people in a platoon when it came to deploying strategy.
You can be sure there was much behind-the-scenes research going on, and 1947 saw the invention of the transistor by Bell Labs.2
Again, that development did not happen overnight. The transistor overcame breakage, the biggest single problem of the vacuum diode.
The 1960s and 1970s saw steady advances in transistors with the purification of silicon, followed by the development of integrated circuits and micro-processers. This led to high volume production and cost reduction.
Slow train coming
While this was happening, another development was being pursued that ran very much in parallel to transistors and the result of work done during World War II. The development was the theory of computation, based on binary notation developed by Alan Turing and his work on the Enigma code.
Compared to today’s speed of development, this work did not move fast, and the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s experienced very slow progress in spite of the advances in technology. It was not until the 1980s that we saw real breakthrough advances in everyday electronic products with the arrival of programmable microwaves, thermostats, answering machines and ATMs.
What all of this shows—and a big lesson for the innovator—is how incredibly slow R&D can be. I started my career in that R&D world and was lucky to be in a well-managed and aggressive R&D division of a large corporation. Sadly, this is not always the case.
Because researchers are sometimes considered "different," they are often isolated from the mainstream part of the business. Operations people accuse researchers of having an easy life, and salespeople think they are nerds. Yet these two interfaces are vital to the future of any organization. Finding leaders who understand sales, R&D and operations is critical to business success.
The 1980s provided us with four new product areas that defined our lives for the next 20 to 30 years:
- The CD, which led to the DVD in the 1990s and gave us portable storage of sights and sounds.
- The camcorder, which enabled us to more easily and conveniently record our own moving images.
- The personal computer, which revolutionized the management of information in home and office settings.
- The mobile phone, which would eventually advance and merge with the personal computer.
The 1980s heralded the world of consumer electronics. In fact, all of these products have evolved greatly since then. When you look back at the 1980 versions of these products, they look archaic. The learning here is that you never stop innovating.3
The mobile phone was the size of a brick. When you see them in a 1980s movie, you laugh. The computer screen was enormous. With today’s flat screen, we forget the computer’s original bulk. The camcorder is now built into your mobile phone. CDs and DVDs are beginning to disappear. If you can remember using MS-DOS, you realize what an insight Steve Wozniak had when he created the user-friendly interface of the Apple 1.
Take it easy
This discussion reminds me of the three criteria of process management to make things faster, simpler and better. Perhaps "better" should be replaced by "smaller and cheaper."
An area in which development people often fail is in making things simpler. They believe the mission is to add bells and whistles, and they forget about ease of use. I’ve just acquired a new car, and its controls are so complicated I know I will not learn to use them all before the lease expires. If you’ve tried to master Windows 10 in the last couple years, congratulations. It’s great that you’ve got nothing else to do in life—but most of us have a life beyond Windows.
The 1990s saw the arrival of the internet and the global village. The other advances in this decade were building on existing technology: 2G cell phones, DVDs, cellphone texting and MP3 players. In addition, the arrival of Nintendo and video games took us into a major social change as people retreated to their own private space. A new generation communicated remotely instead of face to face.
Without a doubt, the internet had the biggest impact of any innovation of the 1990s. We know the idea was first developed in the 1960s, and early work about networking continued at universities until computers first started being connected via dial-up mechanisms in the 1980s. Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, an Englishman, is generally credited as the originator of the World Wide Web while working at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.4-5
We’ve come a long way since then, but it was not until the 1990s that we saw widespread commercial use of the internet. This, again, provided a platform for what was about to happen at the turn of the millennium and the rapid increase in computer power.
Post-2000 brought a world of rapidly accelerating change—and the word "innovation" became part of our lexicon.
Websites became an everyday tool of business and e-commerce an everyday fact of life. The events of the last decade—including the emergence of Bluetooth technology and the internet of things—provided the platform for what we are now calling the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0. The world we now live in is one of cyber physical networks in which multi-sided platforms such as Uber and Airbnb are fueled by big data.
Innovation continues to propel business forward and will certainly not slow anytime soon. We will have bitcoin and a whole new financial world. We will have robotics operating with artificial intelligence close to human intelligence.
The lyrics of "Whiter Shade of Pale" includes the line, "The truth is plain to see." It's also plain to see how all of this innovation has been developing steadily over the last 50 years, and it's poised to leap forward dramatically.
- National Public Radio, "Britain’s Favorite Song: ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale,’"www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103139415.
- Priya Ganapati, "Dec. 23, 1947: Transistor Opens Door to Digital Future," Wired magazine, Dec. 23, 2009, www.wired.com/2009/12/1223shockley-bardeen-brattain-transistor.
- Peter Merrill, Innovation Never Stops, ASQ Quality Press, 2015.
- World Wide Web Foundation, https://webfoundation.org/about/vision/history-of-the-web.
- Mary Bellis, "The History of the Internet," ThoughtCo., Dec. 19, 2014, www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-internet-1992007.
Peter Merrill is president of Quest Management Inc., an innovation consultancy based in Burlington, Ontario. Merrill is the author of several ASQ Quality Press books, including Innovation Never Stops (2015), Do It Right the Second Time, second edition (2009), and Innovation Generation (2008). He is a member of ASQ, previous chair of the ASQ Innovation Division and current chair of the ASQ Innovation Think Tank.