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Innovation through accretion?

A long time ago, after attending a design and business conference, I wrote a post lamenting innovation fetishization.

Such an obsession with “innovation” worries me. It worries me because I live in a world where the things that already exist typically don’t work as well as they should. More time should be spent bringing existing products and services up to snuff, and not focusing on The Next Big Thing. This innovation fetishization becomes a shiny bauble distracting people from paying attention to the here and now.

In a recent post, Gene distinguishes between optimization and innovation, and claims that the new Xbox 360 is an example of the former. In short, the Xbox 360 is like the Xbox, only moreso — it doesn’t innovate, it just does what the Xbox has done, an does it better.

I read his post on the same day that I read a surprisingly glowing review of the new machine in the New York Times. And that review suggests that Microsoft has focused on what I thought appropriate — making the basic experience *just work*, instead of chasing after something “revolutionary.”

And it made me wonder if you can innovate through accretion — that you reach some threshold for each of your improvements, and the experience improves in some quantum way.

  1. Yes indeed. A revolutionary breakthrough can occur through small quantitative improvements reaching a tipping point. For example a small increase in reliability may make the diference which causes the number of people finding a service worthwhile to outnumber those who try it for a short while and then lose interest. This eventual taking off of the userbase may then bring exponential benefits if it’s a social system.

    I hadn’t heard the word accretion so I looked it up:

    “In general, a process of growth by accumulation and adhesion. In the context of the origin of planetary systems (see planetary systems, formation), accretion is the process by which small particles collide and stick together to form larger objects in a protoplanetary disk. Once a large enough body has formed, its gravitational attraction greatly speeds up the accretion process.”

    This sounds quite similar to what I’ve described as well, but none of this is new. The transition from quantitative to qualitative changes is one of the basic laws of Hegelian dialectics (a precursor to Marxism) and was probably present in ancient greek philosophy in some form.

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