Innovation and sensors: lessons from Apple and Intel

by Bruce Kasanoff on October 13, 2009

If you want sensors to drive innovation and revenue growth, become obsessive about diversity. Involve a broad range of people with diverse backgrounds, skills and motivations. That’s the lesson from two highly successful firms, Intel and Apple, who have taken different approaches to driving innovation with sensors. Each firm has harnessed diversity in startlingly effective ways.

The iPhone Takes an Entrepreneurial Path

One day recently in Weston, CT, 13-year-old Connor Mulcahey completed the one-billionth download at Apple’s App Store. This milestone occurred just nine months after the store opened. This success owes much to the iPhone’s sensors. In addition to its touch-sensitive screen, the iPhone has three other sensors whose seemingly simple capabilities have enabled the outpouring of innovation that filled the App Store’s digital shelves with compelling applications.

  1. An accelerometer detects movement of the iPhone itself.
  2. An ambient light sensor monitors the light levels surrounding the iPhone.
  3. A proximity sensor signals when you take the iPhone away from your ear.

In developing apps that could leverage these sensors and the iPhone’s other capabilities, Apple decided to harness the world’s entrepreneurial spirit. It launched the iPhone Development Center and invited everyone-literally-to develop apps for the iPhone. Importantly, Apple didn’t just invite people to create apps; it also created a distribution channel for them in the form of Apple’s App Store.

The result has been breathtaking.

Our guess is that no one, Apple’s executives included, anticipated just how many apps would be developed to leverage the sensors in each iPhone.

In essence, Apple brought a cool product to market and then unlocked the barn doors, to a certain extent. It allowed anyone who met their standards to develop apps and to sell them through the App Store. Apple never could have built so many apps itself. The company also didn’t insist that a business case be built for each app. Instead, it shifted the development risk to anyone who was willing to accept it. ‘If you build it, we will sell it,’ Apple told the development community. Importantly, Apple didn’t promise to market or promote each invention. It just created a meritocracy in which the most popular apps would rise to the top.

The benefit of this approach is that you engage many thousands of people who think differently. Some developers think in pictures, other in words, and others by touching things. This diversity of thought creates an incredibly broad spectrum of ideas. Click on a few of the links on the App list, and you’ll see what we mean.

If your firm makes sensors, or uses them in certain applications, odds are that you won’t spot the new ideas. When you are close to a certain technology, you know where you think it will fit well. But until you have someone look at technology with a completely fresh perspective, you can’t predict how people are ultimately going to use it.

Intel Ventures Out into the World

You have to love Intel’s tagline: today is so yesterday. It reflects the firm’s focus on constant innovation. In this regard, they set the bar very high.

Intel is looking for opportunity in healthcare, and is making sensors central to the firm’s research and product development efforts. With permission, they send teams of interdisciplinary researchers into people’s homes around the globe. These teams study how people do things like remember to take prescription medicines or how elderly individuals walk around their residences. As these teams spot unmet needs, Intel combines them with even more teams: marketers, designers, and engineers. They build and test prototypes. Then they send these prototype technologies back out into people’s homes. When the firm spots substantial opportunities, it then seeks to build an ecosystem of other organizations: companies, hospitals, universities and researchers.

All the while, Intel is bringing together cross-disciplinary teams in a manner that produces measurable results.

In recent months, Intel has announced the Continua Health Alliance, whose intent was to create interoperability standards for home healthcare, as well as the Intel Health Guide, a system designed to promote greater patient engagement and more efficient care management.

Steve Agritelley, Intel’s Director of Digital Health Product Research and Innovation says, “Cross disciplinary teams aren’t easy to manage, but it’s worth pounding through. What makes it hard is what makes it worthwhile. Each person has an entirely different worldview.

“If you can get them to find overlaps and intersections of what works, that’s where the magic is. Sometimes it works better than others. Over time, people start to understand each other’s perspectives, and it gets more productive.”

The bottom line is simple. If your firm wants to drive innovation with sensors, think diversity.

This article was originally published as a special feature at Sensors Weekly.

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