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One of the questions that have been nagging me since I started working in the world of technology and innovation is why some products are so unbelievably more successful than others, equally advanced and sophisticated from a technological and marketing perspective, in capturing immagination, engaging people and generating new behaviours. So much better at conveying a new range of possibilities, inviting exploration, rewarding learning and sharing, that they are adopted at ultra-rapid pace on a global scale. In the process, they redefine the product category, often giving it their name, and generate unmatched interest, passion and financial returns.

Looking for commonalities that would help understand what makes innovations hugely successful, I started researching some of the cases of product families that transformed the market and drove social innovation on a large scale: Palm Pilot, Nokia 1010, Nokia 3310, RIM Blackberry, Apple iPod, TiVO, Nintendo Wii, Skype, Apple iPhone, Flip. I used this research material in my teaching at Telecom Paris and in a few seminars, one of which at the Otaniemi Forum, in Finland.

My favourite case was the Palm Pilot, also thanks to the excellent documentation available, from interviews and business cases, to books like the one pictured on the right by Andrea Butter and David Pogue. All the ingredients for a transformative product were present. The whole industry was focused on one innovation opportunity: the handheld computer aimed at PC rejectors. Little attention was put on understanding who the few customers of handheld computers were and what they did with it. The Palm team was one of the few in the industry willing to do so. They discovered that handheld computers customers were all but PC rejectors. They used the handheld computer to access information stored on their PCs, with some addition and editing of information, while on the move. The concept of PC-companion rather than PC-alternative was born, opening the way to the PDA (Personal digital assistant) product family. Contrary to the handheld computer, the PC-companion needed few functionalities targeted to specific mobility use cases, but world-class user interface, sync applications and energy management in a pocketable form factor. As in most cases of successful innovation, the product was based on existing, proven technologies with technological innovation concentrated on the key experience differentiators that made the product stand out. Add to the mix a new behaviour of overt social networking offered by the new wireless-enabled peer-to-peer exchange of contents, like business cards, between Palm Pilots, and the product had several intrinsic elements that can explain its success. Naturally, financial, technical, people, marketing, partnership elements played a very significant role too, but, I would claim, the single most important factor was the initial “PC-companion” intuition, and the selection of the core product features to deliver that “PC-companion” experience.

It is however easy to run these analyses a posteriori……..