TECHNOLOGY

The Value of Incremental Innovation

These products mimic classics from yesteryear. They test the line between value-adding gadget and the reinvented wheel.
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When you think up new products, you're always faced with a fundamental decision: Do you invest your time, money, and resources in a potentially game-changing shift that adds previously unknown functions (for which the world might not be prepared, such as gesture interfaces)? Or do you seek to incrementally improve on functions that already exist but add a new technological twist that creates a market?

Innovators have historically chosen the latter path, and technological and functional progress has occurred in microsteps (except in rare, brilliant cases).

But innovation generally moves in a forward direction, enhancing and improving on what came before. Even the steampunk technology trend, which wraps highly sophisticated technology in a cloak of retro-Victorian-era design, continues to break new ground both technologically and aesthetically.

There is, however, a third way. The makers of a flurry of new products are using the most advanced technologies available to attempt to recreate functionality that has existed for decades--even centuries. They are, in some cases, recreating the wheel by building a much more expensive, more complex wheel--one that needs batteries.

Exhibit One: The Sony DPT-S1 document reader is slightly foldable, weighs only 12.2 ounces, and lasts all week, getting a little closer to the unlimited battery life, foldability, browsability, and crisp reading experience provided by, uh, paper.

Steelcase's Gesture performance chair leans all the way back and the arms drop out of your way to allow you a more comfortable tablet-using experience--but so does Uncle Bob's reclining, armless oak desk chair from the '70s.

LG's G Flex smartphone's OLED panel is built on a thin plastic substrate under Gorilla Glass 2 in a curvy design that produces better voice quality. The curve gets the mouthpiece closer to the user's mouth--which is why traditional telephones have had curved handsets since shortly after their invention. Cell-phone makers largely dropped that form factor in the late '90s.

Rob Enderle, a consumer analyst, says that in a struggling economy, customers increasingly need a cost justification for tech purchases like these. They weigh whether the gadget is a life changer worth paying for or an overpriced piece of tech that doesn't add value to the consumer's life and is destined to be shelfware.

"It needs to be interesting to look at, fun to use, and perform some function I've struggled with or discovered I liked doing after seeing the device," Enderle says. If that is achieved by recreating the best qualities of some golden-age product, so be it. If not, you may have just created the next MSN Direct SmartWatch, which let wearers get exactly the same MSN data they could get on their smartphone and was really ugly.

Jonas Damon, a creative director at Frog, a New York City-based design company, says that regardless of how much old function is blended with the new tech, new products should solve a new problem, not just re-solve an old one. "The level of innovation or level of advanced technology [needs to] balance with the problem we are solving for," says Damon. "The solution is often a blend of old and new."

Does a $1,000 product that uses the best technology available to recreate the experience of a piece of paper strike that balance? We tested it, and other products, to find out.

Our verdict: The successful products, as always, will feature a design with enough new functionality to entice consumers to buy a higher-tech version of something they already have, not a design that leaves them unsatisfied and demanding more for their hard-earned dollar. 

AT&T Trimline vs. LG G Flex

The G Flex smartphone ($695, or $299 with a two-year AT&T contract) reduces glare on video calls and increases the audio quality for voice-only calls. That's owing to an ever-so-slight bend in the phone at both ends, mimicking what you would find on an AT&T Trimline phone. But the Trimline's still just a phone at the end of the day. 

Notebook vs. Sony DPT-S1

The Sony DPT-S1 is a 0.26-inch-thick flexible e-reader with a 13.3-inch display that makes digital documents look like real paper. It stores thousands of pages and recognizes pen inputs, but it still can't match paper's crisp reading surface and ease of browsing. Plus, paper never needs a recharge. At $1,000, it's got a long way to go to match the value of a notebook.

Oak chair vs. Steelcase Gesture

The Steelcase Gesture can lean back to a near-horizontal position--so your hands are free for tablet typing--while holding you firmly in place. The arms swing down and out of the way. There's no knob to adjust for the tilt angle, because the chair adjusts automatically. All for $979--about $500 more than a reclining oak chair.

IMAGE: Courtesy Company, iStock
From the April 2014 issue of Inc. magazine

JOHN BRANDON | Columnist

John Brandon is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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