Creativity by Blending Ideas to Form New Ones: A Case Study of Gutenberg and the Printing Press

Ideas Evolve over Time by Blending with Other Ideas

Ideas Evolve over Time by Blending with Other Ideas

One of the fascinating aspects of invention is tracking the continuity of ideas across an arc of time. Through education, exposure, and experimentation, people’s creative thoughts can stretch both temporally and across various disciplines of knowledge.

When people develop a new idea, they often share it with others, who may then use this idea to expand their own understanding of concepts, invent even fresher ideas, and spread them. Ideas thus evolve over time.

Building on Antecedent Inventions

Considering the collaborative nature of idea formation, every new idea is arguably a conceptual sum of its predecessors. The power of blending ideas to form new ones is shown in that most seminal inventions are based on antecedents—inventions that came before them. For instance,

  • James Watt’s “invention” of the steam engine (or, more precisely, his invention of the separate-condenser steam engine) was in fact an attempt to modify Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine. Newcomen’s work was itself based on Thomas Savery’s invention of a steam-powered pump to extract water from mine-shifts. Later, James Watt adapted his separate-condenser to produce continuous rotary motion and expanded its use far beyond pumping water. Continuous rotary motion sparked the transition from hand-production methods to machine-power and became the driving force of the Industrial Revolution.
  • The Wright brothers’ first heavier-than-air powered flight was the culmination of their experience with bicycles. This first flight demonstrated their ability to improve prior inventions by applying previously-reached solutions to controlled flight issues. [See my previous article on how the Wright brothers argued and developed their ideas.] Within fifty years of the Wright brothers’ first successful airplane, humankind’s concept of distance had changed dramatically: aircrafts could fly across continents in hours—sometimes faster than sound. Just a short time later, aircrafts were traveling into space.
  • British Mathematician Andrew Wiles’ much-celebrated proof of Pierre de Fermat’s Last Theorem was based on the work of some of the greatest mathematical minds who, over three centuries, had also puzzled over Fermat’s Last Theorem. Contemporaries Gerhard Frey, Jean-Pierre Serre, and Ken Ribet also influenced Wiles’ work. Until Wiles’ success in the mid-nineties, the theorem remained inaccessible to proof for 358 years. In the 1840s, German mathematician Richard Dedekind attempted to solve the theorem and in so doing, laid the foundations of algebraic number theory.

Idea for Impact: Creativity is accessible through the often-subconscious process of blending what you already know to form new ideas.

Gutenberg's Invention of Mechanized Printing: Blend of coin punch and mechanized wine press

Case Study: Gutenberg’s Invention of Mechanized Printing

In the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg invented mechanized movable-type printing. His invention revolutionized the dissemination of knowledge throughout the Western World and played a pivotal role in the development of the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution.

The earliest forms of printing evolved from letter and coin punches, which were in vogue even in the Neolithic era. Woodblock printing was fashionable in East Asia since the second century. At least two centuries prior to Gutenberg’s invention, manual block printing with movable type had existed. However, this technique was hardly known in Europe, where all manuscripts were laboriously copied out by hand or stamped out with woodblocks before Gutenberg’s invention.

Johannes Gutenberg: Inventor of mechanized movable-type printing Gutenberg blended the flexibility of a coin punch with the power of a mechanized wine press to invent mechanized printing. For each character to be printed, Gutenberg used his skills as a goldsmith to cast individual pieces of metal type. These pieces could be quickly assembled into blocks depending on the composition of characters on a page.

Gutenberg’s mechanized press was an adaptation of the wine press, a historical contraption used to crush grapes and extract their juice for winemaking. Gutenberg’s press consisted of a fixed lower bed and movable upper platen containing composed type blocks. The platen was inked, covered with a sheet of paper, and pressed by a small bar on a worm screw. Pressing the upper and lower surfaces together formed a vise and left a sharp impression of inked characters on the paper.

The hand-operated Gutenberg press was further mechanized in the 19th century. Engineers introduced James Watt’s invention of the double-acting rotary steam engine to create steam-powered rotary presses, altogether creating industrialized bulk printing.

Inspirational Quotations #568

If you want a place in the sun, you’ve got to put up with a few blisters.
Pauline Phillips (Abigail van Buren)

Fear is an emotion indispensable for survival.
Hannah Arendt

Laugh at yourself, but don’t ever aim your doubt at yourself. Be bold. When you embark for strange places, don’t leave any of yourself safely on shore. Have the nerve to go into unexplored territory.
Alan Alda

People want you to be a crazy, out-of-control teen brat. They want you miserable, just like them. They don’t want heroes; what they want is to see you fall.
Leonardo DiCaprio

More men are killed by overwork than the importance of the world justifies.
Rudyard Kipling

To the being of fully alive, the future is not ominous but a promise; it surrounds the present like a halo.
John Dewey

Apply yourself. Get all the education you can, but then, by God, do something. Don’t just stand there, make something happen.
Lee Iacocca

Laughter is a tranquilizer with no side effects.
Arnold Glasow

I wonder, among all the tangles of this mortal coil, which one contains tighter knots to undo, and consequently suggests more tugging, and pain, and diversified elements of misery, than the marriage tie.
Edith Wharton

Change is the process by which the future invades our lives, and it is important to look at it closely, not merely from the grand perspectives of history, but also from the vantage point of the living, breathing individuals who experience it.
Alvin Toffler

There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up the pen to write.
William Makepeace Thackeray

Making Training Stick: Your Organization Needs a Process Sherpa

Organizational Process Sherpa

Corporate training in procedures usually doesn’t stick when the techniques learned are not immediately necessary on the job. If more than a few days pass between training and application, it seems employees cannot recall what they’ve learned.

In order for training to be effective and for employees to retain their newfound knowledge, there needs to be an element of on-the-job reinforcement. A guide can observe, correct, or commend on-the-job application of the training. This follow-up approach will solidify new information and give employees the benefits of experience.

If a certain procedure is required infrequently (say, just a few times each year,) employees may never remember it, not to mention master it. This issue may arise frequently as many organizational processes are only used sporadically.

Until a skill is completely ingrained and natural, employees won’t use it effectively.

To ensure employee familiarity with all relevant processes, even those used infrequently, every organization should consider appointing a Process Sherpa, a process guide.

The Process Sherpa would be analogous to the Sherpas, high-altitude mountaineering guides who help explorers carry loads and negotiate dangerous, ice-covered in the Himalayas and elsewhere. [See yesterday’s article for more on the Sherpas and pioneering explorers Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary.]

The Process Sherpa would understand the wide variety of a company’s processes—filing expense reports, hiring contractors, searching a database of technical reports, preparing quarterly budgets, developing the annual operating plan, preparing for financial audits, and the rest. When the demands of these tasks fall beyond an employee’s understanding, the Process Sherpa could step in and help.

The Process Sherpa position could be adjustable and elastic. It could be a full-time, dedicated role, or the Sherpa responsibilities could be divvied up amongst many employees—after considering the needs of the organization and the expertise of the Sherpas in individual processes.

A Sherpa would not only assist employees, but could also improve the business processes themselves. Having personally witnessed the employees’ challenges, the Sherpa could modify processes to make them simpler and more effective.

On the Sherpas, Tenzing Norgay, and Edmund Hillary

Preamble: Tomorrow’s article on the ‘Process Sherpa’ will reference the Sherpas—porters and mountaineering guides of the Himalayas. My editor suggested that I include in that piece a paragraph on the Sherpa people and the relevance of their professions to the ‘Process Sherpa’ concept. What started as a mere footnote soon grew into this standalone article.

Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary

Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering

The Sherpas (literally “men of the east”) are legendary high-altitude porters and modern-day mountaineering guides in the Himalayas.

Originally, the mountain-dwelling Sherpas were part of a nomadic Mongolian tribe that descended from Genghis Khan. The Sherpas are deeply religious and, as part of their Tibetan-Buddhist faith, considered the mountains to house their deities. Out of deference to these reigning deities, the Sherpas historically possessed no desire to climb the sacred mountains.

The Sherpas settled predominantly in the villages of Nepal’s Solu-Khumbu valley, where westerners began their expeditions into the Himalayas. As interest in ascending Mount Everest ramped up, western expeditions started to rely on the Sherpas as porters. Their great strength, physiological ability to acclimatize to high altitudes, and dexterity in negotiating dangerous paths in the ice-covered mountains made the Sherpas formidable load-carriers. Since then, no expedition to the top of the Everest has succeeded without their assistance.

In the high mountains, the term ‘Sherpa’ is now synonymous with an expedition guide. Sherpas work as not only mountaineering guides in the Himalayas but also as expedition guides in places as far flung as Africa’s Kilimanjaro, South America’s Patagonia, and other mountain tourism hotspots around the world.

Sherpa Sirdar Tenzing Norgay

The most famous of the Sherpas is Sirdar (Chief) Tenzing Norgay who, alongside New Zealander-teammate Edmund Hillary, was the first to reach Mount Everest’s summit. In setting foot on the great mountain’s summit at 11:30 A.M. on 29 May 1953, the two defined a key moment of 20th century exploration.

For the incredible account of the personal triumph of a poor and illiterate but ambitious and deeply religious explorer, read Tenzing Norgay’s autobiography “Man of Everest” and Yves Malartic’s biography “Tenzing of Everest”. These two books were required reading for my eighth grade language class.

Sir Edmund Hillary

No discussion on the Sherpa people would be complete without mention of one man’s extensive humanitarian efforts. Edmund Hillary’s endeavors so endeared him to the mountain people that his scaling the Himalayas pales in comparison. Since the 1960s, Hillary’s Himalayan Trust has raised funds to build schools, clinics, hospitals, bridges, and water pipelines for Nepal’s Sherpa communities. Beyond the achievement for which he is best known, Hillary’s entire life story is also incredibly inspirational. To learn more, read “Edmund Hillary”. I also recommend his autobiographies, “High Adventure” and “View from the Summit”.

Inspirational Quotations #567

Your silent thoughts are like the roots of a plant. They remain hidden in the dark recesses of the earth, but from them stems the whole plant–its life and form, its strength and beauty. From them and through them the plant lives and dies. So, too, your thoughts, although hidden, are your real, vital force.
Lawrence G. Lovasik

When you choose the lesser of two evils, always remember that it is still an evil.
Max Lerner

If we decide to take this level of business creating ability nationwide, we’ll all be plucking chickens for a living.
Ross Perot

If you can go through life without ever experiencing pain you probably haven’t been born yet. And if you’ve gone through pain and think you know exactly why, you haven’t examined all the options.
Neil Simon

Care is a state in which something does matter; it is the source of human tenderness.
Rollo May

One loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives.
Euripides

The art of pleasing is the art of deception.
Luc de Clapiers, marquis de Vauvenargues

When work goes out of style, we may expect to see civilization totter and fall.
John D. Rockefeller

Knowing oneself is not so much a question of discovering what is present in one’s self, but rather the creation of who one wants to be.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Knowledge is the most democratic source of power.
Alvin Toffler

To what extent is any given man morally responsible for any given act? We do not know.
Alexis Carrel

The principle of happiness should be like the principle of virtue: it should not be dependent of things, but be a part of personality (and character).
William Lyon Phelps

Inspirational Quotations #566

What I cannot love, I overlook.
Anais Nin

Depression is the inability to construct a future.
Rollo May

God may forgive your sins, but your nervous system won’t.
Alfred Korzybski

We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.
Anais Nin

Power abdicates only under stress of counter-power.
Martin Buber

Mistakes are the portals of discovery.
James Joyce

Genius is another word for magic, and the whole point of magic is that it is inexplicable.
Margot Fonteyn

Solitude is the place of purification.
Martin Buber

Every time you get angry, you poison your own system.
Alfred A. Montapert

The sign for which I forge an image has no value if it doesn’t harmonize with other signs, which I must determine in the course of my invention and which are completely peculiar to it.
Henri Matisse

Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor.
Alexis Carrel

Some people are molded by their admirations, others by their hostilities.
Elizabeth Bowen

Never again clutter your days or nights with so many menial and unimportant things that you have no time to accept a real challenge when it comes along. This applies to play as well as work. A day merely survived is no cause for celebration. You are not here to fritter away your precious hours when you have the ability to accomplish so much by making a slight change in your routine. No more busy work. No more hiding from success. Leave time, leave space, to grow. Now. Now! Not tomorrow!
Og Mandino

Wisdom before experience is only words; wisdom after experience is of no avail.
Mark Van Doren

Inspirational Quotations #565

There are two insults no human will endure: the assertion that he has no sense of humor and the doubly impertinent assertion that he has never known trouble.
Sinclair Lewis

I never knew a man of letters ashamed of his profession.
William Makepeace Thackeray

No matter how well you perform there’s always somebody of intelligent opinion who thinks it’s lousy.
Laurence Olivier

The tears of the world are a constant quality. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh.
Samuel Beckett

Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.
Anais Nin

Life is too short for theatrics, for face time, for jumping through hoops, for excuses, for blaming, for trying too hard to please others, or for chasing society’s illusion of distant riches or fame.
Robert Cooper

Man has a limited biological capacity for change. When this capacity is overwhelmed, the capacity is in future shock.
Alvin Toffler

The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.
Thucydides

There is one thing even more vital to science than intelligent methods; and that is, the sincere desire to find out the truth, whatever it may be.
Charles Sanders Peirce

It is not for minds like ours to give or to receive flatter; yet the praises of sincerity have ever been permitted to the voice of friendship
Solon

Pico Iyer’s “The Art of Stillness” [What I’ve Been Reading]

The Practice of Stillness

Escape from the Mayhem

Our everyday lives are so busy. Our days are so full. Our world is so noisy.

We fill our lives with activities. We are at the mercy of our commitments. We have an incessant need to be occupied. We hasten. We seek to do something—anything.

Often, our identities are defined by mere ‘doing,’ not ‘being.’ Many of us struggle to find a few minutes to just sit quietly and clear our heads. We cannot afford some space to think and just be. We hardly ever pause to contemplate our experiences or reflect on the life we’ve been missing in a world overwhelmed by distractions.

Distractions disrupt our peace. The French scientist and Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in Pensees, “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries” and added that “the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”

To counter all of our exhilarating movement, we must balance it with an escape. We need space and stillness. When we remain still, we are struck by the realization that our noisy outer world is nothing but a reflection of our cluttered inner world.

Stillness: “Clarity and Sanity and the Joys that Endure”

Celebrated globetrotter and travel writer Pico Iyer’s “The Art of Stillness,” an expansion of his TED talk, is an inspiring analysis of the need to escape the persistent distractibility of the mundane. Iyer makes a persuasive argument for the startling pleasures of “sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.”

Pico Iyer and his family lives in a modest home in the countryside near Kyoto without internet, television, mobile phones, or even cars.

The book’s promo includes excerpts from Iyer’s talk:

We all know that in our undermined lives, one of the things most undermined is ourselves. Many of us have the sensation that we are standing about two inches away from a huge canvass. It’s noisy. It’s crowded. And it’s changing every second. And that screen is our lives. It’s only by stepping back and holding still, that we can begin to see what the canvass means.

One of the first things you learn when you travel is that nowhere is magical unless you can bring the right eyes to it. I find that the best way I could develop more attentive and more appreciative eyes was, oddly to go nowhere … just by sitting still.

In the age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still.

The Importance of Taking a Timeout From Busyness

Subtitled “Adventures in Going Nowhere,” Iyer’s insightful 64-page book provides several examples of stillness in practice. Iyer gives us glimpses into the lives of a privileged few who have found peace.

For example, legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen discovered the supreme seduction of a monastic life. In 1994, after constant indulgence as an incessant traveler and international heartthrob, Cohen moved to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in California, embarked on five years of seclusion, served as an aide to the now-107-year-old Japanese Zen teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, and got ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk.

Leonard Cohen, Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen had come to this Old World redoubt to make a life—an art—out of stillness. And he was working on simplifying himself as fiercely as he might on the verses of one of his songs, which he spends more than ten years polishing to perfection. The week I was visiting, he was essentially spending seven days and nights in a bare meditation hall, sitting stock-still. … Sitting still, he said with unexpected passion, was “the real deep entertainment” he had found in his sixty-one years on the planet. “Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available within this activity.” … “This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.”

Typically lofty and pitiless words; living on such close terms with silence clearly hadn’t diminished his gift for golden sentences. But the words carried weight when coming from one who seemed to have tasted all the pleasures that the world has to offer.

Sitting still with his aged Japanese friend, sipping Courvoisier, and listening to the crickets deep into the night, was the closest he’d come to finding lasting happiness, the kind that doesn’t change even when life throws up one of its regular challenges and disruptions.

Going nowhere, as Cohen described it, was the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.

From the Mayhem of Thought & Action to The Stillness of Being

Iyer contends that the best place to visit in these frenzied, over-connected times is nowhere:

'The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere' by Pico Iyer (ISBN 1476784728) At some point, all the horizontal trips in the world stop compensating for the need to go deep, into somewhere challenging and unexpected; movement makes most sense when grounded in stillness. In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing could feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.

Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.

It’s only by taking myself away from clutter and distraction that I can begin to hear something out of earshot and recall that listening is much more invigorating than giving voice to all the thoughts and prejudices that anyway keep me company twenty-four hours a day. And it’s only by going nowhere—by sitting still or letting my mind relax—that I find that the thoughts that come to me unbidden are far fresher and more imaginative than the ones I consciously seek out.

Iyer’s “The Art of Stillness” isn’t a self-help manual and doesn’t give specific, actionable advice on how to achieve stillness. Quiet reflection and mindfulness meditation could move one’s mind in the direction of uplifting tranquility and natural stillness.

Idea for Impact: Occasionally, Try to Not Do Anything and Just Be

Take a break from your day to reflect, to recharge and to reassess. Take a vacation from your accelerated life. Just be with yourself, genuinely center, and quiet the mind.

You can achieve this centered state and contemplate when your exterior is noiseless. Then, during those still and silent moments you can come to terms with your experiences and struggles, your hopes and despairs, your ideas and judgments, your fears and fantasies.

Inspirational Quotations #564

True happiness must arise from well-regulated affections, and an affection includes a duty.
Mary Wollstonecraft

The influence of each human being on others in this life is a kind of immortality.
John Quincy Adams

Kind thoughts are rarer than either kind words or deeds. They imply a great deal of thinking about others. This in itself is rare. But they also imply a great deal of thinking about others without the thoughts being criticisms. This is rarer still.
Frederick William Faber

I wish I were either rich enough or poor enough to do a lot of things that are impossible in my present comfortable circumstances.
Don Herold

Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.
Karl Barth

Every time you win, you’re reborn; when you lose, you die a little.
George E. Allen

The very essence of the creative is its novelty, and hence we have no standard by which to judge it.
Carl Rogers

Obscurity in writing is commonly a proof of darkness in the mind; the greatest learning is to be seen in the greatest plainness.
John Wilkins

A man only becomes wise when he begins to calculate the approximate depth of his ignorance.
Gian Carlo Menotti

If I had my hand full of truth, I would take good care how I opened it.
Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle

In the finest critics one hears the full cry of the human. They tell one why it matters to read.
Harold Bloom

There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.
Madeleine Albright

It must be hard to be a model, because you’d want to be like the photograph of you, and you can’t ever look that way.
Andy Warhol

Bill Gates and the Browser Wars: A Case Study in Determination and Competitive Ferocity

Competition Drives so much of our World Today

We live in a hypercompetitive age where winning is the outcome, often necessary for survival—in classrooms, sports, trade and commerce or at work. The archetypical successful person is determined, aggressive, and obsessed with winning at everything, sometimes at any cost. Of course, competition is healthy; but, winning may come at a hefty price—always striving to win or being overzealous can be both unnecessary and unproductive. Besides, collaborative or naturally uncompetitive individuals tend to find competitive people somewhat unpleasant.

History provides but a few vivid portraits of intense competition that compare to the mid-90s’ “browser wars,” a narrative characterized by the dogged determination and intense competitive spirit of some of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs.

Bill Gates and Microsoft are legendary for using brute power: whenever a new competitor emerged, Microsoft would muster its financial resources and its smarts to storm into those markets with alternative products that would eventually dominate. Up until the dot-com bust, Microsoft not only out-competed Borland, Lotus Development, Corel, and other rivals that were previously in the lead, but also crushed upstarts such as Netscape.

“The Browser Wars”: Rise and Fall of Netscape

Bill Gates and the Browser Wars At the start of 1995, a new software called Netscape Navigator took the computing world by storm. Unlike primitive browsers, Netscape could display text and graphics on websites. Early web buffs eager to discover the marvel of the nascent internet were no longer restricted to downloading text alone. In addition, Netscape could render web pages on the fly while they were still being downloaded. Users did not need to stare at a blank screen until their dial-up connections loaded text and graphics.

Even more astounding was the fact that the upstart Netscape Communications, Netscape Navigator’s creator, had been co-founded by a 23-year-old programmer just a few months previously and seemed well-positioned to take advantage of the imminent consumer internet revolution. Netscape was on its way to an extraordinary 90% market share amongst internet browsers. What’s more: the company’s spectacular IPO was drawing near and was to start the dot-com boom.

Netscape’s meteoric rise could not escape the attention of the world’s dominant software company. Early in 1995, Microsoft was particularly occupied with finalizing Windows 95. Its launch, scheduled for August 1995, would prove to be the largest, most expensive consumer marketing endeavor in history. Moreover, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) had embarked on an intrusive investigation into claims of unfair business practices as alleged by Microsoft’s competitors.

While Netscape was capturing the Web browser market, Microsoft and Bill Gates had seemingly missed the paradigm shift created by the consumer internet. Financial and technology analysts wondered if Microsoft was destined to lose its supremacy over software. Microsoft could not wait on the sidelines and cede business opportunities in the upcoming consumer internet revolution.

Browser Wars: The Rise and Fall of Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer

Bill Gates and Microsoft Jumped on the “Internet Tidal Wave”

Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and the Microsoft team were not to be trifled with. Microsoft simply could not afford to be the underdog. Its strategy was transformed entirely when, on 26-May-1995, Bill Gates wrote the groundbreaking internal memo, “The Internet Tidal Wave.”

Bill Gates deployed an extraordinary amount of capital and talent to battle for control over consumer internet. Just after the August-1995-release of Windows 95, Microsoft released an inferior Internet Explorer 1.0. In 1996, Version 3.0, matched the features of Netscape Navigator. Finally, in 1997, after bundling Internet Explorer 4.0 into Windows 95, Microsoft started to take a significant market share from Netscape.

In 1998, the DOJ and twenty US states alleged that Microsoft had illegally thwarted competition by abusing its monopoly in personal computers to bundle its Internet Explorer and Windows operating system.

By 1999, Netscape was an inferior web browser and quickly lost its dominance. The software’s market share dropped from 90% in 1996 to a meager 4% by 2002.

In subsequent installments of the browser wars, Netscape Navigator’s open-source successor, Firefox, regained market share from Internet Explorer. More recently, Firefox and Internet Explorer have had to contend with Google’s Chrome, which has grown to be the dominant web browser.

Microsoft Set Out to Destroy Competitor after Competitor

Historically, Microsoft has never been a substantial innovator. Instead, the company’s most famous strategy was to be a “fast follower.” The variety of rivals’ projects made no difference—competitors could pioneer anything from graphical user interfaces (GUI,) pointing devices, spreadsheets, word processors, browsers or gaming consoles and Microsoft would catch up in due course.

Consequently, the most important Microsoft products started essentially as copies of existing products made by competitors or upstarts that Microsoft was able to purchase early. MS-DOS evolved from QDOS, which itself derived from CP/M. Microsoft Windows was inspired by Apple’s Macintosh, which, in turn, had been inspired by a prototype mouse-driven graphical user interface that Steve Jobs had seen at Xerox PARC. Microsoft Excel borrowed from VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3. In addition to riding the coattails of bona fide innovators, Microsoft excelled in smart integration—it combined nifty functions and features into a single product or into a suite of easy-to-use tools such as its Office productivity software.

Microsoft’s Once-Invincible Strategy of Being a “Fast Follower” Wasn’t Sustainable

Alas, in the last 15 years, Microsoft’s “fast follower” competitive strategy has proven unsustainable. As its dominance in the enterprise world grew, Microsoft’s impressive financial performance relied mostly on its “old faithful” franchises. In fiscal 2014, the Windows operating system, Office productivity suite, and servers/cloud businesses contributed 78% of Microsoft’s revenue and almost all of the gross profit.

Despite the competitive ferocity of Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and others at the company’s helm, Microsoft has been unable to return to its domineering ways in the internet’s recent mobile- and social-computing trends. In fact, Microsoft stumbled in category after category of consumer computing and technology, including search, social networking, phones, music players, and tablets. Google, Facebook, Apple—lead by entrepreneurs just as intensely competitive as Bill Gates—have soared ahead, altering the social-media-tech consumer experience.

Recommended Reading: If you like business history and entrepreneurial success stories, read ‘Forbes Greatest Business Stories of All Time’, Daniel Gross’s engaging profiles of twenty great American entrepreneurs: Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris, McDonald’s ‘founder’ Roy Kroc, Walt Disney, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, et al. For more stories of Bill Gates’s fierce competitive instincts, read Stephen Manes’s “Gates”.