I break innovation down into two broad categories -- incremental and disruptive. Disruptive innovations are brand new things that haven't been done before (cloning) or brand new ways of doing things that have been done before (digital cameras). This type of innovation needs special marketing techniques because people have no frame reference for adoption. Actually, they have no real reason to adopt a disruptive innovation because they didn't know they needed it!
Incremental innovations are improvements on existing methods. The vast majority of innovation is incremental. People are already using the product or service, and the innovation almost always falls into one or two of the famous "better, faster, cheaper" categories. A lot of the time, the incremental innovation is good. Sometimes, it isn't so clear.
Case #1: The Good (perhaps even brilliant). You may have heard of the nationwide shortage of Wiis, Nintendo's latest game console. Perhaps (like me) you are personally involved in the nationwide shortage of Wiis. (And before you get thinking about how wonderful/awful/both the name "Wii" is, that's not the subject of this post. Wal*Mart is the subject.) My son has employed many strategies to figure out where the supply bottleneck is liable to first ease up, and logically decided that since better than $1 out of every $10 spent in America is spent at Wal*Mart, that would be the place to start. So he called all the local Wal*Marts and there were no Wiis in stock at any of them. So we went to Wal-Mart.com, where they had an "OUT OF STOCK" notice. (This was back in early December.)
Fast forward a few weeks, and we checked back. (Here's the innovation.) They still didn't have any Wiis, but instead of "OUT OF STOCK", the site sent us to the Nintendo Wii Gift Card . It is nothing more than a regular old Wal*Mart gift card, but with Nintendo Wii artwork and in the amount of $249.24, the "every day" low price of the Wii! Very smart! They customized a routine commodity offering (the gift card) to be a substitute for a wildly sought after product. (It might be a poor substitute, but I'll bet that it was a popular and necessary substitute.)
Case #2: Incrementalism gone awry -- the Gillette Fusion razor. (That link is to a non-Flash site. To link to a semi-bizarre Flash site, hosted by someone named "Cassandra" who guides you through the "laboratory" to learn more about this amazing innovation, go here.) The Fusion is a razor that has five blades packed together in the head. I just got one in the mail.
Men have been scraping their beards and mustaches off since the invention of dating, and had been using a variety of single edged razors, including the so-called "safety razor", which had been introduced by Gillette in 1901.
A mere 70 years would pass before the Gillette people could improve on things with the introduction of the Trac II razor, the first two-bladed cartridge. The theory was (if I remember the commercials right), that the first blade would -- in the process of severing the offending hair -- actually pull the hair slightly out of the face so the trailing blade could cut off even more. It would then snap back below the surface of the skin, producing irresistibly smooth face parts.
You could probably argue about whether this was an incremental innovation or a disruptive one. It certainly hadn't occurred to anyone in the previous several millenia to add a second blade. That said, going from one of something to two of something is truly incremental. In either event, it did improve both the process (less cutting and nicking) and the result (the previously mentioned irresistibility).
Life went on with much of the innovation in hair removal being confined to the electric side of the business. The manual business was made up by competing on price (everyone had introduced two-bladed cartidges) and making disposable razors that were just barely adequate to shave with but cheap enough to be profitable and drive growth. (A departure from the traditional razor-and-blade business model, we note.)
Only 27 years passed before another wizard at Gillette caught the industry by surprise and got the idea to add a third blade to the mix. This became known as the Mach3. (I'm actually short-changing some of the smaller, less earthshaking innovations along the way. They can be found at Wikipedia.)
This was an incremental innovation, and it did actually seem to yield an incrementally better (and again, less dangerous) shave. You might think that this would be the logical end of the line for adding a "plurality of blades" to the cartridges, as the patents might read. You would be wrong. After a century of getting out-innovated by Gillette, the Schick people responded with the Quattro, which had the startlingly non-obvious innovation of a fourth blade! Gillette responded with the fifth blade, which brings us up to the present.
I've been using my new Fusion instead of my Mach3 for the last week or so, and the question remains: does all this rampant innovation lead to a better shave? I put myself through the Post Cheek Smoothness Meter (my wife) who pronounced it no different with the Fusion.
Where will this all end? Will we wind up with a Microplane grater that we drag around our face? Or maybe there will be a shaving cream like Nair that gets rid of hair once and for all. (There's actually a pretty funny analysis at Wikipedia about the progression of blades. They predict that we will reach an infinite number of blades in 2015 with the introduction of the "Schick Infini-T".)
I'm going to stick with three blades for now. Call me a Luddite.