The Surface and the Chromebook Offer Lessons on Innovation

January 24, 2014, 5:04 PM ET

The Surface and the Chromebook Offer Lessons on Innovation

By Steve Rosenbush

Deputy Editor

Well after their initial release, two devices—the Surface tablet and the Chromebook laptop—finally are gaining some traction in the market. Microsoft Corp.MSFT +2.08%’s Surface was a bright spot in the company’s latest earnings report, the WSJ’s Shira Ovide says. The Chromebook—a stripped-down laptop that is designed to be used over the Internet with Google Inc.GOOG -3.13%’s Chrome operating system and its cloud-based apps–is increasingly popular among schools, the WSJ’s Rolfe Winklerreports.

Neither product was an instant sensation, but that is exactly what makes them interesting. Conversations about innovation focus all too often on the iPads and iPhones of the world, the outliers that redefine markets and the way that people go about lives and their business. It’s great to understand the stories behind their success, but given that few successful products can match that arc—and that the ones that do tend to come about in a unique and unpredictable way—the Surface and the Chromebook may have more to teach us.  As Gartner Inc. analyst Tuong Nguyen says, “the process of progress in technology is often more evolutionary than revolutionary.”

As readers of CIO Journal are well aware, the Surface failed to live up to initial expectations in 2012. But as Ms. Ovide writes, “fresh versions of Surface went on sale in October, and Microsoft sharply discounted the first-generation Surface models. It looks like the one-two punch of new Surface models and cheap, older Surface models helped drive a surprisingly good showing from Microsoft’s hardware business.” Reviews of early Chromebooks, launched in 2011, determined that the devices suffered from basic flaws—they were under-powered and had poor screens, even given the price range of about $300. But prices have come down even more, and the quality steadily has improved.  “A Chromebook could soon become a truly viable notebook,” the Verge’s David Pierce wrote last year in a review of the Hewlett-Packard Co. Chromebook 14.

“We’re always listening to what our customers may need, and Chromebooks are always gaining new features based on that feedback,” a Google spokeswoman told the WSJ. That may seem obvious, but the fact is that businesses often don’t listen to their customers, and even if they do, then what? What do they do with all of that feedback and how do they use those insights to improve their products and bring them to market?

CIO Journal has focused on those questions for nearly two years now. As PwC principal Chris Curran wrote in a guest column back in 2012, many companies have the ability to generate or capture innovative ideas, but “a rare few have instilled the systemic organizational processes to harness those ideas and to repeat the process over and over again to sustain successful innovation.”

Innovation draws together a broad range of people and skills and flows organically from a company, from its culture, leadership and structure. As Mr. Curran notes, technology and IT leadership is a major factor in that success, which depends upon the collection, dissemination and analysis of data.


The innovation process should be segmented into phases and talent should be managed accordingly. Creativity fuels the idea generation phase of innovation and is necessary to identify potential breakthrough products and services. The second phase, idea exploration, employs more left-brained talent that is capable of sorting, prioritizing, and prototyping and testing ideas. Discriminating scrutiny is required to boost the odds that the innovation is aligned with business goals and has a chance of generating a return on investment. At the final stage, idea scaling, the art of innovation takes a back seat to the engineering. Corporations need to marshal the necessary resources along the innovation conveyor belt to mobilize, scrutinize, enhance, scale and implement inspired ideas.***

While it’s unlikely that this sort of prosaic work will yield the next iPhone or iPad, it may play a key role in helping save the next promising, but flawed , idea from failure. In the aggregate, those relatively minor successes are greater than the sum of their parts.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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