Business

Why China’s Lenovo needs to save Silicon Valley from a major dearth of innovation

INNOVATION

Uh, not really.

But judging from the hand-wringing by pundits in recent days — from Atlantic sister publication Quartz to the New York Times and others who parroted similar views — 2013 absolutely bombed when it came to innovation in Silicon Valley.

The Quartz article, which set off this discussion, starts by lamenting a lack of innovation in smartphones, saying Apple’s update with iOS 7 was minimal and that Android phones have done little better. It then generalizes that argument to the entire technology scene but gets lost when making that wider argument.

The assertion that Silicon Valley lacked innovation in 2013 is laughable. It’s simply not true that the year has been an “embarrassment for the entire tech industry.”

On the contrary, it’s been an incredible year for tech. At VentureBeat, we spent the whole year documenting the innovation disrupting scores of industry sectors. There may be no single whiz-bang device that ruled all innovation, but there were hundreds, if not thousands of serious, but less-hyped advancements that amounted to radical change.


Editor’s note: See our related article, 26 amazing startups you need to watch in 2014.


Just start with healthcare. Yes, the Healthcare.gov site was flawed in its execution and rollout, but it — along with its peer sites at the state level — gives millions of individuals a way to take control over their own health. New wearable and other syncing technologies allow your health data to be uploaded directly to devices you can control, so that this data can drive how doctors give you medical care, as opposed to letting symptoms drive it as they have for thousands of years. Voice-control technology innovations are helping this happen faster.

Or take the innovations in virtual currencies (Bitcoin), big data (relevant in health care, but also in industries from retail to social networking, realize more revenue), and media (Netflix disrupted the media industry with its innovative programming, in part spurred by big data). They may not have the sex appeal that smartphones have, but when you add them all up, they’re just as important. And even if there aren’t shocking innovations in smartphone devices themselves, there’s rapid innovation at several layers underlying the smartphone stack.

I agree that innovation wasn’t particularly grabbing when it comes to the smartphone device itself. The iPhone 5S saw some incremental changes in design and software. Some people argue these changes were significant, including John Gruber, though it’s easy to disagree. But I do agree with Gruber’s main point, which is that all progress happens incrementally — and that’s what’s happening around the smartphone.

The fingerprint sensor — one that finally works — helps boost security at a time many people think it is important. Apple really has been pathetic when it comes to exploring new phone sizes. Apple CEO Tim Cook was grilled for not innovating fast enough. But Apple isn’t the be all and end all of innovation.

That said, Android hasn’t been very inspiring either. When I had to buy a new phone a few weeks ago, I first considered buying the carrier-independent Nexus 5, one of the cutting edge Android phones, but got frustrated when I couldn’t get it anywhere easily (Brad Feld writes about this too). So I settled with the Samsung 4. So yes, when Lenovo, currently the second place smartphone vendor in China, announces it is coming to the U.S and wants to be the No 1 smartphone vendor, I’m thinking ‘Bring it on!’ It would be a very good thing for Lenovo to shake things up.

But as my colleague Om Malik wrote yesterday, I have to say that innovation is very much alive — all over the place, even if there was no shocking new smartphone. Om mentions several areas: Phones being turned into proxy doctors through smart vendors like Scanadu that tie together the use of sensors, apps, and data to help monitor your vital signs; helium filled hard-drives; and Baxter, the robot from Rethink Robotics, one of many robotics breakthroughs this year.

Om makes his case well. I’ll add several more points: Google Glass brought the powerful idea of augmented intelligence to reality, and we as a society spent time this year thinking through its ramifications, including the impact on privacy. Turns out, many people don’t like the idea of Glass, but it’s nonetheless a major innovation.

Facebook, Twitter, and Pandora figured out their advertising business models. Facebook shot out of nowhere to become the biggest mobile ad company in the world outside of Google, through several major innovations in ad units, mostly in its news feed — and not just video ads.

Some innovations are wonky, in that they’re not readily apparent to consumers. But they are at the ingredient level, and they’re making the final products (the ones that consumers touch) richer in a multitude of ways. I already mentioned big data. This is a great example of an area where incrementalism is happening all over, and the result is transformation across the entire economy. Hadoop, one of the leading technologies around big data, isn’t exactly a mainstream term yet, but it’s being used by hundreds of companies — and it became mainstream this year.

In health care, big data is hitting at the same time as the move to electronic health records and more efficient tracking of patient data. This has spurred innovations at the health medical record level by companies like Practice Fusion (and its new Patient Fusion product), AthenaHealth, and CareCloud. At our HealthBeat event in May, we learned how these are being mixed with big data software that is helping track correlations between treatments and patient results across the country, something vendors like Health Catalyst are pioneering at major hospital systems.

In fact, the steady increase in health care costs finally appeared to slow this year, and this trend looks set to continue next year. Due to the sheer mass of innovation across the health sector, it’s difficult to point to a single technology innovation driving this trend, but it’s pretty obvious technology and innovative changes in care models are drivers. At our DataBeat event in December, we witnessed scores of companies making announcements about innovations, many of them in health. In one example, representatives at Mount Sinai in New York said they are sequencing thousands of patient genomes and explained how this has implications for personalized care.

Hell, even in sports, big data is now letting you perfect your golf and baseball swings, thanks to innovations this year by companies like Zepp Labs.

Just today, VentureBeat wrote about how AppDynamcis and New Relic are disrupting the app data monitoring industry. A company called Domo is helping CEOs of large companies track data across their companies from a single dashboard, and it already has 500 customers. Domo is run by Josh James, the founder of leading analytics company Omniture, now part of Adobe.

The beat of innovation could be heard beyond big data. One of the biggest undercurrents was the area of the cloud and marketing and sales automation. Amazon has been on an innovation rampage, making its cloud platform deeper and richer, issuing new features every two weeks on everything from solid state drive instances to new forms of big data analytics. Google, through its own Compute and App Engine platforms, is following suit. VMware and others are disrupting the data center, eating up hardware with software-defined data centers. Oracle, Salesforce, and Adobe found themselves pushing a new multi-layered marketing cloud, bringing science to marketing for the first time and disrupting the entire profession of marketing.

And I haven’t even gotten started with the web development sector, for example how APIs are tying apps together in new ways to allow for more dynamic user experiences. In 2013, we saw companies architecting their web and mobile applications more nimbly, mixing in things like Node.js with Javascript templating and libraries, JSON and Github, and new design best practices.

I could go on and on.

Just this weekend, we published stories about advances on the chip level, with new developments in quantum computers and neuromorphic processers. In the latter, circuits are wired together in a manner similar to the way neurons in the human brain connect to each other — amazing stuff.

That’s why it’s so exciting to be in Silicon Valley right now.

Innovation in 2013 was bewildering. Ask any executive in any leading company, and they’ll agree: It’s tough to keep up with it all. I bet 2014 will be the same. So come on, Lenovo. Bring it on!

More information:

Apple designs and markets consumer electronics, computer software, and personal computers. The company's best-known hardware products include the Macintosh line of computers, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. Apple software includes t... read more »

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