Why innovation is not always easy

Just about everyone I know has either read the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson or has seen the movie. And it seems that just about every company that makes something wants to be like Apple and introduce the next great product. I am part of this enormous club though I am quick to tout my credentials as I did buy my first Mac in 1985. Despite my dislike of the ads that, as Jonathan Franzen opines, exude with "insufferable smugness," I still hold up Apple to be the epitome of innovation. So does most of the world.

When we rolled out the 2300 controller last week and embarked anew on the development of the 2400 controller I came face-to-face with the forces that can kill innovation and render it irrelevant.

If you have ever used a controller or transmitter then you know that all operation from set-up to calibration to diagnostics are all handled via the front display. This has been the model of operation for as long as there have been electronic displays. The firmware to drive the local display is a large collection of custom written code whose creation is about half the cost of the entire product development. To web enable the device requires a second set of firmware to manage the settings and process readings that fly across the network. With two separate interfaces going—one for the local display and one for the network—the software developer now has double the work to get the controller to market. He or she also has double the work every time a change is made.

Months ago, Ron Gale, our Director of Technology, latched onto the idea of replacing the two parallel universes of the local interface and network interface with just one. The network one would win that starring role. As any professional website demonstrates, a web based interface can be a beautiful thing. And it's not just a pretty face—anything you can do using programs on your computer you can do over the web. Thanks to a billion websites out there the tools to create them are common, easy to use and inexpensive.

I resisted Ron's idea of controlling the controller through web pages but, when we and the designers reviewed the complexity and costs of building and maintaining two parallel interfaces, I became a believer. We didn't do away with the local display. In fact it does everything a typical display does EXCEPT for set-up and calibration. That is done on a network device, which can be a desktop, laptop, tablet or smart phone.

Everyone has one of these so-call smart devices. So what's the problem? It turns—as we found out—that a small minority of users simply cannot get over the mental hurdle of, say, calibrating a sensor without using the display right on the controller—even if it's far more cumbersome, takes twice as long and often requires reading the manual. Furthermore some users don't have Ethernet running through their building. Both objections have an easy fix. For about $25 you can attach a router to the controller and set up your own private network. Or, for $10, you can buy an ethernet cable and connect it straight to the smart device. We even joked that we had a kit for turning a mini tablet into a local display. For $75 we would send a package of velcro.

Nonetheless that small subset of users could not envision life without a little display and an array of membrane switches. They told us so in no uncertain terms. They will probably not buy the 2300 that is out now or the 2400 that will be out in several months.

The temptation of pleasing everyone is very powerful. We thought of making the new controllers to be all things to all people. Of course that would mean hundreds of hours writing redundant sofrware and, since we are not a non-profit agency, we'd have to recoup the cost by seriously jacking up the price of the controllers. And to what end—to keep an interface rooted in the 70's that drives most new users to distraction?

Every time I consider pleasing everyone and staying with decades old technology I recall Wayne Gretzky's comment: "I skate to where the puck will be, not where it has been." For the consumers that we all are the future is right now. I can control the electronics in my house with my Comcast subscription and a phone. For those of us who deal with water quality instrumentation it's right around the corner and there is no turning back.