What Was the Most Questionable Innovation of 2000?

The growth of our economy, as you know, depends upon innovation. We must think of new products, new services, new ways to make the pie grow larger and larger. Many times in the year now ending I have pondered this imperative and how it relates to this or that exciting technological innovation. And when I say exciting technological innovation, what I mean, of course, is stupid little geegaw.

Of all the stupid little geegaws of 2000, I invite you to consider the Cuecat. This device is kind of like a computer mouse except that its purpose is to be “swiped” over a product bar code or similar code on a magazine page, taking you, the user, directly to a related World Wide Web site for “more information.” The Cuecat has taken a lot of abuse; some have complained that it doesn’t work very well. I wouldn’t know: Although I received two complimentary Cuecats in connection with magazines I subscribe to, I’ve never been tempted to try the thing. How often, really, have you held some product in your hand and yearned for a fast and easy way to go to a related Web site? Or been reading a magazine article, spied a Web address, and ached for some method of accessing that address without actually having to spend the time it would take to type it in? While the Cuecat may well be the least useful innovation of the year (I’m open to countersuggestions), my point is not so much to keep kicking it around as to hold it up as a classic example of an elaborate solution to a nonexistent problem.

Why does this happen? After all, it’s not like there aren’t plenty of actual problems in the world. And we’ve all pretty much come to accept that markets are the ultimate problem solvers. So why are there so often fixes for things that weren’t broken? It seems to me that innovation can be a lot more supply-driven than we think, often beginning not so much with a search for the most pressing problem but with an idea for something that is merely possible and new. The wilder and more undisciplined the market environment gets, the truer this is since it’s pretty easy to think of things that are possible and new if you don’t spend too much time worrying about whether they’re necessary or desirable.

The upshot is that from time to time we experience a sort of innovation overload, and the year now ending was particularly ripe for this condition. As casual readers of the business pages are aware, record-setting amounts of venture capital have been flung at innovators in recent times. So much venture capital, in fact, that these “investments” finally began to look like grants given to conceptual artists who had re-branded themselves as entrepreneurs: Here’s $10 million for your out-of-the-box idea, and another $50 million to market the thing, and if we’re all lucky, we’ll gross as much as Karen Finley did in her heyday.

That’s all over now, of course, this being the post-bubble environment and all. Having come through a long period in which the innovation supply absolutely exploded, we’re currently in the process of finding out just how far short it’s falling of demand. Fortune ran a story last month on “the innovation glut,” and The Industry Standard recently weighed in with a look at “gadget fatigue.” Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to the technology arena. Not long ago this column considered a Pizza Hut ad touting the Insider, a “pizza inside a pizza.” And the latest issue of the justly celebrated products, marketing, and “inconspicuous consumption” zine Beer Frame includes a column on Kellog’s 3 Point Pops–Corn Pops that are orange, like a basketball. Are these “innovations” responding to some demand? Of course not.

Having said all this, let me rush to offer a few obvious caveats. Such as: Innovation, generally speaking, is a good thing, and we really do need it to make the pie grow larger. I’m not against innovation, and I own more than a few stupid little geegaws. Markets may be sloppy, but they do end up producing solutions to legitimate problems, sometimes in surprisingly roundabout fashion. Moreover, they create solutions to problems we hadn’t been aware we had but subsequently embrace (such as taking phone calls during movies). Maybe it seems at times that there is something a little pie-in-the-sky about this innovation or that one. But remember, if we cannot always make the pie grow larger as quickly as we’d hoped, then perhaps, as George W. Bush once observed, we ought to make the pie higher.