2007 Tech Innovators: Unlocking The Secrets Of Innovation

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Solution providers' customers rarely ask for the latest bleeding-edge, whiz-bang technology. They want technology innovation--but innovation that solves problems at lower costs without adding complexity.

That approach to innovation is a common theme among the winners of the 2007 Tech Innovator Awards, from Hewlett-Packard's BladeSystem c3000 "Shorty" enclosure, to Yosemite Technologies' FileKeeper Pro file backup and version rollback software, to the SonicWall TZ 190 Wireless network security system.

The winners of this year's awards were announced at the fifth annual XChange Tech Innovator conference in Miami last month. Chosen from nearly 400 entries, the winners were judged by the editors of the CMP Channel Group to be the most innovative products in 15 product categories, plus the prestigious Tech Innovator Editors' Choice Award.

"I think innovation is alive and well in the channel and in the industry," said Gary Bixler, director of North America marketing at AMD, which won the Editors' Choice Award for its Barcelona quad-core Opteron processor.

Alive and well, yes, but innovating in today's business climate isn't easy. Rapid technology cycles mean that today's innovation is tomorrow's "me-too" commodity. Research and development budgets are tight. Some even say IT innovation is being stifled by large companies that acquire startups with innovative products.

Innovation "takes vision and focus and listening to your customers. They know what the problem is, they just don't know how to solve it," said Jeff Caldwell, research and development director at SonicWall.

Caldwell can testify how much innovation drives product demand and how the payoffs for successful innovation can be huge. He and product manager John Gordineer tell the story of how they took a prototype of the TZ 190

Wireless to Europe last year to show to prospective customers. One customer in Madrid wanted 3,000 immediately--and even tried to buy the prototype.

Companies trying to develop innovative products face all kinds of hurdles. Standards must be adhered to, and compatibility with existing technology must be maintained. New products can't be so complex that channel partners are unable to implement them or customers use them--"feature fatigue" one exec calls it. And the final product must be price-competitive.

"The industry is littered with technology solutions that didn't win. To me, innovation is all about paying attention to the big picture and executing on the details," said Mark Potter, vice president and general manager of HP's BladeSystem product line.

"The majority of innovation is evolutionary, improvement on an idea," said David Confalonieri, marketing vice president at Extricom, whose WLAN system won in the wireless technology category. "Innovation is when technology takes a leap in performance and sophistication, coupled with a big drop in complexity. Solution providers want something that's significantly easier to deploy."


Next: No Magic Formula

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