Open Innovation as a Competitive Strategy

Abstract In today’s age, the pace with which technologies become outdated is rapid as compared to previous eras and organisations have to continuously innovate to stay in business. Innovation, which was initially planned and put into practice in the isolated silos of the R&D labs of big firms, is now moving away from these structures and is being incubated in hubs outside the walls of the traditional firm. This logic of closed innovation models as a means of sustaining a competitive advantage has been increasingly challenged by a new paradigm of open innovation. A host of factors have contributed to changes in the innovation models pursued by companies. This paper looks at the concept of open innovation in detail and how companies can effectively use this model to stay in competition. It will take Apple as a case study, to help understand how an open innovation strategy can help build successful products and subsequently take them to market.


Introduction Literature Review Theoretical Framework Case Study – Apple Analysis Discussion Conclusion


Fig 1 – Closed Innovation Model (Chesbrough. “Why is internal R&D no longer the strategic asset it once was?”. The R&D labs at one point represented the closed structure of innovation systems pursued by firms. and was able to foster many innovations that changed the market and brought significant benefits to consumers.Introduction In a significant paper. Fig 1 gives an illustration of a closed innovation model. In 3 . The leading centres of the commercial application of scientific knowledge were not universities or governments. However. Competing firms had no option but to invest more in their own research laboratories if they wished to unseat the dominating players in the market. a cycle of changes in the business environment in the past 30 years have rendered this model as insufficient for companies wishing to remain competitive. Ideas were generated within the firms and were then subsequently taken to the market as products by the ideaholding firm itself. The investment in knowledge was a private exercise and the fruits of which were fiercely protected by intellectual property regimes. The philosophy that dominated this methodology of closed innovation was that of selfreliance. they were the firms themselves. Chesbrough (2003) asks a rather simple question. 2003) This model worked for the better part of the 20th century.

newcomers with absolutely no R&D investment can draw upon research and knowledge available in the market to challenge the economies of the incumbents. An idea can be generated at one end of the market spectrum and can be successfully translated into a product at the other end. Apple. Innovation. 4 . This is the age of open innovation and this paper will attempt to explain how open innovation models have changed the business landscape. It will then use the case study of two successful commercial products launched by the company. and try to explain how the ideologies of open innovation helped in the development of these products. It will begin by taking a look at the literature within academic circles which dominate the discussion on open innovation and then proceed to explain its basic tenets as formalised by Chesbrough (2003).today’s market. no longer has to be incubated and brought to life within the traditional firm.

one being the “private investment” model where innovation is inward focussed and the other one being the “collective action” model where innovation has a broader collective focus. They quote Macmillan et al. They suggest that the motivation for an open culture of knowledge sharing in these industries has in part to do with the desire to build compatible systems. by arguing that in the modern economy which is very much driven by knowledge and its effective application. Such differentiators can only be created by innovation. innovation is vital in the “pursuit of competiveness”. One of the earliest papers discussing the open innovation ideology as a competitive strategy is by Garud and Kumaraswamy (1993). Hippel and Krogh (2003) list the models of innovation that currently exist. Intercompany interaction has received a renewed focus in relation to its role in fostering innovation and the creation of knowledge. Network industries are industries where there exist interrelated markets. He quotes Nelson (1992) to state that the independence of firms is slowly fading as the market forces them to become more collaborative. In open system networks. and he goes on to state that “it is a positive sum game that consists of the efforts of many to develop new fields of value creation”. While studying the open systems strategy employed by Sun Microsystems. Changes in one market could affect the interrelated markets as well. they benefit from first-access to the same and therefore enjoy a “transient monopoly position”. While the “private investment” model results in products or processes that are 5 . This implies that an array of different actors across an industrial sector can participate together in innovation activities. companies have to continuously innovate. (1985) and state that even though companies share their knowledge with other companies in an open system. Their study on the strategies employed by Sun Microsystems leads them to state that the dynamics of competition in closed system networks is very different from that in open system networks.Literature Review Cantwell (2004) sets the basis for innovation as a competitive strategy. they try to provide some insight on the “changing nature of competition” in network industries. which sets them apart from their rivals. either in their products or their processes. Competiveness is marked by the creation of differentiators by firms. such as the computer industry having sub-markets in hardware and software.

privately owned and are protected by strong intellectual property rights. as exemplified by open-source development. is capable of addressing the incentive structures that are in place in both models. they claim that while breakthroughs in research would be available from an open system. They claim that the “ability to exploit external knowledge is thus a critical component of innovative capabilities”. in an article published in 1980. Porter (1980). They leave a few questions open for further research such as what are the incentives that will encourage private firms to engage in a “collective action ” model and what is the role for leadership and management in a “private-collective ” model. While supporting the existence of the basic functions of an R&D laboratory in firms. an R&D lab 6 . which supports a more open and inclusive model. He states that innovation within a cluster can be carried out at a lower cost as it allows for greater collaboration with suppliers and partners. A cluster has a better view of market conditions as knowledge within the cluster is more easily available. realise its value and apply this knowledge to develop products. Suppliers and partners are more collaborative and thereby more connected to each other in the process of innovation. Teece (1984) further explains the rational behind such a strategy when he states that the “economic rents in the competitive forces framework are monopoly rents”. provides support for the closed innovation paradigm when he recommends the setting up of entry barriers by companies as a competitive strategy. However. They draw a relation between the absorptive capacities of a firm and its subsequent potential to innovate. the “collective action” model results in a collaboration of innovators to produce a public good. They then proceed to use the example of open-source development as a model of “private-collective” innovation which combines the best traits of both models. They suggest that such a model. in a change in philosophy that is symbolic of the times. Cohen and Levinthal (1990) define the absorptive capacity of a firm as its ability to assimilate external knowledge. Vertically integrated companies on the other hand will find the innovation process more expensive and fraught with risk as the innovation process is completely in-house. Porter (1998) when explaining the emergence of clusters and the changing dynamics of competition in clustered markets states that the opportunities for innovation in such an environment are more visible as companies within a cluster can often find the resources it needs more easily.

and when industries face similar problems it is this position which enables the transfer of knowledge across them. There is a lack of extensive literature which proposes or opposes the adoption of open innovation business models as a valid competitive strategy. and in an empirical study of more than 2500 UK manufacturing firms discover that the firms that search for external knowledge more extensively are more innovative. Their unique position which gives them a vantage point from where they can view a wide range of industries. He states that the organisational culture that exists in these knowledge brokering companies such as the sharing of information. Knowledge brokers are firms that engage themselves in diverse markets and differing technological platforms and innovate by transferring knowledge across these dispersed domains. Laursen and Salter (2005) add to the work done by Cohen and Levinthal (1990). Their key to innovation lies in recombining already existent technologies in innovative ways to address problems. 7 . the steady flow of problems requiring solutions across varied sectors helped defeat the traditional boundaries of industries and enables the transfer of ideas across them.that conducts basic research would give them a deeper understanding which would help them exploit external knowledge in a better fashion. The literature reviewed takes a look at certain aspects of open innovation and not in its entirety as a business model. The next sections of this paper will attempt to make a case for open innovation as a strategic part of the business models of firms. While further making the case for the recombination of existing technologies as an innovative tool. he quotes Rosenberg (1982) and Basalla (1988) to emphasize that ‘the most dramatic impacts of new technologies have often come in industries other than the ones in which they first emerged’. Hargadon (1998) contends that one has to look towards the knowledge brokers to understand the secrets of continuous innovation. thereby becoming an aid in constant innovation.

He explains how open innovation structures are gradually replacing the earlier innovation systems that that followed a closed and insular model. And in the same vein they can be taken to fruition either by the company or by someone outside it. Earlier there was a scarcity of knowledge which led companies to build their own R&D labs to assist in the creation of new knowledge. Fig 2 – Open Innovation Model (Chesbrough. However. albeit in differing contexts. which has in turn led to a vast pool of highly trained and knowledgeable people. The essence of the open innovation model is that valuable ideas can emerge from within the organisation or from outside it as well.Theoretical Framework Various academicians have discussed some of the features of open innovation. 2003) Chesbrough explains that this change in paradigms has taken place because of the following factors – • Phenomenal growth of university led education over the world. with the 8 . Fig -2 illustrates the open innovation model. however Chesbrough (2003) was the first to formally define the various aspects of open innovation.

research institutions and companies worldwide to bring the best of technology and potential products into Merck. the monopolies of knowledge enjoyed by traditional firms are lost. it informs companies that the role of the R&D lab will have to change within the new environment. This forced them to develop the required capabilities to develop these components within their organisations itself. levels of quality. However. companies now have access to this knowledge without having to invest in specific R&D labs • Availability of venture capital. Organisations have to be more nimble in the fast paced market of today. in it’s 2000 annual report which states “Merck accounts for about 1 percent of the biomedical research in the world. The availability of this capital allowed individuals with ideas the option of starting their own companies instead of being dependent on the R&D labs of big firms. To tap into the remaining 99 percent. This extension could be a recombination of knowledge to form a more complex framework. if not higher. However.knowledge residing in public domains and universities increasing rapidly. Before 1980 there wasn’t too much venture capital available for start-ups. From around $700 million in 1980. more recently. Their interaction with external researchers is more collaborative and therefore will involve the further extension of knowledge that has come from an external resource. external suppliers have become more capable at providing specialized offerings to big firms and are able to provide them at equal. In its new role R&D labs within organisations will serve to assimilate and extract value from the vast amount of knowledge that lies external to the organisation. a leading pharmaceutical firm.” 9 . Previously companies couldn’t rely on external suppliers to provide them with integral components of their products. • External Suppliers. and this implies that they access research conducted outside their perimeters if it will help them bring products to the market quickly. the amount of ventured capital invested in America grew to $80 billion. this does not imply that the R&D labs instituted by large firms have lost their relevance. An indication of this new philosophy is implied in a statement by Merck. we must actively reach out to universities. In the open innovation landscape.

Venture capitalists provide the necessary capital to fund this research. by themselves. while adhering to same objectives. An open business model effectively addresses these two issues by leveraging the expertise of external R&D resources. in contrast. In some cases. firms themselves take part in funding capital for start-ups. finance the necessary research required to convert scientific knowledge into its practical application.While in the closed innovation paradigm. With the increase in scientific knowledge. by asserting a unique position in the array of activities where there exists the possibility of a competitive advantage An open business model. Fig. firms realise that they can no longer. sets itself apart by including a host of external ideas and concepts to create value. in continuation to his work on open innovation argues that for companies to effectively tap into this new regime they will have to open up their business models. Innovation activities are being affected by the increasing costs of innovation and revenue streams becoming shorter due to shorter product life cycles. Firms increasingly understand that having an open innovation strategy helps them build compatible systems. by assuming unique positions in another company’s business. by creating a product or a service from a set of raw materials through an array of activities. by saving both money and time. Open Business models Chesbrough (2006). 10 . 3 illustrates the open innovation business model. in the open innovation paradigm firms see venture capitalists as partners in the development of new technologies. It can further capture portions of that value. venture capital firms were seen as a threat that could lure valued employees away from firms. A business model achieves two main objectives – • The creation of value. in a process known as corporate seeding. this compatibility at times is imbibed by past employees working on external research projects. each activity adding value in the process • The capture of a portion of that value.

Revenues Sale/divestiture Spin-off New Revenues Own Market Share 0 Own Market Share License Internal development costs Internal and external development costs Cost and time savings from leveraging external development Costs Fig 3 – Open Innovation Business Model (Chesbrough. 2006) 11 .

but it took five years for it to be finally launched in the market. and as a result of the phenomenal market success that they achieved Xerox began to grow exponentially. It was the first computer to feature a GUI and use a mouse for screen control. the scientists at PARC built their first computer and it was called the Alto. This case study will look at two Apple products specifically. What was initially designed as a low cost and easy-touse personal computer went though a lot of design changes for it to finally become the world’s first commercially successful personal computer featuring a graphical user interface (GUI). the Macintosh and the iPod. launched the PARC facility in Palo Alto. They revolutionised the computer industry by launching some of the most successful personal computers such as the Apple II series and the Macintosh series. Macintosh The Macintosh was envisioned at Apple in 1979. the world’s best selling portable media player. However. By the end of the sixties Xerox had established itself in the photocopier business and was a billion dollar empire. Working with computers then was very much command driven. Intended to enhance the visual appeal of computers it sported innovative features like “overlapping windows” and bit-mapping of the screen. Xerox. California. the ball mouse and the GUI were invented. In 1970. In 2001. Apple entered the digital music market and spawned a cultural phenomenon with the iPod. It was intended as a research incubator for Xerox where scientists carried out research on semiconductor chips and computers. In 1973. user input was 12 . But the innovations of the GUI cannot be attributed to Apple alone as they had their origins in the Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) facility of Xerox. in 1959 they launched the world’s first plain paper photocopier. and will try to uncover the open innovation practices that were followed to help bring these products to market.Case Study – Apple Apple was founded in 1976 by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak with the intent to manufacture computers. sensing the potential in the nascent computer industry. a mouse and a floppy drive. It was in this research environment that the laser printer. Xerox (originally known as Haloid) was started in 1906 and initially was involved in the manufacture of photographic equipment.

two ideas that would go into building the Macintosh. He insisted on using a more powerful processor and hence the Macintosh was built with the same processor as that of the Lisa’s. They were its bit-mapped display and its lack of command modes. The Lisa was positioned as a business computer and featured a graphical user interface and had high end hardware specifications which made it a very powerful computer for that time. This investment gave Apple programmers access to Xerox’s PARC facility and were able to view the path breaking features of the Alto. were working on a project called Lisa. iPod The iPod wasn’t the first portable media player to be introduced in the market and it had it’s predecessors like the Personal Jukebox (PJB) and the Diamond Rio which 13 . The Macintosh was released in 1984. cursors and icons. Xerox was used to having visitors at its facility and mostly the visitors were unable to comprehend the technology that was displayed. editing took place in edit mode. they bought 100. on the other hand. A few months after the visit. a few PARC employees joined Apple frustrated with Xerox’s inability to harness the technology in a manner that would better address the market. Computer users could work only on one single mode at a time and could not switch between different pieces of work on their computers. The Apple engineers.000 shares of Apple. The bitmap display changed the way users could interact with the computer and brought in the era of windows. was intended to be low cost and a simple-to-use machine. Apple was starting new projects to build the next generation of computers and which led Apple to seek investors to fund its growth. on the other hand. and had more than one insightful query for the researchers at PARC. In 1979. Xerox was one among the many venture capital firms and private investors that invested in Apple. The Macintosh project. etc. and after two years of sluggish growth became the first commercially successful personal computer featuring a GUI and a mouse. The modern computer desktop as we know it was designed at PARC.recorded in input mode. Raskin left the Macintosh project midway and then Jobs took over the Macintosh team at Apple. It was initially led by Jeff Raskin who had spent some time at the Xerox PARC facility and was very much influenced by two traits that he saw in the Alto.

When Apple approached them to assist in the development of the iPod. It gave Apple users the ability to easily organise their digital music libraries. The prototype got Apple interested enough to pursue it a as a full-time project and Fadell was offered a position at Apple to build the iPod. they were taken less seriously in the corporate boardrooms as well. and was specifically responsible for the company’s digital audio strategy. and was launched in 2001. SoundJam was rebuilt and renamed as iTunes. Around that time. Anthony Fadell was an engineer working at Philips and was vice president for business development. bulky appearances and performance issues. a few independent Apple developers had built a digital jukebox to play digital music. but was unable to get any further support within Philips. Another company in Silicon Valley called PortalPlayer was working on mp3 players. In 1999. This collaboration with PortalPlayer gave Apple crucial access to networks of chip manufacturers and hard disk manufacturers in Asia. Fadell quit Philips and ventured to start his own company to take his ideas forward.were available in the market as early as 1998. He saw the possibilities for products related to digital audio. However Apple did not have the in-house capabilities to start designing such a product and began looking outside its walls for expertise. While 14 . The successful launch of iTunes triggered off a train of thought within Apple and they were soon considering a re-entry into the consumer electronics industry (Apple had a bad history with the consumer electronics industry with products such as the Newton) with a portable media player. Without having adequate support from any of the big technology companies in America. Apple got in touch with him and offered him an eight week contract to build a prototype for an mp3 player. they were more than glad to be of assistance as subcontractors in the project. after noticing the possibility that the small hard drives that were used in notebooks could be used to build small mp3 players. something that was missing on Apple’s computers. But not only did these products have shortcomings such as inadequate interfaces. they were trying to develop a product in collaboration with Asian companies. It was called SoundJam and after it was released it caught the attention of Apple who bought the application and decided to turn the third-party program into an official Apple application.

since Pixo followed similar design principles as Apple’s when it came to software development the integration with iTunes was relatively easier to achieve. Pixo fit the bill because it had developed software that was portable and could be easily adapted to custom chips. From sales of 1 million in 2003. the iPod took the world by storm and became the world’s best selling digital media player by achieving sales of more than 140 million iPods to-date. It was initially built keeping Apple users in mind and therefore had no support for Windows users. 15 . Apple worked a deal with a company called MusicMatch to provide the software required for iPods to work with Windows platforms and in 2002 iPods could connect to Windows PCs through MusicMatch. Taking note of this development. Pixo was a company founded by a former Apple employee which wrote operating systems for hand-held devices. A popular third-party utility that came out later was an application that allowed iPod owners to synchronise their playlists with their digital music libraries on Windows PCs. Pixo therefore developed the operating system for the iPod along with its user interface with inputs from Apple. Recognising the potential to access a much bigger market. there was a lack of synergy as compared to the seamless integration of the iTunes and the iPod. Also. Apple approached Pixo to develop the required operating system for the iPod.PortalPlayer gave the structural basis for the iPod’s hardware Apple still needed software that would run on the player and help interface with iTunes as well. The iPod was released in 2001 and received a lukewarm reception from the industry. in 2003 Apple introduced a version for iTunes on the Windows platform. However.

had specific queries about the Alto’s capabilities and technical features. The Apple engineers. have to be seen in relation to the open innovation strategies that were pursued at Apple during their development. Apple. Xerox had invested heavily into the PARC facility. While there is no doubt that both the products mentioned were robust and of a high quality. When Xerox finally went to the market with a computer called Star (which encompassed many of the technical innovations developed at PARC). who visited PARC. It will be an exercise in clarity. it can be safely said that what the Apple engineers saw at Xerox. in the same fashion. and the scientists working at PARC had produced some path-breaking inventions. the influx of a few PARC employees into Apple gave it access to the culture and ideas at PARC. While Apple publicly refuses to acknowledge that it gained useful ideas from that particular visit. Macintosh Before we begin our analysis of the Macintosh. It should be noted that the visit did not entail any transfer of technology.Analysis The commercial success of these two products. on the other hand. which helped Apple sustain a competitive advantage over its rivals. The innovation paradigm followed at the Xerox PARC facility was in tune with the popular convention at the time which was the closed innovation paradigm. it will be a good idea to take account of the situation at Xerox. The knowledge that was thus gained was more tacit than anything else. their business model was unable to support it and was deemed a commercial failure. But the insular approach of Xerox towards innovation. and subsequent success in the market. Also. leveraged the investment that Xerox had made in them and used the opportunity to gain an understanding of the innovations happening at the PARC facility. a closed innovation model would not have helped contribute to their development. This is one of the earliest examples of open innovation in the computer industry. resulted in them failing to revise their business models to support the technical innovations. which Apple converted into explicit knowledge when it developed the LISA and the Macintosh. 16 . to understand the open innovation concepts employed in the development of these two products. PARC helped mould their thought about the future of computers and computing.

But in both cases. it was even developed outside the company. to develop iTunes for the Windows platform helped establish the dominance of the iPod across the entire industry. taken after the iPod’s launch. having similar design principles. Both the iTunes and the iPod were ideas that originated outside the company. 17 . these ideas were absorbed by Apple and further nurtured and turned into the popular products that we know them to be today. The decision. For this very reason. The decision to use the PortalPlayer as the iPod’s structural basis and Pixo as its operating system is a classic case of a firm leveraging external development to save time and money. When Apple decided to proceed with the development of the iPod. it serves as a better example to portray aspects of the open innovation business model. The fact that Pixo was developed by a former Apple employee only helped Apple’s case further as it made the Pixo more easily compatible with iTunes.iPod Unlike the Mactinosh. it realised that it would be able to deliver a product much faster if it looked for possible contractors in the market who were already working on mp3 players. the Apple was developed at a time when open innovation strategies had gained a greater acceptance in the industry. In the case of iTunes.

an idea that would have been scoffed at in the closed innovation regime. when they employ open innovation models. Conclusion Open innovation is an accepted phenomenon today and is practiced industry-wide across different levels and in varying degrees. to make financial gains and build competitive advantages. when Apple decided to build the iTunes on the Windows platform. It is true that if companies need to consistently deliver value to their shareholders and customers. and is widely accepted as a standard practice in many industries today. The open innovation regime and the corresponding open innovation business models can assist 18 . a move that makes perfect sense within the open innovation regime. Companies have to strategise accordingly. broadly represent the shift that has taken place in the industry. open innovation is not an end itself. However. The two separate products. while both having flavours of open innovation in their development. In some ways Xerox. The ideologies of the creative commons project and how it can be applied to open innovation will make for an interesting study. iPod more strongly than the Macintosh. then they will have to foster the ability to continuously innovate.Discussion The case study discussed in the previous sections helps display the potential of open innovation models as a competitive strategy. the open innovation model gained increasing credibility in the industry. PARC represents the end of the closed innovation paradigm and the Apple Macintosh represents the beginning of the new open innovation paradigm. One of the limitations of the paper has been that it has not addressed the intellectual property rights that have to be taken care of when companies engage in the sharing of knowledge and resources. it was a strategic move by Apple to further its competitive advantage. The decision to employ the research assets of partners and suppliers is no longer an isolated phenomenon. Therefore. Over the span of the next 20 years. Further research can be carried out to study the same and explore the options available to companies and propose options if none exist. which ranges from the mere exchange of knowledge between firms to partnering to produce more complex products.

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