"Reverse innovation" shouldn't be confused with "reverse engineering." Here's how they differ, and how companies like MediaTek used it to run circles around rivals like Nokia.
According to the Economist, "Frugal innovation is not just about redesigning products; it involves rethinking entire production processes and business models. Companies need to squeeze costs so they can reach more customers, and accept thin profit margins to gain volume...."
Therein are the dots we can use to connect to Chen’s theory. His 80-3-2 rule also addresses the issue of how a company finds a way to develop a product and a business process to squeeze costs, gain volume and reach millions of new customers.
(Full disclosure here. The Economist article was first pointed out to me by a U.K.-based engineering executive who works for Taiwan’s chip giant MediaTek. He was explaining how MediaTek’s recent success has a lot to do with "frugal innovation." MediaTek, virtually unknown 10 years ago, is now a power house with huge market share in the Chinese smartphone and media tablet markets.)
MediaTek has fundamentally changed the playbook for the chip industry here, especially for smartphones and tablets. More chip suppliers for smartphones and tablets who are competing with MediaTek are now expected to provide similar “turnkey systems” that MediaTek delivers, rather than just reference designs.
Technology development, especially in the electronics industry, has historically been one-dimensional. It all pretty much comes down to how your engineering team makes a system operate faster, run more apps and features, while consuming less power.
Frugal, or reverse, innovation and the 80-3-2 rule both suggest that it’s time to rethink innovation in more in multi-dimensional terms.
I can think of two good examples for how ignoring reverse innovation costs companies.
Much has been written about the decline of mobile phone maker Nokia. Many blame it on Nokia's late entry to the smartphone market. I disagree. Nokia’s failure is directly related to its inability to beat its competitors in the global feature phone market, where Nokia once dominated. Mind you, Nokia had quality products and production was outsourced. Still, Nokia neglected to develop a “good enough” product, and failed to develop a more innovative and imaginative process.
The same goes for Japanese LCD TV manufacturers like Sharp, which insisted on building a mega fab to handle ultra-thin, large LCD panels. Sharp's strategy, which raised Japanese manufacturing to the highest "craftsmanship-like" level, was admirable but, ultimately, wasted effort. Sharp’s job was manufacturing TVs, not developing works of art.
Chinese companies that are repeatedly bashed for their reverse engineering practices may soon surprise the world with their reverse innovation ingenuity. If successful, they could reach the neglected 6 billion people on the earth.
Meanwhile, China's competitors, still steeped in the one-dimensional technology innovation, will be scrambling to compete in the replacement market of 1 billion consumers in developed countries.
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