Industry innovators for 2008


This year, we took a look in the rearview mirror and observed a lot of convergence, but despite this trend interesting companies still flourish, says Peter Stephenson, technology editor.

This is the second year that we have scoured the industry for innovators. It was harder to do this year for several reasons. First, there has been a lot of convergence. For example, our only choice in an intended new category was acquired just before I started writing this. We'll have to put that category off until next year and see what happens over the next 12 months.

The second reason is that the poor economy seems to have had its way with many small startups that could not get their next rounds of funding. This is one of my pet peeves. When the economy is bad, that's the time to innovate. This country has made its entire history on innovation and now I am seeing very hard times for innovators.

The third reason is a combination of the first two. Small innovative startups have not been able to get their next rounds of funding, but instead of going out of business they sell the technology to a larger company and the innovation becomes ingrained in existing products. At least one of last year's choices is in that boat today.

For all of that, we found that there still are interesting companies with interesting products, some we found last year and some are new to our list. When I interviewed the leadership of the companies we selected, I explained our December issue this way: This is for readers who are asking the question, “If I want to buy a product in a particular product space, who will be the innovators in that space? Who has a road map that is based on a clear view of the future requirements that I am going to need to face? Who is so customer-driven that they make a lot of their product decisions based on known market needs both today and tomorrow?”

The companies we selected fit that profile. It is important to note that, even though we describe a representative or flagship product, it is the companies that are of real interest to us. In every case, we interviewed C-level leadership to ensure that we were getting the true picture of the organization's long-term goals. And many of our selections have, coincidently, been called out as innovators by other publications (although we never check in advance, depending instead on our own judgment). This follows the same pattern that we saw last year.

Of all the companies we looked at this year, only about a third are repeats from last year. These are companies that we saw last year as the forward-looking companies for 2007. When we looked at the same product spaces this year, we could find no better choices so, for 2008, they are back in the fold.

The rest of the choices for this year have been moving ahead with fresh new thinking and a clear view of the future. That does not mean that their competition – the choices in the same product spaces last year – has failed. It simply means that this year's batch was a bit ahead of the pack. Still, it was hard to make some of our choices this year because the competition was both very close and very limited in terms of the number of companies that fit our criteria.

Now, what makes an innovator? For one thing, our innovators all have one aspect in common: They are blatantly and aggressively customer-driven. In at least one case, the customer is the key driver for what goes into the product. Another commonality we found was having a roadmap showing a clear view of the future. These companies are organized to make the changes needed to stay ahead of the curve, and they have the vision to help make those decisions accurately.

Most of this year's innovators have management, at all levels, that is keenly attuned to the product space, its needs and its user base. This ensures that the visionaries at the top levels actually translate their ideas to meet user expectations. They are technically excellent and a few are relatively unsung presently. We certainly expect that to change.

Overall, this is a great batch of innovative companies. Some are new and some have been around awhile. But they all have one thing in common: as a group they will help shape the future of their individual product spaces. So this is our holiday gift to you. Take a look at these innovators and, if you are considering a purchase in their product category over the coming year, consider talking to them. We think that we have offered you some excellent choices this year.

Happy holidays and best wishes for a prosperous new year from the team at SC Labs. And, my wish for you is the same one I have been wishing for 30-plus years: May your net work.

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