There is an interesting post over the Creating Passionate Users blog titled “We can’t Leave Innovation up to our users”.
The argument goes like this: “The world never needed the iPod until Apple created it. Now, look how many of us could not live without it.
[And before you snark about how we're just trying to look cool or be fashionable... no, this is about the way in which we're able to integrate music into our lives in a way that wasn't possible before. But that's for another post.]”
I do agree with the author to a certain extent, mainly with the idea that under some circumstances only companies are able to develop radical innovations. But that has to do with the fact that consumers often times are not able to articulate their needs, and they are not necessarily aware of what one could possibly do with current technologies.
Exactly because of that reason I will need to discord with the part of the article defending that companies are able to “create” needs within customers. One can influence people and consumption behavior with marketing techniques but he can not create a need out of nothing. Every successful innovation addresses a task that customers were already trying to perform. Apple did not created the need for a portable, fashionable, user-friendly mp3 player.
Consider the Walkman innovation for instance. Before the appearance of such device people were used to the idea that listening music would involve sitting in their living room, and they accepted that constraint because the alternative would be not listening to music at all. If a market research was conducted by that time with people that had a stereo music system in their house it is very probable that none of them would mention an interest or a need for a portable music system. The users would not be able to articulate the values of “music” and “mobility” together, and they did not know what technology was capable of by that time. Sony did not created the need, but managed to address it, and the rest is history.