The story behind Lego Mindstorms is a classic example of outside innovation in action. Lego leveraged work that had been done by Seymour Papert and his leading grad students at MIT to design a “do it yourself” programmable robot for the retail market. Lego commercialized inventions that had been pioneered by these “lead users” (and tested in the classroom with kids and teachers). When Lego didn’t have enough funding to develop a Mac version of the product for the K-12 market, another lead user came to the rescue. Professor Chris Rogers from Tufts University designed the software for the educational market by building his ROBOLAB application on top of National Instruments’ LabVIEW virtual instrumentation software platform.
Within two weeks after the retail product hit the market in 1998, adult hackers reverse-engineered the firmware and developed a number of additional software programs that could be used to program these robots. And, a small industry emerged of sensors and peripherals that could be added to these robots.
Lego encouraged the customer-extensions to the product line, giving hackers a license to extend its software and firmware and encouraging a healthy ecosystem.
After selling 1 million of these robotics kits, and sponsoring robotics competitions all over the world, when Lego was finally ready to product a next generation product, MINDSTORMS NXT, the company turned to its lead customers again. Lego recruited a small group of lead customers from the hacker community to consult with them on the design of the next generation product, and they followed the advice of Chris Rogers and switched to National Instruments’ LabVIEW software platform for the next generation product.