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The world of software creation is very competitive. I've heard it said to be successful you need to be the first one with the idea. Everyone knows how Bill Gates created IBM DOS on one machine while simultaneously building MS-DOS on another machine (and we all know how that turned out).

In order to be the first to come up with a new software product, where do you go looking for fresh ideas?

Update 06/26/13:

Reworded this question in an attempt to get it reopened. Bill Gates developed MS-DOS at the same time he was hired to develop IBM DOS. As a programming community, we would all gain by understanding how to think up great ideas for software. As programmer we tend to get stuck in our thinking... it's refreshing to hear how fellow programmers busted out and came up with their ideas. It's not very likely that we will have an MS-DOS opportunity like Bill Gates. Please vote to reopen.

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closed as off topic by David Thornley, Mark Trapp, Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen, MAK, bigown Nov 12 '10 at 13:38

Questions on Programmers Stack Exchange are expected to relate to software development within the scope defined by the community. Consider editing the question or leaving comments for improvement if you believe the question can be reworded to fit within the scope. Read more about reopening questions here.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Just keep in mind that ideas are a commodity. It's execution that matters. Getting ideas is easy, making them happen is not. – Joonas Pulakka Nov 11 '10 at 10:21
@Joonas Pulakka - I disagree. Finding a good idea for a new product that will actually sell is very difficult. How many ideas have you turned into products that produce sales? – Michael Riley - AKA Gunny Nov 11 '10 at 12:12
@Cape Cod Gunny: here's a couple of writings with similar thoughts: ,… . Feel free to disagree, but then, ask some successful people about this. Starting from Edison: "Genius: one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Or Mark Zuckenberg; he definitely wasn't the first to come up with an idea of social networks, but he was the first to create a widely successful one (Facebook). – Joonas Pulakka Nov 11 '10 at 12:32
Is this programming-specific in the slightest? – David Thornley Nov 11 '10 at 19:24
@David Thornley - I will edit my question just for you. – Michael Riley - AKA Gunny Nov 11 '10 at 19:36

6 Answers 6

The two best sources of ideas for me are in my sleep and in the shower. I also have a long commute, and if you're not fleshing out an idea during the drive, it's just wasted time. In general for me, ideas go through 4 phases:

1.) Stupid or crazy idea - This is just some outlandish idea that pops in my head that there's no chance of ever actually happening.

2.) Refinement into just a dumb idea - At this point I take my stupid/crazy idea and throttle it back so that it's just outside the realm of possibility.

3.) Find a marketplace - Figure out who could benefit from having the idea implemented.

4.) Planning the steps - Imagine if that slightly impossible idea were possible. What are the steps to get between here and there.

After that you'll do better talking to a business person about how to take it to the next level. At any point along the process an idea may be discarded. Regardless of how far I get down the process I write it down in a notebook. Sometimes ideas coalesce, sometimes they just die, but writing it down and then reading it later helps you think of more stupid or crazy ideas, the perpetuating the cycle.

As for targeting personal or business, let your idea tell you which way to go. Both markets have benefits and drawbacks, but most idea either fit firmly in one realm, or cross the realms.

Edit: Ultimately for me, working on ideas is like doing your math homework. You may never use the concepts you're studying, but working through the problems trains your mind in how to solve other problems. Likewise, the more ideas you have and try to develop, the better you will get at getting them further down the chain.

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+1 it's in my bath and riding-mowner ;) Also the more you are curious and "naive", the more likely you will get good ideas. – user2567 Nov 11 '10 at 10:43
+1 for the shower. Phase 3 is harder to cross. – Pagotti Nov 11 '10 at 19:52
@Pagotti - I totally agree, but for me it's worth getting an idea to that point and then letting it sit for a while. Often I'll find that a newer idea helps me make that transition, or maybe it'll get worked into another idea. Or maybe it'll die, but I'll have new ones to work on. – Hounshell Nov 11 '10 at 22:02

Fixing problems is usually a good place to find ideas. What problems do you encounter every day that you could fix? I also ask and listen to other people to find out their frustrations.

A really important thing when coming up with ideas for new projects is to remember that you don't have to come up with something entirely unique. That's an impossible goal and it's much better/easier to build something that does something better/faster/easier than the competitors. If you wait to find something unique you will wait forever.

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And the trick here is to find something that isn't too culturally/organisationally ingrained. For example: you could write the world's most awesome office and email package, but people are so used to Office and Outlook that it'll be extremely difficult to get them to change over (there are similar - but much more obscure - examples that I've thought of competing against. Just wouldn't work. They're niche products that are ultra-ingrained in their niche fields). – Bobby Tables Nov 11 '10 at 20:11
+1 Find a need and fill it. – Michael K Nov 12 '10 at 0:46

I don't go seeking ideas, I wait for opportunities.

I can't think of a single month that has gone by, at least in the last decade that didn't yield an interesting problem to solve.

As for focus, I much prefer working on things that I can finish within my means and within a reasonable amount of time. I wouldn't conceptually restrict myself to just one market, but there are some that I might be inclined to avoid.

I would pick an end user application over something that had RT implications, such as software that would manage financial trades, for instance.

For inspiration, I love nature. I love to watch insects, in fact I was just thinking about getting an ant farm for my desk. That doesn't give me new problems to solve, but might help my thinking when working on one.

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+1 for giving me an ant farm idea. i use to love watching them as a kid thanks for reminding me! :) – Jonathan Nov 11 '10 at 5:58

Here's a nice overview on YouTube of the book Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson. The main idea is that it takes a long time, and is often the result of the intersection of two different half-ideas.

In my own work, I get most of my ideas when reading papers and books. For example, for programming language design, a good paper from the OOPSLA conference (and its Onward! track) can give you a half a page of notes when you're done reading it.

I got the idea for my dissertation when I asked my wife what "deconstructive programming" would be (her area is fine arts). I got many of the other ideas in my thesis from reading the book Design Rules, by Baldwin and Clark.

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Usually user groups, forum discussions, the like. Someone says "X is a nice app but doesn't do <foo>" and I start on Y, which does. Or if I wrote X in the first place, I fix it.

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This is why open-source programs are great. If it doesn't do "foo", then fork the project and make it do "foo". You can then keep it forked, or allow the main developer to absorb your fork. – Kruug Aug 9 '13 at 21:15

Wait for the great lightning of creativity to strike you. Until then, just look what the competition does, and do it better.

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or what the competition doesn't do – Korey Hinton Jun 26 '13 at 17:27

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