Consider the following analogy of technology and social evolution. Our desire is a massive wheel who's various sections represent basic human needs, and who's surface is complex (each of us has different priorities/expressions of need). The landscape the wheel crosses represents all possible technologies. As the wheel turns, new areas of technology are within reach. Great gaps appear between the rough surface of the wheel and the technologies it touches. By providing just the right effort, researchers, hardware designers, and software developers create the best match for technology to the social surface. The more fluid and adaptive technology, the smoother the motion. You can envision the social adoption of the philosophy of open design, as a choice that changes the direction of the great wheel. Intentionally navigating the wheel is a complex topic, and is beyond the scope of this post (it requires potent and accurate tech forecasting).
Exploration through development
Today's web software companies are at a point in time where exploration of value spaces is done by developing small application prototypes. The process begins with an idea, a mockup, or even a minimally functional design. Most developers and software designers have little knowledge of how successful an app will be before they release it. The environment changes rapidly, altering the importance of assumptions a design is based on. Enormous advances in manufacturing have made possible much more fluid hardware prototyping as well.
Because of the difficulties of predicting the success of software, research budget expenditures are a challenge for BigCos. This unpredictable space is large enough for small groups of developers and designers to found new businesses. The upfront costs to hack together a working prototype can be anywhere from a few days to a few months. The barrier to entry is within reach of a handful of ambitious folks.
the Source of Ideas
The most common source for my own ideas is awareness of a need I share with others. I search about the Net for tools that can do what is needed. If I can't find one, it's ether good or bad news. The bad news is that the service is way too expensive to build or unfeasible. The good news is that there may be only a handful of people in the world working the problem because of it's novelty. The ability to predict future value is one of the many skills a founder must refine. Building an organization that can transition abstract concepts into practical tools is the true test.
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