Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Missing The "Innovation Thing" (Redux)


In 1883, Henry Ford was tinkering with a neighbor’s watch and claimed later to realize that it could be manufactured for as little as thirty cents.  He never bothered to pursue his idea, however, because he concluded that “watches were not universal necessities, and therefore people would generally not buy them.”

Ford was a brilliant entrepreneur but missed “the watch thing.”

IBM was the second most profitable company in the world and probably the smartest technology company when it missed “the desktop thing.”  DEC and Wang were brilliant upstarts that missed the “the personal computer thing.”

Microsoft completely whiffed on "the search thing, “the cloud thing," and, as Steve Ballmer most recently disclosed, the "phone thing."

Eric Schmidt admitted that he and Google had missed on “the friend thing.”

Really smart people and organizations miss really big opportunities, even when those organizations have their eyes wide open and antenna fully extended.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Few Pictures From the Yankee Steam-Up

If you read about the Industrial Revolution, you can't avoid steam.  Newcomen.  Watt.  Corliss.  The good old external combustion engine.

However, if you live in the modern world and just happen to be enrolled in that esteemed class of proletariat known as the "Knowledge Worker," the only steam that you're apt to encounter is that which fogs up the mirror in the bathroom of the hotel on your last business trip.

It's nice, then, when the modern world gets a glimpse of steam in its classic, 19th-century state.  That's what happened this weekend in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, at the New England Wireless and Steam Museum.  It's called the Yankee Steam-Up and it's an annual gathering of engineers, hobbyists, historians, know-nothings and steam engines, large and small.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Founding Fathers as Innovators: Republic 1.0

(Source: uvamagazine.org)
The Founding Fathers play a critically important, sometimes even bizarre role in modern America.  “We want to know what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action,” Gordon Wood writes in his superb Revolutionary Characters, “or George Washington of the invasion of Iraq.”

In many ways this obsession with seeking the blessings of our founders is unique.  We don’t worry, for example, if Henry Ford would endorse our newest manufacturing processes, what Babe Ruth thinks of the designated hitter rule or if Louis Armstrong cares for rap.  Likewise, the French don’t wonder what Charlemagne would say about their current immigration policy just as the British, Wood points out, feel no need to check in periodically with either of the two William Pitts.

WWTJD? Exactly.

So, it’s interesting to reflect on the fact that the Founding Fathers’ greatest accomplishment—beyond their individual achievements with electricity, writing declarations, and winning wars—was constructing their grand experiment in self-government: Republic 1.0.  As political entrepreneurs, Washington and company launched a radical innovation in the global market, ran it for a while, and then handed it over to the next generation of management.

What did they think of the nation they had created?   Were they pleased?  Did Republic 1.0 measure up to their expectations?  Did each die content in his achievement, or, like Victor Frankenstein, aghast at the unintended consequences of the monster they had fashioned?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Did The Last Singularity Confuse Us Completely About American History?

Are you ready for the coming Singularity?
Defined by Vernor Vinge in 1993, the next Singularity will be the “moment” when technology will become capable of creating machines with intelligence greater than human beings.  The result will likely be superhuman intelligence, either in human-computer interfaces, or perhaps in superhuman networks—a massive evolutionary leap forward.  Ray Kurzweil, the most visible exponent of the Singularity, predicts it for around 2045 and believes it will allow humans to control their fates and become immortal.
It’s pretty heady stuff and has its share of fans and critics.  There is now even a Singularity University in Silicon Valley, underwritten in part by Google.
One thing most proponents agree on is that the coming Singularity will be “capable of rupturing the fabric of human history” and, therefore, so profound that human beings standing on either side will barely recognize one another.
Like all forecasts, History informs the timing and shape of the coming Singularity.  Advocates predict its arrival by pointing to at least three Singularities thus far on earth: when human brains evolved, when farming communities appeared, and the Industrial Revolution.   (Some lists include fire, language, reading, and mathematics.  Some might include the Big Bang.  Taken together—and you need your logarithmic graph paper for this--the consensus forecast for the next Singularity is 2075.) 
The rise of farming communities and the Industrial Revolution are especially interesting because they are recent, and subject to some degree of measurement.  In two million years, for example, the human population grew glacially from about 10,000 proto-humans to four million modern humans.  When some of these humans decided to live as farmers about 10,000 years ago—a consensus Singularity—the world’s population began to double at the spectacular rate of every 900 years or so.
Likewise, before 1750 (the start of the “first” Industrial Revolution of steam and telegraph), it took 350 years for a family in England to double its standard of living.  By the 1950s (after the second Industrial Revolution of electricity and the internal combustion engine), an American family could expect to double its standard of living in a single generation
All of which leads—if you buy the logic--to the fascinating observation that the entire history of the United States has been lockstep with one of the great, singular events in human history.  
Never has the accumulation of wealth been so easy, or growth in the standard of living so steep, as during the great "American experiment.”  For the first time in the history of humankind, economic conditions supported and even accelerated the sort of culture that, according to Hezekiah Niles’ famous observation, featured “the almost universal ambition to get forward.” 

Monday, September 2, 2013

How 'Bout a Little Whine With That Innovation?

Technology may be neutral, but innovation comes with a freightload of human nature.  It's enough to cause more than a little whining now and then.

Just ask Uber, the app that lets people order a taxi or car service from their smartphone.  "Cutting-edge start-up companies are crying foul," says CNNMoney, "claiming they're being blocked from entering local markets by established businesses."

In Uber's case the locals have resorted to all kinds of malevolent tactics to protect their established businesses.  In Miami, for example, there's a regulation that calls for a minimum hour wait between ordering a black car service and climbing in, as well as a $70 minimum charge.  In San Francisco, airport officials have been making citizen's arrests of ride-share drivers, claiming they don't have the paperwork necessary to transport riders.

Unfair competition?  Insider dealings?  Regulatory favoritism?  Thuggery?


The truth is, they're not called "entrenched competitors" for nothing.  

Few incumbents are likely to roll over to a new technology, and fewer still are likely to follow Marquess of Queensbury Rules when they respond to the threat of lost customers and profit.