A few notes on innovation

Photo: Thomas Hawk
Photo: Thomas Hawk

Originally published on Medium. Follow me there!

With nearly two billion people around the planet connected to the Internet, it is tempting to say that the revolution is nearly over. The largest providers of Internet access have consolidated their positions, the major search and social media players have been established, the largest content publishers have so much momentum and audience reach that they are difficult to dislodge. And, watchfully monitoring everything, the unblinking eyes of the NSA and other national security agencies.

Perhaps the revolution is over. But perhaps the spirit is only sleeping, waiting for the next round of disruptive innovation to topple today’s giants, just as they toppled the previous generation.

What happens next depends in large part on the kinds of decisions we make today about technology: Decisions as individual consumers, as corporations, and as voting members of democratic governments.

Will we choose openness, interoperability, and decentralization, keeping our options open and fertilizing the ground for the next generation of entrepreneurs? Or will we opt for central management, safety, and convenience, ceding increasing amounts of control to gatekeepers like Google, Facebook, AT&T, and Amazon.com?

Up to now the choice has been framed as a stark battle between openness and control — between open-source and proprietary platforms. But that description is too binary, and it obscures the subtleties in how technology actually develops. Sometimes a putatively closed-source, proprietary system can turn out to be an enormously fecund source of innovation, giving rise to thousands of startups and creating many thousands of jobs, as happened with Apple’s iPhone. Sometimes a strictly open-source system like Linux can develop into a rich ecosystem in one area, like servers, while remaining an interesting but ultimately uninfluential dead end, as it has on the desktop. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between open and closed systems at all, as has happened during the net neutrality fight.

In reality, making informed decisions about technologies and their long-term impact requires understanding how they work in greater depth. There has been too little literature on this. Books like Jonathan Zittrain’s “The Future of the Internet” and Kevin Kelly’s “What Technology Wants” have made bold theoretical arguments, bolstered by real-world case studies, but demonstrate a too-shallow understanding of how the Internet’s fundamental platforms actually operate.

It is also important to understand the people behind these platforms, what motivates them, and what their business models and ultimate objectives really are. Unlike with book authors, entrepreneurs’ motivations may not be particularly interesting to many consumers of their products. But understanding those motivations — or at least the stated aims — can aid in evaluating a company’s technologies.

We live in a time when understanding technology to some depth is an essential part of being an informed consumer, a professional, and — I maintain — to being a citizen.

And yet too many people are ignorant about the dynamics of the tech industry at this moment. We are at a critical junction, where the balance of innovation is shifting away from independent entrepreneurs and towards large corporations. This shift may be as inevitable as the swing of a pendulum, as Tim Wu has argued in “The Master Switch,” but
it is not completely out of our control. It is possible for individual, corporate, and government action to change the arc, as has happened with the breakup of AT&T in the 1980s and with the deregulation of the telecommunications and media markets in the 1990s.

To understand the technology industry and its impact on innovation, entrepreneurship, and the economy — not to mention our own lives — we need to take a look at the key enablers of the innovation economy today. What are the primary technologies upon which we rely every day for connectivity and commerce? Where did they originate? What is their ultimate business goal? How do they enable or stifle additional invention?

These are the questions I hope to explore in the coming weeks, through in-depth interviews and profiles of the people and ideas behind some of today’s most instrumental technology platforms, plus some of tomorrow’s up and comers:

Wi-Fi and open spectrum
Amazon Web Services
Google Search
Apple iOS
3D printing

These stories, I believe, will reveal that the easy “open vs. closed” rubric is not always easy to apply. What appears open and transformative may not always be, and what appears closed and controlled may actually be surprisingly open in its effects.

More than that, the way these platforms have developed and attracted communities around them reveals much about what makes a technological ecosystem work.

It is true that building an ecosystem is not a prerequisite for success as a technology company. Recent startup success stories like Airbnb and Uber show that it is possible to achieve multibillion-dollar valuations with a completely closed system that, while employing many people, does not actually enable the creation of new technology companies on top of it. Older sites like Craigslist show that it is possible to revolutionize a marketplace (classifieds), completely upending incumbents and slashing prices, without creating comparable replacement value — and without becoming a platform that others can build on. (Craigslist in fact actively discourages people from building on it.)

But to build a successful technology that create value not only for its inventors, but also for a whole economy of innovators who in turn go on to create their own ecosystems in a recursive, virtuous circle of innovation, that takes a special something. That takes a platform. And that’s the kind of technology I’ll be exploring in the weeks to come.

A few notes on innovation