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In May I made a request for images for a presentation I was doing at my 20th MIT Sloan School reunion. The presentation – titled Software Innovation — Do You Think the Last 20 Years Were Exciting? The Next 20 Years Will Blow Your Mind is now up on the web. If you don’t want to watch it, read the summary below:
In a trip down memory lane, Brad Feld regales us with the pre- and recent history of electronic innovation, with a rapid-fire delivery that achieves vaudevillian pitch.
Via a slide-laden PowerPoint presentation — and, by the way, Feld claims to hate PowerPoint, because as a venture capitalist “I’ve only received about 6,723,000 of them” — he narrates landmark moments in the evolution of the computer age. He touches on the room-size ENIAC computer, and pays tribute to the Jetsons cartoon as embodying his view of the future as a child. He cites his first programming language (APL, 1976), and first computer (Apple II, 1978). Feld speaks sentimentally of the familiar A> prompt as a quaint relic of the DOS operating system era.
Jump to the late ’80s, when Hypercard on the Macintosh was a pre-web foreshadowing of distributing data through multiple applications…“a major breakthrough.” Windows 3.0 heralded the ’90s and subsequent leapfrogging of Microsoft and Apple on the personal computer frontier. He cites the renegade Linux operating system (1991), then the ignoble Michelangelo virus (1992)…“the first time the mainstream media got crazy about computer security.”
Feld detours from history to recount naming his software consulting firm Feld Technologies; whenever anything went wrong “people called up and asked for Mr. Feld.” Therefore, he warns “lesson #1 of entrepreneurship is don’t name your company after yourself.”
In the mid-’90s, the emergence of the Internet in mass culture made ubiquitous such terms as Mosaic, Yahoo!, Java, Explorer, and other iterations of web browser, search engine, and email protocol. In 1999, E-commerce and the Y2K scare entered common parlance. Around 2000, OS X and iTunes burst on the scene, in spite of post-Internet bubble depression. Feld credits Apple with changing “the way we think about digital content.” Catching up to recent times, he invokes social networking, the astronomical Google IPO, and the notion of Web 2.0.
As a venture capitalist, Feld seeks new paradigms in software development as investing prospects for 10 to 20 years – “the next big thing.” He is interested in “immersive experience” that alters human interaction with the computer. His attention is also drawn to decoupling mouse and keyboard from control of the computer toward methods requiring no tactile input. Lastly, he speaks of “cloud computing” where “everything is disconnected from what is on your desktop” and “you don’t have to worry about…data storage and equipment.” Then, elliptically, he reprises a slide of a 1960s room-size computer, suggesting it resembles a latter-day incarnation of a server farm. Full circle.
As a special bonus, the speaker who preceded me – Professor Roberto Rigobon – did an incredible job on his lecture The U.S. and the World’s Recession which feels particularly relevant and prescient today.
Irving Wladawsky-Berger – IBM’s VP of Technical Strategy and Innovation (and one of the few “must-read” IBM employee blogs that I’m aware of) has a good post up summarizing Eric von Hippel’s work on Democratizing Innovation. Eric was my doctoral advisor at MIT (I didn’t finish) and has built 30 years of really important academic research (and a worldwide research community) on the idea he stated around 1978 that “innovation comes from users, not manufacturers.” Today we might say something like “yeah – uh huh”, but in 1978 this was a radical thought.
There was plenty of discussion about “users” and the importance of them – especially in the product development cycle – at Gnomedex last week. Wladawsky-Berger does a nice job condensing von Hippel’s ideas down into a few paragraphs. Eric’s latest book – Democratizing Innovation - is full of examples that build out his framework (and is available as a free PDF and licensed under a Creative Commons License.)
As a wise man once said to me when I was a young student, “wouldn’t manufacturers be irrelevant without users?”
I did a quick podcast interview with Outside In Innovation a few weeks ago when I was at MIT at Eric von Hippel’s Innovation Lab seminar. There are two segments – How VCs View Users and Usability and Innovation Through Acquisition. I’m not sure it’s appropriate to generalize my comments for all VCs (in fact, I’m sure it’s not), but I thought Jim and Jonathan did a nice job of rapping on these topics. If you are into the 53,651 meme (or the idea that the first 25,000 users are irrelevant) or you just like to listen to me talk (hi Mom), there is some good stuff in here that pre-dates those posts.
I spent a delightful few days in Aspen with Amy, my uncle Charlie, and his wife Cindy. My first computer experience was at a Frito-Lay office in Dallas when I was 10 where Charlie sat me down in front of a terminal with a green screen, fired up an APL interpreter, gave me a big book called APL: A Programming Language, and then left me alone for the next five hours. Over the years Charlie and I have worked together on a variety of things, most recently when I was a major investor in his previous company, The Feld Group (acquired by EDS in January 2004).
We covered a wide range of topics over a dozen meals and several long walks together (neither of us are skiers). One theme that we kept revisiting was the current decline of the United States in the world order (ahem – China, India anyone?) I’ve been rolling around the idea of living in a country equivalent to post-Edwardian England (e.g. we peaked, life can still be great, but we aren’t at the top of the mountain anymore) since a rollicking dinner with Pat Kenealy a few months ago and have started to get comfortable with the idea.
While I accept that the United States can’t be the unambiguous leader of the world (if you disagree with that statement, read Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat again), the future of the United States as defined by Atlas Shrugged is profoundly unappealing. On the heals of yet another piece of empirical evidence that our government is trying their hardest to emulate the moochers in Atlas Shrugged (e.g. “Oops – yes – we were spying on you – a lot – even more than we said we were – but it’s for your own good”), it’s hard not to be just a little bit discouraged.
As someone who has been playing in the sandbox of entrepreneurship and innovation his entire adult life, I’ve never really thought much about the need for a catalyst for our country since I have always been immersed in a zone of endless overstimulation. However, as I get older and watch many of my venture brethren hop on airplanes to Beijing, Shanghai, and Mumbai, I’ve been thinking about the United States’ place in the next wave of innovation. As the Web 2.0 meme finally starts to fade (or maybe it’s just that 2005 is coming to an end), I’ve been waiting for something to replace it, just to see if anyone had any new non-China/India innovation juice.
While sitting at the St. Regis in Aspen the other day having a hot apple cider, Charlie said something simple, but completely profound. “We need another Sputnik.” I hadn’t been born yet when the Sputnik Crisis happened, but as a kid I was fascinated with space (like most nerd-boys) and it always stuck in my mind how Sputnik focused and rallied the United States around innovation.
I don’t know what the next Sputnik is for the United States, but I’m keeping my eyes open for it.
On Friday 11/25, Elon Musk’s new company, SpaceX will launch their first rocket, the Falcon 1, at 1pm PST. I got a note from Elon’s brother Kimball – who now runs an awesome restaurant in Boulder called The Kitchen – with some photos.
Yes – that’s a rocket ship on a remote island called Kwajalein Atoll. According to Kimball, Kwaj is the largest Atoll in the world, 1,400 miles away from Guam, 2,100 miles away from Hawaii, has a population of 2,500, a runway, a small military base, and a lot of excited rocket scientists hanging around.