A Scenic Tour of the Online World

Innovation and The Death of The Internet. Again.

Friday, March 9th, 2012

If Henry Ford was alive and starting a business in 2002, it would have been an internet company, not a car company. That’s where big thinkers and dreamers were thinking and dreaming big.

Nick Bilton’s Disruptions column in the New York Times on Monday (3/5/12), The Fun Factor Is Slipping Away, compares the tech industry to the airlines and the auto industry. All were fun at their outsets – tinkerers and impassioned inventors creating businesses from their imaginations.

The Web has been like that and, I would argue, continues to be like that in many corners, but we’re undeniably moving in to a new phase.

Tech news is filled with stories these days of companies suing one another over patent infringement, naming copyrights, and other intellectual property that isn’t in any way innovation-related.

And we’ve got organizations less focused on innovation than on controlling costs. See the network neutrality debate, throttling of data access speeds, etc.

It’s understandable, of course. When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. So, there’s no reason for lawsuits and you don’t have any “bean counters” on staff. It’s full speed ahead, hang the cost.

So do the flagrant privacy abuses and other money grabs signal the end of a really charmed period of innovation? Does the maturation of the industry mean more time between each “next new thing?”

Changes are certainly afoot, but given the low barriers to entry and the potential for a quick payday – not Mitt Romney money; a kid dropping out of Stanford to code 24/7 is looking for a Maserati and a killer apartment, not 4 vacation homes – I think we’ll see the same pattern of disruption, but the disruptions may be more around the edges than what we’ve seen before.

Hard to say that that will kill the industry, but it will certainly attract a different kind of entrepreneur and different kinds of employees. Hence my contention that Henry Ford would not have started a car company in 2002.

In our industry, we don’t even notice all the innovators around us, there are so many. In the car industry, they’re so few and far between they get big press: Tesla Motors, Shai Agassi’s Better Place … even if we include fun and quirky with the truly innovative, we don’t get much more than the Mini and the Mazda Miata over the past quarter century. (I’m leaving a lot of fun and quirky out, I know.)

And no point in talking about innovation in the airline industry. There simply isn’t any.

I hope – and think – the innovation is so ingrained in what the tech industry does that it can never be baked out. But perhaps we change what we consider part of the tech world. Land-line telephony used to be pretty cutting edge. (Oooh, touch tone phones! No more dialing!)

And the flip side, with the idea of driverless cars making news and gaining traction, car companies might once again be cutting edge innovators, even if it’s not the same car companies we know today. I wonder what Henry Ford would think of that.


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