The other pink dollar

How did (a very broad and collective) we go from selling NeXT at $440M to selling Tumblr at $1.1B, in under two decades? Why was Sun Microsystems, one of the most technologically advanced companies in the valley, only worth two Nests?

I don’t think we’re technologists (much) any more. We’ve moved from building value by making interesting, usable and advanced technology to building value by solving problems for people and making interesting, useful and advanced experiences. The good thing about a NeXT workstation was that it was better than other workstations and minicomputers; the bad thing is that you can’t actually do a lot with a Unix workstation. You need applications, functions for turning silicon-rich paperweights into useful tools.

NeXT’s marketing was it’s easier to turn our paperweight into a tool than their paperweight, but today’s tech companies are mostly making things you can already use. The technology is a back-office function, enabling the things you can already use or working around problems the companies discovered in trying to enable those useful things. Making the paperweight with the most potential is no longer interesting to most of the industry, though there will be money in paperweights for a few years yet (even if the paperweights are becoming small enough that they can’t weigh down paper, and even if no-one has a stack of paper to weigh down any more).

Hence the current focus on “disruption”, in the Silicon Valley, not Clayton Christensen, sense. It’s easy to see how an already-solved problem can be solved faster, cheaper or better, by taking out intermediate steps or slow communications.

This is traditional science-fiction advancement. What technology do you need to get the plot moving quickly? Two people need to talk but they’re not on the same planet: you need a mobile phone. Two people need to be in the same room but they’re not on the same planet: you need a teleporter. Two people need to share the specifications of a starship but there isn’t enough paper in the universe: you need a PADD.

It’s harder to identify solutions to unsolved problems, or solutions to unknown problems. This hasn’t changed since the paperweight days, the transition has been from “well, I guess you can find some problem to solve with this workstation” to “we solved this obvious problem for you”. That’s an advance.

It really is good that we’re moving from building things that could potentially solve a problem to things that definitely do solve a problem. That’s more efficient, as fewer people are solving the same problem. Consider the difference between every company buying a Sun workstation and hiring a programmer to write a CRM application, and every company paying someone else to deliver them a CRM system.

It’s also likely the reason for the rise in open-source software, hardware, data centres and related infrastructure. Nobody’s making railroads any more, they’re making haulage companies that use railroads to solve the problem of “you’re in Chicago, Illinois but your crate full of machinery is in a port in Seattle, Washington”. There’s lots of cost in having the best rails, but questionable benefit, so why not share the blueprints for the rails so that anyone can improve them?

Well, what if it turns out that the best way to haul your goods is not on rails? If it’s easy to accept better rails, but the best solution lies in a different direction? Alan Kay would recognise this problem: everyone can see incremental improvements in the pink plane but there are magnitudes of improvements to be made by getting out into the blue plane.

How can a blue plane venture get funded, or adopted? When was the last time it happened? Is there something out there already that just needs adoption to get us onto the blue plane? Or have we set up a system that makes it easy to move quickly on the pink plane, but not to change direction to the blue plane?

About Graham

I make it faster and easier for you to create high-quality code.
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