Thursday, January 8, 2009

Innovation - the answer

You've undoubtedly been breathless with anticipation after Monday's exciting post, so, fortunately, Herb Sutter has followed up with the answer as to when 16 critical computer technologies (including the mouse, live collaboration, cut/copy/paste, and more!) were first demonstrated. If you have been around a while, or have read about the history of computing, you may have guessed the answer to quite a few of them: "Doug Engelbart and his ARC team, in what is now known as “The Mother of All Demos”, on Monday, December 9, 1968."

You might not have guessed that that demo, just over 40 years ago, was responsible for all 16. Sutter goes on to point out that these were all presented there in workable (if not commercial) form.
What made it compelling wasn’t just the individual ideas, but the working demonstrations to show that the ideas worked and how they could combine and interact in wonderful ways.
Once again, as in the earlier post, I think it's important to put this into the context of today. All of these wonderful things, which we now take for granted (we click on hyperlinks all the time without considering that there is real technology there; you're clicking on a piece of text and it takes you somewhere else - amazing), were out there 40 years ago. But they didn't end up revolutionizing the world until years later.

As Sutter says in a comment:
Any new technology idea has several major steps, notably: (1) theoretical idea/invention, (2) working prototype or proof-of-concept, and (3) commercial productization. That is why I tried to emphasize the word “demonstrate” — the intent of the exercise was to highlight the achievement of showing a working prototype, or proof of concept, which is what marks the boundary between science and engineering.
That is exactly the point, that the science, engineering, and business (step 3) all have to come together to make innovation happen. Each of those steps is tough; we tend to minimize just how tough. And that is why I am skeptical when I am told that we're just going to prime the pump for alternative energy, and it will magically emerge in usable, affordable form. Various technologies are at various stages of the three-step process, but there is no definitive timeline that will necessarily give us what we want when we want it (as I'm fond of pointing out, Napoleon would have loved to have had tanks, would have paid a lot for them, but that didn't make tanks appear).

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