We wanted flying cars

We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.
Peter Thiel
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This meme speaks of the innovation occurring in the world of technology. It seems that we are making fewer major innovations (flying cars) compared with the world-changing innovations that are really only minor in terms of technological breakthroughs (like Twitter’s 140 characters).

When reading, “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,” by Jon Gertner it’s clear that the multitude step changes brought about at Bell Labs (eg OSS, transistors, lasers, solar cells, satellites, communication theory, Unix operating system, the C and C++ programming languages, etc) and British Telecom during the mid 1900’s bears no comparison to our current innovation-in-software age. Even Telstra R&D Labs here in Australia did brilliant research.

Bell Labs, BT and Telstra had the benefit of guaranteed revenues through monopoly of the telecommunications market to drive almost unfettered fundamental research to drive the technology revolution.

However, those R&D teams were progressively wound back, delegating the responsibility for innovation to the vendors and standards bodies. However, there have been some challenges around this delegation of responsibility:

  1. The vendors, having taken the risk of doing R&D, want a return on their investment. Once they’ve brought a new product / tech to market, there can be a tendency to try to milk that investment rather than cannibalising the investment with further quantum change. That incentivises incremental change over quantum change
  2. There is so much fragmentation in the vendor market that there’s a lot of duplicated effort. For example, let’s say there are 50 vendors that do alarm management on the market. That means there are 50 teams of developers producing a lot of common functionality
  3. Because of the vendor fragmentation, R&D budgets are also fragmented, which might imply that only incremental change can be funded
  4. There are distinct pros and cons relating to co-operative nature of development within the standards bodies

Is the corresponding slow-down in OSS innovation occurring due to OSS maturing? After all, we’ve had alarm management, performance management, inventory management, traffic management, service order management, provisioning, etc for decades now. If we had’ve needed something else, would we have already thought of it through necessity?

Yet as OSS nears 50 (the first OSS were developed in the 1970’s) it feels like we need  quantum change even more than incremental change to remain relevant and deliver what our customers need. There are plenty of incremental changes to make through virtualisation, machine learning, massive data processing, etc but have all the massive innovations already been uncovered? Do we need a Bell Labs or BT style of funding on fundamental research rather than competition across a fragmented vendor market to innovate us to where we need to get to?

4 thoughts on “We wanted flying cars

  1. What about the move to consider OSS products as commodity elements?

    I also think the lack of competition in the Best of Breed markets means the status quo maintains a steady stranglehold on innovation. One would think companies like IBM could really drive the OSS space but they are being over innovated by their competition. Seems the common them is to raise the prices and not the value.

    I’d love to see a resurgence of Best of Breed in the OSS / Management space. Kings of Best of Breed like Logmatrix NerveCenter still MASSIVELY leapfrog anything in their space from big vendors. Yet customers don’t want Best of Breed. They want a single throat to choke.

  2. Great points Dougie,

    Do the likes of IBM, HP, et al have the appetite to fund the kind of fundamental research that might (or might not) lead to step change in the OSS industry?
    Or will we see the long tail (ie startups and lesser-known entities) generating rapid advances in their niches (best of breed) that collectively build into a critical mass of change?

    The twist on these two questions is that whenever there is an exciting innovation from the long tail, it seems to get acquired by the big vendors for delivery within their “single throat to choke” solutions…. but in doing so perhaps loses the innovation momentum as the exciting product gets subsumed into (and lost in??) a large product list that is already greedy for resources.

  3. Ryan, you might like the latest book from David Graeber “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy”. Regards, Roland.

  4. Hi Roland
    Thanks for referring this book.
    I’ve read through some of its reviews and it does sound interesting.
    What are your key takeaways from “The Utopia of Rules”

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