Innovation Is Alive and Well

Just because budgets are tight and too many venture capitalists are chasing too few entrepreneurs doesn't mean innovation is moribund.

October 7, 2005

2 Min Read
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History is replete with such pessimism. "Inventions have long since reached their limit, and I see no hope for further developments," Roman engineer Julius Sextus Frontinus said in the first century. In failing to anticipate the tech innovations of the coming Industrial Revolution, England's Thomas Robert Malthus argued around 1800 that food production couldn't possibly keep up with the population growth rate. Then there's the infamous quote attributed (some say erroneously) to Charles Duell, head of the U.S. Patent Office at the turn of the 20th century: "Everything that can be invented has already been invented."

Past Its Prime?

No one today is saying that tech innovation is over, only that its prime has passed. But even this assertion is misleading. Rather than rise, peak and decline in a single span over many centuries, innovation tends to speed up and settle down in shorter cycles. For instance, the demise in the late 1980s of one-time computer industry stalwarts such as Apollo, Ashton-Tate, Commodore, Datapoint, Prime and Wang signaled not the end of computing innovation but the beginning of a broader technology movement that ignited the Internet boom years later.

Companies are now in the second half of an eight-year period of technology "digestion and refinement," argues Forrester analyst Andrew Bartels, with most buyers focused on ROI and process changes and most vendors making their products cheaper and easier to use. As a result, Bartels says, tech spending will grow only slightly faster than the economy until 2008, when it will rebound again through 2016.

Which areas will take off? Forrester likes four categories: data center consolidation (virtualization, processor grids, networked storage); intelligent networked computing devices (RFID tags, sensors, smart cards); Web services and service-oriented architecture; and composite applications. Beyond those incremental advances, breakthroughs in nanotechnology and artificial intelligence will lead to inconceivable advances in human intelligence, living standards and longevity by mid-century, predicts renowned inventor Ray Kurzweil in his new book, The Singularity Is Near.Moore's Law, which holds that computer processing power doubles every 18 months, is as relevant today as it was when Gordon Moore presented the idea in 1965. Just because IT budgets are tight and too many VCs are chasing too few entrepreneurs doesn't mean innovation is moribund. Eric von Hippel, in his book Democratizing Innovation, heralds the role of "lead users" in developing cutting-edge products outside the vendor mainstream--in everything from mountain bikes and surgical equipment to semiconductors and open-source software.

There's more than one way to innovate. The sky's the limit.

Rob Preston is editor in chief of Network Computing. Write to him at [email protected].

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