Saturday, November 01, 2008

Don't cry for me, innovation

Today's New York Times website has an article on the importance of maintaining investments in innovation, even with an economic downturn. My question is, what innovation? I track a variety of technology-related industries, and I've been hard-pressed to find anything recently that qualifies as a real innovation. One of Google's most exciting recent innovations is the ability to read and index text in images of pages, such as in PDF documents. I worked for Palantir, the company that invented most of that technology, 23 years ago. Or how about Google Chrome, which was all the rage a few weeks ago? It's largely based on open-source Webkit technology and a JavaScript compiler that Google acquired, rather than developed in-house. And, it's a browser. I was in the browser business near the beginning as well, at Netscape, 13 years ago.

The problem isn't encouraging innovation in an economic downturn, it's producing true innovation, period. Economic downturns often help, rather than hurt, innovation. Just as forest fires burn away the underbrush that stifles forest growth, so companies are forced to focus on products and services that really matter. The survivors in each product segment become clear, and the people who work for the losers either take their ideas to the winners or go start their own companies. A new wave of start-ups is born, and some of them do really interesting things, rather than merely cloning what someone else is doing with a minor twist.

I say let the big companies batten down the hatches, and let the start-ups without business models die off. The big guys will do what they've been doing for a long time, which is buying their best ideas from others. So long as there's venture capital and engineers & scientists driven to build the next big thing, innovation will take care of itself.
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