Tuesday, March 22, 2005

WHEN GREAT IDEAS ARE SIMPLY NOT ENOUGH: The tech industry is famous for billion-dollar ideas. But the rewards don't always to go to the inventor. This article from ZDNet gives some examples why some of the most important technologies of the past 50 years -- the transistor, the relational database and the microprocessor -- weren't the slam dunks for their creators that many people might have thought.

Some inventors lost their lead through a lack of insight. Corporate politics sometimes plays a role. More often, the delay of payback is simply the result of poor timing--a reasonable strategy at the wrong time. Take the microdrive at the heart of many of today's MP3 players, for instance. It was invented long before the world was ready for something like the iPod.

Other notable examples of inventions gone wrong and opportunities missed:

  • The transistor - In 1947, scientists at AT&T's Bell Labs created the world's first silicon transistor. Three of its scientists would later win the Nobel Prize in physics for the invention. Bell Labs obtained a patent for the device, but the invention was licensed to, among others, IBM, Texas Instruments and the forerunner of Sony. The goal was to avoid antitrust problems with the U.S. government. (In a 1956 consent decree, AT&T agreed to license the transistor freely.)
  • Xerox PARC - Xerox has been flayed mercilessly for allowing concepts such as the desktop PC, Ethernet networking, the laser printer and the mouse--all invented at its famed Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC--to get exploited by others. The photocopier giant is now trying to stay afloat in a world going paperless. Still, PARC did help launch the careers of a number of people: James Clark, Alan Kay, Robert Metcalf and Lawrence Tesler, among others.
  • DOS - Microsoft got into operating systems by chance, but this story starts with IBM. For its first PC, IBM initially considered using the C/PM system from Digital Research. Because Digital Research wouldn't sign a nondisclosure agreeent, IBM asked Microsoft, then developing applications for IBM, for MS-DOS. MS-DOS, however, was actually based on QDOS, an operating system created by Tim Paterson of Seattle Computer Products. Microsoft bought QDOS from SCP (which didn't know about the IBM deal) for $50,000.
  • Relational Database Software - young IBM engineer named Edgar Codd defined the concept and structure of the relational database back in the '60s and '70s. Codd's revolutionary idea was to organize data into tables of rows and columns, and to relate that data to other tables. His work produced the blueprint for how to build a relational database, as well as the foundation for what would become SQL, or Structured Query Language, a standard way to access data. At the time, however, the technology didn't mesh with IBM's corporate strategy. The company was heavily invested in an older database model. The result: IBM didn't market a product based on Codd's ideas until 1978--one year after a young entrepreneur named Larry Ellison founded Oracle. Ellison's company went on to become the leader in relational database software, a $13.5 billion market that Oracle leads to this day.

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