The Evolution Of The Netbook/Cloud Computing, Again, Shows The Difference Between Invention And Innovation

from the and-which-is-more-important dept

Rik alerts us to a recent Wired Magazine article that goes through Larry Ellison's failed attempts at building a cheap computer (the network computer -- or NC) that would mainly be used for internet access. That history is pretty well known. Ellison -- in large part inspired by jealousy of Bill Gates -- declared that the PC was dead, and in its place people would prefer to use a stripped down computer with everything on the internet instead. It got a ton of buzz, and lots of people expressed interest. But the product was a flop. A massive flop. And yet... here we are today, and more and more applications are online only, and the success of cheap netbooks have more than matched some of the original vision of the network computer. As the article explains:
We tend to think of technology as a steady march, a progression of increasingly better mousetraps that succeed based on their merits. But in the end, evolution may provide a better model for how technological battles are won. One mutation does not, by itself, define progress. Instead, it creates another potential path for development, sparking additional changes and improvements until one finally breaks through and establishes a new organism.
That is the process of innovation. And yet, we tend to only celebrate the invention -- the first idea -- rather than all the evolutionary process that it takes to make something successful. Things like patents tend to block that evolutionary process by limiting the pace at which those mutations and developments can occur. They slow down innovation, rather than letting it flow, by putting an arbitrary wall around each new step, rather than letting the evolution proceed uninhibited. We may get the innovation eventually, but at a much slower pace than we might otherwise.


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  1.  
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    BearGriz72 (profile), Dec 28th, 2009 @ 3:55pm

    Theory of evolution

    Imagine if nature had gene patents. We would still be amoeba.

     

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  2.  
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    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Dec 28th, 2009 @ 6:19pm

    Grouping

    This is something I've been thinking about in the copyright arena. There seems to be a biological impetus towards categorization. (Taxonomy is a great example.) We don't tend to value things that are only incrementally different, even though that may be the tipping point to whether or not something is actually useful.

    It's a good thing that patents don't work like (modern) copyright, otherwise Star Trek, Clarke, Stephenson, et al. would all be able to collect rents for products that resemble the ones they described in theory.

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2009 @ 7:18pm

    Patents and Innovation

    Here's a recent article discussing some of these issues in the context of patent law: http://www.minnesotalawreview.org/content/innovating-between-and-within-technological-paradigms

     

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  4.  
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    The future is Star trek, Dec 28th, 2009 @ 7:35pm

    The whole system needs a Star Trek overhaul

    Ever notice that roddenberry's original universe before unniversal destroyed it, a replicator could virtually make anyhting and thus basically eradicated copyright?

    ya know one day it prolly will get made but not before another "cultural revolution" happens. This time fo rdemocracy

    that recent global warming debacle shows what happens when we put scientists into the make money system for science. THAT NEEDS TO END. IF you invent something useful perhaps you get a 5 year patent or 5 year copyright.

    THATS ENOUGH. AND i will add that if the evil corporations just sit back wait till copyright is done then make tons a money we could add a screw over clause that says should from 5-15 years a corporation ( not individual ) makes ANY money then the original author or creator gets 50% of that profit. One could easily eradicate the corporations form having copyrights and patents. Also any corporate entity that makes no product cannot simply hold copyrights or patents. ALSO add to that if they make a product ( ending a loop hole to begin with ) it must be of the copyright and of the patent. SO an RIAA could not exist, nor could a SONY etc.
    We don't need them any how.

     

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  5.  
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    The Anti-Mike, Dec 28th, 2009 @ 8:08pm

    I just don't get it

    On one hand, you have a story about innovation and what I consider "polishing" of innovation, and then on the other hand, you say that patents block innovation. Yet this is a clear indication that patents didn't block innovation.

    How can you come to this conclusion based on the story you are presenting?

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2009 @ 9:17pm

    It's the economy, stupid.

    "It got a ton of buzz, and lots of people expressed interest. But the product was a flop. A massive flop."

    The NC was about 15 years ahead of its time and the economy. In '95 when Ellison first started hyping the NC, the price tag was $500. Dollars were bigger back then, and there was almost zero compelling web based content (and it was really hard to find). There might have been a lower TCO for corporate IT departments, but for the average consumer it made no sense.

    Now netbooks are cheap and there is plenty of easily Googled content on the web. So, finally, a client-server setup with super-cheap clients and big servers in the cloud makes economic sense for the mass market.

    It isn't necessarily patents or litigation that hold up progress. Sometimes it's just plain old simple economics. And I doubt Larry would have or could have patented anything about the NC. He pushed it in an attempt to crush Microsoft. So I'm sure he'd want every shirtsleeve dirtball to copy the NC concept and flood the market with dumb internet terminals. Didn't happen.

     

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  7.  
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    What is Cloud Computing, Dec 28th, 2009 @ 9:36pm

    Can you see

    Whether we see it or not the internet is so quickly evolving that soon cloud computing will take over and hardware itself will be obsolete. Article on cloud computing here.

     

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  8.  
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    PWG, Dec 28th, 2009 @ 10:22pm

    let's get sane

    Without any potential profit, who would gather the capital needed for most innovation? Ellison's vision of a light client and heavy server failed when it did for lack of bandwidth. Bandwidth build-out was undertaken at enormous expense--have you noticed the cellphone towers, Bunky? or how about all that cable bringing TV into homes or satellites for 3G and GPS? Exactly how would open patents have hastened that build-out? Who would have done it for free? Look, put down the pizza and donuts and realize that breakthrough game-changing technologies cost money and that no sane innovators undertake risk with no hope for reward. If you stop patents and copyright, you end innovation: you don't hasten it.

     

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  9.  
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    pwg, Dec 28th, 2009 @ 10:24pm

    Re: The whole system needs a Star Trek overhaul

    take your meds

     

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    Mike Masnick (profile), Dec 29th, 2009 @ 12:27am

    Re: let's get sane

    Look, put down the pizza and donuts and realize that breakthrough game-changing technologies cost money and that no sane innovators undertake risk with no hope for reward.

    Huh? Who said "with no hope for reward"? The reward is in selling products. You don't need a patent to do that.

    If you stop patents and copyright, you end innovation: you don't hasten it.

    Heh. If only there were evidence on that subject... oh right, there is. :) Numerous studies have shown no negative impact from a lack of patents and copyrights. If anything, it's shown that stricter patent laws slow down the pace of innovation.

     

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  11.  
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    Doctor Strange, Dec 29th, 2009 @ 1:54am

    And yet, we tend to only celebrate the invention -- the first idea -- rather than all the evolutionary process that it takes to make something successful.

    Fine. So how do you propose to celebrate the entire process? What we actually celebrate is twofold: the invention (the first idea) and the "innovation" (the one that succeeded in the market). The innovation, of course, is far more celebrated than the invention (compare Friendster's valuation to Facebook's), and the intermediate steps (which were neither first nor successful) are generally relegated to obscurity.

    What's the fundamental difference between the innovation, that makes it big, and the penultimate evolutionary step, which doesn't?

    Both skill and luck are involved. According to this study, skill is somewhat more important than luck. But they both play a big role.

    It is very easy to go back and rationalize what happens as being wholly deterministic. "Of course Facebook was more successful than Myspace. Here's a completely made-up list of 10 reasons why."

    But you can't argue that, ultimately, some weird shit happens on the way to the big upslope in the power law distribution. For example, why is Orkut a huge success, but only with Brazilians? Unsurprisingly, some people have spent a lot of time thinking about this and come up with perfectly reasonable-sounding deterministic reasons why. But show me one person - any person - who, before this happened, said, anywhere on Earth, "you know what, this Orkut thing is going to be huge, but only in Brazil."

    In that context, what does it mean to "celebrate the entire process?" Do we recognize the intermediate steps? How? Why? Which ones? If we don't, and we don't even recognize the initial (but unsuccessful, i.e., "invention") step, why should the "innovation," which benefited from a perfect storm of both luck and skill, get all the rewards?

     

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  12.  
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    Robert (profile), Dec 29th, 2009 @ 3:05am

    IT Innovation is Evolution, but not of a single product or idea

    The example of the NetBook computer is an interesting one, but this could be applied to most developing technology.
    The capability to build a NetBook style laptop has been around since the NC, or even before. But the environment in which they could be used as an effective business/personal tool did not exist.

    WebApps such as Facebook, the Google suite of products and others helped. But only very recently has Wireless internet access and mobile broadband become widely accessible. However without the Reason To Buy (the WebApps) no-one would need a NetBook, they would need a laptop capable of running all their desktop applications.

    Here's an interesting thought that occurred to me:
    Would WebApps be as popular if they weren't easily accessible and useable from the cheapest of computers, or is that basically their unique selling point. For example, I can't use MS Office easily on my home PC (I run Ubuntu as the OS) but I can access and use a wiki anywhere.

    So by hindering development in any one of several interconnected areas would mean that it would take longer for other areas to develop to the point of producing useable/saleable product.

     

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  13.  
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    Riddle Me This Batman, Dec 29th, 2009 @ 7:47am

    Re: Can you see

    "cloud computing will take over and hardware itself will be obsolete"

    Errr - then what will the cloud run on ?

     

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  14.  
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    chris (profile), Dec 29th, 2009 @ 8:28am

    Re: Re: Can you see

    "cloud computing will take over and hardware itself will be obsolete"

    Errr - then what will the cloud run on ?


    the atmosphere stupid!

     

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  15.  
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    Rosamunda, Dec 29th, 2009 @ 9:28am

    Re: The whole system needs a Star Trek overhaul

    Totally agree. I think Roddenberry is like Verne: One day it will actually happen all his predictions.

     

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  16.  
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    chris (profile), Dec 29th, 2009 @ 9:43am

    Re: let's get sane

    Ellison's vision of a light client and heavy server failed when it did for lack of bandwidth...breakthrough game-changing technologies cost money and that no sane innovators undertake risk with no hope for reward.

    i think you are missing the spirit of the age at that time.

    the thinkNic (the NC) was in the runup to the dotcom bubble, where web portals were going to be the Next Big Thing and it seemed like everything was using oracle databases to deliver web applications.

    the NC was basically a way to move more oracle software by cutting out the expense of windows and encouraging investment on the server side which was largely sun microsystems and oracle at that time.

    this was also before MSSQL, mySQL, and other databases were popular in the enterprise landscape and when google was just another search engine. everything big seemed to run oracle at it's core.

    this is why ellison was going to invest in it: to make oracle bigger. the NC didn't have to turn a profit on its own, it just needed to break even and create demand for web based application servers that ran oracle at their cores.

    the late 90's were the golden age of yahoo as The Great Portal to the internet. free web based email, ecommerce, and ebay were all relatively new ideas. those were the web-apps of that time, all running on sun hardware and running oracle.

    there were other failed network computers available at the time: the sunray (from sun: the network is the computer, remember that tagline?), the i-opener, webTV (from microsoft!), plus a ton of email only terminals like the audrey from 3com.

    the NC booted from CD and ran entirely from memory. updates to it were going to be made by mailing out new updated CD's. the whole concept revolved around the conservation of bandwidth since pretty much everyone who wasn't at work was on dialup at the time.

    the for it was based on the previous success of greenscreen terminals from the 80's (where everyone shared time on a single central machine via serial connections) and the success of emerging (at that time) server applications like citrix metaframe which also centralized applications on servers and focused largely on conserving bandwidth.

    at $500 a seat, the NC was a steal compared to low end dell computers which were $1000. in time however, the price of computers fell (the emachine shocked the world when it hit for $499 with a 3 year subscription to aol or msn or something) and you could get a "real" pc for the same price as the lesser equipped NC with a real hard drive and a CD burner to store your stuff locally. i think this was what killed the NC.

     

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  17.  
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    staff, Dec 29th, 2009 @ 10:09am

    boot licking

    "Things like patents tend to block that evolutionary process by limiting the pace at which those mutations and developments can occur."

    Good gawd! If it wasn't for the first inventor who taught the new path there would be no subsequent development in it.

    Is your tongue sore yet from all the boot licking you do for large infringers?

     

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  18.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Dec 29th, 2009 @ 10:25am

    Re:

    In that context, what does it mean to "celebrate the entire process?" Do we recognize the intermediate steps? How? Why? Which ones? If we don't, and we don't even recognize the initial (but unsuccessful, i.e., "invention") step, why should the "innovation," which benefited from a perfect storm of both luck and skill, get all the rewards?

    You don't. You let the market decide. The problem with patents is it that it's an anti-market process. The market does a fine job "celebrating." And I totally agree with your point about the mix of skill and luck. But that doesn't mean we should make the lucky pay the unlucky.

     

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  19.  
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    James Lebihan (profile), Dec 30th, 2009 @ 9:08am

    Not really the same

    The Wired article was pretty interesting: A nice history lesson. I'm not sure I'd agree with the implication that a netbook and a cloud is analogous to the network computer though. Netbooks are popular mostly because of their portability. I would venture that many netbook owners, whether families or business people, also have regular PC's and Macs they use for other things. The netbook is intended as an addition to the PC, not a replacement for it.

    Likewise it seems to me the popularity of cloud computing is more to do with server side efficiencies than anything to do with replacing client PC's. Cloud apps offer enterprises another choice in where to host apps: An alternative to maintaining their own server hardware. The service providers can then manage the cloud servers at multiple levels to make the most efficient possible use of the hardware.

    Neither of these things seem to be designed to replace the more powerful clients we all still use, but to work with them.

     

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  20.  
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    Derek Kerton (profile), Dec 31st, 2009 @ 3:51pm

    Javastation

    In a post sponsored by Sun, you should mention the Javastation. This thin client computer followed the same vision that Ellison had, but was championed by Scott McNeely and Sun. I was working at Sun in 1997 when we were pushing the visionary notion that "the network is the computer". It wasn't...but maybe it is now.

    The Javastation flopped. Too early for success.

    A couple of years later, I investigated an Infoseek partnership with the iToaster, another thin client computer, and also a flop. There have been many.

    Today's web-dominated world, web2.0, cloud computing, widgets, faster broadband, always on connections, have finally made the vision possible.

    Come to think of it, it was kind of hapless to try this in 1997.

     

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  21.  
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    Derek Kerton (profile), Dec 31st, 2009 @ 3:52pm

    Javastation

    In a post sponsored by Sun, you should mention the Javastation. This thin client computer followed the same vision that Ellison had, but was championed by Scott McNeely and Sun. I was working at Sun in 1997 when we were pushing the visionary notion that "the network is the computer". It wasn't...but maybe it is now.

    The Javastation flopped. Too early for success.

    A couple of years later, I investigated an Infoseek partnership with the iToaster, another thin client computer, and also a flop. There have been many.

    Today's web-dominated world, web2.0, cloud computing, widgets, faster broadband, HTML progress, always on connections, have finally made the vision possible.

    Come to think of it, it was kind of hapless to try this in 1997.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
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    R J Alderman, Feb 13th, 2010 @ 8:36am

    patents

    I am an Inventor with over 100 patents. Originally a patent application was held in secret in the patent office unless it issued as a patent. Remember an invention usually starts out as a trade secret. The patent office was established to encourage "sharing" knowledge of trade secrets by allowing protection for 17 years (now extended to 20 years. If not for this, many trade secrets would remain secret and be taken to the grave. I for one have stopped filing new patents because of recent USPTO changes that now publish my trade secrets on the Internet even if the patent never is granted. Losses of trade secret rights are the result. We all lose by squelching innovation. Evolution must have the original seeds to evolve.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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