How to make the top 10 list of the worst tech innovations of the 21st century!


My guess is that while founders seek recognition, making a top 10 list of the worst tech innovations of this century probably isn’t the type of recognition they would have in mind.

But understanding why the MIT Technology Review chose these 10 innovations may help you avoid making the next such list. Premature scaling, lack of customer discovery, and applying outdated methods led to some of the worst innovations.

Here’s the list:

  1. Segway 
  2. Google Glass
  3. Electronic voting
  4. One laptop per child
  5. CRISPR babies
  6. Data trafficking
  7. Cryptocurrency
  8. E-cigarettes
  9. Plastic coffee pods
  10. Selfie stick

What did all these failures have in common? They were built by an outmoded, stealth mode where technologists labored in secret to perfect their products then, and only then did they seek out customers for their inventions. None of them were able to find a repeatable, sustainable, scalable business model.

In other words they were solutions in search of a problem, an issue I often see in the engineering-driven teams I mentor. Those teams live in fear that someone will steal their idea, when the reality is only if their idea is successful will they have something to fear and that’s the copying of their idea. No mistake, there were brilliant and successful inventors behind these products, like Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway. And I’m sure that Google put its best and brightest behind Google Glass. Interestingly both products live on in tiny niches, the Segway used by security forces to get around in malls; Google Glass being used in certain industrial assembly processes. And well I remember Nick Negroponte’s One laptop per child effort, which broke my rule about not attempting to build both breakthrough hardware and breakthrough software at the same time – fight the innovation battle on a single front.

Here are the tenets of the lean startup development methodology which has superseded the top ten’s reliance on the waterfall method. The waterfall method is strictly linear and moves step by step from product requirements to design, to implementation, to testing to maintenance. Here’s the tenets of the agile development methodology, now promoted by Stanford’s Steve Blank, Harvard’s Eric Reis, and MIT’s Bill Aulet according to Inc. author Sean Wise, in his Inc. article MIT Just Announced the Top 10 Worst Tech Innovations of the 21st Century. Here’s What They All Have in Common.

  1. Get out of the building. One of my favorite mentoring maxims is “Inside this conference room all we have are opinions, facts are to be found outside the building.” This means conducting lots of face-to-face meetings with prospective users to understand their problems and needs and discover how your product solution will fit with a prospect’s problem.
  2. Share everywhere. One way to help ensure that there’s a market for what you are building is to share what you are doing with early adopters, Only by making your development process public can you attract early adopters who are willing to work with you because they see the value in the product you are building.
  3. Get a minimum viable product. “At the heart of the Lean Startup method is the idea that “done today beats perfect tomorrow.” The old notion that companies only have one chance to make a first impression is replaced with the idea that users benefit through early collaboration, and it is better to release an ugly prototype today than to wait for months until it is perfect.” I’m a heretic here as I believe it is much more important to build a minimum remarkable product. In the brutal battle for attention making your product remarkable is far more important than making it barely able to survive!
  4. Build, measure, learn. As Bill Sahlman, professor of entrepreneurship at The Harvard Business School told me decades ago, “Startups are a succession of small experiments.” It’s not hard convincing MIT students and alumni to use the scientific method in building their ventures!
  5. Pivot. Pivoting means changing one of the core elements of your venture – see the business model canvas for what those elements are.  I’m of the opinion that founders are a bit too quick to pivot and pivoting has become glib. Change should be driven by the results of your testing only, not because “hey, everyone pivots.”
  6. Continuous deployment. This is something that can easily be done today with software or services, but it’s not so easy with hardware. Too many people assume that all startups are software companies – there are dozens of VCs, especially those in healthcare and biotech who can explain to you that is not the case! Building a prototype and iterating on the prototype before going on to building the full product is the closest you can come to continuous deployment if you aren’t a software developer.
  7. Split testing. A/B testing is the best way to win an argument. Where there is a difference of opinion about features, functions or other major aspects of a product testing two (an no more than two) versions against each other will enable data-driven decisions. Note that A/B testing should also be used in marketing campaigns; it’s been a staple of direct mail marketing for decades.
  8. No more business plans. The business plan died an unmourned death a number of years ago, replaced by the pitch deck and the business model canvas. This is one death I rejoiced in. No one ever read those 20-page business plans and by the time they were written they were obsolete. The business model canvas and a well thought out presentation can both be modified quickly based on prospect, customer, partner, and investor feedback.

Keeping your product secret until it’s ready to launch is a good formula for failure even though it might not be a guarantee you will make Technology Review’s next list of great ideas that didn’t make it as successful products. Don’t use the 20th century’s waterfall product development to build 21st century products.

Jony Ive on creative vs. problem solving modes in product development


It’s a given in the world of tech startups that you must solve a customer problem in order to succeed. That seems very straightforward, but Jony Ive presented the paradox in which he and other creative developers work at a talk he gave on the occasion of being awarded the Stephen Hawking Fellowship at the Cambridge Union.

The speech was filled with tiny gems, like the importance of listening to the quietest voice in the room during the creative process.

But what interested me was how he described ideas as not a response to a particular problem as he discussed the development of the touch interface at Apple.

“Nobody asked us to solve a problem. They were not in response to a technological opportunity. These ideas, they weren’t vulnerable or fragile for a couple of weeks or for a couple of months, these ideas were fragile for years.

What Ive enjoys is the unpredictability and surprise in the product development process. He described the paradox in the way he works:

“There is a fundamental conflict between two very different ways of thinking. It is the conflict between curiosity and the resolve and focus that is necessary to solve problems. Curiosity, while it fuels and motivates, despite being utterly fundamental to the generation of ideas, in isolation just culminates in lots of long lists, perhaps some ideas, but alone that’s sort of where it ends.

Ive made me rethink my relentless emphasis on focus when mentoring founders:

“The necessary resolve to find solutions to the problems that stand between a tentative thought and something substantial, that resolve and that focus very often seems in direct conflict with most creative behaviour. Honestly, I can’t think of two ways of working, two different ways of being, that are more polar. On one hand to be constantly questioning, loving surprises, consumed with curiosity and yet on the other hand having to be utterly driven and completely focused to solve apparently insurmountable problems, even if those solutions are without precedent or reference.

My successes in the startup world have virtually all come from helping instantiate a founder’s vision. The two occasions where I founded a company to realize my own ideas, Throughline and Popsleuth, were both non-starters.  As Jony Ive points out, successful developers can switch between curiosity/idea mode and problem solving mode not just once or twice in a multi-year project but “I find it happens to me once or twice a day and that frequency of shifting between two such different ways of seeing and thinking is fantastically demanding.”

So my takeaway from Jony Ive’s talk is that relentless focus is all well and good, and it’s necessary to build a successful product, but not sufficient. The creative/curious side plays an equal or even more dominant role. But as Ive points out, this shifting is “fantastically demanding.”

This is yet another reason why founding a company and driving the development of a product is so very hard for a solo entrepreneur. Almost every successful entrepreneur from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg had one or more co-founders.  And in retrospect, the reason why I was recruited onto the founding team of several startups was not because I was an idea man but was someone who could focus and bring the founder’s idea to life. Much as I’m fascinated by the creative development process I learned the hard way to stay in my lane as an operations manager, leaving the creative side of things to my

If you are intent on starting a venture, as so many are these days, you might want to look in the mirror and see if there’s an image of the curious creator or the focused problem solver. If you are clearly one or the other then start that search for your complementary co-founder ASAP. But if  you appear to yourself as ambidextrous, you just might want to test that appearance on a small project you take on yourself before tackling the start of a new venture and owning both the creative and operating side of things.

What’s your product narrative?


I’ve posted previously how at Amazon developers’ first step in new product development is to write a press release about the product they plan to create. But Scott Belsky in his new book The Messy Middle takes narrative well beyond the press release.

Carmine Gallo, one of my favorite business writers, writes about Belsky’s book in the Forbes article An Early Uber Investor Reveals A Creative Strategy To Build An Irresistible Brand. His key take-away from the book is that founders should build their narrative before they start developing their product.

According to Belsky, “Most entrepreneurs jump in and build a product. They’ll spend months, even years, building an MVP (minimal viable product). Right when they’re about to share it with the world, they realize it doesn’t resonate with consumers. People don’t understand why it helps them and why they should use it instead of something else.” Belsky recommends that entrepreneurs avoid this problem by starting with a story before the product is built—paint a picture of what the world will look like when the product is finished.

Belsy recommends that developers build a private web page for the product that should answer the following questions:

·     What inspired the idea?

·     Why does it need to exist?

·     Why is it relevant?

·     How does it make the future better?

The narrative services not only as the roadmap to how you develop your product but how you will market it as well. All stakeholders, from investors, team, or partners are helped to visualize the future.

Being able to recite a narrative—tell a story—about a future customer and how the product will solve a real-world problem is a powerful exercise that few leaders do in the early stages of the development process. “It’s very powerful and most teams don’t spend a lot of time on it,” says Belsky.

It’s a truism that investor pitches need to tell a story, but Belsky’s concept of the narrative goes beyond that to acting as the lodestar during the entire lifecycle of the product.  I see Belsky’s approach as similar to what I recommend to founders, using the journalists who? what? why? why” where? and how? to tell their products story. But what is different about Belsky’s approach is that it helps everyone envision the future. He gives a great example, how Garrett Camp, co-founder of Uber imagined a future where where everyone could call up a private driver, something only reserved for wealthy elites at the time. He imagined it as a superpower that ordinary people would have at their fingertips, literally. The story evolved into Uber’s first tagline: Uber is everyone’s private driver. Journalists report on the present; you narrative is a report from the future!

This also ties in with how Alan Kay recommends founders develop their products which I wrote about in the blog post How to invent the future. Belsky’s put his money where his book is, he was an early investor in Uber, in addition to founding Behance, an online portfolio company for creatives that he later sold to Adobe for an estimated $150 million. Today, Belsky is Adobe’s chief product officer and a venture capital investor.

He uses as an example Garrett Camp. the cofounder of Uber. (Belsky was an early investor in the company) Before Uber was a product—or a company—Camp was working on the narrative. Camp began to imagine an experience where everyone could call up a private driver, something only reserved for wealthy elites at the time. He imagined it as a superpower that ordinary people would have at their fingertips, literally. The story evolved into Uber’s first tagline: Uber is everyone’s private driver.

To recap, while Jeff Bezos’s practice of writing a press release for a new product that has yet to even begin development acts as a guiding light, a narrative envisions the future how the product will change life for consumers. Both approaches will not only guide developers but help them communicate the nature and value of their product to all stakeholders from investors to users.

Demo or die!


This directive was issued by Nicholas Negroponte, the founding director of the MIT Media Lab as a great contrast to the typical academic edict, publish or perish. The Media Lab’s support came, and probably still comes, from very large companies who want a front row seat at the Lab’s inventions and innovations. The ticket price is high, but so is the return on investment.

Joi Ito, the current director of the Media Lab, quoted this phrase to a TED audience:

“The demo only has to work once because the primary mode of us impacting the world was through large companies being inspired by us and creating things like the Kindle or Lego Mindstorms. But today, with the ability of to deploy things into the real world at low cost, I’m changing the motto now. And this is official: deploy or die.”

What brought this to mind was my major takeaway from Ken Kocienda’s book Creative Selection, about his 15 years of experience designing and developing products at Apple. His major accomplishment at Apple was developing the keyboard for the iPhone. He provides a fascinating inside look at how a major feature comes to life at Apple. There was a lot of concern about the iPhone keyboard, actually more like fear that users just wouldn’t be able to type efficiently and accurately on the glass screen. Ken became the DRI – Directly Responsible Individual – for the iPhone keyboard through a bakeoff process amongst 14 other developers in the iPhone software group conducted by the departed VP of Software Development, Scott Forstall. The demo is the core modality of feature development at Apple. If you are in charge of a particular feature or function, like the keyboard, your first task is to create a demo to show what the feature would look like to a user. Once you have a demo that works to your satisfaction the next step is to show your demo to your teammates. You next incorporate that feedback and get ready for the weekly meeting with your manager to show him the demo. If it passes muster the demo goes right up the chain of command. Scott Forstall was the ultimate gate keeper to Steve Jobs. Only when Scott was satisfied that the demo represented the best way to implement a feature like the iPhone keyboard would he arrange a meeting with Jobs and other members of the executive team.

According to Kocienda, Apple was very focused on the concrete and tangible. Brainstorming sessions were extremely rare. Even white-boarding sessions were used primarily in a problem solving, not presentation mode. Engineers were largely left to their own devices to develop their demos uninterrupted by management.

So while Nicholas Negroponte’s demo or die was focused on his patrons, Apple’s demos were used to refine a feature until it’s ultimate green lighting by Steve Jobs. Only then would the engineer begin to turn the demo into actual functioning code.

Joi Ito plainly was highly influenced by Apple’s culture, as he said:

Less planning and more presence in the moment can accelerate innovation, he argues. Getting objects out into the real world is the point. Don’t be a futurist,  he urges, be a “now-ist.”

This is great advice for founders. Along with get out of the office and talk to prospective customers it’s probably the second most important piece of advice – don’t leave your office without a demo.

The distance from a presentation to a demo is enormous. But starting to actually code before you have a demo that been subjected to both internal review and customer review is going to waste time and effort. Premature coding is more dangerous to a venture than premature fund raising.

So “demo or die” is a motto well worth bringing into your corporate culture. But it needs to be an integral part of the product development process, not a sidetrack to please marketing or impress investors.  At Apple during Jobs’ and Kocienda’s time:

Demos were the catalyst for creative decisions. We found that the sooner we started making creative decisions … the more time there was to refine and improve those decisions, to backtrack if needed, to forge ahead if possible. Concrete and specific demos were the handholds and footholds that helped boost us up from the  bottom of the conceptual valley so we could scale the heights of worthwhile work. Making a succession of demos was the core of the process of taking an idea from the intangible to the tangible.

There are many important milestones in the life of the startup but none is more important that turning your idea into demo, the mission critical step in product development, when your baby who has been gestating for months is finally born for the world to see.

An inside look at Apple’s software development process

creative selection

Creative Selection is a term coined by Ken Kocienda, who spent 15 years at Apple developing software and working on the iPhone and iPad during the second reign of Steve Jobs.  I’ve always been fascinated by what goes on behind the scenes of the works of art I admire, be they movies, books, software, hardware or in Apple’s case the brilliant melding of hardware, software, and services.

While I’ve read quite a number of book’s about Steve Jobs and Apple none of them have gone into the deep, nitty gritty detail of how software was designed, developed, reviewed and released at Apple.

Ken Kocienda’s book Creative Selection – Inside Apple’s Design Process During the the Golden Age of Steve Jobs is the not the first book by an Apple developer, Andy Herzfeld, one of the key Mac developers, released Revolution in The Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made in 2004 and there might be others, but either way I highly recommend Ken’s book to any software developer or business person interested in how the sausage is really made.

Ken lists seven elements essential to Apple’s software success:

  1. Inspiration: Thinking big idea and imagining what might be possible
  2.  Collaboration: Working together well with other people and seeking to combine your complementary strengths
  3. Craft: Apply skill to achieve high-quality results and always striving to do better.
  4. Diligence: Doing the necessary grunt work and never resorting to shortcuts or half-measures
  5. Decisiveness: Making tough choices and refusing to delay or procrastinate
  6. Taste: Developing a refined sense of judgment and finding the balance that produces a pleasing an integrated whole
  7. Empathy: Trying to see the world from other people’s perspectives and creating work that fits into their lives and adapts to their needs

Creative selection is the missing and combining of these elements, plus adding in a personal touch, a little piece of themselves, something Ken calls octessence.

In addition to learning a lot about Apple and its design and software development process you will also have a front row seat as Ken demos for Steve Jobs. His description of that event is poetic and renders real insight into how Jobs ran Apple and interacted with his team.

One thing I had read about Jobs that impressed me greatly was his quote about the meaning of focus:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

That’s what I thought the title Creative Selection referred to. But as you will find from reading Ken’s book there’s that and so much more, all written clearly and engagingly. Ken even includes an index for book nerds like me, so I can track down every mention of terms like creative selection.

Read the book, even if you don’t take advantage of the index.



What makes a good product?


The truism about a good product is that it solves a customer problem. But that’s just one clue amongst many. Jeff Davidson’s article on Medium’s The Startup The 10 Commandments of Good Products – what Defines Value? will help the entrepreneur build a lasting product that delivers value.

1 · It Makes an Undesirable Task Easier

Ease of use is certainly one of the defining qualities of a great product. Apple built an entire company around that value. And almost by definition, if you think about it, if you are solving a problem you are making an undesirable task – the problem – easier by providing a solution. But engineers and marketeers can be afflicted with scope creep – adding feature after cool feature until ease of use gets buried under a blizzard of features. Mitch Kapor hit the grand slam home run of products by brilliantly integrating the spreadsheet with charts and graphs. But his latter products suffered from trying to jam 20 pounds of features into a 10 pound bag – Symphony, Jazz, and Agenda to name three straight failures. The other reason for Apple’s great success was Steve Job’s insistence on simplicity and his vaunted ability to say “no” to features – sometimes even to Apple’s detriment. As Einstein supposedly said, “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Ease of use is tied in with simplicity of use. As the film directors say, be willing to leave your babies on the cutting room floor if these favorite scenes don’t advance the story.

2 · It Has Focused Value

Jeff has a truly great insight here and he knows it, as it’s in bold: Users have to imagine value before experiencing it. Job’s genius for marketing provides yet another example with his tagline for the iPod: “1,000 songs in your pocket – imagine that!” And millions did! Frankly I’m not a fan of the phrase “focused value” but the translation: your product does a few things, very well is the lesson here.

3 · It Lasts

Jeff has two great examples: the iPhone, which is basically unchanged in value delivery and form factor after 10 years – it’s specs have improved dramatically but its functionality is basically the same. The Vespa scooter is another example of a product that has remained relatively unchanged for decades. The term for something that last is classic. In today’s disposable culture of ADHD strive to create a classic, not a pop hit – here today, gone tomorrow. Jeff’s other point about lasting is that great products don’t fall apart or breakdown repeatedly. One reason why Apple leads the world in customer satisfaction surveys is durability. You need to engineer your product to survive every use case you can imagine. For physical goods you need not only great engineering but great manufacturing to build lasting products. The mirror image of lasting is planned obsolescence, products engineered to fall apart or become less useful to drive a customer to buy the next model. While this seems like a profitable strategy in the short term – please Wall Street with great quarterly revenue numbers – it’s a poor strategy in the long term. Why? Because you betray customer trust! And when you lose trust you lose loyalty. By building products that last you will build customer trust and loyalty – that’s where real value lies.

4 · It Has Aesthetic Appeal

Apple leads the world in this category. But how about Tesla for a change? Not just a breakthrough concept, but a beautiful car, inside and out. While there’s an occasional counter example, like Craigslist –  born ugly and still ugly today – in general, you want your product to be attractive in the transitive sense, that it attracts customers and as an adjective as well, it appeals to the senses.

5 · It is Intuitive

The saying “You only have one chance to make a first impression” is generally applied to people, and often used to coach candidates for job interviews. But this saying is equally true for products. If your product has a steep learning curve, like Mitch’s Agenda, relatively few people will invest the time to learn how to use it. The ratio of value to time invested must be high. As Jeff points outs, we buy when we try, which is why smart vendors offer free trial periods and friendly return policies. The days of shipping 5 pounds of manuals with a PC software application are long gone – replaced by perhaps three or four slides on the product’s home page, if that. Patience is going down, demand for immediate gratification is going up. That means you need to deliver attractive value immediately, even if it a while to learn all the features. Jean-Louis Gassée had the concept of the Z-axis in products. Your immediate impression is that the product is intuitive, but it’s also deep, not shallow. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, like Photoshop, but generally products like Photoshop are aimed at professionals who are willing to invest more time and effort to get greater return – the concept I use called ROTI: Return on Time Invested. We often quickly forget how much we paid for something if the time we invest in learning to use it is small compared to the benefit the product delivers.

6 · It is Efficient

The term I like that I learned early on from software engineers is elegance. The scientific definition is pleasingly ingenious and simple. As Jeff points out, great products are usually done by small teams, not as Bill Gates once said of IBM, “masses of asses”! The joke amongst developers is the camel is a great example of something designed by a large group. Watch out for superfluous additions such as heavy stylization. Great products have a high value to resource ratio.

7 · It is Visceral

Here’s a term I have not run across, despite being a psychology major: stimulus-response compatibility. Stimulus-response compatibility refers to the degree to which a person’s perception of the world is compatible with the required response. Being visceral means going beyond simply looking good – eye candy. Products should feel good, sound good, and even smell good. A good product is pleasing to many senses.

8 · It Satisfies the Seeking System

The term seeking system is also a new one on me, but it’s what’s behind the drive for novelty, which I wrote about in the post Novelty – the driving force for today’s consumers. Jeff defines the seeking system as humans intrinsic drive to explore, try novel things, challenge themselves, and to learn. It’s the driving force behind entertainment and social products. The seeking system is an intrinsic motivation – people want to be in control but they also want to explore. Thus the enduring value of the search engine.

9 · It Serves as an Expression of the User

Thorstein Veblen discovered this decades ago, it’s called conspicuous consumption. Fashion is the ultimate “expression of the user.” This is why aspirational marketing works so well. A product is purchased not for it’s utility value, but as a reflection of the status of the consumer. Apple’s white earbuds soon became such a symbol – they broadcast the message that the wearer was cool because they owned an iPod! Being the least fashion conscious person I know – I was once called by a Lotus executive “the worst dressed executive I ever met” –  I’ll leave this more to the marketeers than the product designers. However, Jeff throws in something I think is much more important to the product designer: the Ikea effect: People become attached to their creations and products and they start to define themselves by them.

10 · It Helps People

Helping other people is the number one value I look for in a venture. If your mission statement doesn’t say something of the form: “Our product helps people do X” then I tend to be skeptical about the venture. I look for products that deliver utility, not novelty. Utility lasts, novelty does not. If your product helps people it will last, it will become a classic, it will succeed. That’s why I would list this quality first, not last.

I don’t know anyone who’s built a great product by following a checklist. Founders need to absorb the characteristics of great products, not try to mimic them. One way to do that is to own or experience great products. Steve Jobs owned and used a BMW motorcycle and Martin-Logan electrostatic speakers – best in class products. You don’t need to buy everything, but try borrowing products that are classics – test drive a Tesla even if you can’t afford one now. By using and studying great products, whether the classics of yesterday by German consumer products company Braun, or the classics of today from Apple and Tesla, you will instinctively incorporate these qualities into your product. They must come from the inside out, they can’t be pasted on from a checklist.

When the platforms change the players change. Watch out!

apple ii

I’m not sure where I heard the adage that when the technology platforms change the players – meaning companies, will change with them, but it’s a good one for would-be entrepreneurs. Meaning those with a real bias towards doing a startup, as three MIT grads I met with recently, who really wanted to do a startup but didn’t know where to start. Watching for the next wave is one way to launch a business that will have the advantage of a megatrend behind it.

I went through two of the major instances of platform changes enabling new competitors which we missed not once, but twice. If you are running an established company rather than a startup you or a co-founder should spend a few percentage points of your time scanning for imminent platform changes in the technology environment and when you see a massive change coming get all hands-on deck to prepare for it.

The Apple 6502 Platform

Here’s the first example. In 1979 Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston started a company called Software Arts, Inc. to commercialize Dan’s invention of the electronic spreadsheet to be named VisiCalc. There were lots of PCs around in the dawning of the personal computer in the late 1970s but no single company had yet developed a platform, meaning a framework or environment in which end-user applications can be developed and run. Back in those days there was a strict delineation between systems software, what we now call the operating system, and applications software, like word processors, now called apps.  Dan and Bob wisely chose the Apple II from Apple Computer, Inc. and it’s 6502 processor as their delivery platform. If I recall correctly the Prime computer, a mini-computer played a key role in development, thought VisiCalc was coded in assembly language for the 6502 processor. Choosing the 6502 and Apple over the 8080 used by a number of other companies had a direct and highly beneficial effect on Apple’s skyrocketing rise to define the personal computer. As highly influential analyst Ben Rosen wrote of VisiCalc, It was he software that wagged the hardware dog. You can learn a lot more about the early history of Apple in a plethora of books and though no one has sought to write the history of Software Arts there’s plenty of information about VisiCalc onWikipedia. I’ll limit myself with providing you with a very insightful quote from Ted Nelson, a pioneer of hypertext and a hero of mine (deserving of a full post):

VISICALC represented a new idea of a way to use a computer and a new way of thinking about the world. Where conventional programming was thought of as a sequence of steps, this new thing was no longer sequential in effect: When you made a change in one place, all other things changed instantly and automatically.

— Ted Nelson[8]

The Apple II became a platform through two breakthrough ideas by Apple co-founder and technical genius Steve Wozniak: building seven slots into the motherboard, which enabled scores of hardware developers to build compatible cards, and by providing an early version of the BASIC programming language, thus making the Apple II accessible to those of us not equipped to program in assembler.

Software Arts built a very nice business on the Apple II and the strategy was to go broad but not necessarily deep. In other words a lot of the company’s resources were developed in creating versions of VisiCalc for others computer the process called porting, from Atari, Commodore, Radio Shack, and probably a couple of others I’ve forgotten

The IBM PC PC-DOS Platform

But then along came the IBM Personal Computer developed in a skunkworks located from from IBM’s gravitational pull of its HQ. The IBM PC was the massive change in platform that unfortunately Software Arts missed. We were given a very early version of the machine, code named “Peanut” which came in on a plywood board,  and sported an operating system that wasn’t yet to be called PC-DOS, as it was an OS purchased presciently by Microsoft from a small developer who had no idea that that the market dominating IBM was soon going to enter the PC business. Well I have to be careful or I’ll be regurgitating everything I know about the early days of the PC which isn’t my point. Others have done that quite well and it’s not my intent.

What happened with the PC was that Software Arts made a very large mistake. Instead of treating the IBM PC like the market and platform creator that was soon to dominate the business computing world, it was treated the IBM PC as yet another port, much like Atari or Radio Shack. So rather than coding a new version of VisiCalc from ground up to take advantage of it’s leading hardware features, such as function keys, larger memory address space, built in floppy drives, higher resolution screen and more, the decision was made to use a cross-assembler. It got VisiCalc onto the PC fairly quickly. But Mitch Kapor who had been the product manager for VisiCalc for Personal Software, the publisher and distributor of VisiCalc, had left that position to develop his own program for the Apple II, VisiTrend/VisiPlot. That graphing program, which used the same file format as VisiCalc so it was easy for users of VisiCalc to import their data into VisiTrend to analyze and plot their data. Mitch wisely sold the program to Personal Software. Many of us at Software Arts, like me, who knew Mitch expected him to retire to Hawaii given his penchant for Hawaiian shirts. But Mitch had developed several other programs, so he was deeply embedded into the personal computer industry and he presciently spotted the IBM PC for what it was – a ground breaking new platform that would enable programmers to take advantage of it’s more sophisticated OS, 8080 processor, larger memory, extended keyboard and other of its many advantages over the Apple II.

Although Steve Jobs brazenly took out full page ads welcoming IBM to the personal computer industry the Apple II soon became a speck in IBM’s review mirror. Mitch got as a partner Jonathan Sachs, whose programming wizardry rivaled Software Arts’ Bob Frankston’s, as I recall Dan telling Bob in exasperated tone. To cut to the chase, Mitch was the designer of the most popular program for the, PC and Jonathan Sachs, the programmer. By designing and developing Lotus 1-2-3 from the ground up for the IBM PC and incorporating the graphing and data analysis features of VisiTrend/VisiPlot, VisiCalc soon became a speck in Lotus’ review mirror. The platform changed: from the Apple II to the IBM PC (and its clones) and with it the players changed: from Software Arts, Inc.  to Lotus Development Corporation.

The Microsoft Windows Platform

But sharp as Mitch was it was his turn to miss the next platform change. Bill Gates at MicroSoft had developed a competitor to VisiCalc; like all the other competitors I tracked as VisiCalc product manager, pre-IBM MultiPlan went no where very quickly. But it gave Microsoft valuable experience in developing a business spreadsheet, experience that was put to good use as Microsoft drove the next huge platform change, from the command line interface of PC and MS-DOS, to the GUI of the Windows operating system. I remember first seeing an early version of Windows and it looked very clunky. But Microsoft made up for in persistence what they may have lacked in visual design and by Windows version 3.1 Microsoft owned the next and virtually last platform for the PC and became a multi-billion dollar public company on the back of its graphical user interface and the Excel spreadsheet, written by Microsoft to take full advantage of its own operating system. There’s tons more inside baseball history to this platform change, Wikipedia and Google can fill in the many details. But the moral of the story is that Bill Gates, like Mitch Kapor, leveraged their early foray into PC applications programs to totally dominate the next OS of their times.

The Smartphone Platform and the Rise of Mobile Computing

But next came Microsoft’s turn to miss the platform change, and yet again the players changed with it. That platform change was driven by Apple and its development of the market-making iPhone and it’s brilliant accompanying iPhone driver, the App Store. I vividly recall Steve Ballmer, then CEO of Microsoft, replacing Bill Gates derision of the iPhone. Check out the YouTube video Ballmer Laughs at iPhone or read That Time Steve Ballmer Laughed at the iPhone. Ballmer and Microsoft had become fat, happy, and complacent.  They totally missed the smartphone and app platform change and Apple did what no one ever believed possible, it became not only amore valuable company than Microsoft, but created a new platform that blew away Microsoft and the rest of the legacy PC world as well.

So you know the saying, Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Well platform change has happened yet again! I knew well before most anyone that AI would become the next platform change. But that knowledge did me no good, as I didn’t know when or why. But neural networks, which had been left dead and buried by influential MIT computer scientist Marvin Minsky rose from the dead, in the form of today’s machine learning. The infrastructure that enabled that resurrection, was the vastly more powerful computing power, the almost infinite storage capabilities, and most importantly, the reams upon reams of data to feed into the neural network to enable machine learning. Google spotted the AI trend early on and wisely scooped on many of the worlds’ AI experts to help it make use of the power of AI. Apple, which lead the iPhone platform change, was too busy taking selfies with celebrities to spot this platform change which unlike the others, was not an operating system change but an application driver – AI – change.

The Smart Assistant and the rise of the voice UI

And there’s yet are two more platform change to discuss, one being the move towards voice control of consumer devices, from iPhones to TVs to a wholly new platform pioneered by of all companies, Amazon with it’s Alexa smart assistance brilliantly wedded to its family of smart speakers, the Echo.

Again Apple had the early lead with smart assistants, just as it had with the Apple II, in the form of Siri, the virtual assistant purchased by Apple and delivered on Apple’s family of operating systems: iOS, watch OS and tvOS. But Apple made much the same mistake as did Software Arts. Instead of capitalizing on it’s early lead with Siri and investing the huge amount of resources at its fingertips, Apple applied the porting strategy, making Siri available on its family of operating systems: iOS, MacOS, watch OS, and tvOS and on it’s very late to the party, the overpriced HomePod smart speakers. Apple is now hellbent on catching up with Google, evident by it’s poaching Google’s head of AI to take the same position at Apple. And having this position report directly to CEO Tim Cook demonstrates the attention Apple is now putting on AI. But they are indeed playing catch up as their HomePod smart speakers were generally lauded for the sound quality but they we heavily criticized for the very weak version of Siri used with these speakers. Jeff Bezos, after failing mightily with Amazon’s attempt at manufacturing a smartphone, has mimicked Apple’s iPhone killer app: The App Store. Only Bezos calls smart speaker apps, Skills. But whatever you want to call them, he’s got thousands of programmers developing for the Alexa platform, and 10,000 plus skills available. In a move that mirrors Microsofts’ licensing of Windows and Google licensing of the Android operating system for smartphones, has licensed Alexa for use with other companies devices, including cars!

In Summary

So there you have it. Multiple platform changes from about 1981 to the present. All missed by the incumbent king of the previous platform. The lesson here is the by now stale quote from hockey all-time great Wayne Gretsky, I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been.  Unlike my call on AI which, I’d become fascinated by reading many of my employer, publisher Addison-Wesley Publishing Company’s AI books, I have no idea what’s coming next. Certainly one could argue that crpytocurrencies are the platform du jour. And like the platforms before it in all probably one or two companies will rise to dominate the industry. Cryptocurrencies and it’s partner in crime, the blockchain, are about where personal computer was before the release of the IBM PC – just getting started, with no dominant player. So whether it’s robotics, quantum computing, biological computing, gene editing, virtual reality, or my personal bet, holograms, there many candidates to choose from. Entrepreneurs need to know some technology history and just as important, keep their antennae up for what’s the Next Big Thing by reading voraciously and attending industry events outside their domain of expertise. I’ll leave you with a well known quote from Alan Kay, The best way to predict the future is to create it. And here’s Alan on YouTube explaining what that quote means for developers today.