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Interview: Futurist Esther Dyson on What Gives Ideas Staying Power

Interview: Futurist Esther Dyson on What Gives Ideas Staying Power

What factors give some technologies staying power, while others come and go? We put the question to Esther Dyson — technology pundit, investor, conference organizer, and all-around mover and shaker

Companies, industries and the world are continuously remade by technology.

A technology that could transform the way your company operates — or put your company out of business — may be in development right now. Yet of the multitudes of products, processes and patents generated each year, only a few have a real impact. Even fewer have a lasting impact. The 20 people honoured here for technology development have been chosen because they have the rare ability to develop truly innovative, significant and enduring technologies. But what factors give some technologies staying power, while others come and go?

Dyson has developed a theory: Only those technologies with the power to change society are here for the long term; those without that power will soon be gone

We put the question to Esther Dyson — technology pundit, investor, conference organizer, and all-around mover and shaker. In the quarter century that she has been following technology development, Dyson has developed a theory: Only those technologies with the power to change society are here for the long term; those without that power will soon be gone.

That's a tall order, one that most technology developers are unable to meet. Many of the dotcom technologies — hyped as breakthroughs — turned out to be superficial improvements over traditional business products and processes, Dyson says. Consequently, they were unsustainable once the speculative bubble burst.

In contrast, Dyson says, the more utilitarian a technology, the more significant its innovation. "What makes technologies last is that same old boring thing: They do something useful," she says. For example, "HTML works everywhere. SQL databases are a miracle of modern man." Dyson believes that both will be around for a while.

Dyson is quick to add that utility is not the only test of a technology's promise. Even the most promising technologies can be relegated to obscurity by a bad business model. Consider how different the state of personal computing might be had Apple sooner shared the Macintosh source code, as Microsoft did with DOS and Windows. "You could say that the Macintosh, which is arguably a superior technology [to Wintel PCs], didn't find the right business model," Dyson says. Conceivably, the right business model could have propelled the Mac to a dominant market share for desktops, rather than the also-ran shelf it now occupies.

Significant technologies are not always a slam dunk either, says Dyson. She has seen some technological concepts stumble through infancy, but she believes that if they manage to create sufficient value and usefulness, they will eventually take hold. Form will follow function. "Usually, if the technology is good enough, you'll have a business model to support it," she says. "Maybe not the first try or the second, but eventually someone will get it right." She cites the history of desktop computing, which is studded with obsolete nameplates that failed to catch on with consumers until IBM and a young entrepreneur named Bill Gates established a market standard. In a similar fashion, another 20/20 Vision Award honouree, Thomas Siebel, leapfrogged other entrants in the nascent CRM market and developed the leading version of CRM technology, thereby setting the stage for the enormous expansion of that market in recent years.

So, says Dyson, utility is what really counts — but what creates utility? The value of Windows is not embedded in the OS; the value exists in the business and social context. "It's the standardization of Windows that has made it so useful," she says. "It's a container, not just an operating system."

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