Dangerous Grounds for Technology
Stupid Math Tricks
Innovation through Accident
Audrey was born in October 2000. Audrey was conceived with a lot of fanfare, much ado and of blue blood. She was well planned and conceived with high hopes. She had everything going for her—looks, money, fame, fortune, power, hype, high expectations and a perfect incubation.
A scant six month later, Audrey died. Her parents wanted it to be a quiet affair, but it was not. The death of Audrey sent shock waves through the community. How can such a tragedy happen?
In case you did not get to know or love Audrey, she was not human. She was a much-hyped breed of gadget called the Internet Appliance. A sleek looking thingamajig with a touch sensitive screen that wanted to adorn your kitchen counter. It is basically a stunted computer. It can surf the web, do basic Email, get stock quotes, check up on the weather, and some limited word processing all for a lot of money ($500 to get started, $22 per month henceforth).
Alex was going on a vacation, to take time off from his job of growing bacterial cultures in little Petri dishes. He was studying the effects of mucus on Staph cultures in a somewhat grungy laboratory in London. He forgot to wash up his last batch before he went off, and when he came back two weeks later, he saw an amazing sight. A mold was all over the dish, but all the bacteria were dead. To cut a long story short, Alex, or rather Dr. Alexander Fleming, found the mother of all disease fighting drugs, Penicillin. Blown in by dust on his Staph cultures.
Many years later, Dr. Fleming was touring a new sparkling medical laboratory in the US. The place was very impressive and well equipped and scrupulously clean. After the tour his host made the remark “If you worked here, think of what you could have invented?” Dr. Fleming’s response was short and sweet “Not Penicillin!”
Good inventions are often born out of need. Great ones are accidental.
A great problem with inventions today, is that people who invent them cannot gauge the reaction of other people who will have to use them, for them to be successful. Market research, focus groups, survey and many such techniques are used to gauge the future reaction, but over and over again, things go wrong.
In 1985 the Coca cola company was loosing sales to Pepsi and conducted wide-ranging studies and found that a change in the Coca Cola formula makes people like it even more. Soon after, they introduced “New Coke”. What followed has become a legendary story that is in every marketing textbook. The consumers rejected New Coke completely and Coca Cola went back to selling the old stuff. Of course, conspiracists claim that Coke never really wanted to change the formula, but did is just as an attention getting ploy to get free publicity.
Even before Audrey was born, the press sang glories of the Internet Appliance in general and Audrey in particular. There have been Internet appliances before Audrey (all failures) but Audrey was different. She had looks and she had pedigree. She was from the royal family of 3Com, the company behind the wildly successful “Palm” handheld organizer. Like Palm, Audrey was supposed to light the light the wildfires of desire and reside in every kitchen from Beijing to Timbuktu.
There is a group of intelligent and well-meaning people who are completely convinced that an Internet Appliance is a good thing. They keep ignoring the lack of any enthusiasm from the buying public for these gadgets. Many have come to market, and all have withered. Company after company has tried to sell these stunted computer, so that “even Grandma, can use them”. Grandma does not want them and those who do, want real computers.
The Internet Appliance is similar to another gadget called a Thin Client. A thin client is a sub-performing computer, with little or no disk storage that works off of servers connected by a network. While in theory a thin client is a very useful device, people do not like them. Yet, the promoters do not give up, every 2 to 3 years a new flood of these are built and then relegated to the junk heaps.
Unlike Audrey, Palm was not born to kill. In the era of the birth of the Palm (about 1996), there were handheld gadgets for storing names and addresses and such, and the demand for these were lackluster. Then came “Newton”. Newton was from the great sages in Apple Computer. Newton was destined for the sky. Newton was cute, very accomplished and expensive. After about 2 years of struggling to sell Newton, Apple put it to rest.
And soon thereafter came Palm. Palm was goofy looking, stunted with a small screen, kind of not too flashy—did not do as much as Newton, but worked for months before its 2 little batteries needed replacement. Palm was not expected to be much more than a toy with a limited following. Instead, Palm was a revolution. 3Com became the absolute marvel of innovation. Even today, 4 years after the introduction of Palm, with much better products on the market, the same old Palm is the market leader in the handheld segment. (Yes, I have one, I am not a big fan of Palm, I got it in 1999 succumbing to intense peer pressure)
The world if full of accidental inventions. A few of the better known ones are Teflon (used for non-stick cookware, semiconductor manufacturing, soil resistant fabrics), TNT the explosive from Alfred Nobel (remember the Nobel Prize?), X-Rays (stumbled upon by William Roentgen), Bubble Gum, Velcro and so on, were all invented by accident. So were the telephone (Alexander Graham Bell) and the phonograph (Thomas Edison). Thomas Edison, after inventing the basic phonograph (called record player later), became a professional inventor, with a goal of doing a minor invention every 10 days and a major one every six months. He is credited with the electric lamp, movies, batteries, and hundreds of other things. Actually, he had a huge team of people working in a big laboratory and he took credit for all the work. Hence, in essence, he invented the concept of a research laboratory.
A researcher working for 3M, a materials company wanted to make the world greatest glue. In the process he found the world’s worst glue – a sticky substance that never sticks. This stuff is one of the best things 3M ever invented – it is used to make the ubiquitous “post-it” notes.
The programming language C was invented by accident. It is a simple language Dennis Ritchie and Brian Kernighan developed for their own programming pursuits. C and its successor C++ are the languages used in most everything today. While all the hundreds if not thousands of languages, designed by experts, to be the best computer language ever, have fallen by the wayside. The list of such languages are rather long, the crown jewels of failure being Ada and PL/1. Java—the popular language of today was not quite designed to be the darling of the web; it was designed to be a cross platform language for limited applications.
The web was invented completely by accident. Two physics researchers, Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreesen wanted to build a tool by which researchers in CERN (a Swiss Physics laboratory) could exchange ideas and publish papers. So they kludged together a shoddy and primitive language called HTML and a browser called Mosaic. Today, that little invention has changed the world. If the originators knew where their invention would go, they would have paid more attention to the design of HTML. Today, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers—an agency which controls internet names) is trying to replace the “dot-com” domain with names like ''.info'' for information, ''.biz'' for businesses, ''.name'' for individuals, ''.pro'' for professionals, ''.museum'' for museums, ''.coop'' for business cooperatives and ''.aero'' for the aviation industry. To most people, who have grown to love and hate the .com revolution, all these are solutions looking for a problem. Who cares?
Planned inventions have quite a poor track record. In recent times, in computing, the litter of “newer and improved” methods and artifacts is overwhelming. There have been many ways to improve the poor design of HTML. Currently the grand finale seems to be something called XML. It is not clear where XML is going, but probably not where the inventors want it to. CORBA was invented in the 1980’s to revolutionize distributed and networked computing. No one outside a small computing community has heard of CORBA. There are endless such boring examples.
Inventions are also evolutionary. We have telephones and we have radios. Combine the two and we get the cordless phones. Take the cordless phone concept further, add some more technology to it, scatter base stations all over the place, and then we get the cellular phone. The cellular phone was invented to be a phone in the car (the telephone for home, the cellphone for car). That idea did not go too far, cellular phones really became popular after they became the phone for the pocket.
Some inventions are driven by need. For example the atomic bomb and a variety of innovative killing machines that were developed during the big wars. When a infectious epidemic hits, researchers work on vaccines and often after long years of hard work, they discover it (the AIDS vaccine is now showing promise of being invented). Of course, the whole concept of a vaccine was discovered by accident, when Dr. Edward Jenner noted people who worked with cows did not get smallpox.
One is hard pressed to find inventions that are not somewhat accidental. Legend has it cars got invented by accident. So did glass, aspirin, donuts with holes, electricity generators, ice cream cones, stocks, the toilet, and a zillion other things. Electromagnetism however has a more interesting past. In 1860, James Maxwell a physicist, took two facts observed by Michael Faraday (1) a changing magnetic field induces current, and (2) current causes a magnetic field and wrote is down as two differential equations. The solution of these equations seemed to imply the existence of electromagnetic waves that travel though space at the speed of light. Maxwell, hence invented the radio on paper and no one took him seriously. Of course later, in 1887, Heinrich Hertz showed the existence of radio waves.
Will we keep inventing things forever? The right person to answer this question is Charles H. Duell. Mr. Duell was the Commissioner of the US. Patent Office, and in 1899 he wanted to close down the patent office. His famous saying is “Everything that can be invented, has been invented”. That must have been an accident.
Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at http://cactus.eas.asu.edu/partha.