Naming the icons of the past technological revolutions is a moderately easy exercise: Edison, Bell, Tesla, Wright, Ford, Kodak’s George Eastman, Polaroid’s Edwin Land and many others helped define technological revolution of yesterday.But unfortunately – the closer the roll-call gets to the 21st Century the tougher it gets to identify technological titans who belong on the roster of technological geniuses without stirring up a debate in the technological industry. It is becoming nearly impossible to pin-point the leaders of the technological revolution of this century.
It is difficult to differentiate the matrix of technological development illusions from the essence of technological innovations. It is even more difficult to pick a technological leader in the digital world where technological innovations seem to pop up just about every day.Fans of the late Steve Jobs and ‘Apple Computers’ would want to hero-worship him as the technological leader of the digital age, but there is no universal endorsement from the digital industry for him. The late Steve may be a household name as a technological entrepreneur who developed, marketed and sold many technologically slick products like laptops, iPods and iPads and other innovations for more than 3 decades – but that has not made him a technological titan.
The truth is that if Jobs had never been born, these landmarks technological products would not have existed, at least not in the exact forms we have come to know them today. Some industry expert’s grumble saying these successes are nothing more than incremental technological innovations, not necessarily new groundbreaking radical innovations. But what is undeniable in today’s technology market-place is that the Apple Computers Company remains the best brand managers in the competitive technology markets. There is a mysterious heart to heart emotional connection between Apple customers and Apple products – Apple customers are more than customers – they are devotees.
Steve Jobs was a serial technological entrepreneur with a futuristic outlook. He always introduced novel products into the marketplace, which the customers never expected, even though they needed them. He practised ‘technology push’ per excellence – to create demand where there was none. The world held its breath before launching of the iphone 6 in September 2014 – the company sold 10 million units within three days! Apple Computers have always been a powerhouse of futuristic ideas and products. To them serial technological entrepreneurship is a ‘state of mind’ of running technology business. In Apple Computers, innovation is a mind-set before it is transformed into a processes, products, or services. The company has figured out how to promote luxury brands using mass marketing principles. They have – so to speak – always invented the future.
Interestingly after the demise of Steve Jobs, there seems be scarcity of technological leaders worth universal global recognition. The question is: are we as humans walking towards our technological doomsday? Is it a sign that we are becoming less intelligent – less creative and less innovative? Are we living in a world of more and more information and yet of less and less knowledge? We pretend to be well informed, yet lack the ingenuity to transform information into creative knowledge; and thereafter transform creative knowledge into new technological innovations – sources of new tradable commercial products and services. We are becoming a population of value producers but not value creators. The digital age was after all, supposed to be launching pad for serial technological innovations – making the world more connected, more innovative, more competitive and more productive to promote positive economic development and social change. The digital era was expected to ignite the processes of ‘technological democratization’ of global productivity platforms and wealth distribution – democratization of the equitable global prosperity.
For starters, it is no surprise that the names like Martin Cooper and Steven Sasson do not ring any bells with most of technological business practitioners; yet in the 1970s, they changed the way we do business in the technology market-place. Cooper invented the cell phone and Sasson devised the first digital Camera. Historically, if the 85 year old Cooper and the 64 year old Sasson are the older statesmen of digital epoch – shifting innovation, then Ren Ng, at 34, is the new kid on the digital technology block.
In 2006 Ng wrote his Stanford dissertation thesis on light-filled-technology: an arcane science that captures light waves in three dimensions thereby allowing for nifty tricks such as refocusing a photo after it has been taken. In 2012, he turned his research into a technology start – up company called Lytro, which released a $400 camera based on his technological innovation. The market for light-field photography is just beginning to take-off and – as technological entrepreneur he has opened a new industry, new market and new job opportunities – radical innovation at its best. These triple-barrelled technological innovations are positively impacting on global economic development and social prosperity.
Modern technological entrepreneurs like Sasson, Cooper and Ng have something particular in common: They have created physical products with tradable commercial values for the market place. That is the magical power behind radical technological innovations – changing both the industries and the markets, simultaneously. The inventiveness of the present technologists follows largely in the footsteps of the classic technological titans of the past. Thomas Edison figured out a way to keep a carbon filament illuminated and – presto the light bulb. Alexander Bell found a new way to connect two individuals at different geographical locations in a communication network at the same time – and presto the telephone. Orville Wright brothers kept a flying machine aloft for 120 feet, and today we have got a global transport system based on flying machines. The road map to human prosperity is drawn by the ingenuity of engineers and technologists who extended their imaginations beyond intellectual limits of engineering science.
In late 1992 and early 1993, Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s National Centre for Supercomputer Applications invented in Mosaic, the first fully integrated graphical Web Browser. It’s as influential a piece of consumer technology as any developed in the past half-century. But devising a programme that displays bitmapped images alongside Hyper Text Mark-up Language (HTML) – formatted text is not the sort of accomplishment that makes for newspaper headlines or memorable anecdotes. Mosaic was a major technological contribution to the industrial markets, but not to the open consumer markets. The open markets are interested in products or services, not in technologies behind those products or services.
Unlike the past technology titans, the present Tech gurus like Andreessen, Bina and the late Steve Jobs did not start with a blank slate. Mosaic was already an improved version of a browser that Tim Berners-Lee, – who invented the World Wide Web at the CERN research laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland – had created not long before. Berners-Lee’s brainchild – was based on built on a decade’s worth of proceeding internet technologies.
The past technological titans were special and different. They cared about solving challenging which were important to the society. Technological innovations were merely by-products of their collective endeavour. The present technological entrepreneurs care more about wealth creation through technological innovations. Solving important societal problems is just a by-product.
In the 21st Century more or less every technological breakthrough will be a building block for future breakthroughs, and they in-turn will be building blocks for future technological improvements. The road to industrialization and social prosperity is paved by serial technological innovations.
Mark Zuckerberg was by all accounts a programing prodigy who hacked out the first version of what he called ‘The Facebook’ in his Harvard dormitory in 2004. His real achievement is that he figured out how to form and run a technology-based company. Mark is more of a technological entrepreneur than a technologist, unlike Edison. His success has relatively little to do with his technological knowledge. He is a corporate leader in technology industry, but not a genius technologist.
In this Century, some of the bright minds heading major technology companies today inludes: Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook); Tim Cook (Apple Computer); Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google); and Jeff Bezos (Amazon).
Does a technological genius walk amongst them? It is not for us to say. We may know who were the technology titans in past generations, but we must leave it to future generations to identify those will take up our technological legacy.