It seems about every 10-12 years an event happens in the technology industry that shakes the foundation and causes the industry to have to change direction. They change the way society lives and interacts. The companies that are on top of what is happening tend to come out ahead in the end. Positioned for growth and to be one of the industry influencers. The companies that fail to grasp the degree or significance of change, tend to fall behind. To be sucked under by the undertow of the retreating waves. These shifts tend to be big, launching new companies or making existing ones bigger than could have been imagined. In my lifetime I have seen four tidal shifts. Each was different, each was important. Each had its time and place and is cemented in technology history as a defining moment.
The first big moment happened on one of the greatest of American holidays, Super Bowl Sunday. It was January 22, 1984 and pitted the Los Angeles Raiders versus the Washington Redskins. The game was over by halftime, but the biggest of moments came during the legendary Super Bowl ads, where Apple Computer ran an ad directed by famed Hollywood Director, Ridley Scott. It was a play on George Orwell’s classic novel, “1984”. Pitting a young, and in color, female runner versus a mammoth screen with a blue colored “Big Brother”. In those days, that meant IBM, who up until than had defined the computing landscape. Apple was going to break the control of the menace known as “Big Blue”. Most people are familiar with the ad, but it’s impact at the time was that it was the dawn of a new era. Prior to 1984 the personal computer industry was still very young and trying to find an identity and a market. The Apple ad basically opened up to America and the world the idea that anyone can own a personal computer. This was not a hobby industry or an enterprise industry, this would evolve to be a consumer industry. Prior to this the standard quote was from IBM, “Why would anyone want a computer in their house?” But they operated in the world of Mainframes, which were the size of a living room. The PC could fit on your desktop. The race was on and a lot of new companies were created and entered the market, companies like Dell, Compaq, Gateway, etc..in the background a small company called Microsoft was biding its time.
The second big moment would take almost 11 years to occur. During that time period one company stood out above all others; Microsoft. Microsoft had been clever with its licensing model realizing to sell computers at $4000 though cheap was out of the price range of most people. Licensing first Microsoft DOS and then Windows to any PC manufacturer that was interested. It was Bill Gates Thomas Edison moment. Edison was not the first to create the light bulb, he was the one who created the channels to deliver to the masses. Bil Gates did a similar thing by licensing the software to drive the PC industry forward and deliver the computing experience to the masses. This occurred through the next decade, but it was with the launch of Windows 95 that the industry to the masses finally to a great leap forward. though the OS was a great leap forward from its predecessors, it was the launch that set it aside. The campaign began in earnest over a year before the launch. The name had been announced, Windows 95, but time was running short. When the product launched on August 24, 1995 the media coverage was larger than anyone or any company had ever seen in the industry before. The party on campus was over the top. The lines at the stores were long. Skylines in New York decorated. It was what Bill Gates had envisioned, personal computing to the masses. The general public was excited about technology and the possibilities. The future was starting to move much faster.
The technology industry is a funny place, you can be great one day, forgotten the next. The year 1995 was a pretty defining year in the industry. It would be a year where not one, but two tidal wave moments would hit the industry. It remarkably happened before the launch of Windows 95, but its impact remains with us today. On August 9, 1995 a mere two weeks before the launch of Windows 95 a small company called Netscape IPO’d on the NASDAQ. They had created a web browser for the internet. You could now search and find all sorts of interesting things on the world-wide web. Maybe cooler is these websites were colorful and contained graphics. The internet had been a round a long time but until than was really used predominately by academics. Once Netscape was launched and everyone knew about their browser, Navigator, every person and company became interested on the internet. Within months everyone wanted a website. Customers and corporation started talking about how they could use the web to sell products. The web would be what we generically refer to today as a disruptive technology. Either hop on board quickly or be gone quicker. As big a tidal wave that Windows 95 was, the craze launched by Netscape was far bigger. Windows 95 fulfilled a promise laid out by Bill Gates and Paul Allen, A PC on every desktop and in every home”, the internet delivered the future. Luckily for Microsoft Bill Gates was at his peak and was quick to recognize what was happening and on December 7, 1995 delivered a key speech telling Microsoft we had better jump on or be lost to history. Netscape never had a chance, they were destroyed but their legacy lives on as does their impact.
We would not see another tidal wave until June of 2007. This was when Apple Computer, resurrected from the dead launched the iPhone . The iPhone was a new kind of Smartphone. Prior to the iPhone, the Smartphone market was targeted at enterprises and the two companies fighting for command were RIM with their Blackberry and Microsoft with their Windows Mobile Phone. Apple had seen an opportunity and seized it. The iPhone was light years ahead of RIM and Microsoft. The touch screen was better than the qwerty keyboard and stylus offerings. The ability to browse the internet was unusable in Microsoft and RIM’s smartphones. The iPhone made this easy. And the apps? Apple had thought through the developer story much better than Microsoft or RIM. All of a sudden their were hundreds of thousands of apps for the phone and they were usually free or dirt cheap. In addition Apple had struck a deal with AT&T that they essentially dictated terms. That had not happened before. Usually the carrier dictated the terms. All app revenue was Apple revenue. Within a year Microsoft and RIM were done and they have never recovered. The one competitor left standing was a new entrant, Google with its Android platform. Microsoft never seemed in that era to understand what was happening in popular culture. Before the iPhone smartphones were for business people. After the iPhone launch it was hard to find anyone who did not have a smartphone.
It has been 8 years since the launch of the iPhone. I feel the surf beginning to swell and something big is looming on the horizon. What will it be? Could it be wearable technology or robotics? Perhaps IoT? Big Data? Virtual Reality? Who knows, but everything just mentioned is still early. Waiting for a breakthrough to bring it to the masses. This is what drives technology more than anything, that ability to change lives within moments. So much of what is routine today seemed a distant future not so long ago. When I was at Microsoft early on, the discussion was about Information at your fingertips, this was before the internet became huge and mobile devices were not envisioned as they are today. Now that dream exits, I can be anywhere and if needed get info immediately via my iPhone. I can get directions to where I need to go in seconds. Entirely due to the four tidal waves I mentioned earlier. I am excited for the next tidal wave, it is building as we speak and the question will be as it crests and the wave comes crashing down upon us, are we ready?
Good Night and Good Luck
Hans Henrik Hoffmann June 26, 1015