Here's a seven-minute speech I gave June 2 when I got a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Massachusetts Innovation & Technology Exchange, an association for high-energy, high tech companies in the Bay State:MITXSpeech
When I came to Boston in the fall of 1978,
covering computer companies was a half-time job for one of the four
reporters in the Journal's bureau. Banking and mutual funds were the
prestige beats in the region. Polaroid and Raytheon were the premiere
high-tech firms here. Bolt, Beranek & Newman had invented the
packet-switching technology for ARPANET that eventually turned into the
Internet -- but it was best known as an acoustic consulting firm.
One of the first computer entrepreneurs I met was An Wang, whose
company's word processors had already transformed office work. Dr. Wang
referred to himself as "the secretary's friend." Once on a tour of the
United Nations, he was introduced to the secretarial pool. He got a
Today, of course, Wang word processors have
disappeared from the landscape. And so have secretaries.
Reflecting back on 30 plus years of covering technology as both a
business and a social story I'm astounded at the changes I've seen. And
its clear the rate of change has accelerated. The decade of the 80's
saw the emergence of PCs as common office tools replacing typewriters
and calculators and ledger sheets. By the end of the decade, people
were beginning to use internal e-mails to communicate within companies
and some consumers used Prodigy and CompuServe e-mail.
Technology really started to revolutionize people's lives in the 1990's.
The key development? The decision by the U.S. government to open up the
Internet to commercial use in 1993 along with the release of the Mosaic
browser. That was just 17 years ago, about halfway through my tenure as
a Wall Street Journal technology reporter.
By then, computers
were getting cheap enough so most middle-class households had one.
Business people were replacing their pagers with cell-phones. Still, by
1995 there were only 16 million Internet users. Today there are over
1.8 billion people on the Internet and there are some 4 billion cell
phones around the world.
Today we simply assume that, with a
little effort, any of us can talk or text with just about any literate
person on the planet at any time. That's pretty amazing.
though I worked for a business paper, as a reporter I always tried to
see how technological developments affected us sociologically. I loved
writing stories showing people using technology. I remember writing
about cell phones when my best example of one in use was Mitch Kapor --
already retired from Lotus -- using one to let his chauffeur know when
to pick him up.
I thought I'd throw out a list of five ways that
technology has made our childrens' lives dramatically different from
those of kids just 20 years ago. None of these are revelations, but the
speed with which they've transformed their lifestyles is startling.
As Sgt Pepper said: It was Twenty years ago today
giving kids pagers so they could tell them when to get in touch; today
even 10-year olds carry cell phones.
20 years ago kids knew maybe
50 people. Today any teen-ager with fewer than 500 Facebook friends is a
recluse. And they actually keep in touch.
20 years ago: teenage
drivers needed to learn to read maps; today they listen to a GPS.
20 years ago: kids bought CD's. Today they pay for iTunes or steal
20 years ago: kids did research at public libraries
and ambitious families bought them encyclopedias. Enough said.
Twenty years ago, also, there was a big community of substantial
technology companies in the Boston area. There were signs of trouble,
but no one then could have imagined the astounding decline of the local
That was one of the great disappointments
of my experience as a Boston technology reporter. Digital Equipment,
Wang, Data General and Prime were all substantial companies with huge
resources, smart employees and big ambitions. So were Lotus and
Computervision and Apollo; Cabletron and Bay Networks. And that's not
even mentioning more dubious propositions like Symbolics and Thinking
Machines and Kendall Square Research.
Like most observers, I
never anticipated they would decline so swiftly. I wrote about the
business errors that individual companies made. But I missed the
structural problems that wiped out the whole lot of them. In retrospect,
I think they suffered because having a proprietary base of business
went from being an asset to being a burden in the space of five years.
No business model can survive being flipped on its head so
dramatically. Only very adroit managers with huge financial cushions
managed that transition.
The local companies lacked flexibility
because they had avoided consumer markets. Selling to consumers forces a
company to be nimble and be very disciplined about costs. All the local
companies sold to businesses almost exclusively.
the disappearance of the large publicly held technology companies,
Massachusetts technology is thriving, as we can see tonight. Clearly the
sustainable advantage for Massachusetts is continual innovation, even
though the ideas may end up growing elsewhere. So long as Harvard and
MIT maintain their leadership -- and they've proved they can do it for
centuries -- the area is going to be a great place to invent and start
businesses. Two of the most significant Internet businesses of the last
decade were started in dorms near here; Napster and Facebook.
we really know about the future is that we don't know much. I was
reminded of this recently at a conference on the future of publishing.
One of the top executives of Conde-Nast recalled that just a decade ago "
"we were all terrified about the merger of AOL and Time Warner."
Meanwhile, Google and Facebook didn't exist. And today, he said they
are: "the world's largest media company and the world's biggest
Watching this space has never been more fun.