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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 standing ovation.
    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.
    Even 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
   Parents were 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 the music.
    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 high-tech leaders. 
    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.
     Today, despite 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.
    All 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 publisher."
    Watching this space has never been more fun.  

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