This week, Bill Buxton spoke to a group of students and staff at Princeton University.

Bill is a Canadian musician, computer scientist and designer. He worked at Xerox PARC, then as Chief Scientist at a Toronto animation software company called Alias|Wavefront (they created the popular computer animation software called Maya), then was a professor at the University of Toronto, then started his own design studio, before he was hired in his present role as a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research.

He had a front row view and participation in seminal events in technology, from the birth of the personal computer to the evolution of user interfaces, and the birth of the World Wide Web to the evolution of the platforms we see today.

Since this event was open to the public, I dropped in. His personal website features many of his articles, interviews, and presentations. However, it is always more interesting to see an event live. The reaction of the audience adds context. The audience’s grasp and interest of the many different ideas presented during a talk reveal which specific ideas resonate more.

It was indeed an idea-packed talk. I will simply unload what I heard and finish by summarizing the ideas I thought were most compelling to me.

Innovation does not equal progress

His introductory idea was the most captivating to me. He had a slide written:

innovation ≠ > progress

He said “Innovation does not equal progress. Progress has an ethical component.”

I wanted to hear more, but he did not elaborate. Fortunately, his website explains many of his ideas in more detail. After his talk, I went online at home and found this further explanation that he gave in an interview in October 2018:

Technology is not good, it’s not bad, but nor is it neutral. It will be some combination of the two. As soon as you say words like good and bad, that implies you have a moral compass. The real question is, when you are making technological decisions and launching technologies into society, you are, in fact, making an ethical choice, whether you know it or not. And so, maybe you’ll do a better job of it and weight more heavily on the positive if you actually know what that moral compass is and that you are, in fact, making an ethical decision. I’m not trying to put too heavy a weight on this in that you are playing God, but you are in fact having impact. But you are also human, so how can you just do the best? You will get some stuff wrong. So, take responsibility to clean up the mess…

During his talk on Monday night, he summed this up by saying that “Tech is good at problem solving but not at problem setting.”

Entrepreneurship, innovation, and design are team sports

Problems today are huge and precludes generalists. Startups need deep specialists.

His point was about having team diversity in a startup. For each of us, have a specialty and be the best in your team for that specialty.

A startup also needs the three elements of Business, Experience and Technology.

T, depth (expertise), breadth (literacy)

He has a slide of a “T” to address this breadth and depth. A good startup has both. He introduced the term “literacy,” stating that the difference between “literacy” and “expertise” are not often understood. Expertise is the depth. Literacy provides common ground and shared respect across breadth.

He gave an example from the Renaissance: there were no Renaissance men and Renaissance women. They each all needed other disciplines to succeed.

Another example is the Thomas Edison myth, also called the culture of hero worship. Edison never independently invented everything credited to him. Steve Jobs was another example he gave.

There was very little invented by these and other examples that were done by the individuals. It took a team.

His wisdom to the audience was don’t seek to be an inventor. Seek to make a difference.

The metaphor of standing on the shoulders of giants, about discovering truths by building on previous discoveries, is attributed to the French philosopher Bernard of Chartres.

In how to make a difference, his wisdom to the audience was to choose carefully which people’s shoulders to stand on.

Alchemy vs mining

Mining is the better metaphor than alchemy in describing how a startup creates value.

Alchemy is making something out of nothing. This is not realistic.

In mining, there is prospecting and refining. There is goldsmithing to make the product more valuable than the base metal. This analogy excludes marketing and financing and legal, which are all essential.

The art of innovation is hence to make new products out of found objects.

This was a smooth segue into his curated collection of hardware spanning the history of technology, the Buxton-Microsoft Collection.

Collections are reference points for designers

Designers call certain objects reference points.

This collection is to show, with curated reference points, that the evolution of network technology follows a pattern. This pattern is the same in all technical fields.

I certainly agree on this point, because this pattern recognition is how I also spot the next big things.

Bill’s first example was capacitive multi-touch. It was prototyped as early as 1984. A number of commercial examples launched since then. It wasn’t until 2007 that the iPhone brought capacitive multi-touch into the mass market.

Bill also showed the evolution of roller skates into roller blades. The first “roller board” was patented in 1819 as the “petibled” in Holland. “Modern day” roller skates were popularized in USA in the 1960s. The roller blade came into its own in the mid 1990s.

Bill gave a long account of the portable music player, starting with the harmonica in 1896. The transistor radio emerged in 1954. The Sony Walkman became a hit in 1979, created the present Sony Corporation. The first MP3 player launched in 1998. Siemens was the first to put a music player into a phone in 2001. The iPod launched in 2001, but it took four generations and 3.75 years before the iPod became a huge success.

Bill claimed that Steve Jobs did not anticipate how successful the iPod would become. It was the liquidation of Napster, followed by Apple’s negotiations with the music industry for the 99 cent song that catalyzed the growth of the iPod. Then it was marketing of the iPod’s white ear buds that elevated the product to cool.

Bill noticed that when the Apple iMac G5 was launched, it had all the imprints of the iPod design language. Shortly thereafter, the company name changed from Apple Computer to just Apple, because they were no longer just a computer company. Their competitors were Sony and the music industry.

Bill also claimed that Steve Jobs thought the iPhone alone would be the next money maker in 2007. Everyone else in Apple, up to the Apple’s Board, fought him on this: they all felt the killer app for the iPhone was the App Store. It wasn’t until after a year of losses that Apple finally opened up the App Store in 2008.

Bill used these examples to also make the point that all commercial launches in tech are failures for at least a year or two before people figure out the winning formula.

The long nose

Bill calls the long lag time between when an idea is first conceived and when it becomes commercially successful, the long nose.

It is often a 20-year period before a technology becomes a billion dollar commercial hit. Most of this time, events are happening below the radar.

I have referred to this in previous posts as a tipping point (when it rises above the radar) and an inflection point (when it is in the middle of an S-shaped curve).

When Bill was a professor at the University of Toronto, his policy was to never patent any of their inventions. They put everything into the public domain. Their thinking was that patents will expire by the time the winning applications are developed.

He concluded by saying that the job of teachers is to market ideas. He is presenting us with all these ideas to inspire tech entrepreneurs on their journey.

What I found most thought-provoking

1) Innovation does not equal progress. Progress has an ethical component.

When you are making technological decisions and launching technologies into society, you are making an ethical choice, whether you know it or not. Maybe you’ll do a better job of it and weight more heavily on the positive if you actually know what that moral compass is.

2) Don’t seek to be an inventor all on your own. Seek to make a difference. In doing this, choose carefully which people’s shoulders to stand on.

 3) The long nose: it is often a 20-year period before a technology becomes a commercial hit.

The Canadian government’s science and technology policy fails to recognize this point. I have so often heard the “Valley of Death” where a commercialization effort fails because there is no financing to support the commercial endeavor over this time. The Canadian government has been averse to policies that incentivize business investments in R&D. In the U.S., there are SBIR grants, and tax policies better favour venture investing, as just two examples.

The results are noticeable to me: even on a per capita basis, the U.S. has much greater depth, breadth and vibrancy among startup ecosystems than Canada.

Bill Buxton: innovation does not equal progress
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