The Prerogatives of Innovation
The Personal Computer and the Internet have given us wonderful opportunity to innovate and change the world. Yet there still seems to be a condescending attitude that drives companies to continue to design lame products and services that deny the value of innovation. These efforts are sadly misguided -- they promise simplicity and deliver only frustration.15-Mar-2001

Note that this originally appeared as http://www.zdnet.com/zdnn/stories/comment/0,5859,2697203,00.html. It is reprinted here with permission from ZDNet.

COMMENTARY STORY: Bob FrankstonThe prerogatives of innovation
By Bob Frankston
Special to ZDNet
March 16, 2001 4:49 AM PT


SAN JOSE, Calif.--Am I paranoid if I feel everyone is out to do me good?

Here at the ACM1 conference, where the topic was "Beyond Cyberspace," the subtext of helpfulness was a theme in speeches and product demonstrations, ranging from how to bring computing to cars to how we can make our homes smarter.

The presenters seemed motivated by honest attempts to make things better for users, as if there were some simple answers that were being kept hidden from us. We see the same theme throughout the industry as companies try to create products and services for us rather than giving us the tools to do it ourselves. Of course, more than altruism, there is an undesirable motivation to reward their investors.

A few examples:

  • Computers and devices are confusing and hard to use. So the solution is to make them do less and less until they are no more confusing and no better than the devices they replace.
  • People don't want to program so we should provide them with just a very limited number of choices. That sort of thing should be left to the experts since they know what we need far better than we do.
  • Our homes and cars should be smarter. Unlike dumb humans, our devices can automatically discover each other and do what we want to do without asking us as if by magic.
  • Companies must be guaranteed their revenue streams. If a company bids billions for cellular licenses people should not have the option of choosing other ways to communicate. And if their business plan is flawed, the captive customers will have to pay higher rates for other services.
  • The Web is too complicated. We should treat it just like television and not encourage exploration. And certainly not let people try to create their own Web services!
  • Unless someone sets rigid rules there will be chaos. We must pretend the Internet doesn't work and then kill it through responsible governance.

Pundits, who tell us they know better and can point to one or two examples of things that should be better, admonish those of us who create products for a living. After all, why do we make people use keyboards when they can just talk to their computers. Isn't it easier to say "home James" than try to drive a car?

It's not business, it's personal
It gets personal when I when tell a product manager that I want to be able to create my own solutions, rather than be forced to accept their omniscient benevolence. I am told that I am an oddball because I can program while they are selling to people who can't.

What they seem to forget is that I am a user, it was my programming, not theirs, which created much of this marketplace. It's just that I (and many others) try to write programs so that they can be used by other people.

I am told that we shouldn't give people the opportunity to program. Yet VisiCalc--which Dan Bricklin invented and I programmed--allowed millions of people to program whether or not they realized that was what they were doing.

Programming is a common skill. It is only awkward when we are trying to solve hard problems (as it should be) or using inappropriate tools!

When I step back from all of the effort to create appliances and products that provide complete solutions, I realize the products that are supposed to do me the most good aren't selling as well as the simpler technologies that enable me (and us) to create our own solutions.

The Web was not created by big companies for e-commerce. The seed was provided by Tim Berners-Lee with the initial HTML specification. It grew through the people creating their own home pages with no coordination beyond trying to guess how to mangle HTML to do what they wanted. It worked because no one set the rules to limit experimentation.

Even better, all the mistakes just made the Internet stronger. We learned how to deal with traumas, whether they were due to sins of omission or sins of commission.

Consider the complete failure of Internet Appliances. Unlike browsers and PC tools, which continue to improve, these appliances are clunky and usually require a monthly fee. People buy PCs and not word processors. A general purpose device that is readily redefined in software has a compelling advantage over freezing the design in limited hardware.

The "Residential Gateway" was supposed to be at the center of our networked home. It was to be supplied by your phone company and all the utility providers would run their services on that machine (which you paid for month after month). Instead, people just use their PC to share an Internet connection or buy a small box which does nothing more than route packets between the home and the Internet. This, too, is personal since I was instrumental in making networking a consumer technology with HomePNA and Internet Connection Sharing.

Even though home networking is becoming common, there are still many conferences and companies focused on trying to figure out why we are doing it ourselves instead of paying them to do it for us. Their frustration is understandable since the Set Top Box has been such been so successful in achieving its purpose of assuring that there is no innovation in television.

After all, the VCR is nothing but a way to steal content and look what happens when people are allowed to share music, the distribution channels' right to limit our choice of music is threatened.

Imagine the future
Could you imagine what would happen if we could choose what we want to watch instead of the few dozen choices (out of millions of possible choices) that the cable companies provide? Could you imagine the chaos and disaster that would ensue of the cable and telephone companies didn't have the ability to limit our connection to the Internet?

We might choose to create our own services. After all, if they can give a paltry megabit connection at $40/month, how could they charge us another $30 a month for a connection of one eighth of that which they call a phone line.

And if we could do our own services how could they charge a few dollars a month to stop keeping caller ID hostage. Don't they (and those who overbid for spectrum) have a natural right to our money? Why should they compete in the marketplace like other companies?

The Internet defies common sense. How is it possible that millions of people without central control created something as widely used and as important as the Web? The answer is in the architecture of the Internet that gives each system responsibility for protecting itself against the network. In a centralized design, failures propagate.

In the Web, failures are quickly quenched. And, as with our immune system, challenges make it stronger. We see a similar process with the PC. So what if it crashes; it doesn't bring down the entire system. And even better, we can always reboot and restart. Both approaches encourage innovation by tolerating failure and rewarding success.

Sure, the results can be messy but that's inherent in anything new. But different doesn't mean worse. If the result isn't useful we simply don't use it.

But it is our choice. We see an early version of this in the U.S. First Amendment that declared one didn't have to ask "may I" before speaking. We shouldn't ask "may I" before innovating.

Bob Frankston has been working with computers since 1963. He co-founded Software Arts with Dan Bricklin to help create VisiCalc, the first PC spreadsheet.