September 04, 2013

Tech's Halflife and Accelerating Forgetfulness

With today's focus on realtime systems and 24 hour news cycles, trending topics and viral videos, our collective attention span seems to be shrinking. The news of the morning is not news of the evening. Yesterday's news is old news. Yesterday's celebrities and entertainment are forgettable and mockworthy. And today's technology might be obsolete by the time you buy it, eclipsed by a competing offering introduced as you drove home from the computer store, or while Amazon Prime shipped it to your home, while you tracked its every stop by email.

So woe be unto the companies and achievements of yesteryear, who once held lofty positions in business, made headlines with their every rumor or news leak, and broke the rules on the way to setting records. For once their time has past, proud memories rapidly decay in a world that focuses on the new shiny thing and casts them out as no longer being relevant.

It's easy to say that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, and yet even with tremendous tools like the Internet, resources like Wikipedia and, onetime tech titans are rapidly shoved aside as dinosaurs, as younger people enter the job market and participate alongside more traveled veterans in Silicon Valley and beyond. Even those of us who've spent just a decade or more in cubicles and offices have seen pioneers like Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics (SGI), Netscape, 3Com, Palm and others fade into the electronics landfill in the sky. While just years ago, it seemed you could throw a rock from any exit on highway 101 and hit a Sun building, the once-proud company is all but gone, a speck within acquirer Oracle. Netscape's immolation by Microsoft and AOL, each in their own way, passed the torch to Mozilla and others, and nary a plaque in Mountain View marks their spot.

An Internet Explorer 3 CD Rom from 1997 (/via +Scott Knaster)

My own employer, Google, inhabits a number of buildings acquired in slightly used condition, be it from Adobe, or the aforementioned SGI and Sun. The main campus, in fact, used to be that of SGI, and the corporate colors seen in SGI's hardware mark the buildings of the Googleplex, with little modification. This land grab started only in 2003, at a time when Google was a mere 800 employees, and SGI was in one of their many phases of trying to keep expenses in line with revenue, seeing the abandonment of their splashy campus as one way to take down costs. Now SGI, having seen many corporate transformations since, is still around, but has little ties to its original makeup.

While 2003 is "not that long ago" to someone like me in their mid to late 30's, it's quite a long time ago for those just entering the workforce. I turned to a new colleague of mine early this year, she having just graduated from college, and asked if she didn't mind a little word association. I started with SGI. No recognition. I then asked about Sun. Again, nothing, even though we were standing in one of their old buildings. I then turned to the previous generation of search engines, starting with Lycos, moving to Excite and Alta Vista. Finally, she offered up, "Was that like Ask Jeeves?"

Only slightly alarmed, but also amused, I tried another colleague, starting the word association with Sun. "Java?" she said, getting partial credit. I asked, "Anything else?" remembering the "dot in dot com", "the network is the computer" and all the enterprise work that once made Sun one of the four horsemen of the Internet, in addition to Microsoft, Oracle and EMC, if you kept your TV tuned to CNBC in the heady bubble days. Nothing else. Further sparring with names like SGI and a bevy of Web 1.0 darlings similarly went absolutely nowhere.

Even if we look just in the past two years, you can see the fast rise and fade of companies, as the Web rapidly chooses winners and spits out their less favorite. MySpace flew too close to the sun and torched its wings like Icarus. Formspring was once a Internet doll and collapsed. Slashdot and Digg faded to shadows of themselves as Reddit and others rose. And big companies are not immune, as you can see with Kodak filing bankruptcy and emerging as something completely unrecognizable. HP has itself struggled with round after round of layoffs and a curious future.

Meanwhile, if you believe some circles, there are four new horsemen, this time with Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook being large players on the Web, with a number of exciting companies playing significant roles in hardware or specialized industries, be it Tesla Motors, Yelp, VMware or Samsung, and established titans like Yahoo!, eBay and AOL repositioning themselves as something new. But holding that position is not guaranteed long term or even short term, as companies must adapt and lead, rather than getting too comfortable.

Change is inevitable, with big picture trends like the Web, the flight to mobile, and increased attention on social and mobile connections making some companies winners and others who miss those opportunites as big losers. Sometimes, a lack of adaptation and innovation can start companies on a negative momentum shift so swift they can never recover. That's business. But it's intriguingly interesting to me how as big life changing events like the dot com rise and crash or the 9/11 attacks fade into something like history, we also forget the companies associated with such a time.

The technologies we use every day were often invented and promoted by people who've passed on and companies that have their own epitaphs. Business plans celebrated and funded by the latest incubators are ones that may have launched and failed with different names and similar ideas just a decade ago. But I'd argue that blazing straight ahead without a knowledge of what's happened before you is dangerous, to both your sanity and your business plan. I am fascinated by Silicon Valley history and have been for the better part of two decades. I fear that the tools we use now provide exceptional access to what's happening today, but do so without context, and to press forward with blinders to the past can only promise that we make the same mistakes that made these once bright companies ghosts of what they once were, if not gone entirely.

History can be dull, yes. But it can also be fascinating. The present, at least most of it, is guaranteed to be similarly forgettable. Maybe instead of documenting our own minutiae, we can empower ourselves with knowledge of one time titans.