Ideas in the Making

Forums such as Ideas Boston can sew the seeds of innovation.

Microsoft and SAP? Now theres a merger that might look good on paper but would be exceptionally difficult to accomplish.

The proof that a combination of the companies was more than mere speculation was made public shortly before the start of the courtroom bid by the Department of Justice to block Oracles attempted takeover of PeopleSoft.

Apparently, the Oracle execs learned of the talks between Microsoft and SAP from an e-mail brought forth during the pretrial discovery process.

In addition to proving—once again—the need for enforced e-mail discipline in Redmond, the proposed acquisition showed what mischief can develop when a company with $56 billion in its pocket has a penchant to make its software platform the choice for the enterprise.

Microsoft has a pile of money, wants to make sure its .Net platform is the Web services platform of choice and covets the enterprise space owned by SAP. Im sure the combination seemed like a good idea to Microsoft management. But obstacles develop at the intersection of good ideas and reality.

On the day last week that Microsoft and SAP disclosed the merger talks, I was at the Ideas Boston conference, held by The Boston Globe. The concept behind the conference was to get a bunch of smart folks to talk about the ideas that are setting the stage for the next round of technological, social and economic developments.

Dean Kamen spoke at the conference. You would be hard-pressed to find a product that had a bigger run-up in interest and a bigger letdown in sales than his Segway human transporter. ("A Segway is not a scooter!" said Kamen.) The product could not have measured up to the hype preceding its introduction. Maybe, some day, cities will be full of people scooting—whoops, I should say transporting—themselves around on Segways. I just dont think it will be in my lifetime.

That lifetime could be long indeed if Raymond Kurzweil has his way. (And who am I to argue?) Kurzweil certainly has earned his bona fides in the high-technology community. His success in creating text-to-speech synthesizers, print-to-speech reading machines and music synthesizers has earned him accolades as someone who can create great products from great ideas.

Kurzweils latest project is ambitious, to be sure. He is working at eliminating aging. This, if I remember history correctly, was the same project that Ponce de León undertook in Florida in the early 1500s.

In his talk at the conference, Kurzweil said he is bringing technology and the scientific process to bear on slowing or erasing the aging process. Skeptics, including me, abound, but Kurzweil contends, "Stopping aging is much closer than people realize." Part of the role of conferences is to raise controversial issues, and Kurzweils project certainly falls into that category.

Conferences such as the Ideas event also make sense for IT. Technology, especially in the business space, seems a bit moribund.

Technology projects from the major vendors too often fall into one of three categories: They try to do something cheaper than an existing version (for example, a free alternative to Microsoft Office), try to do something better than an existing version (a better search engine than Google) or try to convince us that a new product is better than the previous one because it combines two entities (Microsoft and SAP).

Developing the next Internet, the next software platform or the next model for enterprise computing wont happen without venturing beyond those three tired categories. Id guess that the next big thing in computing will be built around successful efforts at melding nontraditional computing areas from biotechnology or robotics with the continuing powerful increases in processing, storage and network capabilities of the information processing industry. The best way to overcome the obstacles to making an idea a reality may be to take a cue from success in the spheres outside of traditional computing technology areas.

Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at


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