Innovation Comes Full Circle

Opinion: Innovation these days is more about making new combinations with existing technologies than creating new ones.

I was staying in Palo Alto and caught the early-morning commuter rail train to San Francisco, envisioning a time when I could start my business day at Union Square using Googles free wireless Internet service. Alas, the free Google Wi-Fi was not yet available, but a great deal of business buzz has been generated by the companys plan for free service in San Francisco. A free, reliable Internet service is a strong challenger to traditional telecommunications companies, as well as to all those hotels around Union Square charging at least $10 a day for Internet access. Add Googles wireless offering to the companys plan to build a huge, million-square-foot business park on NASA property near the old Moffett Field blimp hangars in Silicon Valley, and you get the idea that the precocious 7-year-old search company will soon own all the land and airwaves from San Francisco southward and heavenward.

It would have been easy to conceive of Googles inexorable ad-sponsored march as unstoppable if not for my recent annoyance with the Google news page and my Firefox browser, which suddenly sprouted some crash-inducing incompatibility that forced me to return to (egad!) Internet Explorer as my browser of choice. While it is often the brashest moves, such as Google offering free (well, not really free, since it will be ad-sponsored) wireless service, that draw the headlines, the real innovations in technology are taking place behind the scenes as companies try to combine old technologies in new packages.

The week before Google was talking up real estate and free wireless, I was in Boston, splitting my time between an Oracle session featuring the companys president, Charles Phillips, explaining how the disparate pieces of the company will come together, and an MIT conference on innovation. Oracle is, of course, assembling not just old technologies but also old (in the technology sense) companies in new packages. It has become the oddest of vendor contests with companies such as IBM, Oracle and SAP all claiming to be the most supportive of standards—similar to the idea of ice cream companies vying with one another to offer the plainest flavor of vanilla.

I think I finally understand why Larry Ellison decided to scarf up Siebel, PeopleSoft, et al. The business of integrating big corporate applications is still tough, expensive work, and Oracle—by buying companies, thereby doing the integration upfront—will save customers a lot of money, as long as they are willing to buy into Larrys plan in a big way.

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Over at MIT, the presentation that received the most buzz was MIT Media Lab Chairman Nicholas Negropontes plan for a $100 laptop for students in Third World countries. The plan would require some repackaging of old technologies (the laptop reminded me of the very ancient TRS-80 Model 100 thats in my basement) and enough new pieces, including a hand-cranked generator and an ultrathin and rugged display, to make me think this is one project that will always stay in the future. Between other presentations, such as one by tech entrepreneur Trip Hawkins trying to explain how a brain works and one by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell explaining how the next generation of computer games will eschew violence for social interaction, it appeared that the business of innovation will continue to focus on new combinations (brains and computers or games and restaurants) rather than products that did not previously exist in any form.

I finally resolved my Firefox incompatibility through the time-honored tradition of reinstalling everything from scratch. As the browser headed over to the Google news site, I had a chance to catch up on the word that Google and Sun are promising to cooperate. Combining Googles reach with products such as the productivity suite or Java offerings surely falls into the category of innovation achieved by repackaging existing products.

Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at

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