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Did Silicon Valley Build Its Own 747?

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the 747Silicon Valley has often been (incorrectly) compared with the epicenter of another boom, Detroit. The more apt comparison should be with Boeing’s super successful aircraft, the 747.

Back in 1960s, the air travel industry went through its own boom, creating a demand for big airlines that was unmatched. In response to the growing demand for bigger and more powerful planes, Boeing Corp., created 747, commonly known as the Jumbo Jet. It revolutionized the travel business, and made the world flat. (Yup, it happened long before Tom Friedman figured it out.) It was the perfect blend of price, form, and convenience that turned 747 into a smashing success.

Many dismissed it as corporate folly of gigantic proportions, yet another example of corporate hubris. Who would need the flying fortress and didn’t the then current generation of planes meet the needs of all those who could and needed to fly. The naysayers were proved wrong. They never figured that since Jumbo Jets could carry more passengers, it would be possible to spread the costs amongst more people, and make flying more affordable. That’s exactly how it happened.

The Jumbo Jet was so successful, that the Boeing zoomed past the initial demand estimated of 400 planes. By 1993 more than a 1000 were sold. And they continued to sell way into the new century, more recently as cargo carriers. Like the 747, the personal computer was met with scorn, and dismissed as a hobbyist curiosity. It also reshaped the planet, and brought about the further flattening of the planet.

Just like the PC, many thought the IP networks were not going to amount to much. For nearly 25 years, the PC and the Ethernet have helped unleash a wave of innovation. The similarities between the 747, the PC and the IP networking are remarkably similar. The Jumbo Jet, the PC and the IP Network are amazing technological feat. While the 747 democratized travel, the PC democratized creativity and the IP networks democratized communication. (Free phone calls on Skype are just that!)

A few days ago, I met with Morgenthaler Ventures general partner Drew Lanza, a Silicon Valley veteran and a thoughtful sort. As we conversed about the future of innovation, especially in computing and communications, he pointed out, “The standard PCs are like 747s, and we will be using them for years to come. We did it, so now go play golf.”

Partly in jest, but mostly serious. “We are at a point where technology becomes mature, and now we are kind of wondering what next,” he says. Surely like the Boeing engineers continued to tweak with the original design – making it fly longer, faster and quieter, we will continue to tweak with the PC and the IP network. It will be evolution, not revolution. I had come to the same conclusions almost two-and-a-half years ago.

Like the 747, he points out that we will try to finesse the PC, and make incremental improvements. Faster processors, even faster memory, smaller sizes, more portability and perhaps miniaturization. (To rephrase Bill gates, a PC in every pocket, perhaps.) We will try to find new uses for it, but Lanza says that we might need to look that next big idea. Bio-informatics could be it, he guesses.

The parallels between the 747, the PC and the IP networks don’t end their. The 747 in its later years became the mainstay of the air-cargo business. PC-platform is now becoming the mainstay of the mainstay of the server (computing equivalent of cargo, I guess) business. The 747 was a very versatile piece of technology – it adapted to different needs.

PC and IP networks are equally versatile. We have Silicon Valley giants wondering where can they cram the PC, and connect it. Intel and Microsoft want to shove the PC (connected to a high-speed connection) into the living room. (How successful they will be, I am not sure!) IP networks started out a way to zip files inside corporate offices and between universities. Now phone companies are contemplating zipping Six Feet Under and Entourage over these IP networks as IPTV. IP networks are the new phone systems.

Isn’t it strange how success can sometime seem to be so mundane? So perhaps next time, anyone brings up the Detroit argument, it would be good to point out this seemingly silly comparison with the Jumbo Jet. And then remind them, Silicon Valley is just waiting to figure out its next big thing, its 777.

PS: I am sure all of you have some ideas about what could be the next big thing, so do share your thoughts. The Panam/Boeing Photo is courtsey of WikiPedia. Is there a better way to give them credit for the photo?

11 Responses to “Did Silicon Valley Build Its Own 747?”

  1. chauka

    you miss the point. did aviation stop at 747? no it did not. what i am trying to say is that 747, PC and IP have the perfect balance of price, power, and staying power and flexiblity to stay put for a long time. next big thing comes along, it could be quantum computing or whatever, and things hit the next gear.

  2. Chauka


    So what happens when quantum computing comes along? Doesn’t that just blow the 747 right out of the sky? Oh yeah, and what happens when quantum computing is progressed somewhere outside of Silicon Valley (like Vancouver)? What will all the VCs in the Valley do then? Will they cry like babies and say “boo hoo the world is ending in Silicon Valley”?

  3. Victor Blake

    In the world of mainframe vs. pc’s pc’s won. But the unfortunate reality is that cell phone’s are exactly autonomous systems able to communicate directly to each other. They rely on lots of centralized (rather than distributed) infrastructure. I’d argue that an 802.11 handheld device is closer to the PC in the analogy than a tradition “cellular” cell phone.

    But agreed about how easy it is to forgot the victory of the packet ….


  4. Victor,

    I disagree with your analogy. i think the mobile phones of today are the tiny jets. the bombardiers as you say. the numbers are increasing, and yes like ants and flies, they are multiplying. my story, the fifth wave looks into this phenomenon.

    I think the 747 analogy i use is to show that we often forget how much we have succeeded. you very well know first hand, where IP networks have come in the time I have known you. which is not that long.

  5. Ed, you are very easily focusing on two words, mundane and boring. I am not saying tech is finished, it is taking a pause.

    the fifth wave is coming, it is going to come soon. it is going to leverage the platforms that have become embedded – the pc and the IP. it is going to take advantage of the speed and bandwidth.

    the fifth wave, as my story had pointed out was about “leveraging the platforms” and building new stuff on top of that.

    but as it was with the 747, it is a just a little pause and we are evolving. even the web 2.0, which is part of the fifth wave is taking baby steps.

  6. Om,

    To derive the next big thing, Silicon Valley would need to change its traditional “solution in search of a problem” mode of innovation, and switch to understanding the applications that people are interested in.

    In my opinion, the next big application, is Content. Rich, interesting, experiential Content. I use Content a bit broadly here, and include experiential shopping and other derivative applications also within the Content bucket.

    And contrary to what VCs and entrepreneurs would like to believe, not all content fits a miniaturized form factor – it craves a very large display, hence the adoption of large screen TVs in the home.

    There are various permutations and combinations of traditional digital PC apps that desire a TV / Audio System & Speakers, and there are others that desire portability and miniaturization.

    In the Home Entertainment arena, the networks (Data, Voice, Video, Audio, Security) need to merge into a manageable 777, as you call it.

    In the Portable Mobile Device arena, the iPod, the Phone, the PDA, the credit card, … all need to merge into, again, another 777, but a miniaturized one.

    Those two Consumer Electronics convergence devices will become the two most important Next Big Things.

    I am not sure that they will necessarily emerge from Silicon Valley, though.

  7. Victor Blake

    OK — can’t help but say something there. The 747 is the 3090. The PC is the Bombardier CRJ-200 (the jet that Independence Air uses). Big box using stat muxing as the cost model. The smaller one, more distributed — lower cost of operation, faster turn-around, somewhat disposable, lower barrier to entry, etc.

    Distributed systems (and some of the world’s leading super computers are built this way) shows us that power can come in numbers. Look to the ants and bees as well for nature’s example. I forget the numbers, but some hughely significant portion of the planet’s biomass is ants. Not blue whales …

    Add up the computing power of all the PC’s in the world (not to mention the creativty cultivated by indpendence) and you get much much more than the NCSA model. Frankly I’ve never been very impressed by the work products of the supercomputer centers. But look at we’ve got from the combined small (and sometimes small in package but huge in significance) of developers.

    Can’t leave without saying something about security too. Have you seen the Blade PC’s ? Interesting — scaling of power systems, cooling and space — but still independent processors, memory, etc. Security is always a concern (in big gatherings of people — on big airplanes, big computers/data centers). What is the impact of an outage (or as the case may be terrorist attack) on a 747 vs. a CRJ-200. If we had more CRJ-200’s and less 747’s life would be easier.


  8. If tech is finished, mundane and boring, then what about The 5th Wave? Is the 5th Wave merely a small step, evolutionary process, or is it a rather big wave perhaps of tidal proportions? Maybe Tibco is one of those companies that’s on to the next big thing since they’re listed among the 5th Wavers?