Did Silicon Valley Build Its Own 747?

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?