by Edward Prewitt

Interview: Futurist Esther Dyson on What Gives Ideas Staying Power

Oct 01, 20026 mins

Companies, industries and the world are continuously remade by technology.

A technology that could transform the way your company operates?or put your company out of business?may be in development right now. Yet of the multitudes of products, processes and patents generated each year, only a few have a real impact. Even fewer have a lasting impact. The 20 people honored here for technology development have been chosen because they have the rare ability to develop truly innovative, significant and enduring technologies. But what factors give some technologies staying power, while others come and go? We put the question to Esther Dyson?technology pundit, investor, conference organizer, and all-around mover and shaker. In the quarter century that she has been following technology development, Dyson has developed a theory: Only those technologies with the power to change society are here for the long term; those without that power will soon be gone.

That’s a tall order, one that most technology developers are unable to meet. Many of the dotcom technologies?hyped as breakthroughs?turned out to be superficial improvements over traditional business products and processes, Dyson says. Consequently, they were unsustainable once the speculative bubble burst.

In contrast, Dyson says, the more utilitarian a technology, the more significant its innovation. “What makes technologies last is that same old boring thing: They do something useful,” she says. For example, “HTML works everywhere. SQL databases are a miracle of modern man.” Dyson believes that both will be around for a while.

Dyson is quick to add that utility is not the only test of a technology’s promise. Even the most promising technologies can be relegated to obscurity by a bad business model. Consider how different the state of personal computing might be had Apple sooner shared the Macintosh source code, as Microsoft did with DOS and Windows. “You could say that the Macintosh, which is arguably a superior technology [to Wintel PCs], didn’t find the right business model,” Dyson says. Conceivably, the right business model could have propelled the Mac to a dominant market share for desktops, rather than the also-ran shelf it now occupies.

Significant technologies are not always a slam dunk either, says Dyson. She has seen some technological concepts stumble through infancy, but she believes that if they manage to create sufficient value and usefulness, they will eventually take hold. Form will follow function. “Usually, if the technology is good enough, you’ll have a business model to support it,” she says. “Maybe not the first try or the second, but eventually someone will get it right.” She cites the history of desktop computing, which is studded with obsolete nameplates that failed to catch on with consumers until IBM and a young entrepreneur named Bill Gates established a market standard. In a similar fashion, another 20/20 Vision Award honoree, Thomas Siebel, leapfrogged other entrants in the nascent CRM market and developed the leading version of CRM technology, thereby setting the stage for the enormous expansion of that market in recent years.

So, says Dyson, utility is what really counts?but what creates utility? The value of Windows is not embedded in the OS; the value exists in the business and social context. “It’s the standardization of Windows that has made it so useful,” she says. “It’s a container, not just an operating system.”

The container of Windows can hold just about anything, and therefore it allows users to do everything. The “interoperability and broad accessibility” of Windows is the main reason why Microsoft has attained its current market position, in Dyson’s view, as well as the reason Gates deserves his place as one of the 20/20 honorees.

Of course, business and social contexts change, often as a consequence of new technologies. In fact, Dyson believes that a technology’s significance can be judged by how much it changes our behavior. E-mail is the obvious example: The technology lacked significance until it reached a critical mass of usage. A change in how people communicate made e-mail the ultimate killer app. Dyson also notes that that critical mass didn’t come together all by itself. E-mail would never have spread as quickly had the operators of independent networks such as MCI and CompuServe not committed to the Internet standard of the late 1980s.

Looking forward, Dyson sees two areas where that kind of standard-setting is badly needed. One is instant messaging, which will be of limited usefulness to businesses until IM vendors are able to settle on a common protocol and security standards. The other is the domain naming system for all Internet sites, whose rationale has been the subject of dispute for years. For Dyson, standardization is one of the requirements of successful technologies. Much of the value in technology, she says, is fundamentally about standardization. “Is [a technology] capable of talking to other systems?” asks Dyson. “The level of abstraction rises and rises.”

Successful standardization and increased abstraction mark the achievements of many of this year’s 20/20 honorees. Dyson says of Vinton Cerf: “Putting AOL, Prodigy and the Internet all together is as much his work as anyone.” And Tim Berners-Lee’s lead role in development of the Web now underlies much of the ongoing activity in collaborative computing.

Even in today’s market, Dyson remains an active investor in technology companies, with more than 40 currently in her portfolio. In pursuing her personal mantra of “discovering the inevitable and promoting the possible,” Dyson puts money into technologies and companies that create new usefulness and value. She believes that one promising area is identity management. Dyson sees the need for technologies that will enable people to control their online identities and allow companies to verify consumers’ identities.

Another promising technology is wireless. Dyson predicts that the technology will boom as telecommunications companies use it to bridge the gap between broadband gateways and users’ homes and businesses?the so-called last mile. Location-based computing, which combines triangulation technologies and global positioning systems, could also be a boon to wireless. There are, in this case, social implications to be sorted out, as companies could track their consumers’ whereabouts and activities. “They know where you are, and not everyone likes that,” she says.

But social implications are, after all, a requirement of lasting technologies. “Technologies with staying power have social implications and business implications,” Dyson says. “If they didn’t, they wouldn’t matter. Business is about people, about people interacting.” Just ask any of this year’s 20/20 honorees.