Friday, November 16, 2007

The Mouse that Roared

On this date (November 17) in 1970, the first patent for a computer mouse was issued to Douglas Engelbart. Engelbart was working at SRI, heading a lab he called the Augmentation Research Center (ARC). The device he created was called a "mouse" because the cord that came out of the back of the device loked like the tail of that little critter.

Engelbart was (still is) a genius at seeing how computing can enhance thinking. He was an early developer of the ARPANET which was the precursor of the internet. Engelhart now runs a small organization called The Bootstrap Institute which is dedicated to taking on large-scale problems using collective intelligence enabled by computational tools.

When I was looking up Engelbart on Wikipedia, I was disturbed to read the following:

SRI's management, which disapproved of Engelbart's approach to running the center, placed the remains of ARC under the control of artificial intelligence researcher Bertram Raphael, who negotiated the transfer of the laboratory to a company called Tymshare... At Tymshare, Engelbart soon found himself marginalized and relegated to obscurity--operational concerns at Tymshare overrode Engelbart's desire to do further research.

This marginalization of the inventor by the business person happens so often. I have seen it in my own corporate experience. The history of technology overflows with similar stories. Why does this happen? Is it a clash of personalities? Ego? The Money?

I think part of the answer comes from the fundamentally different worldviews of the inventor and the business person. Inventors are divergent thinkers. They see the future in terms of exanding possibility. Many would not describe themselves as practical. They seek creation and successful creation is its own reward. Business is convergent. It seeks ever-increasing focus and discipline. Efficient production of a product to maximize profits is the goal. Invention (after the first one that gives birth to a product) is annoying. Inventors keep distracting the business person from their focus on the current product and maximizing sales and profits.

Most inventors I know (and have read about) are not good (translation: lousy) business people. They are just not wired for it. Edison was a great inventor and even started a lot of companies but he did not have the commercial relentlessness to focus on any of his ideas for that long. His goal was not the scaling-up of his companies but the next new creation.

The converse is also true: few business people could invent anything. They don't have that creative gene that sparks the inventor. They can think of new ways to grow their companies. They might even be superb marketers. But they are not inventors. Steve Jobs come to mind here. Jobs is a superb visionary of market trends and customer wants. And he is also renowned as a ruthless business person. Jobs saw the work of Engelbart and others from both SRI and XEROX Parc and recognized the value of the Graphical User Interface (GUI). He relentless drove this idea into the market with the first MacIntosh computer. But he could never have invented it.

In our culture, money speaks. Business feeds on invention. Invention that is not moved into the market may be clever, interesting, perhaps even mind-boggling. But it is not available for use and hence has limited value to society. Money is the measure of value so perhaps it is not surprising that business people are our current heroes. Jobs is a living legend. But Engelbart should be a household name, too. How many people know his name? Hail the inventors! Or, to hell with the inventors!

You decide.

[Image of Engelbart's mouse from Wikipedia]

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