Is Innovation Dead?

You can tell it’s quiet out there in the world of new products when the biggest introductions this season both come from Microsoft, the X Box and the XP platform.

Though these new items are getting some buzz from tech journalists, the coverage only comes because there isn’t much else to write about. What I’m loudly not hearing is any street noise that would indicate real excitement.

You can’t blame this one on September 11. Even before the terrorist attacks snapped us awake to the dangers lurking in our world, consumers and business people alike had grown very ho-hum about tech introductions, from PCs to broadband. Have you noticed that the urge to get the newest, fastest computer or Internet connection is just not as pressing lately?

In this drowsy period, the optimistic blush has faded from the Internet and from technology in general. Our expectations have moved into a long, slow decline. We no longer really expect to be surprised by the reach of connectivity of by advances in the quality of our life. Mostly I think we’re hoping that the odd, intangible decline we sense around us will not be too severe.

Yet just as there was a crash hiding behind the 1999 dot com explosion, there is an innovation boom growing stealth-like behind the gloomy headlines of layoffs and sinking earnings reports. Ask any tech company about its design staff and you’ll discover this is the one pocket in the corporation that is free from cutbacks and layoffs.

This is not news to Gary Smith, chief analyst design & engineering at the San Jose-based Gartner Dataquest research firm. “Design spending always goes up in a recession. You ‘design’ yourself out of a recession,” said Smith. The analyst recently revealed data that shows an innovation spurt occurring as the economy tanks. Innovation slacks off as spending climbs. Much of the innovation that will drive the coming upturn is being developed in a flurry of activity that is off the radar right now. Don’t let these quiet streets fool you.

When we return to years of fruitful product and service introductions, you’ll notice the Internet will not be all the rage that it was in 1999 and 2002. Much of the innovation will be Internet-based, Internet developed and will have Internet components, but the Net will no longer be the center of innovation. Instead, it will be the network on which the innovation lives.

As we learned to shift bank funds by using our push-button phones, we didn’t marvel at what our phones could now do. The Internet will have a central role in coming new technology. It will be the core of new developments, but it won’t be the focus. The Internet will become so ubiquitous, it will become invisible.

We may see a flood of special-interest television programming coming through our cable service. New features on our television may give us the ability to choose from thousands on movies or let us view a network program at anytime of our choosing. We may be able to use the television like an encyclopedia, or call up home videos from the buttons on our remote. Our PC, game platforms and television will likely become indistinguishable.

The Internet will be the very lifeblood of these innovations, yet it won’t look like the Internet. No more scratchy dial-up or waiting for pages to load. No more jerky, short video clips that threaten to freeze and crash. No more dusty wires crammed into a surge breaker.

These innovations are being developed now. Many are ready and waiting. Some are wireless, some are broadband, most incorporate the Internet in one way or another. They won’t be revealed until consumers and executives demonstrate renewed optimism. This seemingly quiet period of tech decline is just a breather. Once we catch our collective breath, we’ll enter the next new world of tech breakthroughs that will again change our lives.

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