Friday, 9 September 2011

Charlie Parker goes to Palo Alto

F. Scott Fitzgerald said "there are no second acts in American lives."

I came across the quote at the bottom of my movie poster for Bird, the Charlie Parker biopic.

The premise, I guess, is that U.S. innovators are so intense and their trails so new that they've nothing left when it's time to reinvent.

It certainly applied to Parker, who transformed jazz from music for dancing into music for listening before he died at 35.

Let's apply this to tech:

  • Microsoft: With Windows and the PC, Microsoft put computing in everyone's hands, but has struggled elsewhere. Revenues have tripled under Ballmer's reign, but do you know anyone with a Windows phone?

  • Yahoo! With the portal concept, Yahoo! made sense of the web when no one else could. That is, until a better search engine made portals irrelevant. Carol Bartz increased revenues almost 150 percent in two years, but besides sending mail, do you still Yahoo?

  • RIM: With the BlackBerry, RIM invented the smartphone and enabled productivity at all hours of the day. Then Apple built a better smartphone. The PlayBook is a powerful and beautifully made tablet, but it hasn't helped RIM stem the torrent of bad news or set the world on fire.

Microsoft, RIM, Yahoo: a few years ago all three were giants of tech. They were big and scary, now they're neither. They're more akin to those toothless old tigers you see at the zoo. 

There are exceptions:

Since his return to Apple, Steve Jobs proved it's possible to reinvent entire industries. Ditto IBM, which has been around for 100 years. Amazon has gone from selling books to selling everything and its cloud offerings host a range of new startups. Android's doing well, but the jury's still out on whether Google can "do" social.

My sense is that there's something about tech that makes it difficult for companies to evolve. Is tech more dependent on its leaders than other industries? Are too many of them one-trick ponies? Can anyone even really determine how tech will evolve?

I dunno. Any ideas?

Bird had some. Then he died.

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