The theme of this series explores items that have become so integrated into our lives that we barely notice them; yet have completely transformed how we live. The first item in the series was the elevator—try to imagine modern high-rise cities without them. The second item was the pre-printed adhesive postage stamp—try to imagine sending and receiving letters and other things through public postal services without them. The third item was going to be about money, specifically the credit card. This little bit of plastic ensures we always have access to money to buy virtually anything we want virtually anywhere in the world. Continue reading
“Wait a Minute Mr. Postman” (The Marvelettes) and “Return to Sender” (Elvis Presley) were two major pop hits of the 1960s. Among many others songs, they tell the story of young lovers desperately trying to communicate with the object of their affection via hand-written and posted letters.
Wooing and winning one’s teenage heartthrob through hand-written letters! To many of the modern generation, this must seem like a quaint, and perhaps even crazy idea. With email, SMS, social media, and other electronic revolutions in communication, no one would rely on “snail mail” to achieve such an important purpose.
However, in a certain sense the humble hand-written letter, and the humble adhesive postage stamp used to send it on its way, represent a more far-reaching revolution in human history than all of these new-fangled electronic communication media combined. The adhesive postage stamp truly deserves a place of honor on my list of “extraordinary ordinary things.” Continue reading
A strategic inflection point is a time in the life of business when its fundamentals are about to change. That change can mean an opportunity to rise to new heights. But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end.
—Andrew S. Grove, Only the Paranoid Survive (1988)
In the late 1960s Intel sniffed the winds of change and made a dramatic decision to build microprocessors instead of random access memory, RAM. Former Intel CEO Andy Grove describes this abrupt change in Intel’s strategy as an inflection point. As we know from mathematics, the coordinates of an inflection point are where a curve changes direction—typically from up to down or the reverse. In the case of young Intel, the RAM business was no longer profitable, and yet, the profitability of microprocessor chips was totally unknown. It was a choice between dying along with the RAM market or possibly dying with an unproven product in a non-existent market. We now know Grove was right, but he could have been wrong. Such is the life of an entrepreneur.
It has been 50 years since Intel’s inflection point was recognized and then mostly forgotten. But the company and the industry it grew up with is facing another inflection point—the demise of Dennard scaling—the 1974 rule that the power consumption of CMOS chips remains constant as transistors are scaled down in size. Continue reading
There’s a widely accepted principle about technology adoption. When a new technology is introduced, people are aware of it and learn how to use it. After a while, people come to embody the practices of using it well and are no longer aware of it. It is just part of our world. We no longer notice how we ever lived without it. Some say this principle is characteristic of the computer age. However, this did not originate with computers. It has always been the case with revolutions in daily life. Those who see the revolution taking place are unlikely ever to forget it. Those who see only the effects of the revolution often don’t fully recognize and appreciate it. I call examples of this phenomenon “extraordinary ordinary things.” For me, the most undervalued extraordinary ordinary thing is the elevator. Continue reading