Moores Law Echo

About 8 or 9 years ago there was a real glut of conferences on the impact of the internet and most presenters felt obliged to talk about Moores law which applied then mostly to hardware.

In fact we are surrounded by lots of “business cycles” and ripple effect such as the innovation cycle – start something new, refine it by bringing down costs and so on over time, while expanding and changing markets in new and interesting ways.

Increasingly more people are realizing that there are parallel and social effects in other technology related areas like software and business cycles for instance.

Two of the thinkers I really like on the wider tech implications are Paul Graham and David Cowan.

Paul has a large number of very helpful essays and this one from October ’07 really caught my eye – he was talking about The Future of Web Startups.

(This essay is derived from a keynote at FOWA in October 2007.)

There’s something interesting happening right now. Startups are undergoing the same transformation that technology does when it becomes cheaper.

It’s a pattern we see over and over in technology. Initially there’s some device that’s very expensive and made in small quantities. Then someone discovers how to make them cheaply; many more get built; and as a result they can be used in new ways.

Computers are a familiar example. When I was a kid, computers were big, expensive machines built one at a time. Now they’re a commodity. Now we can stick computers in everything.

This pattern is very old. Most of the turning points in economic history are instances of it. It happened to steel in the 1850s, and to power in the 1780s. It happened to cloth manufacture in the thirteenth century, generating the wealth that later brought about the Renaissance. Agriculture itself was an instance of this pattern.

Now as well as being produced by startups, this pattern is happening to startups. It’s so cheap to start web startups that orders of magnitudes more will be started. If the pattern holds true, that should cause dramatic changes.

David Cowan recently speculated in a video that we are now at the stage where perhaps every 18 months or so it becomes half as expensive to roll out an application to the web in some kind of echo of Moore’s law.

The mathematical element is not as important as the key point that many more thousands of developers, entrepreneurs and business people everywhere are using the latest software tools and technologies to accelerate just about everything.

From my perspective many of these observations come across like that ancient story of the blind men describing an elephant. The elephant is large and each man describes a different part of what sounds like more than one animal.

As a creative generalist myself with extremely diverse interests and training in multiple disciplines I recognize many of these perspectives all being part of the same large elephant – as it were.

So where is all this heading? On the Paul Graham essay already mentioned he thinks:

10. Faster Advances

There’s a good side to that, at least for consumers of technology. If people get right to work implementing ideas instead of sitting on them, technology will evolve faster.

Some kinds of innovations happen a company at a time, like the punctuated equilibrium model of evolution. There are some kinds of ideas that are so threatening that it’s hard for big companies even to think of them. Look at what a hard time Microsoft is having discovering web apps. They’re like a character in a movie that everyone in the audience can see something bad is about to happen to, but who can’t see it himself. The big innovations that happen a company at a time will obviously happen faster if the rate of new companies increases.

In New Zealand there is a temptation to invent something new because we can’t find an obvious answer. It is now becoming much harder to do that and go global as many of these opportunities are already driving entrepreneurs simultaneously in multiple timezones at warpspeed. There are still advantages to be had from this though.

As David Cowan suggests it much better to come clean and stimulate the discussions by leveraging the wisdom of crowds.

The other great point in his video is that now it is possible and even desirable to move down the pyramid to innovate and invest outside of the top few large companies.

Now with the rate of change and ease of deployment across the internet it is becoming easier and more necessary to be able to provide new products and services in smaller and medium sized businesses.