I never spent much time reading into the history of what enabled computers and the Internet. As I got my first glimpse into the world of computers and the Internet in the late 90’s, I viewed these concepts as a given. That’s what The Innovators is all about. It tells the stories of the great minds who took the first steps into computing, starting from the theoretical work of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace back in 1837 and later Alan Turing‘s work in the 1940’s. It then details all the capabilities developed in the 40-70’s such the transistor and microprocessor at Bell Labs, which enabled the modern computer. It follows the tech founders that commercialised these developments such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. It finishes with more familiar concepts, such as Wikipedia, blogging and publishing, which were enabled by the widespread adoption of the Internet.
Although this book includes hundreds of tidbits and stories, I won’t bore you by attempting to re-write them all. I will choose my favorite one which is the story of the first software monopoly.
How Microsoft took over the PC market in 1981
Background: IBM wanted to build a computer, but wanted to outsource the entire creation. They met with Bill Gates – who at the moment had a smaller software they wanted to licence (BASIC interpreter for the Intel 8080). In the meeting, IBM mentioned they were also looking for an operating system, if he knew anyone. Microsoft did not have one, but Gates understood the potential and cleverly agreed to help them out. Instead of building his own, which would of likely took him years, he found an existing one.
Inventor vs Commercialiser: Seattle Computer Products, or SCP, was a small tech company building an OS called 86-DOS. Gates was able to quickly hash a deal to buy the software for $50,000. Gates had his team modify the software and release it under the name MS-DOS. In 1981, Microsoft licensed the software to IBM where they would earn $X for each copy sold (licence deal). Throughout the next 20 years, MS-DOS would be the most common OS in PC. Microsoft earned billions of dollars from licensing fees. Not a bad investment.
What happened to SCP? Although they were the inventors of MS-DOS, they failed. Even after winning $800,000 from Microsoft in a legal battle, they closed shop several years later. Part of their team went on to work at Microsoft, but did not earn a fraction of what their invention yielded.
What can we learn: inventing does not always equal success. There are inventors who develop cool things, and there are those who bring those products to the masses. Founders and innovators need to be savvy both in technical and business matters. Just the technical side is often not enough.
Who should read this book?
The Innovators is a must-read for tech founders and computer science enthusiasts. Contrary to media portrayals, it documents innovation not as a one-man show like the Jobs or Zuckerburg story. Rather, it shows the big innovations as collaborative efforts of many. Furthermore, these inventors and entrepreneurs did not innovate in silos, but build on-top of previous developments. This is even more important today, where any tech founder is building on-top of generatios of innovations. What you build today is possible only because of what others built. Nobody innovates in isolation nor deserves exclusive credit for anything.