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June 16, 2002
David Warsh, Proprietor


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An Antidote to the Business Pages

Paul Burstein is as quick as anyone among my friends spot the most interesting stories in the business pages of the newspapers. A physicist, his specialty is using CAT scanners to examine rocket motors for defects. Last week he jumped on two items.

The first story was news of a new wireless broadband antenna developed by two inventors in a Cupertino garage. In fairly short order, the device could threaten the cable and telephone industries — and provide enormous stimulus to the computer industry and everyone whose business depends on bandwidth. The second story had to do with plans for medical claims software from IBM that could scale up quickly to handle the government’s Medicare business. .

John Markoff’s story about the little California start-up called Etherlinx appeared Monday in the New York Times. (On-site registration is required to access the link.) A couple of software engineers, 54 and 36 years old, apparently have come up with an antenna that bolts to the house like a cable dish and obviates the need for a “last mile” wire connection in order to have high-speed Internet access.

Instead, a glorified system much like those, which now operate cell phones, may serve to bring broadband into homes and offices. It has long been known that in principle a single microwave transmitter can provide broadband signal to antennae throughout cells up to 20 miles on a side. The Etherlinx entrepreneurs hope to use a shortcut technology to beat to market better-funded companies pursuing more elaborate solutions.

Their trick? The inventors used cheap commodity chips to devise an alternative to the standard for such “Wi-Fi” (Wireless Fidelity) communication that an industry board had set to serve as a target. The inventors estimate their antenna can meet the test and be mass-produced for around $150 a copy. So improbable is their approach that the company failed to attract venture capital in Silicon Valley. So the small-scale commercial trial now underway in Oakland was financed by less that $200,000 in private investment.

My friend Burstein wrote, “Here’s the kind of revolutionary techno-geeky story that can change everything.

  1. Two guys who are frustrated with a combination of monopoly, regulation and high cost.
  2. An invention that addresses all issues — regulatory, installed base, expensive spectrum and requires no new ancillary inventions.
  3. Can be brought to market quickly. Elegant? No, at least not in the short term. But if you don’t get to market quickly, you may never get to technical elegance.
  4. Threatens humongous monopolies — including not only high-speed Internet cable and DSL (digital subscribe line) but (and I don’t see how the articles missed this) POTS (plain old telephone service) as well. MetroBoston service — $20 a month to you and me and very profitable to these new guys. Watch out, Verizon!”

Burstein’s second story was news, too. The Wall Street Journal’s William Bulkeley on Thursday described a big contract under which International Business Machine Corp. will undertake health claims processing for Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield. IBM plans to use software from by deNovis, Inc., a little Lexington, Mass. software developer to build “a major national e-utility,” according to Paul Ricci, general manager of IBM Global Healthcare.

So what? The potential savings from such systems integration are enormous. With 4.7 million subscribers, Empire Blue Cross effectively can force its suppliers — doctors, hospitals, laboratories — to join its system, by returning some of the savings to be returned in the form of more generous payments, at least for a time. IBM says the software is “scaleable” — that is, capable of handling ever-larger quantities of information, including Medicare and Medicaid claims.

Many other insurance companies are creating large-scale claims-processing software. And other computer service firms offer similar services as “business process outsourcing,” reporter Bulkeley noted. But this is IBM, whose corporate moxie, from manufacturing to advertising, turned personal computers into a major industry practically overnight in the early 1980s. Recently the company began an advertising campaign for its “e-utility” concept — a stream of metered computing power only a little different from gas, water or electricity. Watch out, Microsoft!

 

Burstein’s reaction: “This reminds me of Wal-Mart’s forcing its reluctant suppliers into an inventory monitoring, reporting and control system. The suppliers kicked and screamed, but the deal was, if you wanted to do business with Wal-Mart, you needed to say yes to the system. Ultimately, the suppliers benefited far more in their cost channels than they ever imagined. The Wal-Mart experience allowed them to be much more efficient over their entire customer case so that they could compete and profit with the non-Wal-Mart part of the business as well.

“That’s why I can walk into a Wal-Mart and pay $20 for a pair of pants for which I would have paid $20 (no inflation adjustment) 20 years ago, and everybody in the chain is still making money. Ya gotta love it!”

 

My friend’s enthusiasm was contagious. He reminded me why I love hanging around the business pages of newspapers and magazines. He reminded me as well of the power of new technologies to undermine overpriced old ones. But of course he knows that news reports are mainly goads to conjecture. Of themselves they provide no answers, only more questions.

Burstein, for example, was curious about the telephone company’s reaction to the wireless threat. “If I were Verizon, I would be pounding down these guys’ doors, looking to hook into the technology, to buy it, or a piece of it, or some kind of rights. Assuming that it’s not just a piece of hype, Verizon should roll out the service themselves. Better to self-cannibalize than to be eaten by others.”

It doesn’t auger well that the company’s next big rollout, scheduled for Monday June 17, is a low capacity wireless platform. It lets cell phone customers use their cell phones for little more than to make online entries on their expense accounts, check airline flight information — or ask questions of a virtual Magic 8 Ball.

When caught up in the excitement of the business pages, the temptation is to think that technology sweeps all before. That’s not the case. There are a certain number of situations that arise periodically that call for some form or another of collective action if a bad outcome is to be avoided. So for relief from techno-triumphalism, I read historians of technology. For if not we do not look at the long sweep of history, we do not see a story whole.

A case in point is Alfred Chandler’s most recent book, Inventing the Electronic Century. At an age when most scholars limit themselves to honorary degrees (he received one Saturday from Northeastern University), the 84-year-old Chandler has written not one but two books. They are designed to describe what he calls “paths of learning,” meaning the channels by which new technical knowledge has been commercialized into new and previously unknown new products. The first depicts the story of the consumer electronics and computer industries. A second volume, concerned with the evolution of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, will come later.

Chandler’s is the world’s most distinguished historian of business. He is at pains to distinguish between what he calls the Industrial Century and the Electronic 20th Century. The great core companies that during the 19th century created global industries in railroads, electric light and power equipment, metal, automobiles, telecommunications, chemicals and pharmaceuticals competed vigorously with each other, for the simple reason that many diverse technologies built the industrial revolution. In contrast, the 20th century revolution flowed from a sequence of just four devices: the vacuum tub, the transistor, the integrated circuit and the microprocessor. So just two companies — RCA and IBM — dominated consumer electronics and computers for fifty years.

Chandler’s command of the competitive flux is astonishing. Long-ago battles for markets come to life as they are placed in historical perspective. RCA fails to adjust. It ultimately fails. Its national industry is lost to Japan. IBM is greatly challenged but survives, even after the Japanese storm its markets and its two leading suppliers, Microsoft and Intel, wrest away from it technological leadership.

At critical junctures, the US Justice Department intervenes. A 1958 consent decree with RCA has the effect of force-feeding its technological advances to Japan. A 1969 antitrust suit filed against IBM causes the computer giant to sell its software separately — and invites others (like Microsoft) to write software for its hardware. The 1982 decision to break up the AT&T telephone monopoly doesn’t even warrant a mention. But then there is only so much even a great a historian can do in a lifetime.

You don’t have to agree with every detail of the interpretation that Chandler places on his epic drama to understand why many movers and shakers are reading his book. His Olympian perspective is a useful antidote to the hurly-burly of the business pages — and a goad to meditation for those who are building what eventually may be described as the Network Century.

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