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Thinking about Technology Development, Darwinism & Intent

Kevin Kelleher at GigaOm has a bit of sobering rumination for a Sunday morning.  The question raised (but with the answer being an exercise for the reader) is the response of the tech industry to a significant worsening of the economy.  The answers vary depending on the stage of company, the nature of its market and size of its bank account.

One aspect that it raises is the nature of how new technologies get born and introduced.  What appears very clear to me, having been through a sufficient number of booms-and-bust in the tech world, is the darwinian nature of the industry.  There are the years of plenty (and plenty of hype) in which the costs of developing a new offer are modest and favor small groups, experimenting with new ideas.  During the same years of plenty, there are some substantial, truly big plays that are created with the necessary capital backing them.  This experimentation allows the nature of markets, the inevitable downturn and the change in the perceived demand to winnow the offerings.  (I keep remembering the dot.com era and some of the web-based businesses - both large and small - that were hailed as the paragons of the internet economy. I also recall a number of them as smoking craters.)

But what's also come home to me of late is the potentially imprudent adoption of  darwinian navigation through product definition.   The religious belief that rapid prototyping, agile software definition & development, or a new development underpinning (like Java in the 90's, or Ruby today) can automagically generate a sustainable offering is potentially fatal to a large number of its adherents.   It's great on the industry-wide level for producing a lot of innovative, unconventional offerings from which the survivors emerge and a large number of wannabes fail.  But, taken as the primary force for product/service definition, it leaves any individual adopter of these as simply another experimental "mutation" that has to run the gauntlet to determine the fittest.

It makes the questions raised in Kelleher's post a vital aspect of the development and planning process.  Intention or direction needs to be incorporated in large doses in order for the advanced (and somewhat miraculous) development methods and tools to truly generate a greater chance of survival and eventual success.

What If It’s Worse Than We Think?

Right now, an economic depression is still far from certain, but the possibility is real enough that companies will need to prepare. What will it mean?

At first, it will favor large, cash-rich companies like Google, Microsoft and Cisco, or any company that can finance itself through its own operations. Others with decent promise but weak cash flows might hope to be bought. VCs will be forced to trim portfolios. Companies that have cut staff to the bone will have to cut more, even at the risk of hurting future growth. But even healthier companies might see their cash flows dwindle over time.

For the past few years, most tech companies have progressed incrementally, tossing out a new feature or a new gadget and seeing what takes root. But an even tougher economy would demand harder questions, rethinking what a company does at the most basic level: Why is your company here? What is it offering and why would someone else want to pay for your stuff?

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