Tech Strikes Out

12 May

Like many Silicon Valley CEOs over the years, Scott McNealy often compared the tech and auto industries when he ran Sun Microsystems. As the scion of a Detroit carmaker executive, it was natural for him to see the connection. For him Sun’s workstations were high-performance automobiles like BMWs and Corvettes, while PCs were like digital Ford Fiestas.

His analogy worked then and it works today. Only these days most of us are sitting in front of the desktop version of a high-end Audi A8, zooming along the Internet at broadband speeds with our dual-core Intel machines running a souped-up Windows 7, powerful Mac OS X, or a sleek Linux distro. Fewer and fewer of us are stuck behind the computer equivalent of a Fiesta.

That’s great news. But it also means a lot of the excitement has gone from the tech industry. We’re no longer witnessing phenomenal leaps in hardware and software performance and capabilities. Everything is incremental. Almost boring. Instead of watching an exciting car race, we’re now observing a long, extra-inning baseball game, not unlike the mythical one described in W.P. Kinsella’s novel, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy.

Users and media no longer swoon over new advances in computers. Instead, we rhapsodize about cell phone battery life. Software upgrades are all but ignored while we dwell endlessly on the existential meaning of Facebook and Twitter. That’s because there’s so little to get jazzed about in computers and software.

Innovation in 2010 is less about swinging for the high-tech fences, but simply laying down a decent bunt. It’s all part of the same ballgame, but it’s far less thrilling than it once was. Maybe that’s why people have been so pumped up about Apple’s iPad, a tablet that does not do handwriting recognition, a mobile device without inherent cellphone capabilities. Yet, it seemed like a big hit in a low scoring game because in the last few years our expectations have been set so very low.

The high-tech game isn’t over, but it has lost its luster, not unlike the auto industry in Detroit.

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