History Repeats Itself: This Telecosm Giant Holds the Keys to the Next Phase of Broadband Tech
Below you’ll find an excerpt from the March issue of The George Gilder Report. If you’re already a subscriber I’m sure you’ve seen this month’s portfolio pick. But if you’re not, click here to find out what you can do to make sure you don’t miss out on this opportunity…
In the decades that I have spent discerning the vectors that guide technological progress, I have undertaken an arduous education in many sectors. Including mathematics, physics, engineering, the properties of the electromagnetic spectrum, information theory, and even the genetic code as the supreme expression of that theory.
The most important thing anyone ever taught me, however, the key to every correct call I’ve ever made in technology, I learned one day in Newark Airport during a discursive chat with my great friend and mentor Carver Mead of CalTech legend.
We were not talking not about physics or electromagnetism, or the quantum properties of micro-circuits, or the dead-end of wave particle duality, or even making horribly ingenious puns, all Carver conversational favorites. We were talking about entrepreneurship.
Carver argued that the secret to successful entrepreneurship was waste. Waste the cheapest and most abundant relevant resource so as to conserve or create what is scarce. Academia portrays economics as the study of scarcity. Carver summed up for me a truth I had been grasping at for years: Economics consists in identifying the abundances that, wasted prodigiously, overwhelm scarcity.
I had heard echoes of this before. One of my favorite quotes from another hero, Peter Drucker, was “don’t solve problems, pursue opportunities.” A problem is a scarcity, whether of talent, time, money, or information. It is in the abundances we find opportunity.
With Carver’s axiom, I found myself able to perceive the paradigms that would dominate both the Microcosm of computing machines, as well as Telecosm of infinite bandwidth.
In the Microcosm, the first great divide was between wires and switches. For the telephone network — effectively a global computer — wires had long been cheap and abundant. Switches including human operators, had been scarce and expensive.
The transistor — essentially a switch — reversed this. Now, switches were vastly cheaper than wires. This was the real implication of Moore’s Law. The way to multiply computer power would be to multiply switches on a chip, rather than linking many devices by wires that were hot and hard to connect.
Electric power to drive the switches did not appear scarce. This tempted early supercomputer innovators to use fast, high-powered switches to accelerate computation. But power makes heat and noise, radically reducing the number of logic switches that can fit on a chip. “Low and slow” silicon circuits triumphed because the crucial factor in computation was the number of switches on a chip.
In the Telecosm, the dominance of switches over wires was in part reversed. Carrying many orders of magnitude more data than a traditional telephone trunk line, at a fraction of the power, fiber optic cables produced an abundance of bandwidth. The new goal was to stay “all optical” as long as possible, stretching out the distance between electronic regenerators or switches.
This partial reversal was the ultimate cause of the “cloud.” With fiber optic bandwidth beating Moore’s Law, growing even faster and cheaper than processing, it made some sense to centralize the storage and processing of data and access it as needed over the lightspeed network.
Though all these scarcity/abundance calculations seem obvious now, there was some resistance along the way from very smart people and very smart companies. In the end, though, these were mere mud fights.
Wireless from the very beginning has been a knife fight.
Our pick of the month became the dominant firm in global wireless technology by winning the knife fights of the 1990s and 2000s.
March’s portfolio pick is about to win again — in the new quarrel over what is called “5G.”
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Editor, Gilder’s Daily Prophecy