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At Red Herring, a magazine I edited during the dot-com boom, we were so conscious of this phenomenon we had a name for its effect: “the Rule of the Second-Mover Advantage.” (I last wrote about it in “The Rules of Innovation,” May 2005.) We meant that the first attempt to commercialize a technology almost never succeeds, but another organization will succeed where the original innovator failed. IBM, for example, first commercialized the personal computer, but Microsoft controlled the “platform” for its software and therefore benefited most. The best recent example, however, is in search. There were many search engines before Google–some of them, like AltaVista, possessing technology the equal of ­PageRank, Google’s algorithm for ranking the popularity of Web pages. But Google was first to see that the monetary value of search was in keyword advertising; that “missing bit” created the link economy and overturned media (see Briefing).

What will be the markets for microfluidics? Rotman offers a few guesses. Drug companies might use microfluidics to show how genes are expressed in cells: “In one experiment, cancer researchers are using one of Fluidigm’s chips to analyze prostate tumor cells, seeking patterns that would help them select the drugs that will most effectively combat the tumor.” Microfluidics could also make possible cheap, portable diagnostic devices for the poor and developing world, where treatable diseases often go undiagnosed (see “TR 10: Paper Diagnostics,” March/April 2009).

The modes of business that sustain a new technology influence its further development. Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, showed that this influence is self-amplifying and, eventually, destabilizing. To commercialize a technology is to sow the seeds of its dissolution. IBM’s mainframes were succeeded by Microsoft’s software, which has been succeeded by Google’s keywords, which will be succeeded by something else. Nothing lasts forever, or even for very long. But write and tell me what you think at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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Credit: Mark Ostow
Video by JR Rost

Tagged: Computing

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