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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Why the Next Steve Jobs Will Be in Energy, Not Computers

Looking around, what problem, what opportunity in any way resembles the earliest era of the PC? There’s only one: energy.

  • August 30, 2011

The struggle to make computers usable for the everyday user is done. Finis. Kaput. My toddler can’t even string two words together and he can already navigate YouTube on an iPad. We can all see where this is going: Apple won, the command line lost, and the future of computing will be molded to our needs, not the other way around. Jobs did it.

Now we have to apply that level of genius to the world’s most pressing problems. The ones that represent tremendous threats to our national security and are already compromising our standard of living.

It’s important to understand that Jobs, Gates and all the other geniuses of their era – the time spanning the birth of personal computers as a hobby to the present, which is shorter than a single human life – weren’t merely exceptional. They also lived at an exceptional time, and so had the chance to create opportunities for themselves on the ground floor of what would become the world’s most transformative industry.

Looking around, what problem, what opportunity in any way resembles the earliest era of the PC? There’s only one: energy. Here are the reasons that the next Steve Jobs will – indeed, must – arise in energy.

1. The problem of personal computers is “solved” – they’re now appliances.

When a product reaches this stage, by necessity innovation becomes incremental. Cars are a good analogy. Sure, personal transit is still subject to revolutionary change – think electric vehicles, and down the line, full automation – but they’re all still cars.

2. Energy is the next pressing issue.

If we don’t solve energy through a combination of efficiency, distributed generation, novel financing mechanisms, new technologies and whatever else we can come up with, our economy could collapse (in the short term) and the planet will be rendered hostile to a population as expansive as what’s projected (by the end of the century).

Jobs told people on the original Mac team that they were going to change the world, and they believed him. There’s no other industry in which an engineer or scientist could have a bigger impact right now.

3. Hobbyists exist in this field, and giving them access to more technology will accelerate development and adoption.

The first Apple computer was in a sense a party trick Steve Wozniak used to impress his friends at the homebrew computer club – only later did it become a business. That’s exactly where a lot of energy technology is today, especially solar power and smart meters. For a technology to take off, there has to be a population of early adopters who see its potential and are willing to take a chance on it. Indeed, they’ve got to be a little bit crazy. Energy is full of people like that, and higher prices plus supply insecurity are going to bring even more of them out of the woodwork.

4. The problem at this point is design, commercialization, marketing, and also design, design and design.

Why did Google, Microsoft and Cisco all recently bow out of the home energy management game? Probably because none of them could figure out how to make the technology accessible. A recent survey from IBM shows that people don’t know the first thing about electricity, so a smart meter is for most of us incomprehensible.

Successful energy technology will be plug and play, WYSIWYG, and it might even inspire someone to call it “insanely great.” It will “just work,” like the iPhone or Mac OS X. It will be every bit as polarizing as Apple, because it will obscure all the guts of the problem it’s trying to solve, and that will drive geeks and control freaks crazy.

Energy technology that really works won’t just look cool because some industrial designer put it in a slick housing, and it won’t just have a compelling advertising campaign, etc. It will have all these things, because in its DNA, a driven perfectionist will have figured out how to make it answer the user’s needs and desires.

Designers who are capable of this, the kind who don’t use focus groups because they’re ultimately just addressing their own taste, are rare. They include Steve Jobs, Nintendo’s Miyamoto, and dozens of others whose names we don’t know, but who have filled our lives with iconic inventions ranging from the Flip camera to the paper clip. Many innovations will be born in the 21st century, but the ones that could be really transformative, that could give rise to something that could supplant Apple as the world’s largest company, will be in energy.

Come to think of it, there’s already an energy company that, for its size alone, almost fits the bill, thus illustrating the centrality of energy in the world economy. Only problem is, the scarce resource upon which its wealth is built is slowly depleting, ultimately dooming it to wither away. It’s called Exxon.

Follow @Mims or contact him via email

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