I just finished reading Game Over, a book by David Sheff that came out in 1993. I was reading it because I wanted to read a new book that came out this year, Console Wars, by Blake Harris. I had read or heard that the first makes a good companion piece for the second. While I can now agree that, yes, these two books do form a consistent timeline from the formation of Nintendo 125 years ago, up through the 16 bit era in the mid-90s, I don’t know if that is the way I would recommend anyone else read them. I just happen to have a deep seated interest in both history and video games, so these are books that appeal to my particular tastes. Either one is interesting on it’s own and Console Wars is a bit funnier, and does give you a nice catch up chapter to fill you in on any history you may have missed.
While I enjoyed Game Over and I am currently enjoying Console Wars, I hadn’t planned to write a book report here. I was thinking, instead, about something that comes up time and again in both books. A theme that comes up time and again in a lot of histories actually.
Let me start with an example. Every company with computer hardware or a game console has tried to create either a download service or a full blown network. There was a cartridge made for the Atari 2600 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GameLine that would allow you to download and play games, read news, get stock info etc. There is a scattered wasteland of such products all the way up and into the 16 bit console era. Despite Modems being a well understood technology at the time not one company could create a network service that people actually wanted to buy into. Not even Nintendo, who had hardware in millions of homes around the world, could entice people to connect the things to a phone or cable line.
TCP, on the other hand, is created as a standard protocol that would enable almost any digital device to talk to any other device. No company backs it, no entity aims to control it, and after a few years of kicking around labs and research projects, a simple open standard allows for explosive growth in computer networking. TCP/IP allows for the creation of the internet and any of the tech companies that survived the early years benefit in unprecedented ways. New companies and technologies spring up to feed off of and feed into the internet. In a matter of a decade, the world is changed.
It’s not just a matter of the right thing at the right time. Those early stabs at creating networks where not so technologically inferior to TCP that they couldn’t have rose up to become the internet. The copper wires that carried the signal from one point to another back then are the same ones that carry our phone, television, and internet today. The switches that connect them are faster, smaller, cheaper now than they were then, but the job they do is the same. So why didn’t these networks take off?
People are terrible at predicting the future, especially when they attempt to mold those predictions into long term realities. Conversely, people are phenomenal at exploiting innovation. The early attempts at networks would have benefited only the company that designed and implemented the network. It was a closed loop, a black box. The ability to exploit that particular innovation was limited to the few people at that one company that understood it. The impulse to build monopoly into an innovation doomed it from the start. No one wants to play in your sandbox when you set the rules. Turns out there is a lot more sand available, enough for many sandboxes.
“They will buy it, because we will sell it to them” echos in the hollowed out husks of many once powerful companies. Not just companies, civilizations. And the innovations that allowed many to benefit, the ideas that could be the most fully exploited in the most wildly different ways, persist. I don’t think it’s luck. It may be difficult to plan for success, but planning for failure appears to be as easy as taking an imperialistic stance on innovation.