Geek to Me

Published April 4, 2002

This originally appeared in the April 2002 issue of Technology Decisions magazine.

Before I write anything else, let me say that if I really could predict what technologies were going to be hot and what weren’t, I’d be spending this time on E-Trade (from the chateau) not writing the back page of a magazine. On the other hand, I did put a down payment on my house using money I made by saying, in 1994, “This Internet thing is gonna be really big.”

People are always trying to predict the hot new technology, either to get on the bandwagon early, to know what stocks to buy, or to get jobs as columnists and consultants. Books have been written about how to predict what’s going to be the Next Big Thing, or simply what makes that big thing big — Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point comes to mind.

But there is a recognizable pattern to which technologies make it into the mainstream and which don’t. Here’s my theory: To be successful commercially, a technology must first go through a Geek Acceptance Stage. If the geeks like it, it’s only a matter of time before it’s at Wal-Mart. That’s because geeks get hold of an idea, play around with it for a while, and eventually build enough of a base of support for it — not to mention word of mouth — that it makes its way into the mainstream.

Personal computers are a great example. What was arguably the first personal computer, the Altair (I said arguably, so don’t send me nasty letters) was, to the non-geek, just a bunch of blinking lights and some crude sound. Looking at that, no rational business would bet its money on the personal computing market. But time passed, and the geeks worked hard until (again, arguably) the first Apple made its appearance. And soon corporate America, in the form of IBM, was willing to take a chance on the PC, now that it had been geek-tested and -approved. Using off-the-shelf parts and a geek-developed operating system, the first PC hit the market.

Look at some other hot technologies and you’ll realize that what’s in today’s business world was first in the hands of the geeks. The Internet, once strictly a haven for academics and techies — people willing to configure terminal-emulation software and 300-baud modems, and learn cryptic programs with names like vi, emacs, rn, pine, and elm.

Once it passed the Geek Acceptance Stage, the Net was ready for prime time, and had enough of a backbone (literally and metaphorically) to support a growing number of users. But if the geeks hadn’t found the Net and found it good, we may never have had the likes of Yahoo (another geek project) . It was the geeks who found ways to organize information with Gopher and, later, the World Wide Web. It was geeks who came up with the now-ubiquitous @ sign, the domain system (with its ups and downs), IP addresses, and so on.

The geeks have spoken with other technologies. MP3 was a relatively obscure music format that geeks used to exchange music files. But once reliable players and usable CD rippers began to circulate, the MP3 “market” took off.

That offshoot of the MP3 phenomenon, Napster, is a great example of a geek-approved technology — peer-to-peer file sharing — that is just now working its way into the general market. How will peer-to-peer affect business? Who knows? But my money says it’s going to be big, judging by the terabytes of files I can find on Kazaa. (Kazaa (www.kazaa.com), for the uninitiated, is the best successor to Napster I’ve seen.)

Some of these technologies still have vestiges of their geekish roots, such as the price of the products: often zilch. Had corporate America developed MP3, you can bet the best music players wouldn’t be free, and that the Recording Industry of America would have better things to do with its time. Free is big.

Look at Linux, the king of geek-to-mainstream technology. What could be more geekish than an operating system based on Unix, created by a geek in his spare time, that’s available for nothing — including the OS itself, several GUIs, and a gazillion applications?

No one paid much attention to it, even while bemoaning Microsoft’s “monopoly” of the operating system and desktop market. No one, that is, except the geeks, who have been perfecting Linux in a monster worldwide effort to the point that this free operating system is a better line-of-business OS than Windows.

And now corporate America wakes up to it. And now corporate America starts implementing it. And now corporate America starts putting it on its mainframes and using it for business. (Fun stat: The Apache Web server — which runs on Linux and is also free — owns almost 57 percent of the Web-server market. A distant second is Microsoft’s IIS with just over 30 percent.)

Where the geeks go, so goes America.

Geek-approval isn’t only about computer technology. Scooters were a geek fad before they were sold at Toys-R-Us. Goatees were the signature of East Coast geeks before they became fashionable for the rest of the world. And it was geeks who pioneered the relaxed dress code of so many of today’s businesses — “business casual” is a nod to the T-shirts, torn jeans, body piercings, and tattoos of the geek crowd.

Has corporate America caught on to the fact that its geeks are its technological farm system? Probably not; the press sure hasn’t. How much air time did that stupid Ginger/It/Segway thing get? But it’s not the geeks who’ll be using them — it’s postal workers and mall security. What does that tell you about the long-term possibilities of the thing?

So the next time you’re wondering ‘what’s next?’, go to the gadget guy (or gal) in your company — you know who it is — and ask, “Hey, what’s that you got there?” You might be seeing the future.



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