Pioneers

It was a cool spring day in 1995 when I saw something that would change my life forever. I was a pre-med freshman at Ohio State, and I had just seen Bad Boys at the local movie theatre. As epic as that movie was, it was the trailer for Mortal Kombat that surprised me. It was the first movie to feature a URL at the end.

www.mortalkombat.com/kombatbegins

Up until that point, computers were my hobby. I grew up loving my Apple //c and IIgs, and later on spent many a late night trying to get my PC games to run that tiny bit faster. Still, my mother felt that medicine was my calling, and without a better idea, that’s what I pursued. Despite my enthusiasm for Mosaic and the new Netscape Navigator, I didn’t think that messing with computers was a viable career.

That all changed that day. Computers were for more than writing term papers and playing video games- they were becoming part of pop culture. It took a few years of taking a programming class here and there, and getting over my calculus phobia, but the course was set- I graduated with a degree in Computer Science.

That was less than 20 years ago, and on my birthday I find myself reminiscing about how much has changed in so little time. In April 1995, Yahoo! was on a stanford.edu domain and Google was still years in the future. Mark Zuckerberg was 11.

The first 5 years of the World Wide Web was dedicated to the commercialization of the Internet- we saw the rise of portals, online stores, search engines, and blogs in this time. The second 5 years was when communication and social networking started to appear, and folks who were once separated by borders and long distance charges found those distances and costs to be increasingly trivial. Today, I think nothing of publishing a photo that can be instantly viewed from almost anywhere in the world.

12 years after that fateful day in Ohio, the iPhone was announced. And it ushered in a new age of Mobile, an age where the phone became more than just a communications tool, but the ultimate realization (so far) of a truly personal computer. And it’s easy to forget that apps did not appear until the following year, in 2008.

Six years. In those six years people simply stopped getting lost. They started taking photos of all their meals. They stopped buying $300 personal navigation devices and $500 digital cameras. They started to book private vehicles owned by private drivers for rides to bars and airports. The phone stopped being a phone and turned into a magical device that transforms into the tool you need at the time you want. “Mobile” became a misnomer, as these devices now replace traditional computers as the device of choice for use at home.

Truly, a lot has changed. But again, six years. Six years after the first commercial airplane flight in 1914, airplanes were much more fast and reliable, yet they were still made of fabric. Six years after the first mass produced car in 1901, cars gained headlights and steering wheels yet there were no turn signals, nor an accelerator or brake pedal in any way that we would recognize today.

We are in the first 20 years of the commercial web and the first six years of mobile. I suspect both will prove to be enduring innovation of the sort that kicks off hundreds of years of evolution and change. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be working with technology are pioneers.

Pioneers blaze the trail and the products we build may yet prove to be the things that change the way people live for ages; the things that are so ubiquitous that when we are old and senile, our grandchildren will listen to our true stories and only laugh at how preposterous we seem.

Pioneers also make mistakes and we will laugh at how arrogant we were, or how sure we were that some failure was impossible. Pioneering innovation involves both a measure of informed calculation as well as frequent leaps of faith. Some of those leaps will seem idiotic in retrospect but necessary lessons nonetheless.

The greatest thing to me about this current age is that anyone can be a pioneer. If you’re reading these words, you’re a pioneer. Because innovation is more about pushing pixels or writing bits; it’s about participating in this new culture that is powered by tech. The production, dissemination, and consumption of ideas and knowledge has changed more in 20 years than it has in the previous 200. Just by consuming these words that I wrote in Palo Alto from wherever you happen to be, you’re reading words that I would not have been able to share so easily in 1995.

As I write these words and contemplate the last 20 years on the dawn of my 38th birthday, I can’t help but be excited about the next twenty; my daughter’s going to be born into a magical world that I hope will become even more amazing. I’ll certainly do everything I can to make it so.

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