The Garage Principle
Over time, most people have come to realize that: Everything interesting in technology eventually can be built in a garage.
I call this the Garage Principle.
Links: Apple; Linux; Cathedral and the Bazaar; Verizon MiFi;
Now, I don’t mean garages become so lovely and inviting that we choose to work and play there; rather that technological capability flows out to the everyman, at least in our (United States) political/economic system. History is replete with an inexorable march of cutting-edge technology sliding into the hands of average Joes and Janes. This has had … interesting implications on our lives.
For a daunting example, consider the anthrax attacks of 2001. For at least a good period of time the FBI believed the anthrax was created by a lone individual:
Instead, FBI investigators said at a news briefing that they are probably looking for an adult male with at least limited scientific expertise who was able to use laboratory equipment easily obtained for as little as $2,500 to produce high-quality anthrax. (L.A. Times)
Now, eventually, the FBI decided that a scientist from Fort Detrick was responsible, but it is interesting to note that the possibility of a lone person doing this in isolation was seriously considered.
It was considered because eventually, the Garage Principle dictates that someone, somewhere could produce anthrax in their garage (or living room, or basement, etc.)
Of course, my favorite example of the Garage Principle is Apple Computer; hand-built in Woz and Job’s garage, those early Apple’s fomented a complete revolution in our lives. At the time, few people would have believed two guys in a garage could build a useful computer — but it was, in hindsight, inevitable.
You can view the conflicts between bloggers and newspapers through this lens as well; via the internet anyone in their garage (or basement, etc.) can comment on news, post reports, etc. The barrier to entry for motivated individuals is minuscule.
The entire Open Source model is predicated on the Garage Principle to some degree. For examnple, Eric Raymond characterized Linus’s Law as:
“given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”
This implies that of those eyeballs, the ones belonging to a sixteen year-old in Alabama are as potentially useful as the eyeball’s belonging to an IBM senior engineer. This development model has actually merged the Garage Principle with crowd-sourcing, a sort of forest of garages, each inhabited by smart motivated individuals. This is more precisely known as Eric Raymond’s Bazaar model, and has proven powerful indeed.
The common thread is barrier to entry: technology keeps make a wider array of capabilities more accessible; coupled with our relatively high standard of living, folks are free to pursue side projects as they wish.
Look around and you see long-term business models thrashing against Garage’s everywhere:
- The aforementioned news industry vs. blogs/Twitter
- The Motion Picture industry/Recording industry vs. bit torrent/piracy
- Television networks vs. Hulu/Boxee
- Telephony vs. Voip
- Post Office vs. Email (hee)
- Amazon’s turnkey storefront vs. brick-and-mortar retailers
Notice how these are related to information manipulation; the internet has had an impact, yes? Look around, think about it, you’ll see some others. You also notice something, odder.
Some industries seem to be immune. At least so far.
For an example, the automotive industry seems to have rested on its laurels forever. While there are various challengers now (Tesla Motor Corp? Tata?), they are far off. Imports certainly affected the business mightily over the last decades, but in a very incremental way. The only significant change in automotive technology of the last thirty years was to make cars bigger (SUVs and minivans). Regulatory issues make the barrier to entry too high for the Garage Principle to apply. Maybe that will change; I certainly have no faith in Detroit’s ability to make revolutionary changes.
Cable and telephony providers (land and cell based) sort-of have this immunity, in one specific direction: they have the pipes. They physically own the hardware that connects us. All the business they have that derives revenues from selling bandwidth over their pipes is pretty well safe, considering the staggering cost of laying fiber and deploying cell towers.
On the other hand, all the business they get from monopolistic, protectionist behaviors, such as text message overcharging, lock-in contracts, blocking handset innovation (hey Apple shows up here again, don’t they?), all that revenue is doomed to go away in time. Given a 3G connection and an iPhone, you could happily use Skype and never actually use voice service from AT&T if you chose; all they have that is really valuable for consumers is bandwidth on a dumb pipe. Everything else that can be done on their networks can be replicated by a motivated someone in a garage somewhere. Insightful tech people (and there are a lot of them, inside and outside of the telephony companies) understand this.
One of my colleagues once lamented of Verizon: “Just sell me the damn bandwidth!” Fascinatingly, they do that now to a degree: take a look at the MiFi. Yeah, they limit your bandwidth per month to some degree, but that is a finger in the dam. Won’t last. You can foresee them selling *only* a MiFi and consumers buying a MiFi-tethered phone. Not for a while perhaps, but it will happen.
So look around, see where you can apply the Garage Principle. See what you can build in your Garage!