by December 1, 1999 0 comments

Today, great new technology comes out of companies. This is a far cry indeed from the days of James Watt, who after watching his mother’s steaming tea-kettle, went on to invent the steam engine. Is the day of the individual inventor dead? Is it that we no longer have the likes of a Louis Pasteur or a Michael Faraday in our midst? 

While great inventors and people with original ideas do exist, they exist within the confines of multi-million dollar laboratories set up by companies with multi-billion dollar bottom lines. And they sign non-disclosure or no-ownership or whatever agreement it is they have to sign, in order to work there. So, the invention belongs to the company, and it’s rarely that the inventor’s name comes out. 
While the individual inventor coming good can’t be completely ruled out, it is to the companies that we must look for most future innovations. Our list of ten is drawn based on the company’s past record, and what they’re currently doing. We haven’t included one-product companies, or companies who promise to reinvent computing but have nothing to show so far. Also, our listing here is in alphabetical order.

The company that’s always thought differently, Apple has a long list of firsts to its credit. It’s always married exciting technology with exciting design to create exciting products. Be it the original Macintosh, the iMac or the iBook now, Apple’s iconoclastic products have always had a fervent fan following that others could only envy from afar. Take for example, the brief period during which IBM was in the doldrums. No one really cried for Big Blue. But when Apple was on the downslide, user groups swung into action, trying every trick known–from forming mail lists to spreading available good news to buying the company’s shares–to help keep the company and its products afloat.

Today, in its second coming, Apple seems to have got its act together, and a slew of strikingly different products seem to be taking the market by storm. With technologies like FireWire and QuickTime, Apple has some safe bets for the future. Apple’s research division was known to be the hotbed of tech creativity, but had been whittled down to quite an extent during the bad days. It’ll take them some time to get back on stream. But don’t write them off. Not by any measure!

Compaq was off fairly early in the innovation sweepstakes. Starting off with the first bus multiplier for PCs and their early notebooks, Compaq has always taken original research seriously, unlike other box vendors. With technologically strong companies like Tandem and Digital under its fold, Compaq could emerge as a powerhouse in technological innovation. Interestingly, the focus within Compaq seems to be more at the upper end of computing and in telecommunications. That’s hardly surprising, considering the Tandem and Digital mergers.
An interesting offshoot for the desktop and lower-end servers would be the migration of technologies from high-end machines that were the forte of Tandem and Digital, to the
Proliants, Deskpros, Pressarios, and Armadas.

After GE and IBM, HP was perhaps the company with the most diversified interests. From printing and PCs to test and measurement to medical instrumentation and operating systems and software–it was a vast portfolio indeed. Like IBM, HP’s had many pioneering firsts to its credit, and many of its products, particularly its printers, have changed the course of computing.
But HP missed the Internet wave almost completely, and it’s quite some time since the last great revolution came out of HP’s labs. Today’s HP is a trimmer organization–the test and measurement part of the company’s been hived off as a fully-owned subsidiary, HP has a new CEO, and is furiously innovating for the Internet age with technologies like
eSpeak. Expect more innovations from the (almost) new HP, particularly in the areas of imaging, storage, and Internet.

You can’t talk about tech innovation without bumping into IBM at almost every turn. No other company perhaps has done more for computing than IBM. Big Blue’s interests span everything from the microchip to the supercomputer. Programming languages through operating systems, databases to chip design, IBM is a potent force in almost all areas of computing. More importantly, IBM is willing, and has the ability to invest heavily in emerging technologies, products, and original research.
Can IBM produce another earth-shaking idea like the PC? Maybe not, but then, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. Again, a big revolution may not be necessary, and as long as Big Blue continues to push heavily into the many areas it’s currently involved in, you can expect quite a few new tricks from this old dog.
Intel would have got into this list just on its strength in chips. But its claims get further buttressed by two technologies that have perhaps had a larger impact on computing than many of its chips–PCI and
USB. PCI made it considerably easier to add new cards to your computer, while USB did the same to peripherals like the printer and the scanner. Together, PCI and USB have taken computing to a different level of ease altogether.
Will the next similar breakthrough come from Intel? Possible. But then, FireWire from Apple is a strong contender. Given Intel’s strong interests in the computer industry–particularly in networking, the many millions it keeps pumping into developing products and technologies, and its track record in successfully developing and deploying them, one can expect many more innovations from this one. And that too, not just in chips.

Lucent comes with impressive credentials. Originally the research wing of AT&T, it was hived off as a separate company. Since then, Lucent has established a name for itself as a leader in networking and communications technology. Claiming to have produced eight Nobel laureates and to hold more than 24,000 active patents, Lucent is indeed a force to reckon with when it comes to tech innovation.
While efforts like Inferno (a potential rival to Java) are yet to catch public fancy, don’t write Lucent off. For one never knows what they’re cooking behind the scenes, particularly with all those in-house Nobel laureates.

A leading presence in almost every software segment. This is a company that can drive itself, and if necessary, even reorient and rebuild itself completely–as they did after missing the first Internet wave. Microsoft hasn’t always produced the best products, nor has it always been the first to make them. But the company that Bill Gates built has been able to make them more user-friendly and to market them better. That doesn’t mean that they haven’t produced good technology.
But, given the commanding position that the company is in, Microsoft can’t continue with the “package better and sell better” routine much longer. It has to come out with more original ideas and technologies. The good news is that the right moves have already been made. Microsoft Research, established in 1991, is perhaps the most significant of these. In short, you can expect some exciting stuff from Redmond.

Started by Jeff Hawkins and Dona Dubibsky, Palm Computing produced the first really useable hand-held computing device. The Palm Pilot then went on to create computing history. In the process, Palm Computing was acquired by 3Com, and when the company was going through troubled times, the Palm division was seen as the cash cow. Subsequently, the division was hived off as a separate fully-owned subsidiary, again called Palm Computing. The Palm VII is now out, and going by reports, is indeed a good successor to the Palm III.
Palm Computing is the leading light for the hand-held market, and one can expect a lot of exciting stuff from them. Only, the original founders of Palm Computing have since started a new hand-held device company called Handspring, and have licensed the PalmOS from 3Com/Palm Computing. Their first device, the Visor has already been announced. The question is–will Handspring steal a march over Palm Computing?

Sony’s contribution to computing would fit into a treatise, many volumes thick. The Trinitron, the various CD formats, storage technologies, the Play Station, the Mavica… the list is endless. For a company whose primary focus was entertainment, particularly television and music, Sony was smart enough to see the overlap, and played its cards well in the computer industry.
Sony has many new technologies and products cooking. The memory stick for example, could turn out to be a revolutionary concept in storage for non-computing devices. Similarly, newer concepts and products in storage, multimedia, display, and imaging could well come our way from Sony. One hot area for Sony is digital entertainment–an area the company’s always excelled in–and one which shows tremendous future scope.

Sun was one of the early pioneers of Unix and the Internet. For the relative newcomers, its claim to fame is Java. In between, there’s the Ultra
SPARC. In short, whether you’re young or old, you can’t ignore Sun’s contribution or its potential to change the future course of computing. Add to that Sun’s long drawn out rivalry with Microsoft, and you have all the more reason to watch this one.
Innovations from Sun could be in any or all of the areas in which it’s currently a front-runner–enterprise storage, operating systems, thin clients, processors, workstations, server software, and the Internet. Or it could spring yet another surprise like it did with Java. 

Others to watch
These are companies that didn’t make it to the top ten. Nevertheless, they have a great potential to influence the future.

Epson will always be remembered for the dot matrix printer. But there are many other innovations that they can claim credit to, including in inkjet printing. Given its strong focus on imaging, we can expect Epson to have a trick or two up its sleeve, at least in that department.

Industrial Light and Magic gives form to the dreams of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and the like. In the process of creating those heart-stopping sequences on the silver screen, they’ve continuously innovated with computers and techniques that blur the line between illusion and reality. Watch this one for many more of those realistic illusions.

A leading player in the cellphone market, Nokia is one of the leaders in the effort to bring the Internet and even the computer to the
cellphone. If the future’s going to be a connected one, then Nokia’s sure to figure prominently. 

Macromedia was the leader in multimedia content production with products like Director and Action. With the advent of the Internet, it smartly positioned itself for Internet content development, with products like Flash. Expect more in content development from this one.

Home of the other software millionaire–Larry Ellison–Oracle has a good hold on the database market. It can be expected to continue innovating there. If nothing else, Oracle’s dislike of Microsoft will ensure that they continue to try out ideas like the network computer. And even if one of these succeeds, Oracle’s place in the tech future will be secure.

Red Hat – If there’s one company that represents the success of Linux today, it’s definitely Red Hat. While it’s difficult to link the future of this Open Source operating system to any one company, today, Red Hat is the most visible of Linux vendors and will be watched closely for more evidence of Linux’s success.

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