Ray Rothrock

Great Technology Adoption Waves

In Technology on January 16, 2011 at 10:34 am

Friday, January 14, Senator Hatch of Utah conducted a technology roundtable at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake.  It was a fine affair, well attended by many local Utah entrepreneurs, university people, and others.   The panel was first rate and included Keith Larson of Intel, Shane Robison of HP, Dan’l Lewin of Microsoft, Kate Mitchell of Scale Venture Partners, and me.  Senator Hatch opened by asking each of us about where the trends are in technology these days.  I was last, so I got to hear everyone else’s trends.  Theirs were interesting.  I get this question a lot.  So, I opened with this.

I have spent over two decades as a venture capitalist.  And in that time I have seen four occasions when people adopted technology so fast that we outpaced our ability to manage it and control it, perhaps even comprehend it, and this opened an investment door wide open.  Fortunately, I was in my current position for three of those.

The first great adoption wave was the local area network or the LAN.  In the l980s when PCs took hold on desktops they were still largely an individual resource.  People connected printers to them but that was about it.  Pretty basic stuff.  Then along came 3COM with a product called a network.  Novell simultaneous made the software, Netware, that put it all together and suddenly a couple of PCs were sharing a printer, and sharing files with themselves.  This was miraculous.  Modems were invented too.  But these were simply a PC could talking to a mainframe somewhere, perhaps run by AOL – but it was a point-to-point connection.  While it opened up a big world, it was not networking as we know it today.  This trend proliferated quickly inside corporations.  The advances were obvious because everyone didn’t need their own printer and suddenly there was leverage on the network – shared printing.  Netware was the key as it provided management and control on these new things called LANs.

The second great adoption wave was wide area networks or WAN.  Many technologies were proposed for connecting LANs to each other.  All sorts of technology was invented, bridges, routers, and whole new protocols for moving the information around.  Everyone was trying to conquer and control it.  Suddenly, computers on LANs could talk to other LANS at other corporations perhaps, and computers anywhere and everywhere, could suddenly communicate to each other.  This explosion of connecting many points to many points lead to the need for many products because people could not learn fast enough how to do it.  Besides it was terribly complex for ordinary people.   A poster child company during that time was Tivoli.  At Tivoli some smart engineers were charged with managing the WAN for IBM.  They borrowed utilities that were common in the mainframe world and applied them to networks.  Bingo, it worked, and again, technology was deployed to manage the exploding connectivity brought to us by WANS.

Then Tim Berners-Lee invented HTML and the NCSA at University of Illinois invented Mosaic.  These were game changers; a technological tectonic event you might say.  Overnight, data was categorized and linked.  No longer did you need all the gobblety goop of network-nerdom to get information.  This was the third great adaptation wave.  As the world’s Internet went from a few hundred connections to a few million, it became increasing clear that security and network protection was essential.  In the mid 1990s there were many companies selling firewalls that essentially locked the doors of the corporations LAN, or at least controlled the access.  But this wasn’t good enough.  Soon, data was moving between corporations on VPNs.  Then intruders could break through the door and snoop on corporate networks; so intrusion detection was invented.  This is still going on, and on, and on, and on.  Encrypted mail, data leak protection, anti-virus all came about as a result of this explosion of connectivity of the world’s computers.   I had a field day with this wave – Check Point Software, Haystack Labs, Whole Security, IMLogix, Vontu, PGP were all our investments, and many of them mine.

Today, there are scores of technologies deployed in hundreds of products to basically protect the network, manage who uses it, and what moves on it.  This is a complex and truly impossible problem for any human or team of humans to actually do well.  In 2004 I started a company, Red Seal.  Red Seal’s goal was to build a product that could tell you the state of readiness of protection of a complete network.  It was to tell you if everything was working properly and where everything was.  It was to tell you if any device on the network was misconfigured.  Mostly though, with all this information, it could tell you the implications of it – your state of readiness from a security and protection point of view.   Today, after a couple of hundred man-years of development, that company is shipping product doing all these things and more.

Why did I do this?  Because even in the early 2000s it was very clear that even simple firewall management was outpacing our ability to train people.  Even the best-trained firewall managers would make common human mistakes that left LANs and WANs vulnerable.

So, what is the fourth great adoption wave?  Social media.  Five hundred million people are connected directly sharing their personal data.  These people are of all ages, all walks of life, all interest, and all pretty naïve about technology.  Controlling that information, or knowing what’s going on with your information is important to you (or it should be).  For example, already companies are producing products to assist parents in monitoring whom their kids Facebook or exchange email.  One such company is SocialShield that my partner Brian Ascher did.  There are products that help you take down that unflattering picture of yourself that someone else posted.  And there are products to help you defend your reputation, however it is attacked.  Your personal information coupled with widely available government databases allows the bad guys to do some pretty awful stuff on a personal level.  We will never manage it all, but just giving a few tools to you changes the game in a powerful way.  Again, technology products coming to the rescue since people can really manage it all.

I would submit that once again, the adoption of social media by people enabled by computing and communications technology — is out stripping our ability to manage, control or in this case understand it.  So, for that, Facebook, I thank you for bringing to me yet another investment opportunity.

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