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business. Things like self-driving cars, wearable displays, airborne wind turbines, and space elevators might eventually lead to big shifts in the economy, but it’s hard to see how they will affect Google’s operations anytime soon.
The point is, the characters in our story have grown well past the point where most companies are able to stay innovative. Apple is 37 years old and has 50,000 employees, and its last major innovation, the iPad, came out in 2010. Google is 15 years old and has 39,000 employees (54,000 if you count Motorola), and its last major innovation—AdWords—was way back in 2003. All of the big changes at Google since then have been the result of acquisitions (e.g., Android). Facebook is 9 years old and has north of 4,600 employees, and its last big innovation push, the Facebook Platform, came in 2007. It’s safe to say that if these companies were going to introduce anything else that’s truly innovative, they would have done it already.
Just to reduce the risk of misunderstanding, let me be clear about what I’m not saying.
I’m not saying that Google, Apple, or Facebook will disappear anytime soon. I’m sure they’ll all be around for a long time—decades, probably—and that they’ll continue to play big roles in the lives of technology consumers, not to mention the lives of entrepreneurs and investors in Silicon Valley (where they’ve become the prime M&A engines providing exits for smaller startups). They will collect, process, and store a growing portion of our personal data, and they’ll continue to flesh out the universe of info-gadgets until we’ve got devices of every size and form factor—from big HDTV screens to wristwatches, and from pocket touchscreens to wireless contact lenses.
I’m also not making a Francis Fukuyama-style, end-of-history argument. There is plenty of room left for innovation in computing, even if (as many are now predicting) Moore’s Law sputters out after another generation or two of advances in chip design. There is huge, unrealized promise in areas like artificial intelligence, simulation and modeling, immersive digital entertainment, frictionless commerce between makers and entrepreneurs around the world, and the automation of things humans aren’t very good at, like driving or microsurgery.
I’m just saying that the next few paradigm shifts in information technology probably won’t be spearheaded by the same players who brought us the last few. The tech media’s obsession with Apple, Google, and Facebook is understandable—-they provide plenty of drama and suspense, and they’re all masters at ginning up publicity around their latest incremental product releases—but it’s ultimately shortsighted.
Investors on Wall Street seem to agree with me, at least when it comes to Apple and Facebook. Apple’s stock peaked around $700 in September 2012. Facebook never lived up to expectations; its share price is down 38 percent since its May 2012 IPO. Google has managed to do better—its stock price is currently hovering around its all-time high of more than $900, which reflects its position as the strongest of the triumvirate (after all, it’s still got an unrivaled position in the search, advertising, and mobile operating system markets).
Here’s one big implication: It’s time for the real exodus at Google, Apple, and Facebook to begin. Silicon Valley thrives on the recycling of talent—it’s been that way ever since the “traitorous eight” left Shockley Semiconductor to start Fairchild in 1957. The hundreds of Facebook employees who became millionaires after the company went public aren’t doing themselves or their company any favors by sticking around. They should go out and start new companies to find the next paradigm right now, while most of their peers are preoccupied with mop-up work. The rewards, for them and for consumers, could be fabulous.
[Update, 6/20/13: Hundreds of readers have shared their reactions to this column via Slashdot, Reddit, Hacker News, and Xconomy’s own comment section, below. A few readers thought I hit the mark; most seem to think I’m an idiot. In any case, I’ve put some of the most interesting comments together into this handy summary.]
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