On hearing this week that Barnes & Noble stock traded up on 140% growth for its e-book reader, the Nook, I had only one thought: more gadgets, please.
If a book retailer can develop a device that sells like hotcakes, the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and Seattle surely can too. The fact that Barnes & Noble has succeeded where many in the Valley have never even tried is like getting dunked on at the playground by your 54-year-old uncle.
It’s hard to believe that during the Steve Jobs interregnum, when Silicon Valley first turned away from actual silicon to fund dot-com sensations like Netscape, Amazon and Google, we barely noticed that a former 19th- century Finnish pulp mill was dominating the market for mobile phones.
The only new company to challenge Nokia’s hegemony was Canada’s Research in Motion, which was so far from the world of Silicon Valley that it may as well have delivered its BlackBerries by dogsled. The devices came to be known as CrackBerries for their owners’ slavish devotion, yet no one here thought of developing an alternative until Apple’s iPhone.
Even now, consumers’ appetite for more gadgets is insatiable. Sure, the Kindle looks like it was stolen from a 1964 Epcot Center exhibition. And we all thought its competition with the iPad should have ended like an Aeschylus play, foreordained and tragic. But two years on, both are still on my nightstand. The Kindle’s sales have out-stripped Amazon’s wildest expectations.
So why aren’t there are any gadget startups? For all the tributes to Steve Jobs from online entrepreneurs, you’d think more of them would embrace his signal approach to technology, dominating a market by making both hardware and software. But there has hardly been an explosion of device-driven startups.
In fact, I can think of just one. It is Square, which makes the gizmo shop-keepers attach to their iPhones for running credit cards. Half the reason Square is so exciting is that you can hold its little swiper in your hand. Has any company ever reached a $1-billion valuation faster?
The reason that entrepreneurs don’t follow Square’s lead is mostly because so many are coding on a couch, not soldering stuff in the garage. In an era when anyone can learn PHP in a six-week self-taught course, this trend will continue.
Eventually, we may completely forget how to make hardware. In out-sourcing manufacturing to China and elsewhere, we not only forsake all the working-class jobs that come with making millions of gadgets, but also the industrial craftsmanship to make the first one.
As Redfin has learned about real estate, innovation is occasionally a bolt from the blue but is more often the sum of a thousand little improvements gathered from doing something firsthand, over and over again. Aristotle would say that we are what we repeatedly do, but it’s also true that our art is what we repeatedly do.
To build a better mousetrap, we need engineers to roam the factory floor, thinking about how to make hardware better. That Amazon’s hardware design efforts are based in Seattle gives us a chance to get in this game, building new skills and spinning off new startups.
It also speaks to our earliest impulses as entrepreneurs. Growing up, my favorite restaurant was Wendy’s, which used to line its tables with old-fashioned newspaper ads touting bizarre contraptions that picked your nose or clipped your toenails, sometimes all at once. Munching my burger, I wondered why the world stopped trying to make these wonderful devices. I still do.