Envy as a motivator, or how to know the end is near

For a long time, I’ve been saying there is no “bubble” with the collective innovations lumped together in a giant strange heap called Web 2.0. The vast majority of startups are little more than features, or means that add new functionality to old features. Or clever ways to tie-together disparate parts of the web, or to help people find that which is already here — other people, content that’s not text, free stuff. After a decade of fooling around with Flash and XML and Asynchronous JavaScript, clever programmers have finally found some uses of the web that ordinary users can intuitively understand and find simple to use.

There is that moment where real innovation happens. Where the great stuff occurs. That spark usually ignites immediately after the point at which someone says, “Gee, look what happens when you take this from over there and do this over here with it.”

For a business to succeed, into the mix must come those who understand how to connect that gee-whiz result with an unmet need and how then to generate profit from that connection. But with really great stuff, that’s the easy part. It’s sailing with wind at your back. It’s skiing downhill on a well-groomed slope. In fact, it is so easy, others look and say, “Man, that is easy, I think I’ll do it too.”

Unfortunately, those people rarely start out at the same place as the true innovators, the Gee, look what happens when you take this from over there and do this over here with it.” They start at the “envy” place. The me-too spot. The “I can do it the same way, but with rounded fonts” place.

I believe it is good for technologists to be following their entrepreneur urges. I think it is great that VCs flush with rich-people’s money will throw that money at early, unproven concepts as they know the odds and risks. But I think it will be tragic if public financial markets follow in this madness. As long as widows and orphans and people and pension funds and individuals who invest with IRAs will stay away from this marketplace, only fools with lots of money will crash and burn — and the “bust” will not be sad for the innocent.

Great innovations are happening all around us. Really business-altering ideas. But I doubt many of them will be led by someone who says to a New York Times reporter something like, “There’s still time for me to be a billionaire before I turn 40.”

Update: Bonus link: Rich Karlgaard (Forbes.com): “But if Web 2.0 is inflating to bubble status…it’s isolated. Valuations for older tech companies, such as Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle, are not high.

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