What do Xerox, IBM, Datapoint, Digital Equipment Company, Control Data Corporation, Atari, Commodore, Honeywell’s computer division, and ITT have in common?

They were the giants of the nascent IT industrial sector of the 1980s. They were household words.

Were.

What happened to them? Let’s look at Xerox:

“In 1979, Xerox threw open its doors to anyone in the industry and press, who might be interested in seeing their developments. Several Apple Computer employees, including Steve Jobs, visited Xerox PARC that day. Jobs and the others saw the commercial potential of the WIMP (Window, Icon, Menu, and Pointing device) system and redirected development of the Apple Lisa to incorporate these technologies. Jobs is quoted as saying ‘They just had no idea what they had.’ In 1980, Jobs invited several key PARC researchers to join his company so that they could fully develop and implement their ideas. Bill Gates, who had also been present, had similar thoughts.” (Xerox. In Wikipedia. Retrieved May 23, 2011.)

Similar market missteps could easily await the giants of the today’s U.S. aerospace industry if innovation, risk-taking, and flexibility take a back seat to the “certainties” of the pre-competitive era.

Few of us have the foresight of a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates. Of course, hindsight could have just as easily proven them wrong, had the impenetrably complex path to today’s technology economy been even slightly different in its timing and delivery of talent and resources.

We at 8th Continent claim no prescient powers. But we are paying attention to developments and trends within that global space economy that to some degree are framing the next chapters in its biography. Perhaps the following will eventually be confirmed as tantalizing glimpses of the future:

What Would You Do?

Imagine that you lead a country with 1.4 billion inhabitants. Let’s call it China. You must create 450 million new jobs by 2030 just to maintain your country’s current growth rate (and avoid domestic instability). The location and development of new sources of niobium, tellurium, germanium, platinum, rare earths and other high-tech industry materials will determine the fate of global economic security in the 21st Century. Right now, 80-100% of the world’s supply of these materials comes from your country.

As the leaders of a country in competition with your country in the global technology marketplace, we would consider ourselves quite lucky if you merely raised the price of these minerals five- or ten-fold. But we expect you will choose to cut off the supply altogether.

How quickly next-level remote sensing technologies are developed and deployed to locate new sources of these materials will be absolutely critical to how other industrialized countries will fare if current-source supplies become more expensive, or even vanish.

Who Stands To Loose the Most?

Casualty losses from hurricanes, months-long droughts, and 2010-style “snowicanes” could be reduced if major reinsurers aggressively integrated location-based global climate research into their actuarial algorithms. Resultant savings from reduced payouts could both fund the research and lower premiums.

The New Kid on the Block: Gravity

On-orbit measurement of Earth’s gravity field fluctuations quantifies energy and mass exchange dynamics within the planet’s complex climate ecosystem. Integration of this data with multispectral and location-based information will lead to increasingly sophisticated geospatial tools for science, defense, commerce, and everyday life.

Leveling the Playing Field

It is no oversimplification that the word “satellite” in the description of a technology’s heritage or application can greatly impede, and perhaps prevent, the entry of American aerospace innovation into the international marketplace. Ongoing attempts to reexamine what many believe to be the long-obsolete listing of satellites and related systems within the U.S. Munitions List are making slow, but steady, progress within Congressional hearings.

While “the bad guys” will never hesitate to use our creativity against us, there are many home-grown aerospace technologies that are being withheld from the international marketplace by obsolete Cold War era regulations — unnecessarily so because they are readily available from independently derived foreign sources. For these, U.S. export law is needlessly preventing American industry from competing in commercially-critical global technology markets.

When this reexamination of federal aerospace technology export restrictions restores balance between America’s national defense and national economic priorities, will you be ready?

The Future Starts Now

It bears repeating (from Part 2 of this series): “Aerospace and aerospace-derived technology make important contributions to many global industries including, among others, agriculture, art, banking & finance, biotechnology, capital markets, chemicals, cleantech, computers & information technology, consumer goods & retailing, education, electronics, energy & power (both traditional and renewable), entertainment, environment, government, human resources development, infrastructure, insurance and risk management, logistics, manufacturing, media, nanotechnology, pharmaceuticals, resource management, sports, telecommunications, and tourism.”

Looking back from a point many years in the future, one will be able to see the various technological routes that were taken – some successfully, some not. The technology will be what it will be; and what that is will be determined not only by the march of technological advances, but also by its ability to survive, develop, and transform itself into productive wealth within the global marketplace.

In Part 6: Stop the Blame Game

 

One Response to U.S. Space Industry at the Crossroads; Part 5: Know What You Have

  1. Vladislaw says:

    Great series of articles. You mentioned Commodore, often refered to as the biggest mom and pop corporation on the New York Stock Exchange.

    They had bought the Amiga computer, it was a graphics icon based point and click mouse driven computer. This is an example of not knowing what they had.

    The commodore 64 was selling like hot cakes and they had super margins so they shelved the Amiga and planned on releasing it once the 64 started hitting the saturation point.

    In the meantime, Apple mackintosh was released and by the time Commodore realized it and then tried to release the Amiga it was already to late. IBM just announced they were going to enter the PC market and immediately captured 39% of the market, just on the announcement they were going to enter the market, they didn’t even have a computer or an operating system.

    Between Apple and IBM it left no room for the Amiga and Commodore ended up with nothing.

    A clear case of not knowing what you had, they could have beat Apple to the market by years.

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