Nobody Wanted to Buy Tony Fadell’s Early Inventions

(p. C7) Tony Fadell began his Silicon Valley career in 1991 at General Magic, which he calls “the most influential startup nobody has ever heard of.” He sketches his early persona as the all-too-typical engineering nerd dutifully donning an interview suit only to be told to ditch the jacket and tie before the meeting begins. He started at the bottom, building tools to check the work of others, many of whom just happened to be established legends from the original Apple Macintosh team.

General Magic failed at its ambitious goal: to create demand for its ingenious hand-held computer at a time when most people didn’t know they needed a computer at all. In other words, though the company had a great product, the product didn’t solve a pressing problem for consumers. Mr. Fadell offers candid reasons why such a smart group of people could have overlooked this basic market reality. Relaying the “gut punch of our failure,” he describes what it’s like “when you think you know everything (p. C8) then suddenly realize you have no idea what you’re doing.”

Four years later, Mr. Fadell landed as chief technology officer at Philips, the 300,000-employee Dutch electronics company, where he had a big title, a new team, a budget and a mission: The company was going to make a hand-held computer for now-seasoned desktop users who were beginning to see the need for a mobile device. Using Microsoft Windows CE as the operating system, it launched the Philips Velo in 1997. This was a $599.99 “personal digital assistant”—keyboard, email, docs, calendar, the works—in a friendly 14-ounce package. All the pieces were there, the author writes, except “a real sales and retail partnership.” No one—not Best Buy, not Circuit City, not Philips itself—knew how to sell the product, or whom to sell it to. So here was another “lesson learned via gut punch”: There is a lot more to a successful product than a good gadget, even an excellent one.

. . .

He uses his problem-solution-failure style to share stories about how he built the Nest thermostat and the Nest Labs company—from fundraising, building a retail channel and navigating patent litigation to marketing, packaging and customer support.

The best moments in this section, and perhaps the most difficult for Mr. Fadell to write, are about the acquisition of Nest by Google. He pulls no punches in describing what an outsider might call a botched venture integration. Google paid $3.2 billion for Nest in 2014 but within two years began to consider selling. “In utter frustration,” Mr. Fadell walked away. The lessons in these pages are as much for big companies acquiring startups as they are for the startups being acquired.

For the full review, see:

Steven Sinofsky. “Running The Tortuous ‘Idea Maze’.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, June 18, 2022): C7-C8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 17, 2022, and has the title “‘Build’ Review: Failure Is the Mother of Invention.”)

The book under review is:

Fadell, Tony. Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making. New York: Harper Business, 2022.

The “Intellect” and “Bravado” Behind the Success of Thiel, Musk, and the “PayPal Mafia”

(p. C7) Next week marks the 20th anniversary of PayPal becoming a publicly traded company. The IPO valued the online payments processor at nearly $1 billion—an eye-opening sum at the time. Back in the day, technology firms marked such occasions with glitzy celebrations. PayPal took a different path. Its youthful employees gathered in the parking lot of their Palo Alto, Calif., office building, where the company’s enigmatic chief executive, Peter Thiel, performed a keg stand and then played 10 simultaneous games of speed chess, winning nine of them.

Jimmy Soni tells that story and many others in “The Founders,” a gripping account of PayPal’s origins and a vivid portrait of the geeks and contrarians who made its meteoric rise possible. His richly reported narrative includes corporate intrigue, workplace hijinks, breakthrough innovation and first-class nerdiness.

. . .

Julie Anderson, one of’s early employees, dropped the company’s California-based telephone customer-service provider and relaunched the service in Nebraska. Why there? Because many of her relatives lived there.

. . .

Confirming a cliché, staffers do spend all night at the office—sometimes sleeping under their desks, though not always. “There’s this massive value that you harness when you’re doing an all-nighter,” says Mr. Levchin, “when you’ve gone for presumably seven or eight hours of work, and you’re really getting up to a point when something’s about to be born—and then you go for eight more hours! And instead of stopping to go to sleep and letting these ideas dissipate, you actually focus on the findings you’ve made in the last few hours, and you just go crazy and do some more of that.”

. . .

Why did PayPal thrive when others—eMoneyMail, PayPlace, c2it—failed? One key was limiting the losses from fraud. If the company had taken a traditional approach, observes a member of the fraud-analytics team, it “would have hired people who had been building logistic regression models for banks for twenty years but never innovated.” Instead it turned to young, open-minded engineers who devised unorthodox methods.

. . .

. . . “The Founders” makes crystal-clear that PayPal’s human capital—a potent cocktail of intellect, bravado and competitiveness, complemented by the occasional keg stand—laid the foundation for success.

For the full review, see:

Matthew Rees. “Making the Future Click.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 11, 2022, and has the title “‘The Founders’ Review: Making the Future Click.”)

The book under review is:

Soni, Jimmy. The Founders: The Story of PayPal and the Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Silicon Valley. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022.

Is Apple’s Lack of New Breakthroughs Due to Lack of Opportunity or Lack of Steve Jobs?

(p. 15) Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder and animating spirit, died in 2011, leaving the firm in the hands of Jony Ive, the British-born designer-savant, and Tim Cook, a child of Alabama who’d become a master of supply chains and production costs. “After Steve,” by the New York Times reporter Tripp Mickle, covers Ive’s and Cook’s careers, and how they and the company changed after they took over.

. . .

In the epilogue, Mickle drops his reporter’s detachment to apportion responsibility for the firm’s failure to launch another transformative product. Cook is blamed for being aloof and unknowable, a bad partner for Ive, “an artist who wanted to bring empathy to every product.” Ive is also dinged for taking on “responsibility for software design and the management burdens that he soon came to disdain.” By the end, the sense that the two missed a chance to create a worthy successor to the iPhone is palpable.

It’s also hooey, and the best evidence for that is the previous 400 pages. It’s true that after Jobs died, Apple didn’t produce another device as important as the iPhone, but Apple didn’t produce another device that important before he died either. It’s also true that Cook did not play the role of C.E.O. as Jobs had, but no one ever thought he could, including Jobs, who on his deathbed advised Cook never to ask what Steve would do: “Just do what’s right.”

Ive and Cook wanted another iPhone, but, as Mickle’s exhaustive reporting makes clear, there was not another such device to be made. Self-driving cars were too hard, health devices too regulated, television protected in ways music had not been, and even the earbuds and watch, devices they actually shipped, were peripheral, technically and conceptually, to Apple’s greatest product.

Epilogue aside, the book is an amazingly detailed portrait of the permanent tension between strategy and luck: Companies make their own history, but they do not make it as they please. What happened after Steve was that Cook’s greatest opportunities were in Apple’s future, Ive’s in its past.

For the full review, see:

Clay Shirky. “The Watchmen.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, May 29, 2022): 15.

(Note: ellipsis added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated May 2, 2022, and has the title “Apple Inc., ‘After Steve’.”)

The book under review is:

Mickle, Tripp. After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul. New York: William Morrow, 2022.

Well-Financed Fusion Startup Claims to Be a Year Away From Energy Break-Even Point

(p. B4) Zap Energy, a fusion energy start-up working on a low-cost path to producing electricity commercially, said last week that it had taken an important step toward testing a system its researchers believe will eventually produce more electricity than it consumes.

. . .

While many competing efforts use powerful magnets or bursts of laser light to compress a plasma in order to initiate a fusion reaction, Zap is pursuing an approach pioneered by physicists at the University of Washington and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

It relies on a shaped plasma gas — an energized cloud of particles that is often described as a fourth state of matter — that is compressed by a magnetic field generated by an electrical current as it flows through a two-meter vacuum tube. The technique is known as “sheared flow Z-pinch.”

. . .

Advances in stabilizing the magnetic field that is generated by the flowing plasma made by physicists at the University of Washington led the group to establish Zap Energy in 2017. The company has raised more than $200 million, including a series of investments from Chevron.

Recent technical advances in fusion fuels and in advanced magnets have led to a sharp increase in private investment, according to the Fusion Industry Association. There are 35 fusion companies globally, and private funding has risen above $4 billion, including from well-known technology investors like Sam Altman, Jeff Bezos, John Doerr, Bill Gates and Chris Sacca. Mr. Gates and Mr. Sacca invested in Zap’s most recent funding round.

. . .

The Zap Energy physicists and executives said in interviews last week that they believed they were within a year of proving that their approach was capable of reaching the long-sought-after energy break-even point.

If they do, they will have succeeded where an array of research efforts — going back to the middle of the last century — have failed.

The Zap Energy physicists said they had made the case for the “scaling” power of their approach to produce a steep increase in neutrons in a series of peer-reviewed technical papers that documented computer-generated simulations they would soon begin to test.

For the full story, see:

John Markoff. “A Seattle Start-Up Claims a Big Step For Fusion Energy.” The New York Times (Thursday, June 23, 2022): B4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 22, 2022, and has the title “A Big Step Toward Fusion Energy Is Hailed by a Seattle Start-Up.”)

Slices of Swiss Cheese to Protect Against Harm

(p. C1) In fact, the “Swiss cheese model” is a classic way to conceptualize dealing with a hazard that involves a mixture of human, technological and natural elements. The British psychologist James Reason introduced the model more than three decades ago to discuss failures in complex systems such as nuclear power, commercial aviation and medical care. As Prof. Reason argued, “In an ideal world each defensive layer would be intact. In reality, however, they are more like slices of Swiss cheese, having many holes. . .. The presence of holes in any one ‘slice’ does not normally cause a bad outcome. Usually, this can happen only when the holes in many layers . . . line up…bringing hazards into damaging contact with victims.”

This is also an invaluable way to think about the response to Covid-19. Last month, a graphic illustrating the model, sketched by the Australian virologist Ian MacKay, became an online sensation among (p. C2) Covid-19 watchers. It showed particles of the SARS-CoV-2 virus passing through layers of Swiss cheese, shrinking in numbers as they negotiated the holes and finally being stopped at the end.

For the full commentary, see:

Nicholas Christakis. “The Swiss Cheese Model For Combating Covid-19.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, November 14, 2020): C1-C2.

(Note: ellipses in original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date November 13, 2020, and has the title “How the Swiss Cheese Model Can Help Us Beat Covid-19.”)

“Seems Ethernet Does Not Work in Theory, Only in Practice”

(p. A21) David Boggs, an electrical engineer and computer scientist who helped create Ethernet, the computer networking technology that connects PCs to printers, other devices and the internet in offices and homes, died on Feb. 19 [2022] in Palo Alto, Calif.

. . .

In the spring of 1973, just after enrolling as a graduate student at Stanford University, Mr. Boggs began an internship at Xerox PARC, a Silicon Valley research lab that was developing a new kind of personal computer. One afternoon, in the basement of the lab, he noticed another researcher tinkering with a long strand of cable.

The researcher, another new hire named Bob Metcalfe, was exploring ways of sending information to and from the lab’s new computer, the Alto. Mr. Metcalfe was trying to send electrical pulses down the cable, and he was struggling to make it work. So Mr. Boggs offered to help.

Over the next two years, they designed the first version of Ethernet.

“He was the perfect partner for me,” Mr. Metcalfe said in an interview. “I was more of a concept artist, and he was a build-the-hardware-in-the-back-room engineer.”

. . .

Before becoming the dominant networking protocol, Ethernet was challenged by several other technologies. In the early 1980s, Mr. Metcalfe said, when Mr. Boggs took the stage at a California computing conference, at the San Jose Convention Center, to discuss the future of networking, a rival technologist questioned the mathematical theory behind Ethernet, telling Mr. Boggs that it would never work with large numbers of machines.

His response was unequivocal. “Seems Ethernet does not work in theory,” he said, “only in practice.”

For the full obituary, see:

Cade Metz. “David Boggs, Co-Inventor of Ethernet, Dies at 71.” The New York Times (Tuesday, March 1, 2022): A21.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Feb. 28, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

New York Times Columnist Finds that Trump’s “Truth Social” Platform Is “Less Restrictive than Twitter”

(p. B1) Truth Social, Mr. Trump has said, would “stand up to the tyranny of Big Tech.”

The app’s surge in popularity this week caught the attention of Mr. Musk, a self-proclaimed free speech absolutist. In several tweets, the billionaire noted that Truth Social was “beating Twitter & TikTok on the Apple Store” and blamed Twitter’s rules on (p. B6) speech for birthing the alternative apps.

. . .

To test the app’s claims about political ideology, I published a Truth with a New York Times Opinion article that was critical of the Republican Party, and other posts with news articles about the Jan. 6 riot and how Truth Social’s prospects could be hurt by Mr. Musk’s takeover of Twitter. None of the posts were flagged as problematic. That suggested the app wasn’t discriminating based on politics, just as it had said it wouldn’t.

I also found some accounts that were not allowed to post on Twitter — like The Babylon Bee, the right-wing satire site that was suspended for misgendering a transgender Biden administration official — posting regularly on Truth Social. It was another sign that the app was less restrictive than Twitter.

For the full commentary, see:

Brian X. Chen. “Upgrade Frees Trump App, But Glitches Hold It Back.” The New York Times (Thursday, April 28, 2022): B1 & B6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 27, 2022, and has the title “Truth Social Review: Trump’s Uncensored Social App Is Incomplete.”)

Technology Allows College Students to Stay Attached to Friends and Family at Home

(p. C5) I sometimes forget that my daughter has left for college. She Facetimes me on her way from the library to the gym. I see a small portion of her head, blue sky behind her, headphones dangling from an ear, part of a cup of coffee. She texts me updates on her failing quest to find the right edition of “The Waste Land” for one of her classes. I am still part of the dailiness of her life in a way that I am quite sure my mother was not in mine when I left for college in the last century.

My daughter also stays in close contact with her friends from home via group texts, Snapchat, TikTok, private Instagram stories. They are warm, vivid presences in her life that would likely have faded in a different technological moment.

While I remember high-school friends drifting, high-school boyfriends vanishing by winter break, many people she knows have romantic interests from home that endure. After all, their relationships with their new friends are also, to some degree, on the phone. With smartphones, physical presence becomes less important; it is no longer necessary to be with someone to communicate incessantly with them. The people in front of you comprise only one of many social situations you have access to.

. . .

Some part of me wonders if there aren’t benefits to this new way of being, along with the obvious downsides. My daughter is attached to her college friends and her friends from home. She is almost living in two places simultaneously; she is inhabiting more than one possible world.

For the full commentary, see:

Katie Roiphe. “Even at College, Our Children Are Home.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, January 29, 2022): C5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the same date as the print version, and has the same title as the print version.)

Technology Behind the Telephone Was Originally Intended to Aid Transcribing Telegraph Messages

(p. C5) Thomas Alva Edison’s self-proclaimed greatest invention, the phonograph, won him overnight fame.  . . .

In February 1877, the same month that saw Edison turn 30 and show his first streaks of silver hair, he and his fellow inventor Charles Batchelor began a new series of experiments on what they called, variously, the “telephonic telegraph,” the “speaking telegraph” and the “talking telephone.” This confusion of names would last as long as Americans took to adjust to the startling notion that an electrically transmitted message did not necessarily have to be transcribed.

It was beyond even Alexander Graham Bell’s imagination that people might one day use the telephone just to chat. As far as Edison was concerned, Bell’s invention was a device to speed up the process of turning words into pulsations of current, then turning the pulsations back into words at the other end—words intended to be heard only by a receiving operator, who would then (as Edison had done thousands of times as a youth) copy out the message for delivery. Hence the telephone really was, for all its crackly noise, telegraphic in function.

. . .

“Kruesi—make this,” Edison recalled saying to John Kruesi, his Swiss-born master machinist, giving him a drawing of a mounted, foil-wrapped cylinder, with a handle on one side to turn it, and a vibrant mouthpiece projecting a stylus that just touched the surface of the wrap. “I told him I was going to record talking, and then have the machine talk back,” Edison wrote. “He thought it absurd. However, it was finished, the foil was put on; I then shouted Mary had a little lamb, etc. I adjusted the reproducer, and the machine reproduced it perfectly….I never was so taken aback in my life.”

What awed Edison beyond any other thought was that the moment did not have to be a moment; it could be a century, if the foil and the stylus were preserved; and then in 1977, if some unborn person turned this same handle, the voice of a man long dead would speak to him. No wonder that Kruesi, listening with incredulity to the thing he had made talking with Edison’s voice, exclaimed, “Mein Gott im Himmel!” (My God in heaven).

All those who heard the miraculous machine in the ensuing months, from the president of the U.S. on down, reacted with equal disbelief. Since the dawn of humanity, religions had asserted that the human soul would live on after the body rotted away. The human voice was a thing almost as insubstantial as the soul, but it was a product of the body and therefore must die too—in fact, did die, evaporating like breath the moment each word, each phoneme was sounded. Even the notes of inanimate things—the tree falling in the wood, thunder rumbling, ice cracking—sounded once only, except if they were duplicated in echoes that themselves rapidly faded.

But here now were echoes made hard, resounding as often as anyone wanted to hear them again.

For the full essay, see:

Edmund Morris. “The Making of Thomas Edison’s Miraculous Machine.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, October 19, 2019): C5.

(Note: ellipses at the end or in between paragraphs, added; ellipsis internal to a paragraph, in original.)

(Note: the online version of the essay has the date October 17, 2019, and has the same title as the print version.)

The essay quoted above is adapted from Morris’s book:

Morris, Edmund. Edison. New York: Random House, 2019.

Technological Progress Helped Create Cosmopolitan Europe

(p. C7) Cultural history is frequently written as if circumscribed by national borders, with each country laying claim to a discrete social and intellectual way of life. Dismayed at this tendency, Orlando Figes, a noted historian of Russia, found himself wondering whether the forces of transnational integration weren’t at least as decisive as those that would drive cultures apart. In his new study “The Europeans” he aims “to approach Europe as a space of cultural transfers, translations and exchanges crossing national boundaries, out of which a ‘European culture’—an international synthesis of artistic forms, ideas and styles—would come into existence and distinguish Europe from the broader world.

. . .

His monumental work is the product of thorough and extensive research, largely in archival sources and in several languages. The author has a remarkable capacity to keep a huge quantity of factual material present in mind, and to bind it moreover into a coherent story. Woven through the biographical narrative is a detailed account of the transformations in technology, mores and law that created the new cosmopolitanism.

Chief among these was the rapid construction of railways, such that in France alone, for example, well more than 8,000 miles of track were laid down between 1850 and 1870. Railway travel gave people the time and comfort to read newspapers and fiction, which they could procure in the dozens of station bookstalls set up by merchants like W.H. Smith. “The train,” Mr. Figes notes, “was smoother than a horse-drawn carriage on a bumpy road, enabling passengers to read a book more easily.” Literacy had increased dramatically, and the rotary press, invented in 1843, facilitated the production of a vast quantity of printed matter, distribution of which deep into the provinces was in turn driven by the ramifying network of trains.

. . .

The spread of gas lighting, invented in the 1790s, made it possible for people to read comfortably in the evening. It also enabled them to play the piano at home, and of course piano technology had kept pace: The instruments became easier to play, and cheaper as well. In 1845, by the author’s estimation, 100,000 people in Paris were playing the piano, of which there were 60,000 in a city of about one million people.

For the full review, see:

Dan Hofstadter. “Engines of Progress.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, October 19, 2019): C7 & C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date October 18, 2019, and has the title “‘The Europeans’ Review: Engines of Progress.”)

The book under review in the passages quoted above is:

Figes, Orlando. The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2019.

Tesla Could Switch Chips By Internally Modifying Software Code that Other Car Companies Had Outsourced

(p. 1) For much of last year, established automakers like General Motors and Ford Motor operated in a different reality from Tesla, the electric car company.

G.M. and Ford closed one factory after another — sometimes for months on end — because of a shortage of computer chips, leaving dealer lots bare and sending car prices zooming. Yet Tesla racked up record sales quarter after quarter and ended the year having sold nearly twice as many vehicles as it did in 2020 unhindered by an industrywide crisis.

Tesla’s ability to conjure up critical components has a greater significance than one year’s car sales. It suggests that the company, and possibly other young electric car businesses, could threaten the dominance of giants like Volkswagen and G.M. sooner and more forcefully than most industry executives and policymakers realize. . . .

Tesla and its enigmatic chief executive, Elon Musk, have said little about how the carmaker ran circles around the rest of the auto industry. Now it’s becoming clear that the company simply had a superior command of technology and its own supply chain. Tesla appeared to better forecast demand than businesses that produce many more cars than it does. Other automakers were surprised by how quickly the car market recovered from a steep drop early in the pandemic and had simply not ordered enough chips and parts (p. 12) fast enough.

When Tesla couldn’t get the chips it had counted on, it took the ones that were available and rewrote the software that operated them to suit its needs. Larger auto companies couldn’t do that because they relied on outside suppliers for much of their software and computing expertise. In many cases, automakers also relied on these suppliers to deal with chip manufacturers. When the crisis hit, the automakers lacked bargaining clout.

Just a few years ago, analysts saw Mr. Musk’s insistence on having Tesla do more things on its own as one of the main reasons the company was struggling to increase production. Now, his strategy appears to have been vindicated.

. . .

“Tesla, born in Silicon Valley, never outsourced their software — they write their own code,” said Morris Cohen, a professor emeritus at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in manufacturing and logistics. “They rewrote the software so they could replace chips in short supply with chips not in short supply. The other carmakers were not able to do that.”

“Tesla controlled its destiny,” Professor Cohen added.

. . .

Doing more on its own also helps explain why Tesla avoided shortages of batteries, which have limited companies like Ford and G.M. from selling lots of electric cars. In 2014, when most carmakers were still debating whether electric vehicles would ever amount to anything, Tesla broke ground on what it called a gigafactory outside Reno, Nev., to produce batteries with its partner, Panasonic. Now, that factory helps ensure a reliable supply.

“It was a big risk,” said Ryan Melsert, a former Tesla executive who was involved in construction of the Nevada plant. “But because they have made decisions early on to bring things in house, they have much more control over their own fate.”

As Professor Cohen of Wharton pointed out, Tesla’s approach is in many ways a throwback to the early days of the automobile, when Ford owned its own steel plants and rubber plantations. In recent decades, the conventional auto wisdom had it that manufacturers should concentrate on design and final assembly and farm out the rest to suppliers. That strategy helped reduce how much money big players tied up in factories, but left them vulnerable to supply chain turmoil.

For the full story, see:

Jack Ewing. “Tesla’s Edge in Pandemic: Superior Command of Supply Chain.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, January 9, 2022): 1 & 12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 8, 2022, and has the title “Why Tesla Soared as Other Automakers Struggled to Make Cars.”