Virtuosos of the moment

What’s the connection between Michael Moritz, Silicon Valley’s leading venture capitalist, and Hizb’allah, the Middle East’s leading terrorist organization? According to Joshua Cooper Ramo, the author of the stimulating The Age of the Unthinkable, Moritz and Hizbollah are both able to think and act like revolutionaries in a contemporary era defined by surprise and innovation. They are both “virtuosos of the moment” able to leverage the complexity and unpredictability of today’s world in order to the realize their goals.

All new media entrepreneurs should read The Age of the Unthinkable. The ability to think and act like a revolutionary is what distinguishes the grand digital innovators – virtuosos of the moment like Steve Jobs, Mark Andreessen, Larry Page and Sergei Brin -- from everyone else. And Ramos’ message is acutely pertinent today, as the moribund Web 2.0 world is being swept away by the revolutionary stream of Twitter and its ecosystem of real-time communications technologies.

This week and next represents a particularly unthinkable fortnight in the history of new media. Yesterday, Google announced the launch of Wave – an ambitious new communications platform for the Internet. On the same day, Microsoft announced the launch of Bing a search-engine designed to chip away market share away from Google’s quasi monopoly in search.  Meanwhile, next Saturday (June 6) represents the much anticipated American launch of Palm’s Pre, a smartphone device upon which Palm have, quite literally, bet the entire company.

The contrast between Google and Microsoft is revealing. The static Bing search-engine appears neither surprising nor innovative – just one more example of Microsoft’s persistent failure over the last decade to innovate or surprise. In contrast, Google’s Wave appears to be an attempt to reinvent both email and instant-messaging in today’s real-time Internet. As Lars Rasumussen, the Sydney based engineer driving the Google project said, “Wave is what email would look like if it were invented today.”  With Wave, Google is once again trying to revolutionize new media. In 1999, the launch of their user-generated search engine was the first barricade stormed by the Web 2.0 revolution. In 2009, Wave might represent a similar landmark in the unfolding of the real-time web revolution.

So is Palm like revolutionary Google or reactionary Microsoft? When Palm demonstrated early versions of its smartphone at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in January, many pundits were sufficiently impressed to describe the Pre as a legitimate iPhone killer. But I’m not convinced that the Pre will save Palm. To borrow again from Joshua Cooper Ramos, the Pre appears to be neither shockingly innovative nor surprising. It will, of course, be a highly competent and well engineered product that doesn’t disgrace itself against the iPhone – but, in today’s turbulent new media economy, competence is Microsoft rather than Google, it’s Bing instead of Wave.

Joshua Cooper Ramo described a conversation with Michael Moritz in which the Welsh born partner at Sequoia Capital – who famously discovered Google, Yahoo! and YouTube -- explained his success as a technology investor. What Moritz looked for in young companies, he told Ramo, is the ability to “pivot”, to perpetually reinvent themselves in an Internet economy that is, itself, in endless flux.  It’s no coincidence that Moritz invested in Google, but not in Microsoft or Palm. In the age of the unthinkable – from the rugged mountains of southern Lebanon to the gentle flatland of Silicon Valley -- only permanent revolutionaries survive.