If You Build It,
Will They Come?

Leaving Bell Labs in 1981 (back when Ma Bell still dominated), to join a scrappy set-top box manufacturer, determined to bring broadband information services to the home, seemed like a good idea at the time. The vision was so compelling, the wealth of potential services so obvious, and the opportunity to change the world so huge, that it was clear to me - all we had to do was build a great product at an attractive price. The world would surely beat a path to our door.

Working with a team of the industry's top engineers, we did exactly what we set out to do. We built a diskless M68000-based digital set-top box. It sported bit-mapped color graphics, an integral 128 Kbps cable modem, and we could sell it to cable operators for under $300. Not only did it support home shopping, home banking, electronic news and mail type services, it supported the kind of multi-user virtual reality games that, once the nascent videogame business matured, were likely to sweep the industry.

It all came to naught. The product worked as advertised, but we were 15 years ahead of our time. The market just wasn't ready. The same thing happened again with wireless LANs in the late 80s and mobile data in the early 90s. Yes, we built it. No, they didn't come.

Believing that compelling technology is the key to success is the engineer's curse. Whether you're investing your money or your career, the most important risk to eliminate is the one you can't control — the market. Choose wisely and you can usually fix what's not working. Choose poorly and all the money and talent in the world can't save you.

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