Unexpected Surprises From Great Technologies

But within Intel, there were two true believers in the future of the microprocessor. One was marketing director Ed Gelbach, who began vigorously promoting Intel's microprocessors in speeches and ads, even as the rest of the company was having second thoughts. The other was the company PR person, Regis McKenna, who would go on to become Silicon Valley's most famous marketer. Regis, for his part, was so convinced of the importance of the microprocessor that, on his own, he prepared a series of notebooks showing potential applications for the new device.

It was a pretty bizarre list, ranging, in Regis' words, "from automatic toilet flushers to cow-milking machines, airport marijuana sniffers, electronic games and blood analyzers." But that list, combined with the orders beginning to trickle in from Gelbach's heroic efforts, finally convinced Intel's senior management to stick with the microprocessor.

The rest is history. It is estimated that there are more than 25 billion microprocessors in use around the world right now, with the number of transistors they contain equal to the amount of raindrops that fall on North America in a year.

But here's the punchline to this story: None of the applications that Regis described, that convinced the Intel execs to stay with the microprocessor, ever panned out … at least not for a decade or more. In other words, the Invention of the Century was sold on falsehoods.

And that brings us up to today, and the news, of the disputed election in Iran, that is breaking as I write this column.

Iran: The Mullahs' Twitter Challenge

Even five years ago, it might have been possible for the mullahs of Iran, facing rioting and protesting in the streets and the potential of revolution or civil war, to institute a news black-out both within the country and to the outside world.

All it would have taken would have been a shutdown of the phone system (which would have stopped the Internet as well) and the tossing out of AP, Reuters and CNN reporters. Iran would have looked like Burma-Myanmar or North Korea, and all we would have known about events there surrounding the election would have come from refugee reports and, a week from now, perhaps a few jumpy, graining amateur videos.

Instead, despite the government's crackdown on news coverage, we have been deluged with blogs, cellphone videos, Facebook entries, and Twitter tweets covering every aspect of the protest. And every attempt by the Iranian government to shut down these sources only seems to pop up even more.

The mullahs are faced with the unsolvable dilemma that, in order to make Iran a regional and nuclear power, they have to put in place the same sophisticated digital infrastructure that will keep Iran from ever again being a closed society. They are going to lose this fight, if not now, then soon, because their old autocratic apparatus for running the country has now proven to be incompatible with life in the 21st century.

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