Malone's Laws of Technology

So, of the two defining technology laws of the modern world, one is very accurate but isn't a real law, and the other is a real law but nobody is sure what it says. This could, in fact, be another example of Murphy's Law.

The Laws

My "laws" are neither very precise, nor very serious. Yet, if you do a Google search you might be surprised how many times they are cited. In listing them, I find myself looking back at the trajectory of my career and that of high tech itself over the last quarter-century. Here they are:

Malone's Law No. 1 -- Whenever a company builds a new corporate headquarters, short the stock.

This first one dates to the early '80s when I was writing for newspapers. It was provoked by the construction of Hewlett-Packard's headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. What I noticed at the time, and which was confirmed over and over again in the years to come, was that whenever a company finally reaches the point that it needs a fancy new headquarters, it has usually lost track of the lean and mean style that made it a success in the first place. And if that doesn't do it, then the months company executives spend poring over the design of the new facility, jockeying for the best offices and lobbying for an executive dining room, inevitably distracts them from the real job of making money.

Malone's Law No. 2 -- Any true technology revolution has its own underlying law.

This one dates back to 1992, when I was covering high tech for business magazines. The world was just catching on to Moore's Law in those days and it became the big thing for companies to announce that they were the leaders of a tech revolution in their particular industries. P.R. departments loved the world, as did ad agencies.

But the truth was that even in our day, true scientific, technological or business revolutions are pretty rare events. You know when you're in one -- the industrial revolution, the digital revolution, the Internet revolution -- because society itself is turned upside down. And when that happens, you typically can identify some kind of engine -- a law -- at the heart of that revolution setting the new pace. Everything else is just fast (and often short-lived) growth.

The Laws: Breakthroughs and Communities

Malone's Law No. 3 -- Every technology breakthrough takes twice as long as we expected and half as long as we are prepared for.

I introduced this 'law' in this column in 2003, right smack in the middle of one of the biggest consumer electronics booms ever -- and have used it as clever explanation for just about everything ever since. It has the nice characteristic of also being true: Every day we read about some new technology that supposed to show up at any moment -- digital music, smart phones, handheld computers, digital television, nanotechnology, etc., etc. -- but always seems to take forever to arrive. And then, suddenly, one day it's here, destroying entire industries, creating new companies and new tycoons, disrupting everyday life -- and despite years of warnings, we always seem to be totally unprepared for it.

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