• Play and Exploration will always be the Heart of Innovation

Ray Tomlinson's enduring legacy as "father of email" is really as Innovator

9 March, 2016

"Did I know what I was doing? Yeah," he says, "I knew what I was doing.". It just took about 20-odd years for it to become central to the very idea of electronic communication. Central as a technology, protocol, and global culture.

"Just had no notion whatsoever of the what the ultimate impact would be."

Providing a way for people to communicate with other people in alternate timezones, locations, or just schedules were obvious to Ray given that alternatives in the early 70s included pretty much only sending a letter in the mail. Answering machines existed but were not at all commonplace, so even the telephone required compatible scheduling and timing. 

The innovator in Ray saw this as an obvious  situation requiring a model to allow for non-linear time communication. Simply put : they needed to be able to write a letter without writing a letter – instantly.

Why this story is so endearing, however is not about email, its impact or what would turn out to be the extreme and global impact he would end up having on the world. It is why.

Ray's "why" was focussed on a single need for a model, a protocol, that would form the basis for a new communication structure. That's it. He wasn't focussed on valuation, market share, or even potential clients, other than the 28 "nodes" that would probably end up using his communication protocol.

Why this is endearing is that he wasn't thinking about any of this, except that he needed a better way for people to communicate. Sometimes it seems that this kind of innovation is missing from entrepreneurial activities – though it still definitely exists. But so often innovation is directed by an end product that doesn't exist, and we have no idea if that product has a chance at getting a leg hold. The innovation, however, be it a protocol, an encoder, a virtualization, a framework, an engine/processor that may, in and of themselves, have no direct market value. But once developed, it could expand in so many ways unseen or unforeseen by the originator given the broad chance, and that is where innovation as a precursor to the possibility of productization, not its inevitability, leads to future Ray Tomlinsons.

We could say this is what open source is about, and to some degree this is true. But it's the culture of innovation that sometimes needs to be nurtured alongside commercialization not only in service of it. Commercialization will always find a way, and that is a good thing – they just need to play nicely in a healthy balance.

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