to adapting technology for market
needs, not with invention per se.
What was unique then? It was
innovation from the edges, a process that
arises when innovation originates
from market participants with multiple perspectives about commercial
value. Many perspectives brought a diversity of viewpoints to new market
opportunities, reflecting a variety of
opinions about how best to build businesses to address those opportunities. Many participants came from a
SEEN FROM THE perspective of a knowledgeable observ- er circa 1990, the Internet would have appeared to be ill-suited for commercial
life. There was no orientation toward
market needs. The National Science
Foundation (NSF) allowed users to develop applications that were not for
sale, and most applications stressed
technically advanced functionality, not
user-friendliness. The network behind
the scenes also did not charge prices,
and seemed not to provide experience
relevant to organizing a mass market
for data services from many providers.
Compare those impressions with
what did happen. The NSF privatized
the Internet backbone, and not long
thereafter the growth and deployment
of the commercial Internet changed
the way everyone lives, works, and plays.
Most astonishing of all, the deployment
of the commercial Internet brought
about these changes at a fast pace.
These characteristics are typically associated with only the most transformative technologies, such as the deployment of electricity or the automobile.
What lessons can be learned from
this experience? Something is missing
from common understanding—a view
about how commercial markets shape
which frontier information technology
comes to users, and at what price, and
in what organizational form. I developed that theme in a recent booka and
a S. Greenstein. How the Internet Became Com-
Innovation from the Edges
mercial: Privatization, Innovation and the Birth
of a New Network. Princeton University Press,
discuss that further in this Viewpoint.
As with any technology, many arche-
typical economic forces shaped the dif-
fusion of the Internet. For example, the
surprising start of the commercial In-
ternet reflected well-known tensions in
the transfer of technology out of uni-
versities into private hands; the rush to
start businesses resembled a gold
rush, and it was followed by investment
typical for deploying a network good;
and the bulk of investment dollars
from commercial actors was oriented
How innovation originates from market participants
with multiple perspectives about commercial value.