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Embracing disruption as a way of (tech) life

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says trying to be innovative can be risky, but it is no longer optional. It's a matter of survival.

Any self-respecting movie buff recalls the priceless scene in Marathon Man, where Laurence Olivier, playing the part of an ex-concentration camp dentist, resorts to torture in a bid to extract information from a hapless New York grad student portrayed by Dustin Hoffman.

I recently saw Marathon Man for the first time in 30 years. But it still makes me squirm. (Who wouldn't squirm?) Drilling holes into Hoffman's teeth without the help of an anesthetic, Olivier repeatedly asks, "Is it safe?"

Not long after, I recounted the scene for an acquaintance, who had never watched the movie. He was especially bemused by the Olivier character's now-signature line.

"Is it safe?" he joked. "If we were talking about the computer business, I could answer that. No, it's definitely not--especially these days."

Big budgets and the legions of employees may be great on paper, but the rules of the game aren't the same anymore.

We shared a knowing chuckle because the guy's resume reads like a veritable tech version of the Dead Pool, punctuated by pit stops at one-time high flyers Wang, Digital Equipment and Silicon Graphics. If anyone knew what it was like to ride a professional roller-coaster, he was the perfect poster child.

But the more I've thought about his offhand remark, the more I find myself nodding in agreement. These are exciting times in the computer industry--maybe the most fun since Netscape pointed the way for the rest of the industry. It's also getting pretty hairy.

Technology innovations are being introduced at a furious clip. And look who's behind them. For the most part, they're being ushered in by a wave of entrepreneurs who set up shop in the aftermath of the dot-com debacle. Many may never amount to much, but let's not be hasty about weighing in with a final verdict. Remember that when instant messaging first arrived on the scene, few people back then believed it would have more than a minor impact.

The evidence is staring you in the face. Constant disruption as a way of life is going to upset a lot more apple carts. Big budgets and the legions of employees may be great on paper, but the rules of the game aren't the same anymore. Today you can build a cool application or service simply by mashing up other existing services.

The big companies read the papers (and check the blogs) too. They haven't suddenly forgotten their history. It's a question of being nimble enough to respond. Clearly, nobody wants to be the next DEC.

When he met on Thursday with financial analysts, CEO Steve Ballmer announced that Microsoft would heretofore embrace "disruptive technologies" like Web-based applications. "Every piece of software--the basic core value in the way software gets created--will change in the next 3, 5 or 10 years," he said.

Ballmer added that future software will all factor in some aspect of desktop, Web and server elements. Considering how Web-based apps pose a serious threat to Microsoft's traditional desktop software, this is quite a remarkable strategy shift--assuming Ballmer can pull it off.

It's more than just the threat presented to Microsoft from Google. The proliferation of Internet standards and Web services has helped flatten the world (in the Tom Friedman sense) and that makes for an entirely new ball game.

Facebook. Flickr, maybe even Twitter one day. Who knows? The software landscape is changing seemingly all the time. I can't predict who will come out on top. But I do know the losers will be the ones who still believe the old way of doing things is good enough.