It's (not) all about business

by Simon St. Laurent

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For some reason, much of the press and a lot of developers seem to evaluate technology based on how much of a profit it can make, forgetting that technology can be interesting for reasons which have nothing to do with dollars.

The O'Reilly Peer-to-Peer and Web Services conference this past week was full of people supposedly talking about technology. In reality, even when technology was the official (and frequently enlightening) topic, money was lurking in the background. I left the speakers' room a few times because patents seemed more interesting to people than packets, and the phrase "business case" seemed to surface all the time in otherwise interesting conversations.

I don't have any objections to businesses using technology, funding technology, or creating technology. At the same time, I worry that the constant focus on the market is dampening our potential for creative thought. When times were good, developers got the idea that they could sell anything, and got in the business of selling things. Now that times are bad, I worry that developers are still measuring their ideas by how well they will sell.

Focusing on specific business problems is clearly useful. Focusing exclusively on business problems seems to rule out a wide variety of creative possibilities - even possibilities which may in the end benefit business. Pure research clearly has benefits, even if they aren't immediate. "Internet time" seems to reflect the same kind of short-sightedness that afflicts investors watching only quarterly reports and minute-by-minute stock tickers.

I'd like to suggest that it's time for technologists to re-evaluate what it is we're creating here. Times are hard and business cases may seem more important, but it's not like there are armies of investors waiting to snap up every half-baked idea. Maybe it's time to stop trying to sell the ideas before we polish them a bit, and to pay more attention to other ways an idea might be interesting which go beyond a simple financial calculation.

At the same time, maybe it's time for investors to take a holiday rather than clearcutting ideas which have barely begun to mature. That notion might even make some fiscal sense.

Is business the best motivation for technology?