March 1999

What if we treated Electricity like Software?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away...

Electricity was discovered, but no one knew quite what to do with it. Scientists learned how to make it do lots of nifty things, but basically that's all it was: a plaything for the scientists.

Then one day, someone found the killer app for electricity: The light bulb! Factories could stay open 24 hours, streets could be made safer, families could stay up later. Electricity had gone commercial. Venture capitalists went wild, startups sprang up every day, distributing electricity, and making light bulbs. As they learned more about manipulating the electricity, they began to find more and more killer apps: toasters, clocks, refrigerators, radios, and more.

There were lots of companies that distributed and manipulated electricity, but not all the companies used the same kind of electricity. But that was O.K., because most toasters had different models that would work for most power distributors.

One company, Tinytron was run by a very smart man named John Doors. Mr. Doors started out selling toasters. But then he heard that the huge company JCN, which built almost all of the roads in the country, was going to use their roads to put up power lines. Mr. Doors knew that because of the reputation JCN had, everyone would soon use their power lines. Mr. Doors made a deal with them to provide them with the electricity. (He wasn't in the electricity generating end of the business, but he subcontracted that to another company until he was rich enough to buy them out).

Soon, most everyone was using power in their homes that came from Tinytron. Mr Doors became very rich, and he continued to be smart. He started buying up other appliance companies that had the best appliances, and sold those appliances himself (but only the versions that worked with his own power grid).

There were other appliance makers that also had great products though, and they also sold lots of appliances to work on Tinytron power. But Mr. Doors was smart yet again. He changed the standards for the power he generated, using different frequencies and voltages. None of the old appliances would work with it (it wasn't any better, it was just different). Before he started using the new power standard, he redesigned all of his appliances. When he switched generators, he was the only one selling appliances that worked with the new power.

Tinytron's competitors lost a lot of money, and many of them went out of business. But by this time Mr. Doors was very rich. He could actually give away is appliances for free. So the few businesses that were left couldn't compete with someone that gave away free toasters. Soon there was only Tinytron.

Some people claimed that Tinytron was being unfair, and that power grid companies shouldn't sell appliances, or vice-versa. They actually did have laws about such things, but electricity was still so new, and it seemed pointless to distinguish between power grids and appliances. After all, it's all just electricity right?

Then, a very smart physicist in Switzerland wanted a better way for physicists to exchange ideas, so he invented television. At first it was crude, and the signals were carried on an obscure radio frequency that only a handful of academics had been using previously. But it quickly caught on as the greatest thing since toasted bread.

A company called Setscape formed to make and sell televisions, and their television sets became the most popular of all.

Television caught Tinytron by surprise, but John Doors was quick to catch up. They had television sets in no time flat. At first, they sucked, but later they sucked less. Still, Tinytron wasn't catching up. They had even been giving away their television sets to all of their power customers, but the power customers were still paying Setscape for their product.

Fortunately, Tinytron had a great solution, a new innovation. They were so good at manipulating electricity, that they could tailor their power grid and television set to work well together in ways that Setscape couldn't (because Setscape didn't have a power grid). Eventually, the television set and the power grid were so well integrated that the television was actually part of the power grid. Every outlet in the home had a TV set included, mounted right into the wall.

Setscape was very upset. They claimed that Tinytron was cheating, that they had just combined the TV and the power grid to put Setscape out of business. But no one paid any attention, because Tinytron always had adequate products, and it made life so much easier when they didn't have to pick out a separate TV set. Why should anyone let Setscape block Tinytron's great new innovations?

After much futile struggling, Setscape went out of business.

And the people were happy, because they had television sets that were part of the power grid and couldn't be separated, and that was a good thing, wasn't it?

Tom Fine's Home Send Me Email