Accelerating change and the power of openness are the themes tying together this breathtaking exchange of provocative and entertaining ideas from two creative minds. Steve Jurvetson and Blake Ross share the perspectives of a venture capitalist and a pioneering internet software developer to explore innovation and the future at the intersection of evolution, computation, artificial intelligence, network effects and open source.
Jurvetson starts off with an energetic discussion of the dichotomy between design and evolutionary search as methods for building complex systems. Examples such as Kazaa and Skype show how openness and cross-platform compatibilities accelerate the growth of the internet. The explosion of genetic sequencing is both an accolade for openness and the scientific method, and a window on how evolution acts to build complexity. Jurvetson describes the revolutionary approach recently taken by J. Craig Venter to shotgun sequence genes at the ecosystem level by analyzing whole samples of sea water. This new way of thinking has broadened our understanding of genetic diversity, which in turn fuels new research in areas such as energy metabolism and artificial genomics.
The intersection of biology and computer science is a fertile intellectual playground. Jurvetson argues that simple systems are the ones most likely to be explainable by formulas, whereas evolved systems develop emergent layers of impenetrable abstraction. Thinking in evolutionary terms has some interesting consequences for the future of artificial or augmented intelligence. Jurvetson's own successes show that sampling a large population to identify the winners can be a powerful strategy even for venture capitalists.
Ross shifts gears to tell the story of Firefox. How did this browser gain favor with millions of users in the face of competition from Microsoft and Netscape? Openness and simplicity guided the way. Ross explains that, against a backdrop of frustration at Netscape and stagnation at Microsoft, the Firefox team saw that the ideal browser should be so simple and intuitive, it fades into the background. Usability must stay grounded with real people day to day, and not get bogged down in too much marketing or geek-driven feature creep. Meanwhile, the extensions architecture keeps the project interesting to developers and power users. Another key was energizing the open source community beyond developers to engage a wide group of talented people to spread the word. Staying open and steering clear of corporate entanglements has allowed the Firefox team to keep their focus on target.
Steve Jurvetson is a Managing Director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson. He was the founding VC investor in Hotmail (MSFT), Interwoven (IWOV), and Kana (KANA). He also led the firm's investments in Tradex and Cyras (acquired by Ariba and Ciena for $8B), and most recently, in pioneering companies in nanotechnology and molecular electronics. Previously, Mr. Jurvetson was an R&D Engineer at Hewlett-Packard, where seven of his communications chip designs were fabricated. His prior technical experience also includes programming, materials science research (TEM atomic imaging of GaAs), and computer design at HP's PC Division, the Center for Materials Research, and Mostek. He has also worked in product marketing at Apple and NeXT Software. As a Consultant with Bain & Company, Mr. Jurvetson developed executive marketing, sales, engineering and business strategies for a wide range of companies in the software, networking and semiconductor industries.
Blake Ross began his career at 14 as a software engineer at Netscape. Three years later, he co-founded the Firefox browser that has since been downloaded over 80 million times. He also co-founded SpreadFirefox, the wildly successful grassroots marketing campaign that now serves as the model for dozens of other companies and has set a new standard for delivering high-impact software.
After being featured on the cover of its February issue, Blake was nominated for Wired’s top Rave Award, Renegade of the Year, alongside Jon Stewart and the founders of Google. He is currently on leave from Stanford University, where he is a junior, to lead a new company he co-founded earlier this year with a fellow Firefox engineer. He’s looking forward to writing children’s fiction as soon as computers are easy to use—so, sometime around Harry Potter XXXIV: Harry’s Magical Midlife Crisis.
This free podcast is from our Accelerating Change series.