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The Ecosystem Economy

At a time remembered only by history, they were called “camp followers”:

  • a civilian who works in or is attached to a military camp.
  • a person who is nominally attached to a group but is not fully committed or does not make a substantial contribution to its activities: cynical opportunists and camp followers.

Contrary to popular opinion, and many dictionaries other than the Oxford, “camp follower” does not necessarily refer to prostitution. Though certainly one of the main connotations due to the realities of that time, it more broadly included the entire ecosystem of business opportunists that sprang up around any well-defined camp.

The same was true of the gold rush. There were those who risked everything to pull a few nuggets of gold from the planet. Someone had to sell them the picks, pans, and Levis. The whole ecosystem from retail shops, to financiers could all be considered camp followers. They were not the gold minors. They did not invent the gold rush. They just found ways to profit from it.

The Epicenters of Tech Innovation

Most people experience the aftershock of an earthquake. Regardless of how strongly or weakly you feel the effects, there is an epicenter: a place where the quake originated. People swept up in the quake will neither know nor care about the point of origination. That is a matter left to seismologists.

So it is with the tech industry.

We pick up our favorite smartphone without giving a care about the original tech breakthrough that inspired it. In one sense, all of the Android OEMs are camp followers. They would not be selling smartphones that could compete with the iPhone had it not been for Google doing the heavy lifting with the Android operating system. Because of Android, a lot of people get to play in the game that otherwise would not. Android can be considered one of the epicenters of the tech industry’s economic quake.

Of the over 1 million US jobs Apple claims to have created or supported, over 600 thousand of them are attributable to the iOS ecosystem. Every one of the 380 thousand iOS app developers owe some part of their livelihood to Apple’s innovation. There are also all the case and accessory makers to consider. The iPhone and iOS are also tech economy epicenters.

Finding Ground Zero

Quick comes the retort, Apple and Google are also followers: merely part of a bigger ecosystem surrounding more fundamental technologies. To this, I wholeheartedly agree. IBM pointed the way to a number of innovations. Had they not existed, there might be neither Microsoft nor Apple.

But IBM did not invent the microchip, without which, there would be no computers as we know them. That honor goes to co-inventors from Texas Instruments and Intel. Perhaps computers, themselves, are merely a part of the ecosystem rather than the epicenter, as we so often imagine.

The search for Ground Zero may be futile. In the tech industry, there are many quakes, and many epicenters around which ecosystem economies are built. Kontron.com explains the complexity of providing common conveniences like personal, in-flight entertainment, embedded servers for secure teleservices, and compact PCI systems and platforms that enable full-scale computing in small-scale, ruggedized platforms.

Celebrating Ecosystems

While searching for the epicenter, one must ask if finding it really matters. Is it the quake that did the damage, or the factory that exploded as a result of the quake? In the same way, does it really matter which are the innovators and which, the followers? The microchip is amazing. But it is nothing without computer makers giving it expression in a way that is accessible to the average person.

Microsoft, Apple, and Google should certainly receive plaudits for their rolls in revolutionizing computers and smart devices. But their work would have much less meaning without the efforts of the cloud of camp followers that created the ecosystems that changed the world. We may pick up an iPhone because of Apple. But it is apps like Dark Sky, that make it hard for us to put it down.

If not for ecosystems, there would be no economy. Inventors bring things into existence. But ecosystems bring them to life.