A Different Kind of Life

When a man dies at 84 after a long bout with cancer, it’s natural to assume that his best days were far behind him.

And so, when the news was carried around the world last weekend that Paul Baran -- the man who really could be credited with inventing the Internet -- had died, readers couldn’t be blamed for concluding that Baran’s single claim on history had been made a half-century ago.

But that would be wrong.  I believe that future generations will look back and see Baran not just as the inventor of the seminal networking technology called "packet switching." Packet switching, devised when Baran was a young scientist working for RAND Corp., did indeed make global networks from the Internet to cellular telephony practical. And for that revolutionary achievement, he rightly deserves an honored place in the history of the digital revolution -- and the National Inventors Medal that President Bush pinned on him three years ago.

But Paul Baran also achieved something else of such magnitude that its implications may not be fully recognized for another generation:  he was the first true lifelong entrepreneur. In that, he may very well prove to be a pioneer of a cultural phenomenon that will help define the rest of this century.

Baran created his first enterprise in 1968.  He was working on his last, one of the most ambitious of his career, on the day he died.  In between, Baran, often teamed with his business partner, Steve Millard, and later his son Dave, founded as many as a dozen companies.  As with any entrepreneur, many of these companies failed. But Baran also had as many hits as anyone. Once, after I introduced him as having founded four $1 billion public companies, he quietly corrected me: “Only three. The fourth was only $700 million.”

Packet switching was a brilliant invention, but Baran’s real genius lay in a deep understanding of technology combined with a perfect sense of business timing.  The greatest fear of most high tech entrepreneurs is that they will fall behind the technology curve -- that is, by the time they get their inventions to market Moore’s Law will have already rendered them obsolete. What Baran understood is that there is an even greater danger in being too far ahead of that same curve -- that’s when you run out of money vainly waiting for your components and your customers to catch up.

Baran never lost that exquisite timing, even in his eighties. He had an almost supernatural ability to know when an advancing technology and a needy market were about to collide ... and he positioned himself there just before impact. Cable modems, computer printers, airport metal detectors, wireless Internet, smart electrical meters, medical home diagnostics -- he was almost always in place (usually with a pocket full of patents) before his future competitors even identified the opportunity.