A Tale of Two Prodigies

Tuesday, 18 Oct 2011 09:08 AM

By Andrew Packer

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“It’s quirky, flawed, and an enormous success.”

That’s one of the best quotes of one of the world’s great prodigies, who sadly passed away this month. After a long battle with cancer, this man died leaving a legacy in the world of computers that has irrevocably changed our lives for the better.

No, it’s not Steve Jobs.

I’m talking about Dennis Ritchie. Although you’ve never heard of him, you couldn’t even get online without him.

He’s one of the creators of the C programming language, one of the world’s most widely used programming languages. It’s the basis for the UNIX operating system, but this programming language is the backbone that allows your computer, internet browser, tablet and smartphone to operate.

Indeed, no Apple product could do what it does today without the C programming language (or its subsequent advances). Even early versions of Windows were programmed in C.

The difference between Ritchie and Steve Jobs couldn’t be any more different. Steve Jobs made sleek, user-friendly consumer products, and charged a hefty premium relative to peers to do so. The real programming work in the early years of Apple was done by co-founder Steve Wozniak.

Dennis Ritchie allowed his creation to be used as “openware,” where anyone could look at the source code and make changes as they saw fit.

He could have patented his work and died substantially wealthier. But like other programmers of his time, he simply wanted to develop a language that was simple and easy to use. Today, the fact that most programming is done in languages based on the C language is a testament to his work.

In short, one man provided what the world needed; the other provided what consumers wanted.

You can see this battle playing out in the business world today. Some companies, such as Skype or Adobe, provide free versions of their products. Other companies jealously guard their property and make users pay for use. In some cases, it can be a bit extreme. For example, earlier this year, IBM sent in an application to patent its patent process.

As users, we want a world of openware, where we can satiate our curiosity, explore, and tinker as we see fit. As investors, we want a world of patents, copyrights and brands, so we can enjoy profits. We’re fortunate to live in a world that delivers both.

At the end of the day, the best way to profit in technology is to invest in a company that provides products that people want, preferably right before they realize they want it.

Companies that offer their products for free may drive innovation, but they’re not in it for the money.

That’s why Steve Jobs departed as a visionary while Dennis Ritchie left virtually unknown.

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