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A String of Good Ideas

I'm sure everyone has a near-miss invention story to tell. Mine is the iPod, about 20 years before its time. I have a few others, but I'll save those embarrassments for another day. Yet, as Gregor Freund recently enlightened me: "The iPod isn't an invention, but a business plan."

The year was 1982. Scituate, Mass.; First Parish Road, as I recall. It was when the music industry finally found the form-factor that would drive the widespread adoption of its new music format: cassette. Yes, the Walkman had made

the cassette the medium of choice for personal portable music, but you couldn't share your favorite tunes with friends. For that, along came the boombox.

In my neighborhood, my friend Scott was the "first kid on the block." The first to have everything that was new and flashy. He had a Diamondback dirt bike, an Atari 5200 (state-of-the-art for the day), a first-generation Sony Walkman and, of course, the biggest Panasonic boombox on the market. That noise-maker would chew through Duracells like my Dodge Dakota's 5.9-liter engine goes through gas.

So, Scott and I were walking down First Parish Road one spring day, his boombox hoisted on his shoulder, I think The J. Geils Band in the deck, when I turned to him and said, "Wouldn't it be great if we could put albums on microchips and plug them into a boombox? We could probably fit 100 albums into a boombox."

Now, I'm sure everyone has a near-miss invention story to tell. Mine is the iPod, about 20 years before its time. I have a few others, but I'll save those embarrassments for another day. Yet, as Gregor Freund recently enlightened me: "The iPod isn't an invention, but a business plan."

Freund, the founder of security innovator Zone Labs and the outgoing CTO of Check Point Software Technologies, did both--innovated and built a business plan. Zone Labs pioneered the concept of easy-to-use personal software firewalls. Its stateful-inspection firewall, called ZoneAlarm, was remarkably easy to install and manage, and it had tangible results. Within a few days of installing it, I found all sorts of interesting things in the logs, such as someone in South Korea trying to break into my desktop. Later versions included ingress and egress filtering, so I could see all of the rogue applications on my PC that are reaching out into cyberspace.

ZoneAlarm is really cool stuff, nearly as cool as the way Freund and his partners brought it to market. They gave it away! Well, nearly gave it away. If you want the basic firewall, you could simply download ZoneAlarm and get basic protection. If you want advanced features, such as antivirus scanning of all incoming traffic and spyware filtering, you'd have to pay for the full package. Gaining market share wasn't Zone Labs' only intention. After all, there's only so much money to be made in the B2C firewall market. Ultimately, the consumers were the guinea pigs for Zone Labs' enterprise products.

"You can't really test PC software in an enterprise. You can't go to an IT guy and say, 'Let me put this on 100 or 200 desktops and tell me what you find.' They're so inundated on projects that they don't have time to do this stuff," Freund told me. "Where I can run 100,000 to 200,000 user beta tests is in the consumer area. By throwing out a product in the Wild West of the consumer land, you get a very solid solution."

The result of living on the fringe of cyberspace is a suite of solid-state security solutions. Check Point's partners have an array of products that provide inline intrusion-prevention, automated spyware and worm control, and endpoint security-checking, thanks to technology acquired via Zone Labs.

IBM, the Big Blue behemoth, had an epiphany when it emerged from its near-death experience in the 1990s. Agility and innovation were things of small, entrepreneurial companies, not global conglomerates. But IBM started pushing innovation and taking risks on interesting ideas. It created incubators within its business units and put its best people in charge of fostering new technologies to market. It started by going through betas with small pockets of customers. If it works out, IBM will push a product toward general release. Too many failures, and it will pull the plug and move on to the next project, explains Bruce Herreld, IBM's senior vice president of strategy, who has developed more than 20 new businesses for the IT giant.

Form and function. Practicality and ease of use. Creativity and necessity. These are the ingredients of innovation. Perhaps the next innovation will come from a company like Zone Labs, which combines both technical know-how and good business sense--something like we're seeing with Google. Or, perhaps, it could be a company like Advanced Technical Solutions, one of our VARs of the Year, which combines existing products to solve business problems, such as creating a bank on wheels. Wherever innovation comes from, it starts with a good idea, a great business plan and a willingness to take risk.

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