Pin It

Many years ago, in 1999 to be exact, Andy Grove, who was then chairman of the giant chip-maker Intel, famously predicted: “Companies that are not internet companies in five years’ time won’t be companies at all.” He was widely ridiculed for this assertion, mostly because his critics didn’t understand what he was getting at. All he was saying was that the internet, which in 1999 was still regarded by much of the world as exotic, would one day be regarded as a utility, like mains electricity.

Grove was right. What he omitted to say, however, was that the net would never be as important as electricity. This fact appears to have escaped the notice of some folks in the computing business; it certainly escapes many of those who breathlessly report its doings. But it’s obvious the moment you think about it. If we had to choose between the internet or access to electrical power, which one would we go for? No contest.

What we have come to accept as civilised life depends utterly on secure supplies of electricity. We would miss the net, of course, and large chunks of our technical infrastructure depend on its continuance, but we could get by without it. Take away electricity, however, and our modern machine, including the net, stops.

Those of us who write about ICT sometimes forget that, in the grand scheme of industrial things, it’s small beer compared to industries such as transportation (and its infrastructure), energy, healthcare and biotechnology. Which is why a really smart long-term investor would be more interested in these fields than in what happens to cloud computing, “wearables” and other IT obsessions de nos jours. And even within the IT business itself, some are using the vast revenues accruing from their current mastery of the technology to gain a foothold in the things that will really matter in our collective future.

One such visionary is Elon Musk, a South African-born entrepreneur who made a colossal pile from PayPal and has been doing interesting things in non-IT fields ever since. The world knows him most for his creation of Tesla, the company that makes high-end electric cars, and SpaceX, an outfit that specialises in what really is rocket science. But probably the most interesting thing about Musk is that he has focused on solving the problem that keeps us in a world that depends utterly on electricity but lacks a way of storing it efficiently and cost-effectively: the problem of battery technology.

For some time, Musk has been building a huge factory to make such batteries and he is widely believed to be planning a major announcement on 30 April. Until recently, most people assumed that his new factory would be making improved batteries merely for powering electric vehicles.

But if the rumour mill is correct, Musk has set his sights higher – on new battery technology that would make it possible efficiently to store the quantities of electric power needed to run modern homes. If he has indeed managed to do something like that, then it would be a game-changer on an epochal scale.

To read more, click here.