Sometimes an engineer or scientist will make a technical breakthrough but have a hard time figuring out how to monetize it. If markets exist for innovations — as with open innovation — then such breakthroughs can readily be commercialized, whether or not the innovator has the relevant complementary assets (as defined by David Teece in 1986) to bring them to market.
Last week, George Hotz announced that after working all summer, he had unlocked the iPhone so it can be used on other networks. While he graciously credited his collaborators, Hotz won 15 minutes of fame that has included national TV and his own Wikipedia biography. (He had also previously won some recognition as a finalist in the 2005 International Science and Engineering Fair). He used the new media — a blogspot blog and YouTube — to get the word out. But it seemed like a curiosity — and an advertisement for future employment — rather than something that could be directly monetized.
So this is a clever way to commercialize something that may or may not be legal to commercialize. Even if the invention cannot be commercialized, the ability to invent can.
As various commentators have noted, Hotz has great career possibilities, although I’d add two caveats. One is that many early stars flame out, so hopefully he won’t let the acclaim go to his head. The other thing is that his choice of car is exactly the model that a reckless 19-year-old last month wrapped around a tree here in San José, killing himself, his teen passenger, and two pedestrians. Let’s pray that Mr. Hotz has more responsible parents than the late (not so great) Z-head of Almaden.