Tech comes and goes. How do we know what will stick? Don’t ask a journalist.

How do you know if new technology is going to stick? It’s a tough question. Sometimes it might be obvious – but then obvious turns out to be wrong. It might depend on who thinks it’s obvious. There’s something of an idea that the good futurologists tend to be right either about the tech, or about the timescale, but not both, although I’m not sure what it means just to be right about a timescale.

Too many years ago I was helping people at work to understand how computers and PCs worked. At the time, the main sizes of available hard drives were 10mb and 20mb. That’s megabytes, not gigabytes. I recall that a manufacturer was talking about drives with hundreds of mb, and I read tech journalists saying that it was pointless. What would anyone use all that storage for? There was the same sentiment as Intel incrementally brought out the 286, 386, 486 etc processors. Why do we need faster computers when my word processor works fine?

I wrote the business case for ba.com (British Airways’ website). It included the words to the effect of ‘There is a risk that the Internet is just a short-term fad’. My joke is that we’re still finding out whether that’s true or not. Around that time I had a 1-1 with a director of the company after he’d had a liquid lunch, and he was strongly of the opinion that no one would ever want to do their grocery shopping online. I suspect that he never actually did any grocery shopping, and it was his wife who did.

Did you know that Microsoft created a spec for tablet computers in the early 2000s, and some manufacturers produced them?

Tablet PC from the early 2000s

They ran a tablet version of Windows XP. I desperately wanted one, but never did get one. They were big and heavy, and I recall seeing Steve Ballmer trying to convince a sceptical journalist that Windows was a suitable operating system for such a device. It wasn’t, and whilst I believe the machine had  niche market, it never did what the iPad did. Here was a good idea, possibly before its time, but also one not executed properly. I don’t think that Microsoft could conceive of a different OS, or of modifying Windows sufficiently to make it appropriate for the device.

Many devices are conceived before their time, and fail because the tech isn’t up to it. The idea becomes discredited, so it’s harder to implement when new tech arrives. The promise of  1-1 marketing and extreme personalisation has been around for more than 20 years, possibly longer. Someone was always working on it, but the technology just didn’t have the grunt and sophistication to make it work. Now the likes of Facebook and Google have it so refined that many people think that those companies are listening in on their computer microphones, and offering ads based on eavesdropping. They aren’t, but Arthur C Clarke said that any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic, and as people tend not to believe in magic these days, they have to rationalise what they see in terms of technology that they do understand. So the mic is the obvious choice.

3D TV didn’t take off. It’s not a bad idea, but the tech isn’t up to it. It doesn’t fulfill a need, or even a want, in a way that’s easy and works for people. I suspect that in one way or another, the idea will come round again, whether it’s VR, or holography, or just doing it better.

Some technologies aren’t going to work. At least, not in the way they are marketed. WAP stands for ‘Wireless Application Protocol.’ In the 2000s the phone companies got really excited, and advertising was everywhere announcing that the Internet had arrived on your phone. I had a Nokia 7110 WAP phone.

Nokia 7110

It was awful. And the experience of the Internet as a clunky dot matrix mainly text experience was worse. It discredited the idea of mobile web for many people who believed the hype and invested in a new phone.

I’ve already given an example above of journalists who didn’t believe advancing a technology. Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that tech journalists aren’t any better than anyone else at imagining how a product that they aren’t interested in could be of use to someone else. If they don’t like an idea, chances are that neither do their mates because they’re all tech journalists as well, and they all reinforce their own prejudices. They also often lack a historical perspective. When the iPad first came out, I took one look at it and it was obvious to me that someone would start making keyboards for it. But none of the journalism I read had a clue about the corporate environment, where I could see it being so useful. It was acclaimed as a ‘media consumption’ device that may or may not survive. It didn’t take long for the keyboards to appear.

I happen to be quite a fan of the Guardian’s tech podcast. Yet a couple of years ago they would regularly dismiss the idea of drone delivery. Amazon announced that they were going to experiment with it, and the podcast team dismissed it as a publicity stunt. There were too many issues, they said. But I reckoned that if planes full of people could fly pilotless, then drone control wasn’t going to be an insurmountable challenge. Drones are being used in Africa now for regular delivery of medical supplies, and the likes of Amazon continue their research.

Similarly with driverless cars. I’ve heard many tech journalists question why we would want them, and whether people are ever going to feel safe in them, and what if the software had to decide between killing the occupant or the cyclist. These are all things that will need to be addressed, and they will be, but they are not harder than other problems that humans have overcome. When the railways came along, there was a fear that humans would be damaged by being exposed to the wind caused by the ‘extreme’ speed of the trains. Even if the occupant of a driverless car is killed instead of the cyclist, there will still eventually be fewer fatalities, serious injuries, and minor scrapes.

What we’re hearing about all time at the moment, and I do mean all the time, are robotics, AI, and VR/AR. Sometimes there’s a confusion of terminology. Robots have been around for decades doing menial repetitive tasks. The sci-fi concept of a robot is of a humanoid device, with human intelligence, so that wraps in AI. Much software these days is touted as ‘AI’, devaluing the term. AI should at least be something that learns, but how that’s different from an algorithm that populates a database with individual peoples’ preferences is a philosophical matter. Whilst there have been great strides with the likes of IBMs Deep Blue, and Alphabet’s DeepMind, there’s still nothing with the general intelligence of a five year old human. But all these technologies will progress, along with quantum computing, which will have niche applications.

My favoured technology of the moment is voice. A bit old hat, but new in the way it’s now being used in tech. You’ve been able to dictate to a computer for decades, using software that you train to understand your voice. Then along came Siri, and OK Google. Now there’s the Amazon Echo, and Google Home. It’s about what’s appropriate to the context. I don’t see that we can entirely replace touch interfaces with voice (maybe we can replace them with thought interfaces…), as the world would be even more of a cacophony, but it’s about finding the appropriate use.

I’ve written in a different post about how voice interfaces will be particularly beneficial to people with a range of disabilities, including dementia and the aged. I was initially uncertain about voice interfaces until I bought an Amazon Echo for my elderly father, and I now have 3 at home. My dad’s had his for a couple of months, and when the wi-fi in his home went down for the weekend he was lost without it. I use voice in my car to dial, and change radio stations. It’s got further to go, and it will go further.

So what’s the takeout of all this?

It’s quite normal for marketing to over-hype a technology, but that can do damage and cause delay in the longer term, as with WAP and 3D.

It seems to me that a few simple principles need to be met if a technology is going to succeed (and these don’t only apply to tech). It must:-

  • fulfill a need or a want
  • do it in a way that people want to use
  • be affordable

That’s the easy bit. It’s harder to know if a new technology will fulfil those criteria in the future, and I’m not sure any of us know how to find out. Just don’t ask a journalist.

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