Today’s technology patterns will be obsolete within ten years

The most interesting technology developments of the last decade or so, at least from the perspective of the average consumer, have been in computer, internet and telecommunications. These areas of development have come together with great fanfare and significant impact in the development of mobile networks and powerful “smartphones” – essentially portable computers.

I follow the mobile tech business fairly closely and am mildly amused by the short-sightednes of most “lay” people in this field. They tend to think the trends of today will be here for the foreseeable future. In my estimation fans of Apple are most guilty of this. They fail to see that Apple is riding a wave built on one big idea and that that wave will inevitably peter out.

Apple has been wildly successful for about 6 years now. And like all successful companies Apple seems to have difficulty thinking past its current success. Real innovation requires new ideas, and those new ideas inevitably involve a repudiation of what has worked in the past. So there is a tendency to settle for incremental tweaks that keep the wave going.

Blackberry is a very good example of how technology shifts can leave a company in the dust. Blackberry rose meteorically, and then within a few short years were almost put out of business by competitors (primarily Apple and Google along with Samsung and rest of the Android crowd) who took it to the next level.

They thought that tweaks would keep the wave going, but eventually had to go in a new direction and essentially repudiate some features of the past that had previously made them successful. Today they are much smaller (just seven years after the release of the iPhone) and refocused on security and “enterprise”.

It is worth repeating. This can happen very quickly. Blackberry rose to the top in less than a decade, and then plunged dramatically in just three or four years.

This radical shift is not quite so inevitable and is not usually so rapid in the case of companies that deal with other companies – the so-called “enterprise”. Microsoft and IBM are the obvious examples. Companies invest large sums in IT infrastructure and expect it to remain more or less stable for a few years.

It is not just the cost of hardware and software, but probably more important, the culture and “ecosystem” that develops around specific ways of doing things. People are trained to use specific programs, and build specific ways of relating to colleagues, customers, and suppliers. It is a very big deal to change these systems, so a significant change does not happen overnight, as it can (and often does) for individuals in their private lives.

I have recently been reading the book How to Create a Mind by Ray Kurzweil. Mixed in with the author’s overview of the state of neuroscience are many references to how understanding the way the brain works has resulted in dramatic developments in Artificial Intelligence.

At the heart of Kurzweil’s thinking is the notion that technology does not develop in a linear fashion, but rather exponentially. In other words, the amount of development took 10 years in the previous decade will now only take one year. Kurzweil provides all sorts of examples of how this pattern has held true in the past.

Whether or not he is overstating the uniformity of this development curve, it can hardly be denied that the pace of development in some technology fields is rapidly accelerating. We can easily lose sight of this, but are reminded how much has changed in the last 50 years when we watch those old news reports from the 1960s or that old war footage from WWI.

The general thesis is almost blatantly obvious. If 10 scientists spend 10 years developing some new field (say, sequencing the human genome), then suddenly thousands of scientists (and non scientists) have access to that new information and can take it in hundreds of new directions.

I can still remember back in the late 90s how in our business we would spend more than $1000 on a 1Gb external hard drive. Roughly 12 years later I bought a 1 Terrabyte drive (1000 times more storage capacity) for just over $100.

Ten years ago there was no way to envisage the changes that would take place. A decade from now we will look back and say the same thing.