Aura of Inevitability (or: When a Technology’s Time has Come)

Published on Author Christopher Fahey20 Comments
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New technology products often take us by surprise. In 1992, for example, we couldn’t possibly have dreamed of how the Internet would transform the world by 1997, only 5 years later. The best innovations are things “you never knew you wanted but cannot live without” kind, inventions that come out of nowhere. YouTube, for example. Or TiVo.

But certain other technology products are so obvious that when they finally emerge many people shrug and wonder “what took it so long?” We knew they were coming, but year after year they never actually materialized.

When they do materialize, we are overjoyed. After years of waiting, for example, we are finally getting MP3 players into cel phones.We are using wireless networks and bluetooth more and more, but we knew we wanted this stuff years ago. The technology consumer will often heap glowing praise on these kinds of new technologies as they emerge, calling them innovative and groundbreaking, when in fact the functionality of the products is merely filling a hole that everyone knew was there.

The Apple iPhone is a perfect example: while the UI is indeed remarkable, almost nothing about it is technologically innovative or new. If you asked me (or just about any of my friends) to describe the perfect cel phone feature set, it would look a lot like an iPhone. In fact, as the owner of a Windows PocketPC phone for nearly 5 years, nothing about the iPhone’s tech specs surprised me. The UI, again, is great and very innovative, but the hardware itself and the basic concept of the device is wholly old news.

Digital music production, and the death of MIDI, is another example: Ten years ago, electronic music was largely created by connecting a bunch of dedicated hardware devices together and controlling them via a desktop-computer based sequencer program. But nowadays everything can be done on a single computer. Electronic musicians knew this was possible for at least a decade before it finally became a reality. It was inevitable.

The new TV-on-the-Internet product called Joost is the latest example. Joost, if you don’t know about it, is a dedicated desktop app that streams video on demand from a variety of internet-based “channels”. Everyone is super excited about it, but if you scratch the surface you’ll see that, technologically, there’s not much new about Joost. There’s streaming video, compression… what else? It’s basically YouTube without the You. What is new, I imagine, is (again), the user interface, which the Joost team chose to break out of the web browser and build as a standalone application. That’s potentially transformative, but make no mistake: Anyone with half a brain could have though of Joost years ago. I’m sure many people did, too.

In all these cases, the technology in question was already well-known and pretty much anticipated by everyone in the target markets. Like the dreamers at the halfbakery, we were simply waiting for somebody to build it correctly.

The X-Factor(s)

What is the x-factor that breaks these products out of the realm of fantasy and brings them to market as real things? I actually see three x-factors:

  • Hardware (Speed/Storage/Bandwidth/Compression/Power): I lump these five factors together because they are all merely steady incremental improvements to technologies which have existed for decades. As these factors improve, new products become possible. For example, the most palpable difference between 1998’s Eiger Labs MPMan F10, the first commercial portable MP3 player, and the 2007 iPod Shuffle, is that the iPod Shuffle can hold sixty times as much music on it for less than a third of the cost. Mobile phones and portable computers have been around for decades, but neither were viable products until the batteries could be made small enough. Video on the Internet, wireless networking, HD DVD players, and just about anything having to do with 3D graphics — all of these are not areas of innovation, but rather areas where the underlying technologies have improved enough to permit the products that use them to shine.
  • Money (Infrastructure Capital and Business Deals): It doesn’t take a genius to come up with the idea for the iTunes Music Store. What it does take, however, is two things that only piles of money and a powerful business foundation can buy: A robust technology infrastructure (i.e., lots of servers and bandwidth), and lots of exclusive licensing deals with all the major record labels. Similarly, Joost’s biggest advantage over some dude in a garage writing their own video player application is that Joost has billions of dollars in venture capital money to construct massive server farms and to strike deals with content providers.
  • User Experience Design: This is my favorite part. The Apple iPod’s user interface (specifically the clickwheel and the UI controlled by the clickwheel) is to this day the key market differentiator between the iPod and the countless other Mp3 players that came before and after the iPod. What made flickr so addictive and fun to use was the snappy user interface: the uploading and storage of photographs as a business model was nothing new, but the AJAX-based user interface really made photo-management fun, and not a chore. Finally, compare Google Maps to MapQuest: In one stroke Google crushed MapQuest by simply making a UI that didn’t require endless page refreshes.

(A fourth x-factor is the slow but steady progress of artificial intelligence technology, which will open the floodgates to many other technologies and products. For now, however, I’ll leave it off.)

You can probably easily come up with five technology product ideas that fall under the category of “doesn’t exist yet even though everyone already knows they want it.” And I’ll bet for every one of these ideas, one or more of the above three “x-factors” is what prevents that technology product from existing right now.

In fact, I’ll take a crack at it. Here are five technologies that don’t exist as viable marketed products and which I find myself wanting almost every day:

  1. A portable device which allows me to download/purchase music and videos directly and listen to them instantly
  2. A shared calendaring system that works on all platforms
  3. A single protocol or standard for all personal information, including contacts and social networks
  4. A fingernail-sized GPS-locatable chip I can affix to every valuable posession I own so I can find them when I lose them
  5. A speech-to-text device that understands me perfectly

People are already working on all of these things, I assume. A few of them probably already exist in some below-the-radar form. But what I find super exciting is that I can imagine User Experience Design being a najor differentiator for each of them, that the first successful incarnation of these products will win out over its competitors simply by having an elegant user interface. This means that I or one of my UXD peers might end up helping to usher a technology whose time has come into the successful mainstream. That’s pretty cool.

In fact, maybe a good business strategy for a UX designer would be to research emerging technologies to find applications and devices that suffer from terrible UI design, and to then either offer UXD services to those companies to imporve their products, or help other companies build that better mousetrap. Or, better yet, to simply patent UI designs for these existing technologies. Is that ethical?

20 Responses to Aura of Inevitability (or: When a Technology’s Time has Come)

  1. Hi, found your site on Daring Fireball. “Death of MIDI”? Maybe you mean “death of hardware-dependent music production” but MIDI as a language and tool is alive and well, my friend.

  2. It strikes me that a necessary part of getting UI right is having a string of failed products (hopefully from your would-be competitors) littering the marketplace, so you have some ideas of what doesn’t work. I don’t know that the iPod could have had the interface it had if Apple hadn’t understood how frustrating the Nomad was; ditto the iPhone and current cell phones. Products have to fail and lessons have to be learned before we will really understand the kind of UI that’s needed to build a market.

    Oh, and shared calendaring is almost there — Outlook 2007 support the iCalendar format, so you can share calendars quite happily between Google, Apple, Linux and Microsoft. The only piece missing is the cell phones.

  3. In your mentioning of AI technology, even though you state that “For now, however, I’ll leave it off.”, you are in fact not really leaving it off since you’re mentioning it in the article. As a result, here I sit with one eyebrow raised quite high, and it won’t go down of its own volition until you elaborate a little more on that point. If you want to leave it off for now, leave it off! Otherwise, it comes across as wacky futurist-speak. That said, great article. Like the iPhone class of products you describe, your article doesn’t mention any one thing I haven’t heard of before, but you put it all together better than anyone to date!

  4. My favorite example of an obvious product/service is YouSendIt.com. It’s a free service for those times when you need to send someone a file but it’s much too big for email. You compose your email on YouSendIt and “attach” your file (which really uploads it to YouSendIt’s servers). The person you’re sending the file to gets your email message, plus a link to the “attached” file on their servers. They click it and it downloads.

    There’s nothing technologically extraordinary about the service – in fact, it’s very basic. They just have a bunch of servers and a simple form for generating an email. It’s just that the way it’s put together makes the process identical to sending an email, only without the size limitations.

  5. A portable device which allows me to download/purchase music and videos directly and listen to them instantly
    A shared calendaring system that works on all platforms
    A single protocol or standard for all personal information, including contacts and social networks

    These three are already here, at least partway.

    A portable device which allows me to download/purchase music and videos directly and listen to them instantly: MacBook with iTunes on it. (OK, so I’m stretching this one a bit: I suspect you meant handheld.)

    A shared calendaring system that works on all platforms: The iCalendar format, supported by Microsoft Entourage, Apple iCal, and probably something for Linux operating systems as well.

    A single protocol or standard for all personal information, including contacts and social networks: For contacts, the vCard format, supported by Microsoft Entourage, Apple Address Book, and probably something for Linux operating systems as well.

  6. You mentioned that Youtube.com was an innovation that came out of nowhere. Video on the web has been around for awhile, but it wasn’t until the UI and the bandwidth were there that it became doable. Youtube.com seems to be the perfect example of a technology everyone knew was coming but just needed the X-factors to succeed.

  7. The technology I’m waiting for is a system-wide service that runs within the OS, that automatically checks for spelling mistakes as you type text. This works in all locations throughout, such as email, a google search field, or most importantly the text editor you use to write a blog. Any misspelled word is underlined in red so you can immediately recognize and correct it (using the context menu). That way you can type excellent articles like the one above, but spelling mistakes won’t ruin the polish.

    Maybe Apple will do this one day, who knows.

  8. One of the great things about the first point (hardware) is that some variation of Moores Law says that even if the hardware doesn’t exist now, it will in the future. So can can (and probably need to) have the vision for a new product before the hardware is ready.
    I imagine the guys who designed YouTube thinking ‘people are uploading photos to web sites. In a few years time, we’ll have the bandwidth and the storage to do the same thing with videos’.
    A similar thing exists with all kinds of software product – you don’t write for the hardware your users have now, you write for the hardware they will have when your product is released.

  9. @ImObnoxious

    Apple’s Mac OS X already has a system-wide spell checker, although it won’t underline in red any misspelled words. A right-click can quickly check any suspect spelling.

    Also, Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) also includes the full text of the New Oxford American Dictionary a well.

  10. Baza – I think ImObnoxious was being sarcastic in relation to a typo in the main entry (the fact that they describe precisely the functionality in OS X and then say perhaps one day Apple will do it). Mind you I didn’t spot the typo – may have been a US/UK English thing?

    If you want an area that’s rife for UI improvement – cable set-top boxes, most DVD recorders and PVRs. I think the key ingredients there are now emerging – Linux + XGL – which will provide the toolkit for delivering something more like an AppleTV experience. I’ve also been wondering whether Adobe’s Apollo running on Linux would be a useful tool for CE systems – simply because there are several hundred times as many people out there with Flash skills compared to C++ developers.

    That highlights another important factor – format standardisation and rising software abstraction / commoditisation.

  11. 1-3 already exist (kind of, sort of), 5 would require quite strong AI (not any time soon), but 4 is interesting. It’s silly to spec it with GPS, though. I don’t want to launch into a long-winded explanation, just believe me that there can’t be such a thing as a “fingernail-sized GPS-locateable chip”, mkay?

    There already is a product that works with RFID and can point to things in your flat with a laser. Other solutions let you find things with a sort of hand-held tracking device or give you a remote that makes the selected target beep. No idea what you’d do if you can’t find the tracker/remote. If you’d rather know which borough/district/town you left the missing thing in, cell phone or WiFi technology would seem appropriate, but you’d need to power that thing …

    How many valuable things have you got anyways? Most of them are electronic gadgets (notebook, smartphone, camera, audio player) that have a battery and often have some sort of network connection. Would be much more cost-effective to make them locateable out of the box instead of attaching something. Then there are vehicles (car, bike), which don’t require the locating thing to be that damn small. What’s left? Your wallet. I’d say RFID is enough for a wallet, because you only need to find it quickly if it’s anywhere near you. If it is in a place you’d never expect it to be, you don’t need a quick way to locate it, you need a quick way to freeze your credit and debit cards.

    But most of the time when I’m looking for something, I know it’s in my apartment. GPS wouldn’t help at all there, it’s not that precise indoors.

  12. This is why the US patents system (or rather, my ill-informed impression of it) makes me mad. It acts as if having ideas is the hard part, and thus in need of support and protection. Ideas are not that hard. Making them into workable, useful, successful reality is very, very hard, and if it’s not done, the idea has little benefit.

  13. I think you’ll find a lot of electronic musicians still use a shedload of hardware plugged via media to a sequencer.

    Computers are good at making noises, but still not as good as funny coloured boxes with nobs and keys on them.

  14. Cellphones qualify for number 1, maybe not in the US but in Europe or Asia. Hopefully the iPhone will bring the UI X-factor to the party and it will hit the mass market

  15. [quote]The technology I’m waiting for is a system-wide service that runs within the OS, that automatically checks for spelling mistakes as you type text. This works in all locations throughout, such as email, a google search field, or most importantly the text editor you use to write a blog. Any misspelled word is underlined in red so you can immediately recognize and correct it (using the context menu). That way you can type excellent articles like the one above, but spelling mistakes won’t ruin the polish.

    Maybe Apple will do this one day, who knows.

    by ImObnoxiousMarch 8th, 2007 | 1:40 am[/quote]

    Apple has done precisely this. In Mac OS X, the same dictionary is used for all Cocoa written apps – underlining errors in red. This includes Mail (for email) and TextEdit, for, well you know. As for Google search fields, I guess that’s up to the browser writers on Mac OS X, they could do it, but generally trust the user, and use Google’s own correction suggestion.

  16. Shared Calendaring -> on it’s way. CalDAV. Taking it’s sweet time, but I think everyone will be calling it old news in 2008.

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