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.
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:
- 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
- A fingernail-sized GPS-locatable chip I can affix to every valuable posession I own so I can find them when I lose them
- 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?