Innovation and technology predictions

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”.
Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

It is easy to look at a statement like this and poke fun. Hindsight is a wonderful thing!

But as I have said on many occasions – innovation always comes unexpectedly & from the periphery. Very often the innovation is not a completely new technology, rather it is a new way of using or applying existing technology. The iPhone is a good example of this phenomenon – it is still a mobile phone, yet it changes the very playing field for mobile phones & computers in important ways.

But Watson’s quote shares a common feature with many technology predictions. Based upon then current knowledge of existing business models, technology and applications those predictions are often right at the point in time they are made.

For example, how many people in the world really needed a computer at home that looked like this one?

When Thomas Watson made his comment regarding the number of computers in the world, he had no mental map of a world where a computer could fit into your pocket or be used on your lap while watching television.

For Watson the computer he referred to was something like the British Colossus computer or the American Harvard Mark 1 – these were physically huge machines that were designed to assist with decryption of coded messages during World War II. Machines of this kind were not needed in large numbers across the world, and their cost to build, use and maintain was very high. Thus Watson’s statement from1943 was apt for its time. And he was unable to imagine some of the future improvements in technology, like transistors, that enable us to have computers in every home (and soon in every pocket or handbag).

Predicting technology futures is a funny old thing to do. When an innovation is revealed it often seems obvious, except that it was not obvious until you saw it.

The other challenge with predicting technology futures is that people change in their expectations of what is helpful or desirable. If we had explained Facebook or Twitter to an ordinary person back 1997 they would probably have thought it a completely mad idea. And, with the technology available to us in 1997, it would likely have been a bad user experience too.

But in 2009 Facebook seems like a completely reasonable thing for many ordinary people to use on a regular basis.  I keep wondering what the next big thing will be – I’ve got some ideas.  But my suspicion remains, that like Twitter, when I hear of it first it will seem either stupid or irrelevant.  Then, only gradually will it dawn that this new technology is changing the way we think and behave, or that it is shifting our expectations of technology and people in everyday life.

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