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Life-changing developments

Posted: 11.22.04

Mobile phone salesWe're just recovering from PT/Expo Comm China 2004 conference, where 10 halls of screaming, dancing, photo-snapping skinny Chinese women flaunted their mobile phones, each one promising to change my life.

One of the problems with being in this industry for a while is avoiding cynicism. It's not really that difficult because of the constant stream of truly innovative and novel things that get introduced every week, but the predictions and hype that are so often associated with them are a bit fatiguing. How many times a month have we been sent a press release or a demo and told that this revolutionary new thing will change the course of history and is a true strategic inflection point for us all to behold? Boy, if Andy Grove is remembered for nothing else, his phrase "strategic inflection point" will forever be remembered—hardly a marketing person can utter a paragraph without using it.

Kathleen Maher has been running her own laboratory on this, and so far her data shows that from the time a predicted strategic inflection point is announced, if the thing succeeds at all, it takes five to 10 years for it to cross the chasm from early adopter to mainstream. That's not exactly the speed of light. So you can see why we're sometimes a little less than overwhelmed at the pronouncements of the caffeine-crazed PR and marketing people's efforts to try to impress us (and keep their BMWs).

One prediction that never happened was solid-state memory replacing hard disk drives. This is a prediction that's like so many, just two years out—forever. Every time memory capacity goes up and holds its price, the demand for memory increase does too. And although it's truly amazing to hold a USB 1-GByte flash memory stick, you know it's not even close to the amount of memory you need for your movies, pictures, or even music; and the USB devices cost $125.

But you can get a sub one-inch 5-GByte hard drive for well under $80.

Samsung's industry first—
a mobile phone with a
1.5-GByte hard drive

However, it just didn't happen overnight. IBM announced their development of microdrives (using pixie dust) back in early 2001, and they had been working them on since the late nineties. Was that a strategic inflection point? Yeah, it was. It fueled the imminently successful iPod and all its imitators, and this year and next it is fueling the expansion of mobile phones into portable video and DVR players.

Other revolutionary developments that were going to change our lives but didn't either fell off the edge of the earth, morphed into something else that didn't change our lives, or settled into the quiet obscurity of a niche product satisfying a small but loyal group of users. BlueTooth comes to mind, and maybe we'll say the same thing about LCOS. For a while it looked like OLED might be in that category; they still have a year or so to change our lives.

One thing that has and is changing our lives is RFID. Now there's a real strategic inflection point, and my only complaint is that the implant scar itches from time to time.

We're looking into the future now, and trying to spot that next life-changing technology. One that has currently intrigued is augmented reality. I won't give you a tutorial on AR here, but you've seen it if you've ever seen an American football game with a yellow scrimmage line on the TV screen. I think AR may be a real life-changing technology like RFID. One of the things that makes a technology life changing is the ubiquity of it—it disappears. We so take it for granted and come to depend on it that it's not novel, it's like air, water, and electricity.

So the next time someone tells you about their life-changing strategic inflection point, ask them, How soon will it disappear? If they can't answer the question, or don't understand it, ask them to turn in the keys to their BMW.