Friday, January 29, 2010


I have to admit to rarely having been very prescient about new technologies. I understand technology very well, but when it comes to predicting what will take off and what won’t, I’m often off the mark.

Some examples:

  • I never thought Facebook would take off the way that it did. I figured it would be very popular for a while, and then everyone would move onto something else, as they did with MySpace and the various other social networking sites that had come before it. But the Facebook API (among other things) proved me wrong, and, despite my predictions, it’s still quite popular.
  • I underestimated how popular the iPhone would be, and then overestimated how popular the Palm Pre would be. In a radius of twenty feet from where I’m currently sitting at work there are probably a dozen iPhones, but not a single Pre. (Despite the fact that the Pre keeps winning awards for being so darned great.)
  • I was initially right about the Y2K bug, but then gave in to the hype and became as wrong as everyone else. When people first started talking about the Y2K problem, I said, well, it’s no big deal; maybe some reports will be wrong, and say 1900 instead of 2000, but other than that, problems will be extremely rare. If I’d stuck with that, I could have claimed I was prescient, but eventually all of the people who claimed that the sky was going to fall got to me, and I started to think it might actually be a big problem—only to have the clock turn over at 2000, and nothing happened, as I’d originally predicted.
  • I’ve written before (I think) about the fact that I never really cared when Google was launched. Big deal, another search engine, who cares; I already have my hierarchical list of sites on Yahoo!, what do I need another search engine for? Here we are today, and Google is so useful that many if not most people use it for their default page when they load their browser.
These are some examples; there are others. And here are two more.

I’ve already written about Google Wave, and how I think it has the potential to be a paradigm-shifting technology, which might, in time, replace email. (And IM. And documents—but now I’m really dreaming.) And I’d like to be right about it—if only so that I could claim I was prescient—but everyone else seems kind of underwhelmed by it. (Someone described it to me recently as “a solution in search of a problem”—I’m not of that opinion, obviously, but I can definitely understand the sentiment.) There’s still time, don’t get me wrong. I haven’t lost hope in it. But I would feel better if others were sharing my enthusiasm, and as of yet, they’re not.

Then, yesterday, Apple launched the iPad, which is a tablet-sized device, kind of like a big iPhone. And I’m seeing a lot of hype about it, but I’m thinking… so what? It’s a tablet. Big deal. It’s an iPhone, but bigger. (Or, if you get the version without 3G, it’s an iPod Touch, but bigger.) There have been tablets before, and none of them have ever taken off, because people don’t seem to want to use their computers like that. In fact, I remember when I first heard about Tablet PC from Microsoft, and, in another case of non-prescience, was very excited, assuming that it would be the next big thing. Here we are a few years later; have you ever met anyone who had a Tablet PC? I haven’t. I just did a Google search for “Microsoft Tablet PC”, and on the first page of results, the only pages on Microsoft’s site were one in Taiwanese, and one from Microsoft Support, so it’s not exactly a feature that Microsoft is pushing hard. So I’m not seeing the big deal about the iPad, but who knows? Maybe Apple will have implemented it in such a way that people really will find it useful. But at this point, I’m thinking that I’d rather be using a netbook than an iPad.

I should mention that some people have similar feelings about “netbooks.” Who would ever want a netbook, they ask; why not use a laptop, if you want a laptop, or your phone, if you want portability? I don’t agree with them on that; I think that netbooks actually are a good idea, for a lot of situations (and am kind of excited about Google Chrome OS). I think there’s a good market for an in between device, that’s more comfortable than a phone, but just for browsing the web and checking email, therefore not requiring the power (or cost) of a real laptop. (I wasn’t prescient or non-prescient about netbooks; by the time I’d even given them any thought, they were already very popular.)

So I’m thinking that Google Wave is going to be revolutionary, but, based on my history of trying to predict the future, am probably wrong. And I’m thinking that the iPad is no big deal, but for the same reasons, am probably wrong.


Sweep said...

Heh heh heh... I've been talking to some friends about both Google Wave and the iPad recently and I came to the complete opposite conclusion... sort of.

I don't think Google Wave will make much of a big splash because I don't think it's doing anything overly new or different. (Of course, I don't have too much use for Wave, so my opinion is probably based on the fact that I'll use it for about a week and then forget about it.)

I'm a little excited to see Apple come out with their tablet though. I generally dislike Apple products but many people do. I don't think we'll start seeing iPads everywhere I think Apple's popularity will start us down the road to seeing more of this technology become more used and more popular. In a few year's time I think we'll be seeing much more technology like the iPad. (Hopefully after Steve Jobs and Apple go under.)

David Hunter said...

As mentioned in the Google Wave post, though, Google Wave isn’t about new technology; it is, after all, just incremental improvements to existing technologies. In terms of raw technology, I was more impressed with Google Maps and Google Docs, which are great technology. But overall, I’m more impressed with Wave, which is about the ability to look at things in a new way, and potentially shift a paradigm or two. (Email? Instant Messaging? Documents? Things of the past. That would be huge.)

It wouldn’t take a lot of new or brilliant technologies to replace email, just a new way of combining them; wikis and chat protocols put together in a particular way, as Wave has done, could be a way of communicating that would, eventually, render email obsolete. Render instant messaging obsolete. For that matter, render documents obsolete. There aren’t many computer technologies as old as email. Email is even older than the internet itself; it was used in the very oldest forms of computer networks. To replace that would be a big change to how we communicate, and I agree with Google on the fact that this could potentially be a way of using modern internet technologies to do just that. It’s not technology that will make Wave take off, it’s a new way of looking at things—if people outside of Google start to buy into this stuff, email will eventually go away. People like us will still use it, albeit less and less, but the next generation won’t bother; why use this clunky email thing when we can wave?

You can’t really assess Google Wave properly unless you have other friends/colleagues who are also using the technology, and you start using it for your communications with them. Instead of sending them an email, invite them to a wave; instead of “replying” to the email, they contribute to it, and add blips. It’s like people 10 years ago saying, “I haven’t used this internet thing, but I don’t see how it’s any different from using the post office or the telephone.”

As for the iPad, we’ll see. Like I say, people have done tablets before, and by and large, nobody has really cared. People didn’t want or need tablets. Personally, I can’t picture using the iPad; it’s a form factor that, to me, looks awkward. (At least the Tablet PC from Microsoft had a form factor that allowed it to be used tablet-like, but also allowed it to be used laptop-like.) The big difference between this tablet and previous ones is the touch screen (combined with the App Store, I suppose), and maybe that’s what will make the difference.