The Mortal Dangers of Predicting Technology Survival Rates

With a shaky methodology and an unsettling propensity to shoehorn all technological innovations into one “Emerging Technology” category, market research firm Garnter Inc published the 2009 “Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies,” its effort to map out the life cycles of cutting edge technologies. The Hype Cycle puts cloud computing, e-books and internet TV at the “Peak of Inflated Expectations,” while microblogging (Twitter) is just beginning to plummet on the “Trough of Disillusionment.”

Hype Cycle

And the methodology for reference:

Hype Cycle Methodology

My initial allergic reaction to The Hype Cycle stems from the seemingly inevitable placement of promising technologies into a category of “inflated expectations.” Sure, when a new technology skyrockets, as have internet TV sites like Hulu.com, or buzz around emerging technologies like the e-reader Kindle creates a sense of earth-shattering change, it is easy to view the amalgamated societal perception as “inflated.” That said, to ignore the expansive possibilities of these technologies, particularly with future add-ons or enhancements in mind, it would be irrational to view them as anything but game-changers.

Take Hulu, for example. Although the argument that internet TV will replace broadcast in and of itself is inflated, the promise of streaming, long-form content is far from a passing trend. First, Hulu is fast catching up to YouTube in terms of viewers:

Hulu v YouTube

Second, as viewers begin to hook up their TVs to their computers, watching free streaming content or illegally/legally downloaded shows and movies, traditional cable providers will begin to feel the pains of what the Hype Cycle deems a passing trend. Bundled services (tv, internet and phone) from digital cable providers are already on the decline, as Jeffrey Rayport (HBS professor, my boss and digital guru) pointed out in Business Week earlier this year. He writes,

That means cable providers are seeing a whole new generation of online users who are perfectly happy to pay $30 a month for a “naked” cable modem or a digital-subscriber-line connection provided by telecom companies, but have no need for the $150-a-month premium programming package. “In the last year we’re starting to see from consumers the indication that the broadband part is more the anchor part of the bundle than video—that they value that more highly,” Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt was recently quoted as saying by Multichannel News. “I think we’re going to see more of that in the future.”

In terms of e-books, Web 2.0 (although we might already be experiencing “Web Squared“) and other emerging technologies about which we are supposedly clouded by unrealistic excitement, the Hype folks have yet to integrate into their model disruptive innovations at the technological or market level, which will essentially change the way perceive these existing technologies, and moreover, provide an entirely new lens through which we can use them. Specifically, they account for second and third-generation models, but they do not account for fundamental intrinsic or external changes (e.g. a decline in the number of traditional print publishing companies, alongside improved e-reader technology and increased workforce mobility, necessitating increased availability of high-quality e-books).

My next qualm with the Hype Cycle is that they lump all technologies, regardless of their end-user, platform, purpose or price, into the same category of “emerging technology.” Placing microblogging, which is a free communication device stretching across multiple platforms and melds social networking / content-sharing technology, alongside 3-D printing, which to my understanding is a costly enterprise solution with highly specialized applications (architecture, product design, etc), negates the unique nature of each technology. Their common feature is that they are both innovations falling under an all-expansive bucket of “technology,” but that is like saying that pathology lab DNA amplification devices and my new body lotion are comparable given they are both scientific innovations using plastic.

And finally,  the researchers behind the Hype Cycle do not account for the stickiness factor of certain technologies once they become “path dependent.” Simply put, once a technology is embedded into certain functions giving rise to technical inter-relatedness, capital has been invested or enough people have signed up, switching technologies becomes highly costly and a technology (good or bad) is likely to stick. The QWERTY keyboard is a classic example of this somewhat depressing trend — it is subpar compared to other keyboard configurations, but was too integrated into other technologies and adoption was high enough to prevent a change.

Twitter’s natural monopoly over micro-blogging is a prime example of the social stickiness of a technology or device. With the largest user-based and closed source technology, Twitter has carved itself out as the go-to for microbloggers, despite a proliferation of copy cats (who often have improved features and functionality).

Twitter stickiness

As with QWERTY, a migration of users will likely occur only if/when the next technology has innovated enough to merit a migration. Users switched from AIM to Gchat due to the improved delivery of the service (email form within a browser versus pop-up/separate program).

So I should note that I don’t think the Hype Cycle is all bad. It is an interesting and thought-provoking way to plot an overwhelming number of new devices, platforms and solutions across trends in societal reactions. Another dialectic, the Cycle provides us with a way of collecting, synthesizing and simplifying what was and what is to come. However, as with all efforts in consolidation and simplification, a lot of highly important — and game-changing — nuance is lost.

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: Network Multiplicity « Muddled Fairytales: Ruminations on Time, Space and the Digital Underbelly

  2. Pingback: It’s a bird, it’s a 3D printed plane! « Muddled Fairytales: Ruminations on Time, Space and the Digital Underbelly

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