Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Blind Spot - Reflections on technology and obsolescence

For my friends the young tech-preneurs that follow this blog, I decided to share my 40 years perspective on the growth and decline of new technologies.  It is a personal experience that I hope may help understanding the process at work and may prevent them from repeating some of the blunders I made from incorrect assumptions.

I am 61, grew up in Europe in a family of several generations of entrepreneurs. Went to university in the US ad got a BA in Psychology and MBA in International Business, Finance and Accounting.  From those experiences I developed a curiosity for technology - perhaps I am lazy and I valued technology's leverage to let me do more for less effort. I was blessed to grow up in the dawn of computer technology - I remember at age 9, my father, an engineer, tell me of his wonder at his first encounter with IBM computers and punched cards, etc. in 1960; it was a glimpse of the future and I was sold.  My MBA thesis, 14 years later, would be a FORTRAN program for financial analysis, a box of punched cards (three months of work in 1973 that I replicated in 1983 with Lotus 123 in three hours).
My career as a banker and later as serial entrepreneur was always leveraged by using computing technology from HP calculators to punched cards, to Apple II, to CPM microprocessors to DOS and Windows. I tinkered with these tools sooner and more than most people I knew. I saw the future coming and I wanted to usher it in.

Possible insights
My fascination with digital technology led me to always overestimate how quickly the "computing future" would come, how fast the masses would adopt and how fast "older stuff" would be abandoned. The reality is that except for early adopters, the masses are slow to abandon old habits and do so only when the process of change is easy.  The change that to me was challenging, fun and satisfied my curiosity, to most others was hard work, so broad based technology acceptance was always late.

This blind spot probably was the root of all business failures or slower-than-hoped successes I had. It was really unjustified since I was privileged to insight to the contrary. Shame on me; here is one example:

In 1983 I worked for a company in Seattle, DP Enterprises, that had two existing product lines: 1. selling IBM minicomputers and 2. maintaining the left-over key punch machines still needed to run the first generation mainframes. I was product manager of the minicomputers line, I disdained the old junk keypunches, and longed to transfer to a new upcoming initiative to sell the new-on-the-market IBM PCs (floppy disk only, XTs would come later).  Ed Benshoof, the owner, was making money faster than he could count it and built one of the biggest and nicest office buildings in town, overlooking Lake Union and with his penthouse on top of it . I heard that the profits were coming disproportionately from the "junk dealer business" of scavenging parts, refurbishing and reselling keypunches to companies with very old mainframes that could not afford the conversion costs to migrate to "my" newer minicomputers.
Duh! Even my seven year old son could have drawn the right conclusion. Not me. I was smitten with the future, only too soon.

Countless other ventures followed with too-soon-technologies that would eventually be applauded when I had moved on to.  Some of the ideas I followed paid off well enough, but I could have saved myself a lot of troubles if that blind spot had not been there.

Lessons learned
  • Do not bet on fast mass adoption of anything that requires learning, work or effort. It's not that people are dumb, they just have better things to do with their time.
  • Fast adoption happens only with super-intuitive products that require virtually no learning (all benefits no costs), like smart phones of the iPhone and Android generation (not the earlier Palm Pilots), or like the iPad and Android tablets (not the Windows tablets of 2002-3)
  • Particularly for small businesses (cash strapped) and very large enterprises (logistically bound), obsolescence does not mean that the obsolete product goes into the garbage can.  It will continue in use if no effort or cost is involved in its continued use. It may be re-purposed if the required effort is minimal (e.g. a PC passed down to children, secretaries, assistants, warehouse staff, kiosk, etc.)
  • Where complex or critical systems are involved the cost of changeover will be accepted only when the benefit is substantial. The more complex, mission critical the system the slower the changeover
  • For most products, changes in User Interface (UI) are very risky as they require users to learn something different: 1. unlearn the familiar and 2. relearn the unfamiliar. If it is hugely beneficial they will do it, else they will resist.  That is why 30% of PCs still run XP after 10 years that sales stopped, that is why it took years for Windows 7 to get market penetration equal to Vista (the epitome of a dog failed product), and why Windows 8 is getting no traction.  It is also the reason why all cars still have steering wheels, sticks to put in gear automatic transmissions !?, keys to start, knobs to control A/C, radio, etc.
Marco Messina


1 comment:

Claire M Swazey said...

Wow! I used to work for DP Enterprises too, back around then. Nice people but they grew too fast, I'm thinking.