First, here is the concept:
When Phillips introduced the compact cassette tape in 1962, they didn't foresee that Sony would use the idea in 1979 to bring us the Walkman. The cassette made music portable and easy to copy at home. The Walkman introduced us to the idea that we could hear what we wanted anywhere, and no longer be at the mercy of a radio station programmer when we weren't in front of our record player at home. Cassettes were a technology trigger; why didn't we see it coming?
- it took time for the tech to get better,
- and it took genius for someone to see it as a new business opportunity.
Sony went on to rule the personal portable music business for many years, until other triggers made the cassette obsolete. Except that Sony didn't see that coming, and lost its market dominance.
That's the nature of triggers, they're often cool in their own right, but rarely appreciated in real time for the true impact they will have. One trigger begets another; without the Walkman, would the market have been ready for the idea of the iPod?
Can we do better at that "real-time" part, and be the early Sony with the Walkman instead of the Sony that got blindsided by the iPod? Can we think of triggers in ways to jumpstart innovation, or give our business a competitive advantage?
Maybe. I've put this tool together and shown it before, based on the idea that you can take elements of a big idea--in this case, music--and look at the evolution of the ideas as horizontal timelines. Back away, and the verticals reveal the big shifts brought on by trigger technologies or events.
Here is what it looks like:
We can track the cascades of trigger technologies through the entire reshaping of music sales and consumption. Beyond cassettes and Walkmans, we had compact discs digitizing music, and home PCs powerful enough to rip, store and copy at very high quality: trigger. Perhaps the ultimate trigger event was broadband to the home, enabling frictionless sharing, real-time streaming music, and online digital music stores.
So that's the background. There are triggers in play at this moment, here are 10 I think are worth watching:
- Maturity of machine voice recognition and interaction-by-voice Voice interaction is still crude, hindering its adoption for hands-free machine operation, customer service, text entry. Maturity here triggers a world of possibilities. Impact: Automobile interaction, digital personal assistants, customer service, almost all mobile services and social interactions.
- Computer image recognition and taxonomy Computers still do a poor job of recognizing things, and an even worse job of detailed identification. The ability to say “what building is this? What kind of plant is this? Who is that?” will extend the power of search to the entire visual world. All the workarounds we use to take the place of simple recognition, like barcodes, RFID, QR codes, can simply disappear. Impact: shopping, education, travel, social interaction, manufacturing, digital personal assistants. #3-5 deal with the major trigger effect of artificial intelligence as it matures and comes into daily life
- AI: context
The ability to infer meaning by context is a crucial enabler for digital personal assistants and other more sophisticated computer tasks. A spouse learns quickly not to talk about Aunt Marge’s boyfriend when he’s around her ex, a contextual simplicity that still baffles computers. Success here is easier to identify by example than by descriptor.
Contextual AI would know that a traveler in NYC who says, “directions to airport” would want JFK instead of LaGuardia because of his existing flight itinerary for that day. We are seeing glimmers of this trigger in Apple's Siri and in Google Now.
- AI: nuance Beyond context, the use of artificial intelligence to derive the more fine-grained nuance of a situation is a necessary enabler to unlock high value computer services like excellent machine-based customer service, and the use of computers to automate currently-tedious but vital tasks like data cleansing. There is a huge range of tasks currently using disengaged, low-paid and low-job-interest humans simply because the nuance trigger has not matured in the AI space. Impact: customer service, digital personal assistants, security.
- AI: enterprise data and application integration Businesses already know how much master data management means. They are aware how important it is, how impactful if they could seamlessly work with data across many situations, applications, and languages. But even if all new products were designed to work together out of the box, this fact remains. When it comes to the "as-is" state of data and apps, corporations must deal with high expense, little agility, and the "IT says no" mentality. It's due to the burden of the programs and services that are already installed and handling day-to-day business, and the business model pressures of vendors who would be endangered if you could plug and play applications from anyone. Once this AI trigger matures, we can apply computer speed to data concepts like this: "customer," "client," and "name" can mean the same person. This ability takes both contextual awareness and a fine sense of nuance--including the appreciation of the proper time to call for human help. But once it emerges, there is hope to manage that data nightmare with speed, accuracy, and transparency--to make it appear that those systems are cooperating because AI is applying real-time integration that makes it happen.
- Stateless apps, data, and devices Anyone who has read my posts on Infrics.com will see this as a soapbox topic for me. Data, applications, and machines have historically been linked, tied to one another like members of a chain gang. Once you decouple them from each other, you can use each to its best advantage, at the time you want and on the device that makes the most sense. Data is available everywhere, applications work seamlessly on any device, and the machines themselves can be dramatically less expensive. The "lightness" that the stateless decoupling enables is revolutionary; it is the source for the slogan on the masthead of this site: "everything you need is everywhere you are." As the stateless idea matures and gains market penetration, the trigger cascades into modular, just-in-time application development and delivery, to revolutionary models of rights purchase and ownership, and to radical agility in the development and deployment of devices.
- Digital rights management and rights ecosystems
Hopelessly fragmented, driven by efforts to preserve legacy business models, contentious, and volatile, our current system of digital rights is a mess. Ownership and licensing rights involve three layers: creators, sellers, and buyers. Of these, buyers of music, video, books, and applications are the least well served in the current model.
The trigger-to-come: the separation of rights control from its current tight links to those who sell and deliver content. An independent third party rights unifier serving the buyer will explode the existing business models, and bring new opportunities for sales, storage, and delivery of digital content.
- 3-D printing
Kudos have to go to Jackie Fenn at Gartner, who has told us for at least 10 years that 3-D printing is an important idea.
I have to say I agree, but as cool as 3-D printing sounds as a concept, I believe the true impact lies beyond the "wow" factor. Where we'll see revolutionary change lies in the businesses and related technologies it will trigger. The state of the art is still crude, slow, and expensive, but so were laser printers in the 80s.
The closest analogy I can think of for the most profound trigger effect is that this digitizes things in the way that CDs brought us digitized music. Who will profit and who will lose when you can “rip” an object, make a perfect copy, store and transmit it online, and share it at will? Some clear impacts: manufacturing, including supply chain; extreme personalization of "made" goods; and the new importance of rights management for objects that can be printed at will.
- Social authentication Tech security to date relies on two things: something you have (key) and something you know (password.) We are very close to the ability to allow a return to the most fundamental, earliest form of authentication: who you know. Social authentication will enable a huge shift to make security technologies transparent and invisible. Just as you once ran a tab at the corner restaurant because they knew you personally, that small-village ability could soon spread to our entire online and in-person lives.
- Ubiquitous broadband
It’s not “you can never be too rich or too thin,” it’s “you can never be too fast or have too much bandwidth.”
Broadband connections, primarily mobile ones, are immature but growing fast. This one trigger sets of a cascade of abilities from stateless computing to emerging economy enablement to social revolution. We saw one such revolution in the trigger breakdown illustration for music shown above. This is a case that is less about the technology itself maturing than about its deployment worldwide at higher and higher speeds and at lower and lower cost.
As I've said, trigger events and technologies can be stealthy. I think these cover most of the ones on my radar right now, but I'd like to hear from you. What else is hiding in plain sight? What will we look back on in 5 years and wonder, "why didn't I see that coming?"
Infrics.com coverage of tech triggers will continue, and I'll be working to expand several of the ones listed here into separate, more detailed articles. Broadband is first of the list, look for that report very soon.