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Reasons for Progress

By General_Corto in Op-Ed
Mon Jan 22, 2001 at 09:13:25 PM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)

Society today lives in a technological wonderland in many ways, and yet we are also constantly struck with news of even more 'smaller, faster, cheaper, better' things. Some areas of technology move... a little more slowly though. I want to have a quick look at a few areas of technology and discuss where they are (and aren't) going, and how we can affect them.

Most of the people here are classed as geeks in some way or other, or have an equivalent moniker associated with them. For the geek in all of us, the computer is the big technological 'thing' that we know about and use every day. We all know about Moore's Law, and the technological marvels it has effectively predicted for the last 36 years. However, that is purely a measure of hardware efficiency; software certainly isn't getting logarithmically better over time.

I find it an interesting disparity, especially as a programmer, that rather than ramping up with the speed of our hardware, we prefer to use that improvement as a way to beautify the status quo. Sure, improved hardware gives you more free cycles to animate that paper clip that dances all over your screen as you write mail or crunch numbers in a spreadsheet, but those cycles don't really get you working any faster. For some people such as scientists, improvements in hardware speed result in either faster or more accurate results to experiments. For us mere mortals though, the real gain is seen in corporate bottom lines. Hardware innovates to provide, while most software innovates to market itself.

Innovation to provide pretty much drives itself. We're seeing a silicon equivalent of the space race, and all the players involved want to be able to publish a "we're king of the hill" press release as often as possible. So long as that continues, consumers don't need to be involved, though they need to be informed, and willing to act should Bad Change be on the horizon. Software is a very different can of worms though. People need applications, but do they need them to have the amount of functionality we see today? The role of software marketing is to make people feel left out if they don't have the most up-to-date version of a particular application. A clever application of peer pressure. If the software manufacturer can't get to you that way, your friends, company or clients will. You can rest assured that someone you interact with has taken the bait of the upgrade, and has left you in an ever-so-slightly incompatible state. Nature abhors a vacuum, and human nature abhors non-conformity.

What can you do to change this? Open standards in file formats is one method. Sun's Star Office suite is moving towards an XML-based format for saving files. In theory, you could use open-source tools to transform this format into any other, be it PDF, Excel, or Photoshop. This isn't in the market leader's interest though, as they have a user base to protect. For the time being, the best way to erode a market leader's share is to copy them as much as possible, while offering some other form of value which they cannot provide due to their business process.

Lets look at another group who are currently close to me (although, ironically, I am not allowed to use their products): the global automotive industry. Now, before we all get into the normal conspiratorial view of things, lets take a look at their product (and yes, I know Bill Gates has used them as a reference in the past too).

Cars are a very different beast from computers. In the case of the computer, you can drive a market (no pun) with perceived features such as speed and efficiency. That can work on cars too (especially the efficiency), but cars are more look and feel than anything else, because of the constraints put on their use (unless you like going to court with great frequency). The car industry is extremely conservative. Production of a new line of vehicles is so expensive that if you fail, it can destroy your profits very quickly indeed. As a result, the motor industry innovates to expectations.

As expectations are so important here, changing expectations change markets. Witness the SUV explosion of the last few years. People made it clear that they wanted a vehicle that was capable of carrying a good number of people around in solid comfort. The manufacturers complied with this, and the SUV was born. Looking at them all today though, you could say that The SUV was born, because they are all basically the same.

How can you make such a homogenous industry a little more... interesting? Get involved. Let the makers know that you like things about their concept cars. Push to have these things built for real; it's been shown to work in Europe. The Mercedes A Class is a wonderous vehicle (inital problems nonwithstanding) - small externally, but with larger interior space than a C Class and as safe in an accident. Having the public directly express its opinion does make these people sit up and take notice.

Finally, as they are the current poster children of the online world for all the wrong reasons, lets turn our field of vision to the music industry. How can you innovate here? Surely it's all bands, concerts, CDs and marketing videos.

Well, bands innovate by being human and finding new ways to express themselves. In a somewhat Darwinian fashion, however skewed, some succeed and some fail. Concerts can provide a better experience to the viewer, either through better sound, vision, or both. Video content is now frequently a story in 3 minutes, and if it hasn't happened already, I'm sure we'll see the time when a series of videos combine to tell an overall story (the video as medium for an epic). CDs and other prior media have seen innovation as better ways to get the audio content from a band to a consumer, but as I mentioned in a recent article response, today's market doesn't need yet another distribution medium. Not the consumers at least. Music is now an industry that innovates to exist.

Music is an industry ripe for change. The individual has serious power here now, and the industry doesn't like that at all. Introduction of copy protection, and lobbying of legislatures is all part of their goal of continuing to exist. The most basic role the play, as an intermediary, is still relevant, but their larger purpose (making lots of money at the expense of many people) isn't. People are trying to get the traditional companies out of the picture here, through systems like Napster (which is still heavily dependent on the traditionals to initially get music), or sites that make music by unsigned artists available. As we become even more technologically advanced, expect to see this happen more, and be successful too.

Hopefully this has given you some interesting ideas for Making Things Change. All industries have their own, special cattle prods. If you can discover where they are, and how to operate them, you can make them move, or move them out of the way.


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Reasons for Progress | 7 comments (2 topical, 5 editorial, 0 hidden)
Well done (2.00 / 2) (#2)
by jdtux on Mon Jan 22, 2001 at 05:18:04 PM EST

I believe that this is a very well thought out story. Therefore: +1 FP

Oh come on now... (3.00 / 2) (#7)
by handle on Mon Jan 22, 2001 at 09:16:57 PM EST

Hardware innovates to provide

Sorry, but there is no way that you're going to convince me that Intel is constantly rushing out new, faster chips solely because they want to enhance the usefullness of their products. Hell, I'd say most of the time, it's all PR.

On an editorial note, your thesis is a little murky. Still +1 because I think you made a few interesting points

Reasons for Progress | 7 comments (2 topical, 5 editorial, 0 hidden)
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