Through the years, many technologies have come and gone – everything from 8-track tapes and laser discs to PDAs and pagers. The process can be a little surreal, especially as you get older. So how do you know which technologies are worth bothering with?
Depending on your age, you’ve probably had your own experiences with technologies passing through your life. In fact, your basement or garage is probably filled with a few of them – old VHS camcorders, analog phones, cassette Walkmans.
Many of those technologies transformed lives. Those old Atari game consoles added excitement and joy to the lives of countless children. Pagers made it so people weren’t so tied down to their offices. Smartphones have virtually transformed the world – for better or for worse.
But, how do you know whether something new is going to be something grand – or just another rusting husk in the wasteland of bad technology from the past?
1. It Solves a Problem
The first, and probably most important element of a transformative technology is that it solves a problem in your everyday life. It may be one of those problems you’ve learned to live with, until someone comes along with some device that makes your life a whole lot easier than you’ve ever imagined.
Do you remember what life was like before the dishwasher, the clothes washer, the microwave, or the digital telephone? Analog phones seemed so convenient, until those nifty phones with the number keypad made everyone realize just how annoying it was to swing your index finger around a rotary dial, and wait for the stupid rotary to swivel back into place before dialing the next number.
Suddenly, something as simple as dialing a phone went from taking half a minute to just a few seconds.
Today, most people take the smartphone for granted, but it’s one of those technologies that solves not one, but hundreds of little problems throughout our lives.
You can use it to find your way when you’re lost, to find your friend in a crowd, to search for fun things to do on the weekend, or even to find a date for the weekend.
The bottom line is that if a new technology solves one or two important annoyances in your daily life, that’s got promise. If it solves a whole long list of problems, that’s got the potential for becoming a “disruptive technology” – a technology that can transform an entire industry.
2. It Provides an Advantage
A story I often tell about my own experience with the evolution of the cellphone is when I used to buy antiques at local auctions and sell them on eBay for a pretty decent profit. These were in the years just before mobile Internet, but after wi-fi hot spots had just become a “thing” at places like McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts.
I remember, I used to run to the auction the moment the doors open, jot down everything interesting I noticed during the hour provided for “inspection” before the auction started, and then I raced down the street to the nearby McDonald’s so I could use my laptop and their free Wi-Fi to quickly search for what those items were selling for on eBay.
It was terribly annoying, so I visited my wireless retailer and asked them if they had any phones available that allowed people to connect to the Internet over cellphone lines. The guy grinned at me, like it was probably the hundredth time he’d been asked the same question. His only response was, “Not yet, but it’s coming soon…trust me.”
The moment Verizon offered the Windows Mobile 5.0 with cellular Internet, I bought one and raced to the auctions to put it to good use. The “advantage” it offered me was significant – and I definitely made some good money during those years. But it didn’t take long before everyone started appearing at auctions with shiny new smartphones, scrolling through eBay listings.
The advantages of being a first-user of a new technology are usually short-lived, but they sure are fun while they last.
Think about it: Computers gave early-adopter researchers in science and technology a major competitive advantage over their counterparts across the world. Tablets and mobile devices gave their first users the freedom to be productive without being tied down to an office. Early adopters of new technologies (like self-driving cars) will enjoy benefits, both to their lifestyle, and their wallet!
When you can see a tangible benefit of a technology to in people’s daily lives, that’s how you tell it has staying power, and is more than just a fad.
3. It Attracts a Crowd
If you visit tech trade shows, then you know how obvious it is when something brand new is a big hit. It attracts people. The media talks about it. Everyone wants one.
But that’s not the crowd I’m talking about.
I’m referring to activity within the tech industry itself. When there are new products cropping up like hotcakes to plug into, accessorize or otherwise capitalize on the popularity of that one industry, then you know you’ve found a winner.
Case in point, the iPod.
The iPod was introduced in 2001, and in the first six years there were over 90 million sold. It solved a problem – the ability to have a huge collection of music with you, in a very tiny form factor. It provided an advantage – hours of music to pass the time during your daily commute or while waiting in the doctor’s office.
But the biggest clue that the iPod was going to revolutionize the music industry was the accessory market that followed its introduction and popularity.
Toy industry marketing specialist Shelly Hirtsch told the New York Times that the phenomenon was basically a feeding frenzy by smaller businesses, to capitalize on the growing popularity of the iPod.
“People looked and saw the popularity of the iPod and tried to figure out how to capitalize on it, like those scavenger fish that swim under sharks.”
Thousands of accessories were created to expand upon the functionality of one of the world’s most popular music devices – a device, in fact, that served as the first step toward more intelligent mobile devices that everyone now carries around with them.
This feeding frenzy within the industry was a clear signal to anyone who cared that the iPod was a revolutionary device that would be remembered for generations.
4. Teens Like It
Let’s face it, teenagers are always seeking out new things to do, and places to be. Adults, in contrast, tend to be a little more set in their ways, and less likely to spend the time to seek out the cutting edge.
Whether it’s smartphones, Facebook and Instagram, or even computers – yes, teenagers were into it. Anyone in touch with the teenage scene during the first stage of each of these technologies could see the trend.
This continues today, and Mark Zuckerberg has seen the writing on the wall. That’s why in 2012, Facebook bought Instagram, and why it bid billions on Snapchat, as explained by Derek Thompson of the Atlantic.
“Indeed, Facebook has acknowledged that it’s losing the invaluable patina of cool among teenagers. That’s one of the reasons why it’s thought to have bid so highly for Snapchat: The $116 billion company understands and values the power of teenage addiction.”
Maybe it’s because adults want to appear young, or because teens are always looking for the coolest new ways they can get away from the adults. Whatever the reason, teenagers are most often the windsock pointing out the direction of the wind in the tech world.
It isn’t always easy to know if some new gadget will transform lives, or fizzle out overnight, but the four signs above are pretty good indicators whether or not you should bother spending your money – or waiting for the next big thing.
Are you good at picking hits? Or do you have a basement full of laserdisc players and 8-track tapes? Give us your take in the comments section below!