“Technology in the long-run is irrelevant”. That is what a customer of mine told me when I made a presentation to him about a new product. I had been talking about the product’s features and benefits and listed “state-of-the-art technology” or something to that effect, as one of them. That is when he made his statement. I realized later that he was correct, at least within the context of how I used “Technology” in my presentation. But I began thinking about whether he could be right in other contexts as well.
What is Technology?
Merriam-Webster defines it as:
a: the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area: engineering 2
b: a capability given by the practical application of knowledge
: a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge
: the specialized aspects of a particular field of endeavor
Wikipedia defines it as:
Technology (from Greek τÎχνη, techne, “art, skill, cunning of hand”; and -λογÎ¯α, -logia) is the making, modification, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems, and methods of organization, in order to solve a problem, improve a preexisting solution to a problem, achieve a goal, handle an applied input/output relation or perform a specific function. It can also refer to the collection of such tools, including machinery, modifications, arrangements and procedures. Technologies significantly affect human as well as other animal species’ ability to control and adapt to their natural environments. The term can either be applied generally or to specific areas: examples include construction technology, medical technology, and information technology.
Both definitions revolve around the same thing – application and usage.
Technology is an enabler
Many people mistakenly believe it is technology which drives innovation. Yet from the definitions above, that is clearly not the case. It is opportunity which defines innovation and technology which enables innovation. Think of the classic “Build a better mousetrap” example taught in most business schools. You might have the technology to build a better mousetrap, but if you have no mice or the old mousetrap works well, there is no opportunity and then the technology to build a better one becomes irrelevant. On the other hand, if you are overrun with mice then the opportunity exists to innovate a product using your technology.
Another example, one with which I am intimately familiar, are consumer electronics startup companies. I’ve been associated with both those that succeeded and those that failed. Each possessed unique leading edge technologies. The difference was opportunity. Those that failed could not find the opportunity to develop a meaningful innovation using their technology. In fact to survive, these companies had to morph oftentimes into something totally different and if they were lucky they could take advantage of derivatives of their original technology. More often than not, the original technology wound up in the scrap heap. Technology, thus, is an enabler whose ultimate value proposition is to make improvements to our lives. In order to be relevant, it needs to be used to create innovations that are driven by opportunity.
Technology as a competitive advantage?
Many companies list a technology as one of their competitive advantages. Is this valid? In some cases yes, but In most cases no.
Technology develops along two paths – an evolutionary path and a revolutionary path.
A revolutionary technology is one which enables new industries or enables solutions to problems that were previously not possible. Semiconductor technology is a good example. Not only did it spawn new industries and products, but it spawned other revolutionary technologies – transistor technology, integrated circuit technology, microprocessor technology. All which provide many of the products and services we consume today. But is semiconductor technology a competitive advantage? Looking at the number of semiconductor companies that exist today (with new ones forming every day), I’d say not. How about microprocessor technology? Again, no. Lots of microprocessor companies out there. How about quad core microprocessor technology? Not as many companies, but you have Intel, AMD, ARM, and a host of companies building custom quad core processors (Apple, Samsung, Qualcomm, etc). So again, not much of a competitive advantage. Competition from competing technologies and easy access to IP mitigates the perceived competitive advantage of any particular technology. Android vs iOS is a good example of how this works. Both operating systems are derivatives of UNIX. Apple used their technology to introduce iOS and gained an early market advantage. However, Google, utilizing their variant of Unix (a competing technology), caught up relatively quickly. The reasons for this lie not in the underlying technology, but in how the products made possible by those technologies were brought to market (free vs. walled garden, etc.) and the differences in the strategic visions of each company.
Evolutionary technology is one which incrementally builds upon the base revolutionary technology. But by it’s very nature, the incremental change is easier for a competitor to match or leapfrog. Take for example wireless cellphone technology. Company V introduced 4G products prior to Company A and while it may have had a short term advantage, as soon as Company A introduced their 4G products, the advantage due to technology disappeared. The consumer went back to choosing Company A or Company V based on price, service, coverage, whatever, but not based on technology. Thus technology might have been relevant in the short term, but in the long term, became irrelevant.
In today’s world, technologies tend to quickly become commoditized, and within any particular technology lies the seeds of its own death.
This article was written from the prospective of an end customer. From a developer/designer standpoint things get murkier. The further one is removed from the technology, the less relevant it becomes. To a developer, the technology can look like a product. An enabling product, but a product nonetheless, and thus it is highly relevant. Bose uses a proprietary signal processing technology to enable products that meet a set of market requirements and thus the technology and what it enables is relevant to them. Their customers are more concerned with how it sounds, what’s the price, what’s the quality, etc., and not so much with how it is achieved, thus the technology used is much less relevant to them.
Recently, I was involved in a discussion on Google+ about the new Motorola X phone. A lot of the people on those posts slammed the phone for various reasons – price, locked boot loader, etc. There were also plenty of knocks on the fact that it didn’t have a quad-core processor like the S4 or HTC One which were priced similarly. What they failed to grasp is that whether the manufacturer used 1, 2, 4, or 8 cores in the end makes no difference as long as the phone can deliver a competitive (or even best of class) feature set, functionality, price, and user experience. The iPhone is one of the most successful phones ever produced, and yet it runs on a dual-core processor. It still delivers one of the best user experiences on the market. The features that are enabled by the technology are what are relevant to the consumer, not the technology itself.
The relevance of technology therefore, is as an enabler, not as a product feature or a competitive advantage, or any myriad of other things – an enabler. Looking at the Android operating system, it is an impressive piece of software technology, and yet Google gives it away. Why? Because standalone, it does nothing for Google. Giving it away allows other companies to use their expertise to build products and services which then act as enablers for Google’s products and services. To Google, that’s where the real value is.