A Demo is not a Product

on June 15, 2017
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Many of us immersed in the world of consumer tech become quite excited when we see something new for the first time. Our imagination immediately races ahead to try to understand how we’ll use it and what products we’ll buy.

But our imagination rarely is tempered by the actual time it can take to turn a new technology into a product. We get ahead of ourselves with predictions about the impact that the technology will have and how it will change our lives. But from all my experience, it always takes much longer than expected.

Our excitement often leads to unreasonable expectations, impatience, and disappointment once the product finally arrives. The product is often less than we expected, and it may take several iterations before it does.

The time it takes for a new technology concept to become mainstream is measured in years or decades, rarely in months. Many things need to occur. There’s the time needed for development of the product, the time it takes to create awareness in the market, and the time for people to realize they have a need. Even then, a buying decision can take years more.

The world is not composed of people like us that are early adopters and can’t wait for the next new thing.  Most can wait and usually do. Sometimes years. There are many reasons for this, from not understanding the new technology, being cautious and skeptical about its value to them, being intimidated, not being able to afford it, or just not caring.

The table below shows just how long it took with other products.  The CD player and VCR, as examples, took ten years to reach a fifty percent penetration of US homes.

We can argue that with social media, the speed of information, and a technically more proficient population, adoption might move faster today. But our expectations are now higher, we’re more skeptical, and it often takes more to impress.

That hasn’t stopped companies’ efforts to get us excited about their new tech. We’re being inundated with news every day. Examples are self-driving cars – even some that fly, artificial intelligence, and virtual and augmented reality.

Much of the news is promoted by the companies themselves to raise investments, increase their valuation, or to scare away their competitors, all while exaggerating the time to commercialization

Just last week Uber announced an investment in a company developing flying cars. It played well on the national news that quoted a company official that they roll out a network of flying cars in Dallas by 2020. Last year Uber said they were already employing self-driving cars, when, in fact, they still have one or two employees in each car. Two years ago, Amazon demonstrated drone delivery. Yet these technologies are still years away.

Today it’s hard to open Facebook or a technology blog without seeing examples of virtual and augmented reality. We’re seeing demos from scores of companies around the world, each vying for moments of fame. We see all sorts of clever uses of how this technology will help us in education, medicine, shopping, and computing as if it’s just around the corner. Yet much of this will evolve slowly and take years to be significant.

If the past is any indication, the first-generation products will not be commercially successful, but more of a proof of concept. No one will wear huge goggles outside of their home. Enabling technologies still need to be developed, including smaller components, miniaturized optics, and faster processors to enable these devices to be practical. More importantly, new tools and an infrastructure are needed for creating affordable content.

Yes, we’ll see some small examples when we point our phone at a restaurant or a product and see reviews and can buy with a click. Tim Bajarin correctly pointed out in this piece that he doesn’t expect to see VR adopted widely for at least 5-7 years.

The point here is not to be discouraging about innovation, but to realize that it’s a long and difficult road from a prototype or demo to a successful product. The idea is always the easy part.