Arrivals and Departures

on January 21, 2016

I was listening to an episode of the Awl podcast this week. Guest Clay Shirky said something that struck me as important and profound. He was speaking specifically in the context of media (the Awl’s primary subject matter), but it seemed applicable throughout the tech world, too. Here’s the quote as I’ve transcribed it:

The arrival half of the media revolution happened much, much faster than the departure half.

He used email and the fax machine as an example of this phenomenon, suggesting that, even though it was immediately apparent to almost everyone that email was superior to faxes, fax machines were still being sold in this decade. In other words, even though email took off very rapidly, it took much longer for it to kill off one of the technologies it replaced. By implication then, what ends up becoming substitution very often looks like complementary or coexistence for an awfully long time at first. All of this got me wondering about what arrivals we’ve already witnessed and the departures they will ultimately cause but which might not yet be apparent.

Some recent arrivals

Let’s start out by thinking about some recent arrivals, although I’m going to use a fairly zoomed-out definition of “recent” for the purpose of this analysis. Consider the following list of technologies and products, ordered vaguely by their date of arrival in the mainstream consciousness. What departures might these arrivals eventually cause? Which have they already begun to cause?

  • E-commerce
  • Google search
  • Over-the-top video services
  • Facebook
  • Google Docs
  • Cloud computing
  • Wireless headphones
  • Amazon Fresh
  • Facebook Video
  • Uber
  • Drones
  • Smartwatches
  • Virtual Reality.

Look at the earliest items on that list – Amazon was founded in 1994, right at the beginning of the web era, along with other early e-commerce sites. But it took quite a lot longer to have a serious impact on brick and mortar retail and it was arguably only this year Amazon began to have a really broad-based impact on traditional retailers’ overall sales (as opposed to sales in specific categories like books). The impact of Google search was felt more quickly, especially by its direct competitors, but even then it took several years to reach its dominant market share and arguably even longer to have the disruptive impact it’s had on other indirect competitors. Over-the-top video services like Netflix debuted in the mid-2000s (with Netflix launching streaming in 2007), but it was only in 2015 pay TV cord cutting finally became a reality. For much of its history, Netflix existed as a complement rather than a substitute for pay TV, but that’s now starting to change.

Now look at some of the later items on the list. Most of these haven’t been around long enough to have prompted any departures, though there are exceptions, including Uber’s impact on cabs. But which products and technologies might these more recent arrivals have an impact on over the longer term?

Reasons for delayed departures

It’s also worth asking why the timing of arrivals and departures is often offset so significantly. I think there are several reasons:

  • Replacement cycles and sunk costs: Just because a new product is clearly superior to an older one, doesn’t mean we immediately throw the old one away and replace it. For both consumers and businesses, replacement cycles are real (though consumers may not articulate them in the same way) and sunk costs also cause people and companies to milk existing inferior technology for a period of time before buying the superior replacement.
  • Standards and culture: To take the example of Google Docs in the list above, it was launched in 2007 by Google (following the acquisition of the company that created its predecessor), but it took a long time to have a meaningful impact on Microsoft Office. One big reason is the Office applications are embedded in most companies and enjoy a position as de facto standards. Company and social culture often impedes the adoption of new products and technologies despite their obvious appeal.
  • Security and other concerns: New products are often considered to have inferior security or other features that make them less desirable in other ways, even if their core features and performance are superior. Competitor FUD often feeds these worries but, in many cases, the concerns are real. Over time, both the real and imaginary concerns are addressed, but that takes a while.
  • Apathy: I’ve often said apathy (and, perhaps more kindly, a preference for the known or the safe) is a significant force in adoption of new technologies and products. People would often rather stick with what they know rather than go through the personal disruption inherent in adopting a new product and learning how it works.
  • Absence of a trigger: Sometimes the transition from old to new doesn’t happen until there’s some significant event that drives it. Consider adoption of wireless headphones – they’ve been around for years now, the technology is pretty good, and yet, the vast majority of us are likely still using wired headphones. But what if Apple suddenly does away with the 3.5mm jack in the next iPhone, thereby putting into the market over the ensuing year a couple of hundred million new devices which won’t work with the headphones consumers already have?

Once these delaying factors are overcome, it’s worth noting that, once the departure phase of the incumbent technology begins, it often accelerates rapidly, taking the incumbents and observers by surprise, especially if they’ve convinced themselves the new thing was, in fact, a complement rather than a substitute. It’s almost as if these technologies, having been delayed in their departure, are determined to make up for lost time.

Upcoming departures

We began by reviewing “recent” arrivals, so let’s end by reviewing some upcoming departures. Some may be far more obvious than others. Feature phones are clearly on the way out, thanks to the emergence of smartphones over the past 10-15 years. Pay TV in its current form seems on its way out too, though exactly what form its replacement will take is still up in the air, and it may look more similar to the current model than some people are assuming. Sometimes we can’t see the potential for a departure because we’re still mentally seeing a technology as an arrival. But what about smartphones themselves? I listed both smartwatches and VR among my recent arrivals earlier – both of these along with other input and display technologies could eventually obsolete some of the core functions of the smartphone or at least turn it into something very different. How soon will that happen? Not for a number of years but it’s quite likely that, when the time does come, it will take a lot of people by surprise and happen far faster than many of us imagine.