The Awkward Years of Tech

Before we reach maturity, we go through what many refer to as “the awkward years”. It’s a rite of passage as we change from adolescence to adulthood. For most people, the best way to describe those years are with a single adjective–weird. Last month, I gave a presentation at a summit I helped put on where I explained how Moore’s law is going to enable capabilities with computers unfathomable today. Devices like smartphones have a billion transistors today on a piece of silicon just a bit larger than a postage stamp. At some point in the next 10 years we will be able to fit a billion transistors on a piece of silicon smaller than the end of a pencil eraser. Super computers not just in our pocket but on our wrists/bodies/fabrics, appliances, cars, and a host of other devices will change our world dramatically. While this future may come fast, we are right now in the middle of a transition. I call this transition the technology industry’s awkward years.

Analog to Digital

The industry’s¬†awkward years have come about as technology has enabled the shift from analog to digital. Things that were once analog our now being infused with technology in the digital age. Door locks, beds, tennis rackets, basketballs, light bulbs, pet feeders, coffee pots, and more, are all becoming connected to each other and to the internet. Yet as you look at many of the first few implementations of newly connected devices, it becomes clear they are mere glimpses of what they will be in the future. The design is clunky, the UI is clunky, and, more often than not, many feel like gimmicks and have yet to prove their true value. It all just seems awkward, not fully sorted out, but we know there is something there.

With this shift will come entirely new opportunities and experiences. It reminds me of an observation I highlighted in one of our presentations on the early days of digital cameras. Prior to digital cameras, to experience a photograph we had to take the picture, have it developed, and then take action with a physical photo. The photo existed only in physical form which limited how it could be enjoyed and shared. Once photos went digital, experiencing a photo changed dramatically. Not only was it much easier to create but it was also much easier to share. As Benedict Evans shares in this post, in 1999, consumers took 80bn photos in a single year. In 2014 over 1.5b new photos are shared on Facebook, WhatsApp, and SnapChat every single day. Benedict goes on to highlight this key data point:

Total sharing across all social networks, if we include Wechat and other platforms, is certain to be over 1 trillion this year – around 1.5 per smartphone per day. How many are taken in total? Several times that, certainly, but there’s no real way to know – it could be 1tr, or 5tr, or 10tr.

What was once analog and could only be consumed via a single physical object by one or a small group of people is now pervasive in ways we could have never dreamed 15 years ago.

As many of our analog products and experiences of today go digital it is going to be awkward, but we will grow out of it.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

14 thoughts on “The Awkward Years of Tech”

  1. Cryptographically safe digital cash is one of the current technologies in that awkward transition stage.

    There seem to be three reasons people have a hard time understanding Bitcoin’s potential:

    1) Not understanding the technological breakthroughs in the Bitcoin block chain and why there are important.

    (2) Not recognizing the new capabilities for commerce that scriptable transactions provide to anyone (not just banks): automated multi-party transactions, micro transactions (whole new businesses will form from this), transactions across the globe without third party fees (or manipulation by unstable third world governments), etc. These are huge new transaction areas that current systems fail at.

    (3) Believing that crypto currencies current disadvantages over traditional currency will somehow stop it from providing traditional services as well as new services. The only thing holding back (more efficient) traditional services on Bitcoin are the time it takes startups to figure out the details and scale up. (So a few years at least.) In the meantime, doing new things better is why it is already finding many uses.

    The trend toward mobile computing-first, peer-to-peer communication and commerce, are all about new stable decentralized systems meeting human needs better than last centuries unsubtle solutions of either central control or lack of control.

    1. I’m not sure people have a hard time understanding Bitcoin’s potential, so much as they are afraid that it is a financial cloak of invisibility that, like actual invisibility, gives more support to potential harmful uses than legitimate assist to positive uses. Which makes it a bit like any other new technology, but with immediately obvious, serious negative implications.

      Personally I would love some technology to come along that would supplant the credit card industry and its 2-3% tax on nearly every retail transaction, but I’m not sure Bitcoin is it.

      1. One of Bitcoin’s few obvious weaknesses is that it is only pseudo-anonymous, meaning the block chain can be analyzed to identify participants. So its not that invisible.

        And there are money laundering concerns with any form of commerce. Mainstream banks have repeatedly been found to be laundering vast amounts of money right up to the present.

        While money laundering is a legitimate concern for governments, it is ironic that the vast majority of it is created by governments when they criminalize instead of regulate controversial but widely used goods. Obviously there are a differing views on “immoral” goods, but laundering and market driven violence are incentivized by any market that needs to operate outside the legitimate economy. Peer–to-peer technologies like Bitcoin, crypto email, etc., are only making criminalization less effective and therefore more harmful. If

        Finally, if Bitcoin were made illegal or difficult to use, other alt coins would take up the slack instantly. The technology for peer-to-peer transactions is already out of the bag.

        So Bitcoin is not any special threat for laundering and there are non-technological means of ending most of it, along with other economically associated violence.

    2. I do not think ‘manipulation by unstable third world governments’ is the threat that you are setting it put to be.

      1. Hyperinflation caused by governmental manipulation including artificial barriers of currency exchange has been, and continues to be, a huge problem for many people in many countries.

        Its not a threat to other countries, but to the people in those countries it is a continuing disaster.

  2. Speaking of taking pictures in the silver halide years, just came back from vacation and noticed how my wife would take so much time before pressing the shutter. “One, two, there . . . ” and I realized this is a relic of the days when each photograph had a positive marginal cost so you wanted to get the posing and framing just right before you committed it to expensive acetate. No longer. Snap away, snap everywhere, snap any time, snap five frames a second, then discard the bad shots.

    But I find myself very reluctant to delete the bad shots. It takes some courage to say this picture of my children at a particular point in time can never ever be recovered or reshot if I delete it. Dare I delete it? Before you know it, you have thousands of such pictures. I know hard drive manufacturers, and cloud storage companies are celebrating this sentiment.

    Sorry, kind of pointless post.

    1. Not a pointless post at all. It actually highlights an aspect of what Ben is talking about. You are struggling with old technology notions when using new technologies where the limitations are no longer relevant. But technology isn’t really helping you either. Hence it is awkward and somewhat weird.

      Apple has made selecting the best shot from a burst really easy, just trust your iPhone. But even then, they don’t really automate the process enough for me to easily delete the redundant, unchosen pictures. So like you, I have many more pictures than I really want or need but my reason isn’t fear of losing anything, just that the pruning process is too time consuming.

  3. Hmm. I’m not so sure we are going to go much beyond where we are in CPU feature size in the next 10 years. Intel is having major problems with their 14 nm process and no one has a concrete solution for shrinking beyond 7 nm. It isn’t clear that CMOS technology can be shrunk beyond 7 nm and if Intel’s problems are any indication, it might not even be able to effectively do 7 nm. If you factor in the cost of a plant that can produce 7 nm chips which might be double or triple the cost for 14 nm, we might find 7 nm isn’t cost effective enough in the near term for mass production.

    I don’t doubt that we will get beyond 7 nm at some point in the future but Moore’s law could still be dead. Don’t forget, its basic premise is that transistors double in 1.5-2 years. If it takes 4-5 years to double again with increasing intervals after, then Moore’s law is effectively dead.

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