The Awkward Years of Tech

on July 9, 2014

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.