The Tech Industry Build Out Cycle

on May 26, 2021

One of the more interesting conversations to be happening around the tech industry currently is what kind of a cycle we are in? In the last few years, I’ve noticed an interesting tension that emerged because, as a whole, the tech industry has just come off a period of significant rapid invention and innovation. From the mid-2000s until the mid-2010s, we saw an incredible innovation cycle around computing where over half the planet became connected to the internet via a primary computing device. Unfortunately, humanity has no real historical precedence for the rapid innovation and adoption of computing devices into the hands of more than 3 billion people in a span of fewer than 10 years. And this tension that is emerging is more of one of the expectations than anything else.

When your most present memory is a decade of innovation around PCs, smartphones, tablets, and wearable technology, once that innovation slows down, it can create the perception that tech is no longer innovative, or it is mature, or as I’ve heard it often said the tech industry is “boring.” I made several points years ago discussing this that the pace of innovation of the last decade simply was not sustainable, and we can’t expect that to the norm.

What is happening is actually what many predicted would happen when the first tech boom hit in the late ’90s. I wrote about this, what many call the boom, bust, buildout theory. Nearly every mega-industry since the industrial age saw this pattern where there is a boom equaling a flood of capital to a market, followed by a bust due to overflooding of capital to a market, and that is followed by a long sustained period of building out the industry via innovation and adoption.

Having studied consumer adoption of technology for over 20 years now, the way I think about this cycle is the boom, and bust part of the market helps to enable product creation due to its flood of capital followed by falling prices due to the bust. This enables new entrants to innovate and also provide solutions at costs that the mainstream can then afford. Sometimes this happens quickly, and sometimes it takes a while, but the buildout part of this phase is the mass adoption of the solution into the general public.

While it may seem boring, we are still in the buildout phase as a tech industry. What makes this cycle different than others is the role the Internet plays. The Internet is the backbone that makes computing relevant. If all our hardware was not connected to the Internet, it would be largely useless. And unlike things like boats, railways, engines, and other technologies where this pattern has emerged, the Internet is dynamic, not static. The dynamic nature of the Internet is what will enable the continued innovation of our digital devices. What this does, is causes the build-out cycle to be longer and larger than any other previous mega-industry.

The Next Big Thing
In the framing I just provided, my thinking has clarified this question around what is the next big thing. Of course, we can say something easy like augmented reality, virtual reality, robotics, or automation, but the reality is the next big thing is the evolution of the Internet. Because the truth is, all this interesting hardware we like to envision is simply just a new way to interact with the Internet. We interact with the internet today on 2D flat screens, but in the future, we will Interact with it via 3D displays, and with robotics and AI, the internet will start to interact with us.

The rapid period of innovation of the last decade was the creation of hardware to interact with the Internet version 1.0 or 2.0, according to some people. That manifests itself with web browsing and apps. Internet 3.0 will consist of more AI, augmentation, and automation, and the devices we experience the Internet with will look and feel much different than today. But, I find thinking about the future helpful if we start with the evolution of the Internet around cloud, AI/ML, automation, etc. First, think about devices vs. think about devices and then the Internet’s evolution. Simply because the Internet’s evolution (what is capable on the backend) will dictate what is capable within the hardware we create to experience it.

But, all of this means we are still a long way off from mass adoption of topics that get people excited today. Augmented reality is a 10+ year journey to mass adoption. Automation, specifically self-driving cars, is a 10+ year journey to mass adoption. We haven’t even scratched the surface of AI and robotics yet, which is more like a 20+ year journey.

This buildout phase is important, and it doesn’t mean there isn’t still innovation ahead. But, it won’t be as exciting as the last 10 years in terms of hardware invention.