The Technological Divining Rod

on May 20, 2014
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Finding what you are searching for can be a challenging task particularly if you aren’t entirely sure what you are searching for. Such is the case in the world of hardware devices, where companies seem to be struggling to figure out what the “next big thing” really is.

Oh sure, there are some obvious winners. Given the growing appreciation for and interest in larger smartphones, a large screen Apple iPhone 6—or whatever the larger-sized version of the device is called—is bound to be a big hit. (FYI, I prefer the term “megaphone” versus the universally dreaded “phablet” for this category.) As soon as we hit the right price points and get enough original content, I think 4K, or UltraHD, TVs will start to make a splash as well.

But there are a lot more categories where it isn’t at all clear there’s a “there” there. Wearables for instance, still strike many people as a solution in search of a problem. As I’ve written in the past, there are numerous technological, social, and other challenges facing the wearables market that are going to be very difficult to overcome in the near future. It’s possible we’ll see a true breakthrough product that changes everything but the more I think about this category and the more I speak with others about it, the more concerned I am about its current and future prognosis.

In the traditional product categories like tablets and PCs, there’s a growing sense the glory days are now over. Many believe future products will be modest evolutions that merely replace aging versions of devices from the same category for the same customers.

Part of the problem with important new breakthroughs stems from the fact I believe we’ve been looking at things the wrong way. Too much of the industry and too much analysis of the industry focuses on specific devices or device categories or even individual companies. I’d argue it’s time to take a step back and try to divine what it is people want based on the activities they actually do. Of course, it’s hard to separate the activities from the devices used to perform those them—it’s kind of like a macro version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which says the very process of observing something influences what you are observing.[pullquote]Too many companies are focused on solutions that only involve their products and ignore the range of other products their potential customers have access to and regularly use.”[/pullquote]

Nevertheless, I believe by better understanding the activities in which people engage in and, more than likely, how those activities are spread across a variety of different devices, we can help companies better understand what needs are unmet and need to be filled. Another part of the problem seems to be that too many companies are focused on solutions that only involve their products and ignore the range of other products their potential customers have access to and regularly use. Now more than ever, I believe the trick to finding successful new opportunities for hardware devices, and the software and services which run on them, is to find and fill in the missing gaps between products instead of trying to do everything on their own.

Of course, research alone isn’t going to solve this problem. As Steve Jobs famously illuminated, some of the best products are things you never realized you wanted or needed until they came along. In other words, sometimes you just need to “feel” the need before it’s there. But to put that technological divining rod to work, it helps to pull together all the information you can in order to piece together a vision of where things need to go. It’s not an easy task, but it’s something we need to see a lot more of in order to keep innovation moving forward.