I hope you had a nice Thanksgiving! Now that the holiday has passed, many of us are reminded of a particular “tradition” of always having copious leftovers. As some people insist, the leftovers are the best part. Such is often true with technology. At any point in time, the technologies we enjoy most are not the freshest, cutting edge ones. The technologies that we enjoy most are the ones we all share, and the technologies we all share are the recycled, heavily used, (a.k.a. heavily tested), affordable ones; i.e. the technologies that have been around a while.
Recently my fiance and I were visited by a friend who has a sister in Finland. We used an iPad to Skype with her and her toddler, (This child is growing up in a world where talking to your family on an iPad is completely normal), and the iPad made it convenient to do things like show off the apartment or let the child look at our cat up close. It’s the sort of simple but touching personal exchange that today’s techcentric commercials yearn for, and the ease with which it played out is the sort of scene that yesteryear’s pop-science-fiction kept telling us was going to happen. Needless to say, anyone would be forgiven for thinking this scenario to be “new” and “cutting edge” but really, it is made possible by the affordability of old technology. The leftovers are the best part.
With audio recording, audio transmission, and video recording being invented around the same time, nerds have been predicting the “video phone” for over a century. And the iPad itself? A great technology, but don’t think for a second that any one part of it is “new”.
Considering the history of tech trends, we might remember that only a few decades ago we were convinced of Japanese economic and technological ascendancy. Ignoring that such prognostication was false, I will instead point out that at this time there was a Japanese business executive who convinced his company to adopt his idea of “Lateral Thinking with Seasoned Technology.” “Seasoned”, apart from translating awkwardly, refers in this case to older technology that is both affordable and well-understood. Innovation lies in discovering new ways to use it. According to this philosophy, relying on cutting edge technology makes development prohibitively expensive and results in poorly tested and poorly designed products. This man’s name was Gunpei Yokoi, and the company he worked for was Nintendo.
Yokoi’s primary success was the design of the original Game Boy, a gaming system significantly more popular than anything else Nintendo did during the product’s run – which says quite a lot. Yokoi took the modern notion of a video game system, and the cheap technology of monochrome LCD screens and made the first genuinely portable video game system. And he made it from leftovers. The Game Boy faced competition from several technologically superior devices, but those devices cost three times as much, required three times as many batteries, and ate through those batteries twice as fast. Meanwhile, the black & white Game Boy sported games that were delightfully unburdened by the misguided requirement of being cutting edge. Games were cheaper, and the emphasis was necessarily on good design, not good graphics. Portability, affordability, ease of use and good battery life? Is this sounding familiar? For its video game niche, the Game Boy was the Tablet PC of its time, even if the only people who cared at the time were 11-year olds. Nintendo has reiterated the portable gaming system several times since the late 80’s and far and away their portable systems sell more units than anything TV-bound, even the exalted, much publicized Wii.
Considering the above, it should be no wonder that the true portability of the computer was some sort of holy grail. Netbooks fell flat for a lot of people, but they contained no innovation beyond simply making the computer really small. The innovation was the realization that the need for a mouse and keyboard could be obviated by a touch screen, (not a new technology by any means). Tablets are not technological wonders, what they are is afforadable, portable, easy to use and have good battery life and getting all those things at once proved elusive until someone entertained a bit of lateral thinking with seasoned technology. Relying on a touch screen was quite a leap of faith, and not something that critics fully trusted in the beginning. But, much like the global ascendancy of Japan, the prognosticators were wrong.
Not unlike the Game Boy, tablets flourish precisely because they are unburdened by the need to be cutting edge – the software emphasis is necessarily on good design. Also, a new interface paradigm requires a lot of things to be redesigned from scratch, which has yielded some very “fresh” feeling software; indeed the tablet experience is new, but that’s the nature of the innovation: a lateral move, making new connections but not new technologies.
I write a lot in this space about trying to nail down “the next big thing”, but also by trying to give you concrete explanations about why tech trends can go the way they do. A common assumption is that the latest trend represents the newest technology available, when it really is a matter of abundance. Until next time, enjoy your leftovers.