As we press through the third quarter of 2014, I can hardly fathom how far technology has come in just ten short years. I think back to 2004, the year when Facebook was launched, home WiFi was just gaining ground, and the pinnacle of smartphones was the Motorola A920. If you were lucky enough to have 3G where you lived, you could attempt to browse websites; the ultra tech-savvy could even send a MMS’ed sub-megapixel photo to another phone.
Today, most of us can hardly go hours without checking Facebook or snapping and sending a photo; however, you’d be hard-pressed to convince most people that would be the case in ’04. Ten years before that, forget about it. The preposterous vision of the Internet at today’s global scale would have rivaled that guy on the corner telling you that the apocalypse is coming next week. But it happened. What caused this radical shift in the way we think and live in our daily walk on this planet? The paradigm shift obviously didn’t occur overnight, but it was considerably larger than any one set of circumstances.
Let’s time travel a bit more. I’m going to step into a place well before my time to examine how a particular piece of technology went from a hi-tech, expensive fad to a staple in most homes around the world. The microwave oven was beginning to gain popularity amongst early adopters in the late 1960s, and was quite an achievement for their innovative manufacturers. The form factor and price tag of the devices was starting to shrink; however, not enough people thought they needed one. The product was not an essential, life-changing component in the average person’s life. In the 1970’s, a shift occurred that was completely unhinged from product development and marketing of microwaves; more women began to enter the workforce. I won’t get into the historical context surrounding that shift, but it was extremely important to the folks selling microwaves. Former housewives that once had several hours to prepare dinner for the family now faced a window of half an hour or less to get something on the table. Enter the microwave, whose makers positioned it to be something that people wouldn’t be able to live without.
The world is a very different place today than it was in 2004. Although we were more connected to a world of strangers than ever before, that connection rarely left the context of a session on a PC. Text messages were still the most common way to communicate, and communication rarely left the confines of the parties involved. Because social media didn’t exist yet, the majority of society had not considered the need to share and express their every move to a large group of people at once. Like anything else there were innovators and early adopters out there, but if you would have asked your mom what the Internet was for, she probably would have said email, news, and maybe quick microwave recipes. All of that started to change when Facebook came on the scene. Millennials needed a place to interact with the world that worked in harmony with all of this new technology around them. Social media created a place where they could express themselves in a variety of ways to a variety of people that was both fun and engaging. It took a few years, but Facebook opened up to everyone; and over time generation-X and baby boomers began to engage and understand the real value of social media in their lives. Eventually, the culture transformed into one that shares its every move; from photos of dinner to viral cat videos, today we live in a hyper-connected and sharing-obsessed world.
In time, friends and family members of microwave oven owners felt the need to “keep up” with their hi-tech counterparts. Perhaps they weren’t initially convinced that the contraption would change their lives, but in time the stigma of not having one would lead to them making the leap. What started as pockets of evangelists proselytizing how much time the microwave oven saved them each day became the mainstream consensus. People didn’t actually need a compelling reason to understand that they needed a microwave, the world around them evolved to a place that basically required it to be a “normal” member of society.
I rarely meet a 16 to 40 year old who is not only on Facebook, but also a smartphone owner. A clear part of the widespread adoption are the obvious advantages these things bring to our lives, but we likely would not have come to that conclusion without the help of those around us. I remember when I first heard about Facebook back in 2004. I was living outside of Boston at the time, so I had some friends who were in the first handful of schools on the platform. I had absolutely no desire to join, but there was something about it being kind of exclusive and hearing them talk it up that got my attention. My school was turned on in 2005, and I became a constant user because everyone else was doing it. As more people got on the platform, it became more tightly integrated with the physical and digital world. The lines between the online presence and real life presence became blurred – because droves of people changed their behavior in a way that impacted others around them. The effect trickles out to smartphones; better technology fuels the need for faster WiFi, better networks, and less friction in accessing pieces of information that have become critical. Macro case in a micro point: my 87-year-old grandfather, who has never owned a PC in his life, owns an iPhone and sends photos with it. Now, would Paw Paw have ever come to the conclusion that he needed to get an iPhone on the device’s merits alone? Probably not, but his children and grandchildren were able to convince him that he needed one, so he got one. Guess what? He loves it, and wouldn’t go back.
Of course, the timing of the cultural shift in the 70’s was pretty well aligned with achievements in small appliance technology. The microwave oven was once a bulky device that had to be installed by a professional, and by the mid-70s countertop models were becoming more widely available. Technology was probably one of the biggest reasons the product took as long as it did to reach a mainstream level of adoption; the majority of families couldn’t afford to test the hypothesis that the device would be a life-changer for them. As the cultural and social shifts ensued, the technology continued to improve, and eventually the three aligned to achieve the highest level of mainstream adoption.
Putting it togetherA similar shift can be applied to how we view the adoption of social media and smartphones. Early on, Facebook’s interface left a lot to be desired. There was no ability to share photos, email and text were the only available interfaces for mobile interaction, and even if a visionary mobile experience existed, the available mobile devices and networks couldn’t support it. The iPhone launch in 2007 was the catalyst to innovation for the connected culture. As devices got smarter and less expensive, more people began to adopt them; coupled with easy to use interfaces and increasing tech-savviness the revolution was in full swing. Faster networks and access to more WiFi meant richer content could be created and consumed from anywhere in the world, and social platforms built -and sometimes scrapped- features as they learned what people really wanted out of their mobile social experience.
There are a few interesting trends as we look at these factors from a high level.
1. At the time of mainstream adoption of truly innovative technology, a cultural shift typically has occurred that directly or indirectly impacts this adoption.
2. Social pressure plays a key role in ushering in the early mainstream adopters and seals the deal on acquiring late-comers.
3. Technology limitations once slowed rapid growth, but the cycles have become shorter as we’ve learned more.
We are at a place in history that bears striking resemblance to the microwave days in the mid-70’s, the .com era of the mid to late 90’s, and the social/smartphone revolution of the mid to late 2000’s. A key point to observe, however, is that each of the technical revolutions that have occurred over the last 50 years have gone from innovation to mainstream adoption more quickly each time. It took roughly 30 years for the microwave oven to reach nearly every household in the developed world, but less than 10 for smartphones. Facebook accounts are held by 1/6th of the world’s population. So how long will it take the “third wave” as Steve Case calls it, to reach mainstream status?
Wearable technology and the IoT have gained traction in the last couple of years, and are slowing sneaking out of the circles reserved for the early adopters. Major players like Samsung, LG, Motorola, and Sony have built smart watches. Google has their Glass. The Cinderella Kickstarter story, Pebble, has hundreds of thousands of loyal wearers. By all accounts, wearable technology is poised to be everywhere. Why then, do so many people doubt that it will ever be useful enough to be a part of their lives? Why aren’t more people jumping on the wearable bandwagon?
The common argument at the moment is that they are too expensive, reserved for geeks, and don’t add life-changing value to justify purchasing them. Sound familiar? I strongly believe that we are in the midst of the cultural change required to make wearables and “things” more widely adopted, and are quickly arriving at a point in time where the technology will cause enough people to have that “a-ha” moment. The device or combination of devices must be perceived as life-changing. Software and hardware manufacturers will have to think outside of the traditional. Consumers must be able to fundamentally change behaviors in a way that adds value; I would love to no longer need a phone or keys, for example. I would love not having to visit the doctor’s office because my wearable can give an accurate enough diagnosis. I long for the ability to not have to charge something every single day, and to have a device that actually feels smarter than me. And I believe that day is coming very, very soon.
Once enough majority adopters jump aboard the train, the social implications will bring the rest in droves.
Who knows, maybe I can even talk Paw Paw into getting one.