Infrastructure // Networking
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4/22/2004
10:03 PM
Carl Zetie
Carl Zetie
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Future Perfect, If We Can Learn To Network

It's technology optimists and visionaries who create the future, Carl Zetie says, so don't be afraid to fail if you want to define the future.

The future ain't what it used to be. It's the 21st century, and by now we were supposed to have flying cars, domestic robots, personal jet packs, and talking intelligent computers. The failure of these grand predictions to pan out, along with many lesser predictions about the future of technology, are more than fuel for poking fun at naive over-optimism. Carefully considered, they can provide useful insights into which of today's emerging technologies stand a chance of breaking through to the mainstream and changing our daily lives.

For example, flying cars have been a dream for decades, partly because of the frustrations of traffic congestion, and partly because of the sheer joy of personally controlled flight. As far back as 1940, Henry Ford was predicting the convergence of planes and cars, yet despite gridlock that's approaching crisis levels in cities around the world, we seem to be no closer to a flying car. Intriguingly, companies such as Moller International, with its M400 Skycar, have demonstrated quite convincingly that a feasible, affordable flying car could be built. So what's the holdup?

What the proponents of skycars have consistently underestimated is that the vehicle itself is only one part of a much larger problem.

To fly a car safely from my home in Virginia to downtown Washington, D.C., I'd first need to be able to take off safely either from a runway, or vertically from an appropriate location. Then I'd need to maneuver safely, merging into and out of other sky traffic (not forgetting that my "blind spot" now includes everything below me), and navigate through invisible "virtual lanes" without benefit of road signs or markings. Assuming that security concerns even allow me close to downtown, I then need a place to land, again safely making my way through traffic below me. Furthermore, once in D.C. I'd still face challenges of city traffic and parking, potentially made worse by the ease and speed with which people can now actually reach the city.

Can these problems be solved? Certainly. We're capable of building the kind of computer-controlled flight management that would allow air-traffic controllers to automatically manage thousands of small aircraft. Heads-up displays and next-generation GPS systems could give drivers a virtual landscape of lanes and signs on their windshields. And a network of landing spots could be created across the country. The problem is, we'd need an awful lot of very expensive infrastructure before a flying car becomes even a little bit useful. The demand for a $100,000 vehicle that you could legally fly only from (for example) Palo Alto to San Jose, Calif., a distance of about 20 miles, is probably limited to a few technology millionaires with a taste for adventure.

Contrast this scenario with the explosive success of the mobile phone, another device that would seem like science fiction from the perspective of just a few decades ago. The beauty of the mobile phone is that even one is useful, since its owner could immediately call the hundreds of millions of people who already had landlines.

The Network Effect
The mobile phone benefited from a literal network effect, the phenomenon in which the usefulness of a technology grows exponentially with the number of users. As their numbers grew, mobile phones created their own network effect from the usefulness of mobile-to-mobile calling, and later text messaging.

Furthermore, a cell phone that only works in a limited area--say, one city--could still be valuable to some people within that region, so you didn't need a nationwide network before you could launch any service.

The exact same phenomenon can be seen today with Wi-Fi hot spots. Even one hot spot in the right high-traffic location is useful, since it connects users to the entire existing Internet, and the network can grow hot spot by hot spot, adding value to users at each step.

The lessons from these scenarios are that we should be skeptical--or, at least, careful with our optimism--about grand visions that require a large investment or a major change before they can even begin to take off. It's much easier to introduce a technology that can be grown little by little, adding value at each step. Network effects can play to a technology's advantage, and especially when that technology can exploit an existing network to jump-start its value.

In the absence of such an advantage, it may take a killer application--a much rarer phenomenon than many people believe--to kick-start the adoption and grow it to the point where network effects prevail. Conversely, technologies that require a large investment of infrastructure or a significant change in behavior before any user can begin to benefit are very hard to get off the ground. And technologies that require such a level of commitment, but whose backers fail to embrace the need for that initial investment, are often doomed from the start.

Many of the most exciting and dramatic innovations are precisely those that require a great leap forward, and a corresponding leap of faith by their backers. It's easy to point fingers at the failures, and to be skeptical about grand visions. For example, Segway scooters have been predicted by some to change the very way cities are designed, but so far are little more than a curiosity. That doesn't mean that one day, slowly, they won't change cities, beginning with pedestrianized centers and working their way out. Ultimately, it's the technology optimists and the visionaries, not the pessimists and the skeptics, who create the future. And I'm still hoping that I'll get to drive a flying car before I'm done.

Carl Zetie is an analyst with Forrester Research.


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