What is the relevance of technology?

“Technology is irrelevant in the long-term.” When I presented a new product to a customer, that is exactly what he said. While I was describing the benefits and features of the product, I mentioned “state-of–the-art technology”, or something similar. He made his statement at that point. Later, I realized that he was right. At least in the context of my use of “Technology” during my presentation. However, I started to wonder if he might be correct in other contexts.

What’s Technology?

Merriam-Webster defines it as:

1A: The practical application of knowledge, especially in a specific area: engineering 2.

b is a ability that can be obtained through the practical application of knowledge.

2: A way to accomplish a task, especially with technical methods or knowledge

3: The specialized aspects of one particular field of endeavor

Wikipedia defines it as:

Technology is a Greek word that means “art, skill and cunning of the hand”, and -logIa, -logia[1]). It refers to the creation, modification, use, and knowledge about tools, machines and techniques. Technology can also be used to describe the collection of these tools, which includes machinery, modifications, arrangements, and procedures. Technology has a significant impact on the ability of humans and other animals to adapt to their natural environment. This term can be used in general or to specific areas, such as construction technology, medical technology and information technology.

Both definitions are based on the same thing: application and use.

Technology is an enabler

Many people mistakenly believe that technology is what drives innovation. However, the above definitions clearly show that this is not true. Innovation is defined by opportunity, and technology is what enables it. You can think of the “Build a better micetrap” example that is taught at most business schools. Although you might have the technology to make a better mousetrap or if the current mousetrap is still working well, the opportunity to create a better one will be lost. If you have too many mice, then there is no way to create a new product with your technology.

Consumer electronics startups are another example that I am familiar with. Both those that succeeded and those who failed have been part of my experience. Each had their own leading edge technologies. The difference was the opportunity. Failure was the reason that companies couldn’t find an opportunity to create meaningful innovations using their technology. These companies were forced to change into something completely different in order to survive. If they were fortunate, they might be able to use derivatives of their original technology. The original technology ended up on the scrap pile more often than not. Technology is an enabler that can make our lives better. Technology must be used to drive innovation that is driven by opportunity in order to remain relevant.

Technology to gain a competitive edge?

A technology is often cited by many companies as one of their competitive advantage. Does this hold true? Some cases may be true, but most of the time it is not.

Technology can develop on two paths: an evolutionary path or a revolutionary one.

One that opens up new markets or solves problems previously unsolved is a revolutionary technology. Semiconductor technology is an example. It not only spawned new industries and products but also spawned many other revolutionary technologies, including integrated circuit technology, transistor technology, and microprocessor technology. These technologies are responsible for many of the services and products we use today. Is semiconductor technology a competitive advantage or disadvantage? If you look at the current number of semiconductor companies (and new ones being formed every day), it’s not. What about microprocessor technology, though? Again, no. There are many microprocessor companies. What about quad-core microprocessor technology. There are not as many companies using quad core microprocessor technology, but there are Intel, AMD and ARM. Additionally, there are a number of companies that build custom quad core processors (Apple Samsung Qualcomm, Qualcomm, etc.). Again, this is not a significant competitive advantage. The perceived competitive advantage of any technology is diminished by competition from other technologies and easy access IP. This is illustrated by the Android vs iOS example. Both operating systems are derivatives from UNIX. Apple gained a market advantage by using their technology to launch iOS. Google however, which used their Unix version (a competitor technology), quickly caught up. This is not due to the technology itself, but how products are brought to market. (Free vs. walled gardens, etc.). Differences in strategic visions and strategies of different companies.

The incremental improvement of a base technology’s revolutionary technology is called evolutionary technology. It’s easier to leapfrog or match incremental technology because it is so simple. Wireless cellphone technology is one example. Although Company V introduced 4G products before Company A, it was only temporary. Once Company A introduced their 4G product, the technology advantage disappeared. Consumers resorted to choosing Company A or V based upon price, service, coverage, etc., and not technology. Technology might have been useful in the short-term, but it was irrelevant in the long-term.

Technology is becoming increasingly commodityized in today’s society. This can lead to the death of any technology.

Technology’s Relevance

This article was written with the end customer in mind. Things get more complicated for a designer/developer. The more one is removed, the less relevant the technology becomes. The technology may look like a product to a developer. It is an enabling product but it is still a product and therefore highly relevant. Bose employs a proprietary signal processing technology that allows products to meet specific market requirements. The technology and the results it can enable are relevant to them. Customers are more interested in how the product sounds and how it’s priced, rather than how it’s achieved. Therefore, the technology used is less important to them.

I participated in a Google+ discussion about the Motorola X phone. Many people posted negative comments about the phone, including price and locked boot loader. Many people also criticized the fact that the phone didn’t come with a quad-core processor, like the S4 and HTC One, which were similarly priced. They didn’t realize that the manufacturer could use 1, 2, 4 or 8 cores to make the phone, as long as it can provide a competitive (or even better of class) feature set, functionality and user experience. The iPhone is the most popular phone ever made, yet it has a dual-core processor. It continues to deliver one of the most user-friendly experiences on the market. It is the features enabled by technology that matter to consumers, and not the technology itself.

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