The wireless industry boasts over a century of experience developing successful products and services; today there are more than 4 billion mobile phone users. Are there lessons technology innovators can learn from the history of wireless?
I’m glad you asked.
Identify and exploit holes or weaknesses in prevailing solutions
As the great inventor Edwin H. Armstrong said, “It ain’t ignorance that causes all the trouble in this world. It’s the things people know that ain’t so.”
In the early days of radio, engineers wondered if there was a way to reduce or even eliminate the static that invariably accompanied broadcasts. One idea that emerged was to use frequency modulation (FM). But a respected Bell Laboratories engineer, John Renshaw Carson, threw cold water on the idea, saying “static, like the poor, will always be with us.” When Carson tested FM he used a narrowband implementation to conserve bandwidth. It didn’t work. Armstrong tried using a wider channel and the results were stunning. You could hear a pin drop.
New technologies are rarely immediate hits. Most require a gestation period. Samuel Morse waited six years to build his first demonstration telegraph line. Wireless was mainly used in niche applications (in maritime communications) for the first 25 years. Television, wireless LANs, cellular radio, and Bluetooth all required significant gestation periods. Some technologies succeed in specific military or industrial applications first. Others only seem to succeed when nearly everyone has given up on them.
Accept reality: the best technology does not always win
What the market wants is the right product, with the right features and packaging, at the right cost. It’s all about value. In many cases, a technology that is just good enough wins.
The best standards build on successful proprietary solutions
Much of the industry will tell you that there has to be a common standard before customers will invest in products or services employing a new technology. This gets it exactly backwards, confusing politics with the wisdom of crowds. The best standards usually come from proprietary technologies. For every successful standard that was dreamt up by a committee, there are hundreds of committee standards that end up rotting in warehouses.
In fact, many of today’s standards aren’t even necessary. Look at your PC. It’s easier to just support a long list of formats than to hammer out one or two universal standards. Most committee standards are obsolete before the ink dries. With the “long list” approach, you can always just add another format that looks promising to the mix.
Consider the mobile phone as another example. I remember a conference at which a respected industry analyst warned that with four mobile phone standards and two frequency allocations in the U.S., anyone who traveled frequently would need to carry five or six different phones. It didn't occur to him at the time that a single phone could support multiple standards—in a small, inexpensive package.
Most successful technology standards start as proprietary or ad hoc solutions that are then transformed into formal standards. Companies innovate. Committees work out compromises.
Timing is (almost) everything
If I had to boil technology innovation down to one thing, I would say it’s recognizing opportunities and knowing when and how to act on them. I confess that sounds all-encompassing, but that’s not how I meant it. My point is this: most people miss the opportunity, are too early, or overshoot the target.