Jan 11, 2006

The technology paradox and innovation wave

The story is a familiar one. You wish to own the latest, most advanced mobile phone (or notebook computer or digital camera) and you pick your brand and spend those hard-earned cash to get the gadget of your dreams. You get home and see the newspaper lying on the floor. You stoop down to get it and guess what you see - an ad for a better model of the gadget that you still haven't unpacked, and at a lesser price!

The rate at which technology advances is mind boggling. It is amazing that the so-called Moore's law still holds to such a large extent, even after so many years have passed. Not only does the computing power expand exponentially, the cost comes down drastically too. And that is what haunts the mind of anybody wanting to buy the coolest gadget in town. Because as soon as you buy it and get home, it is no longer cool, and certainly more expensive than the latest model.

But what is the solution to this paradox? You obviously can't put off buying a computer that you need badly forever. I should know, I have been wanting to get a notebook computer for some time now. Everyday I scan the newspapers and see a better model at the same price or the same model at a lower price. Enter, the innovation wave.

Innovation wave

"Always remember that someone, somewhere is making a product that will make your product obsolete. " - Georges Doriot

Innovation wave is a term that vaguely describes the advancement of technology in terms of conceptualisation to actual product realisation. An innovation wave starts with a disruptive technology, something that is totally new that it suddenly makes the preceding technology totally obsolete immediately. An example would be how the advent of Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) made command prompts obsolete. A person who adopts the technology at the very start of it would stand to gain the maximum from it, although the cost may be higher at the initial stages. But if you wait for the cost to come down, you may buy it at a lower rate, but another technology would have made what you bought even more obsolete. So you end up with an inferior product although at a lower cost. The person who adopts the technology at the middle stages of its life gets a trade-off between cost and the utility - it will not be state-of-the-art nor obsolete, and it won't cost you an arm and a leg either. It all depends on what matters to you more - the cost or the performance/utility.

Thinking about buying a notebook computer is a similar issue. The best ones will definitely burn a hole in your pocket, and you always run the risk of being obsolete when a better technology comes along. So looking at how the industry has been progressing on the technology and economy front, it would be a wise choice to wait for a while when the cost comes down. But wait too long, and you risk becoming obsolete. Other questions like the validity of Moore's law in the future comes into play, with the possibility of packing transistors even more densely pushing the physical limits. Maybe another wave of innovation like nanotechnology or quantum computing is just around the corner. And maybe, just maybe, that sleek new notebook that you are flaunting right now at your neighbour has just been made obsolete.

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