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Spontaneous gifts are perhaps the best of all. A few weeks back, my friend and former colleague Adrian Bentley of Just Good Ideas gave me a book he had stumbled across. Produced by TechTV, the Catalog of Tomorrow is a more grown-up Book of the Future (the 1979 version), bringing together predictions from a range of experts across a variety of fields. Published 15 years ago, the predictions it contains feel ripe for revisiting.
The book features a foreword by Paul Saffo, an expert in forecasting who teaches at both Stanford and Singularity University. In just a few hundred words, Saffo offers some of the smartest statements about futurism and forecasting that I have yet to read. For a start, he points out that forecasts will almost always be wrong, for if it were otherwise, we would all be bystanders, watching a pre-determined path unfold. Rather, we are active participants in shaping our future. The purpose of futurism is not always to say what will be, but to show what can be. To light the paths, not fix the route.
Saffo also points out that even those who have been famously wrong in their predictions have gone on to profit from the unfolding reality. Tom Watson of IBM, who predicted a market for just a handful of computers, is a notable example.
The point is that we should not be afraid of making forecasts. Nor should we be afraid of being wrong — try though we might to be right.
Saffo also refers to another issue to which I often point: predicting ‘what’ is generally easier than predicting ‘when’. As he puts it, ‘most ideas take 20 years to become an overnight success’. The direction of travel can be absolutely clear, but the speed of the journey is determined by many variables: legal, societal, technical and more.
My first experience of this was five years ago, when on BBC 5live on New Year’s Day I predicted that there would be a consumer-grade 3D printer on the high street for under £300 by the end of 2013. I was wrong — it took a couple more years.
In fact, I have only around a 50% hit rate from the predictions from that show. I don’t think any of the predictions are wrong, but half are yet to come true:
I predicted commercial applications by end of 2013. That’s technically correct but this really hasn’t taken off in a big way yet.
I thought we’d be charging our phones weekly, not daily by now. Battery tech has improved but not to the point that it can feed our power-hungry devices for more than a day at a time.
I predicted more wirelessly connected gadgets starting to take over some of the functions of the phone. Again, I think I’m technically correct here, but beyond headphones and fitness trackers, this is yet to be a major trend.
Ultra High Definition
I proposed that 4K would succeed where 3D failed. Nailed that one at least.
I predicted the expansion of fitness trackers out into other connected health sensors. This isn’t totally mainstream yet but loads of people have sleep monitors and blood oximetry sensors, so I’m counting this one as a win.
I suggested that in 2013 we would start to take electric cars seriously. Yesterday I found out that second hand hybrids and EVs are selling for more than their original purchase price. So yeah, I’ll claim that one.
Predictions are fun. But they are a tool. A way to make people think about what might be.
Make some predictions of your own. You might not get them all right, but in the process of making them, you’ll probably think harder about the future than you have in a while.
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On New Year’s Day 2013 I sat in my car and did a couple of telephone interviews with radio stations around the UK. They wanted to know what technology innovations I expected to see this year. It was an interruption to trying to change the glow plugs on my smoky diesel, but a pleasant one.
One of my predictions was that a major printer manufacturer would enter the consumer 3D printing market by the end of the year. The product would be under £400 and available on the high street.
So far, so…not good
Well, seven months down the line and I haven’t seen any sign of this happening. HP’s partnership with Stratasys is over. Epson lost Objet to Stratasys. Canon doesn’t even seem to be looking at the issue. Yet all of these companies — and other major players like Brother — have serious patents in the 3D printing field. The only 3D printer available on the high street is a £700 kit from Maplin — not the type of consumer product I was predicting.
I confess I am baffled.
What is stopping these giants of tech entering the marketplace? Especially HP, a company with a long history of innovation, a massive R&D budget and an incredibly powerful sales and marketing channel.
To put the relative scales into perspective, Stratasys, the current market leader in 3D printing, is valued in total at $3.4bn. That is just a little less than the amount HP invests in research and development every year — $3.6bn in 2012.
The rumours are that HP is a little bit mixed up inside at the moment, and that’s understandable after years of CEO changes and board shakeups, product rollouts and rollbacks. But the company remains a printing powerhouse: it ships a million printers a week netting nearly a billion dollars in revenue each quarter. If it decided to enter the consumer 3D printing market in a big way, it could, quickly and efficiently.
But wait, is there a consumer market for 3D printing?
Build it and they will come
You obviously can’t value the market, since there are no products out there for the audience I’m proposing: the same consumers who bought inkjet printers en masse ten to fifteen years ago. Can you quantify demand? Well I think that’s hard too: in your classic AIDA sales model people have to be Aware of the opportunity before they can be Interested, demonstrate Desire and ultimately take Action. I still regularly have to explain to people what 3D printing is — smart, informed people too, not backwater technophobes.
But just imagine this: 3D printed Pokemon.
Imagine you could create a game franchise based on collectables that could only be 3D printed. Maybe throw in some puzzle or educational elements to give the kids some leverage over their parents. Back it with a TV series — maybe even just release an animated series direct through YouTube.
Can you imagine the demand that could create, correctly executed?
Revenues for the Pokemon franchise to date were estimated by Le Monde at $30bn. That’s one hell of a marketing tool.
If you can get a 3D printer to market at under the £400 mark with reasonable resolution and the right marketing behind it, I strongly believe you are onto a winner. It’s price comparable with a console and kids don’t seem to have much trouble persuading their parents to shell out for one of those.
It is probably only HP that has the scale, marketing clout and distribution power to do it right. So this is my message to HP: just do it. Redirect some of those massive R&D and marketing budgets and make it happen.
Yesterday I played with tomorrow’s phones. Things like that happen as a futurist.
I went to see a company called Qualcomm, a name you may not know today but that will likely be as familiar as Intel in years to come. Qualcomm has been a key player in the mobile industry pretty much since its inception — certainly as far back as my direct experience goes (2000). Only now is it considering communicating more with the public, rather than with the Samsungs, and LGs of the world who rely on its technology.
The product I was looking at yesterday is the latest iteration of its mobile phone platform, the Snapdragon 800. In a single package this provides all of the major components you need to build a smartphone or tablet: networking, processing, video, and voice. Stick a screen, a camera, a case, a battery, ports and an aerial on it and you pretty much have a phone: everything else is software.
One thing that caught my attention yesterday was the chip’s ability to both capture and display 4K video. If you’re not familiar with 4K, it’s four times the resolution of HD. That means super-sharp, super-rich images with lots of depth too them, even without any 3D technology. 4K TVs are already on the market, albeit wallet-crushingly expensive.
The device can also capture and play back surround sound. Add amp and TV and you have a very high-end home cinema system, as was demonstrated with exclusive clips of Pacific Rim (prepared for the recent E3 show — yes, I was geeking out).
All very cool.
Stuff Drives Storage
Another meeting I had yesterday was with Richard Lee, president and CEO of QNAP Systems, a company I have written about here before. QNAP makes network attached storage (NAS) devices. These are small, efficient computers with lots of hard disk capacity designed to be a repository for all your digital goodies: music, photos, videos, documents etc.
Richard is delighted that the next generation of phones will have better cameras. Why? Because more megapixels means more megabytes are required to store your digital creations. The incredible amount of content that we are consumers are creating is what is driving the NAS market, predicted to grow at over 20% a year.
Richard pointed out though that it is not just the ability to capture content that is driving the desire for storage. It is the ability to share it; the availability of bandwidth needed to stream new photos and videos back to a central storage hub, access them across a variety of devices and share them with friends and family. We now have cameras with us all the time, and these cameras can — and do — instantly stream the images we capture off to our personal clouds.
And here is where it gets tricky…
Every time a new generation of mobile network comes along, everyone gets very excited about the speed of the connection between the phone and the mast. 2.5G, 3G, 4G — the conversation is always the same. Likewise with the advent of new home broadband services: you always hear about how many megabits per second your cable or DSL line will deliver from the exchange to your home.
What you never hear about is the link between the exchange and the rest of the world — what is known as ‘backhaul’. This is where it all starts to fall down.
In February this year, Tellabs — an old client of mine — sponsored some research that identified a $9.2bninvestment gap in backhaul networks. Based on a five to six times increase in the volume of data carried over mobile networks, at current investment levels, operators will be 16 petabytes short of capacity.
That’s quite a lot. Despite Tellabs clear interest in there being an investment gap (the company provides — surprise surprise — backhaul network gear), I don’t have trouble believing these figures. If anything they feel intuitively a little conservative: we know that there are bottlenecks in the UK’s mobile networks today, and data consumption is increasing incredibly fast.
Crunch, Crunch, Crunch
When demand for data outstrips supply capacity like this it has become known in the telecoms industry as a capacity crunch. Backhaul looks likely to be the latest in a series of crunches that have happened at different points throughout the communications networks over the years. There will be more: there are already rumours about a coming crunch in fixed-line (i.e. your home and business broadband) networks in the near future.
It’s not surprising that networks don’t scale evenly to meet demand. Nor that there’s sometimes a lag between demand and the supply to meet it. This is the nature of the market, particularly in an industry where demand is scaling so rapidly.
The alternative is to build based on forecast capacity. But we’ve been through that before too: it happened across the world during the dotcom boom. One client of mine bought and built itself a global network on the basis of forecasts of demand for internet services. At its height in 2000 the company was valued at $37billion. By the end of the following year it had been through Chapter 11, a form of voluntary bankruptcy, and acquired by Cable & Wireless for just $800m.
The company was called Exodus Communications. No-one wants to risk being the next Exodus.
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