Innovation and timing

"Live in the future and build what's missing" - Paul Graham

It's easy to paint a picture of the future. The hard part is being on the left hand side of the likely-to-science fiction scale.

I referred to that Paul Graham quote in part one of this series. As simple as it sounds, there's an important concept at the heart of it: foresight.

Looking at innovation this way highlights how important timing is.

Being able to build something and drop it into a context where lots of things align just at the right time is a big part of the skill; or luck depending on your philosophical outlook. It's why all good start-up investors ask an important question to aspiring founders:

'Why now'?

Asking 'why now?' is essential. It reveals why perhaps an idea that might have failed before is now suddenly relevant and has a chance to succeed.

We may eventually get flying cars at some point. The technology may even be getting close to working. But this doesn't answer the 'why now?' question (or the 'why at all?' question for that matter).

To answer 'why now'; teams need to be foreseeing how things might unfold in the next 3-5 years. This being the time it would take to create something new, hit product-market fit and reach a large number of customers.

It's why, initially, most new innovations look like odd or niche ideas to begin with. They're just a few years ahead of their time.

Tesla started with the Roadster; a toy for rich people (niche). Now they have almost 400,000 pre-orders for their competitively priced model 3 (a lot less niche). Proclaiming something as 'niche' in the beginning, ignores the possibility of what it can become when it finally becomes a lot cheaper.

Similarly, Virtual Reality (and Augmented Reality) has long been promised as the next great visual medium. The problem is that VR has been consistently disappointing since the late 80's. It's been written off by many in the past because it simply wasn't good enough. Again, those observing failed to see the possibilities when the technology improved. Only now in 2016 are we becoming convinced that the timing for VR/AR is just around the corner; with companies like Magic Leap and Oculus Rift leading the way.

Looking retrospectively, on-demand transportation and ride sharing services really answered the 'why now?' question.

With Uber, Lyft, Didi Chuxing; we have an arguably successful idea (at least, an idea which has reached lots of people and its a service lots of people like using).

A lot had to come together for this to happen. Had people attempted this idea a mere 10 years ago, it would have almost certainly been too early. The things that had to fall in to place included:

Smartphones: People need a suitable way of using the service when outside the home. Apple were the catalyst for driving large scale adoption of smartphones back in 2007. Growth has been almost unprecedented since. This creates a viable and large total addressable market (2 billion+ devices)

3G/4G network coverage: Creating a reliable internet-enabled transportation service leans heavily on the ubiquity of mobile internet coverage. Whilst this coverage is largely concentrated around cities; it's where most people take taxis.

Data handling: Handling the volume and velocity of data to coordinate mass-scale transportation requires a powerful infrastructure on the back-end. Server technology has only become advanced enough in the past few years to compute such vast amounts of data.

Out of many innovations, it's the smartphone really that has unlocked (and is still unlocking) lots of innovative ideas that can be built on top. It makes lots of things possible that simply weren't possible 5-10 years ago. It's why most of the innovation in recent times has been concentrated around software. People now have a piece of the jigsaw puzzle which makes it the right time for a lot of ideas which would have previously been unfeasible. 

Over the next few decades, we'll see a lot more ideas that impact the physical world more so than the digital world (atoms, not just bits). We're now harnessing the computational power of smartphones and coupling it with cheap components and sensors; components and sensors sourced from the very smartphone supply chains that grew out of Apple and Google's fierce rivalry. The possibilities of this will affect all industries; not just IT, communications and media.

The first attempts at this will look like niche toys for rich people (good but expensive) or just simply perplexing (affordable but bad). But once we get past the wifi-enabled crockpots and clothes pegs (yes, clothes pegs!); we'll start figuring out how to create real value. This will probably happen when we stop calling it the 'internet of things'; and focus on solving actual problems. IoT has led many to the most immediate and obvious solutions: put internet in all the non-Internet-enabled devices in and around the home. If we've learned anything from the past its that when a technological revolution happens, the new solutions to our old problems don't often resemble the old solutions.

But these are merely teething problems.

There may be some other things that still have to fall into place and improve for this to really happen. Things like; narrow-focussed artificial intelligence, voice recognition and, 2016's most hyped development, bots. Google's AlphaGo, Amazon's Echo and Facebook's messenger platform are perhaps indicators that these jigsaw pieces are arriving, but still not quite ready.

So the questions one should ask are:

  • What things are likely to fall into place over the next 3 to 5 years?
  • What things will lots of people likely have access to?
  • Which ideas in the past were on to something, but failed because the execution wasn't good enough, cheap enough or didn't have a way to reach lots of people?

The innovative idea may just be an old one. Yet one now made relevant and possible because the future arrived.