The speed of technology is matched only by the speed of the media who cover stories of technology. And while there are many stories of successes, there are fewer ones of failure. But failure is not to fear; it is only to learn from.
Have you ever heard of Betamax? Or have you seen a laser disc? Did you know that Audible, and not Apple made the first commercially-produced portable music player?
The iPod is the most well-known portable MP3 player, and indeed the one that stayed relevant the longest.
But, in technology, just as in life, there is often a fight for survival and a race to win.
In 1975, Sony launched Betamax technology to bring video into homes through a little device known as the VCR. While Sony hoped that other manufacturers would adopt their format, JVC refused to get in line. JVC had developed the VHS format in the meantime, and they aggressively marketed it, and undercut Sony in price. While Betamax was known to be the better, more stable technology, VHS won out solely for its marketing strategy.
Both the iPod and Betamax are today case studies in marketing. But at a more implicit level, they are lessons in success and failure. Sony was secure in its place as the leader of technology but failed to account for people’s regard for pricing and susceptibility to marketing. The company learned its lesson, but it was too little too late, and today Betamax has become a cautionary tale.
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Meanwhile, the success of the iPod came not for being the first player of its kind, but for its timing. People needed a successor to the ubiquitous Walkman; and while portable CD players existed, they were large and bulky, and required the transport of other CDs and batteries. Other MP3 players on the market were similarly encumbered with their own issues of format and battery problems.
Enter iPod. Apple slowly built up to the idea of portable music, developed their own format, removed the need to transport CDs and batteries, made the device user friendly with a single button and a clickwheel, and marketed the device itself as the epitome of “cool.” It wasn’t a quiet launch either; the anticipation, the marketing and the steps to make everything run smoothly – from iTunes to the USB interface – all functioned like a well-oiled machine.
Users must be trained to work the technology, to accept it, and to use it. And Steve Jobs, that Apple genius, he knew this in his bones. Users, he knew must be ready to accept new technology, have a use for it, and be willing to pay for it. Else it would never succeed.
I learned my Betamax or iPod lesson with my first startup iVivity. The year 2001 saw the beginning of the decline of the dot-com boom. We had set out to develop a 10G storage processor with a 10G iSCSI interface. We knew that the dotcom boom would have caused a hunger for much higher storage capabilities. And, along with it, higher access speeds to access the data available quicker.
We produced and readied ourselves for a launch, but… The events of 9/11 paralyzed the world, its people and the development of technology. Our release stalled; it didn’t seem as important in comparison to what was going on.
Three years later as we recovered, we hoped the market was ready for our superior technology but found that we had missed out. The move from 1G to 10G would have required people to change their cabling from copper to fiber. This under the normal flow of technological evolution would have happened by the release of our product, but alas, had not, due to the geopolitical issues following 9/11. Unfortunately, there are many factors which are crucial to success or failure in technology some of which are not even in your control.
In simple terms, it’s like building and having the most advanced electric car with no charging posts available where you live. Thus, it is not always the best technology that always wins. It’s a combination of things – the right timing being more important than anything.
I took away the understanding that technology is primarily user-centric. This means that the latest, most advanced technological marvel may not be the most successful. People want technology that they can use, quickly, fitting into their existing lives as it belongs there. Without the chicken, there can be no egg, and without the egg, there cannot be a chicken. And without infrastructure and users, there is no need for technology. However, at times technology also gives rise to the need for infrastructure to support it and users realize that this is what they needed. Well, that could be the topic for another blog.
One of the best quotes for success which I read somewhere has been, “Going from failure to failure with equal enthusiasm.” As an Indian saying goes, there is only one Kohinoor Diamond**, but we can all aim for a string of pearls in our lives.
Or then again, we could help someone else with similar technology succeed in their endeavors. And then comes the realization, that in their success, we may find our own.
** The Kohinoor diamond, likely found in diamond mines of Kollur in the old Hyderabad province is known as one of the largest diamonds in the world. It now occupies pride of place in the British Crown Jewels.