One of the blind spots that the tech industry has resembles a binary one. It is obsessed with zeros. The industry sees a zero, as in the year 2000, 2010 or 2020 and it focuses on it, to the exclusion of almost all else. It is D-Day, Armageddon or a brave new dawn.
Take 2020. It is now just three years and a few months away.
Yet still the predictions for tumultuous events are geared towards what will happen as we usher in a new decade.
When the focus of the industry fell on the Machine-to-Machine (M2M) opportunity, which quickly became the Internet of Things (IoT), Ericsson famously predicted that by 2020, 50 billion ‘things’ would be connected to the Internet. Now that the artificial deadline of 2020 is getting worryingly close, Ericsson have updated their prediction and said that there might be 38 billion devices connected to the internet.
Ericsson is not alone. Cisco and other tech giants have to follow suit, fixated on the magic date.
Industry analysts do it too. They use statistics for PR. And it works – everyone loves a good statistic. Even Google does it, knowing that when the deadline shoots past, everyone will have forgotten what they predicted in the first place. Recently AT&T’s Joan Marsh, VP of Federal Regulation, was criticized for examining Google’s past promises, in public. She pointed to some of Google’s failed infrastructure projects, comparing their initial grand statements with reality. She singled out their ‘white space’ rhetoric where Google said (in 2008) that gigabit broadband would be available from New York to North Dakota on devices available by the 2009 holiday season. This, obviously did not happen, nor did several other Google projects.
Marsh’s public outcry was fuelled by the fact that AT&T and other ‘telcos’ have to bear the burden of buying spectrum and licenses, and shoulder universal service obligations, while ‘Jack be Nimble’ Google does not, and pulls out of projects when the going look tough, or expensive.
A problem with these artificial deadlines is that predictions are based on everything going smoothly. And, of course, everything does not go smoothly.
As the IoT disappears into its vertical markets, such as the Internet of Healthcare, the Internet of Automotive and becomes simply the way that industries evolve, most things stop going smoothly. And therefore they slow down.
The Regulator cometh
At some point in the process, the Regulator will get involved.
In Healthcare, the Regulator, in whatever national cloak he wears, will say ‘wait a minute, that looks quite dangerous and can it be hacked’, and before you know it the latest smartphone app is being studied as if it is a medical device. And this, of course, adds years to the roll out of, well, anything and everything.
It is hard to underestimate the influence of the Regulator in almost any arena.
Indeed, the Regulator is now exerting undue influence on the internet itself, the very foundation of digital disruption and innovation. The ‘full and frank’ discussions over various forms of net neutrality rules will rumble on for years. The telcos believe that it restricts their ability to innovate and differentiate themselves and smaller players say it is unfair on them. The Regulator wants full, fair and open access for everyone (except in certain circumstances of course).
The Wild West of the internet age is gone. Now we face an uncertain few years where the balance is readjusted. The balance between consumers’ privacy and the unwritten contract that underpinned the internet – free content in exchange for your data – which Facebook and others have taken far too far. The balance between competitive freedom and unfair competition. The balance between security and freedom of speech.
There is a power struggle looming between huge tech companies and Governments. The lobbying budgets of the tech giants has increased hugely over the past few years as they employ every means to stop the influence of the Regulator getting in the way of their ambitions.
While this balance is reached, many initiatives will be put on hold, or will slow down significantly. And companies will suffer and some will suffer terminally. More companies go out of business by being too early with a gadget that depends on networks being ready, than go out of business for being late to the party.
Connected and autonomous cars will take longer than the companies involved would like. Security issues have been raised. Safety issues have been raised. The CEO of Volvo was recently embarrassed during a high profile demonstration when the autonomous car stopped and refused to work. It could not find any road markings and therefore decided it was unsafe to proceed. This will mean either road upgrades or better and more expensive sensors will have to be designed, tested and rolled out. Many large companies are betting huge sums on this arena and the timescales for returns are getting longer.
The automotive industry is just one that is in this situation.
Once this braking process starts, it will be difficult to get it started again and many companies will find themselves having to revisit business plans and will find themselves having to fund the waiting period. And spend even more on lobbying to try and keep things on track.
Sadly, the tech industry will never get over its obsession with artificial deadlines such as 2020. And it will continue to roll out headline grabbing announcements based on artificial deadlines and the idea that everything goes smoothly.
What the investment community can do is continue to become more cynical, to avoid buying in to these ‘best of all possible world’ announcements. Getting beyond the attention seeking headlines, scrutinizing the worst-case scenarios, not just from competitors but the Regulator, must be the order of the day.
After all, anyone in business knows that everything takes three times longer and costs three times more than you want it to.