Making Relevant Future Technology or Making Future Technology Relevant?

12 Oct 2007|Added Value

These two phrases might seem the same, but from my point of view, it’s the former that really matters. Here’s an example of what I mean…

In a previous life, when I was at Ampex in the early 90’s, the company talked a lot about the future of video technology – how could they make their technology relevant for the inevitable market desire for video on demand. While we can’t deny that Ampex has been credited with a lot of invention, their approach to innovation was flawed. They tried to “make their technology relevant” by cramming more and more terabytes of capacity into a smaller footprint instead of understanding what would be relevant to the end-user experience.

A brand and product that was loved by consumers never leveraged the underlying and changing needs of their audience to “make relevant technology.” And so what was a thriving giant in consumers’ minds disappeared from our radar. A brand once associated with the wonder of music and entertainment now makes ugly boxes for data.

I contrast that to YouTube.

For some close friends of mine, part of the evening ritual of getting their young boys to bed is lap time with dad watching YouTube videos of diggers, trucks, trains and planes. You can’t really get anymore “on-demand” than an insistant 3 year-old asking to see the bulldozer video again.

When we think about developing future technologies, YouTube understands that the experience of the user is what fundamentally drives innovation. It puts relevance ahead of technology in the innovation equation. Had Ampex had the ability to conceptualize based on the experience of wonder between a parent and child, perhaps they’d be a brand we still invest in.

A recent CNET story on Microsoft illuminated this topic further. In an interview with Will Poole, VP of Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential Group which focuses on innovation for emerging markets, he discusses the company’s efforts in bringing computing technology to the next billion. As opposed to Negroponte’s OLPC initiative, which has focused on the device, Microsoft is focusing on the needs of the people in the context of their culture. As he states in the interview:

“When I started looking at this about five years ago, I thought that affordability was the biggest challenge. It turns out that affordability is actually the third on the list of issues. The first one turns out to be relevance. That means bringing a product to market that really meets the needs of somebody in an emerging segment–be it in rural India or in urban China or down the street, here in San Francisco. Are we building a technology that is relevant to the specific needs and problems that they have?

The second thing is to look at whether the technology is accessible to them. Can they find a place to buy it? Can they get support? Can they get broadband connectivity to bring them into the world of the Web? And then the third thing is affordability.

So, for example, in Asia we focus a lot on education because that’s a very high priority there. In Latin America, we focus a little bit more on the jobs and opportunities and helping people get better jobs through the use of software technology. So there’s a variety of different technologies we’ll bring to the market, depending on the specific needs of local people.”

We’re fortunate to be able to work with Microsoft on their emerging markets strategies and it’s true that they are doing some cool stuff that really is about “making relevant future technology” (though of course, they do still focus on making their current technology relevant). As an aside we are presenting some of our collabortive EME work with our Microsoft colleagues at the upcoming IIR Market Research Event next week.

Another emerging markets and technology story I read recently highlighted the practice of “beeping” in Africa – how users would quickly dial a friend and then disconnect before the call was picked up. The missed call number on the receiver’s end indicates a call back request. Understanding the contextual forces behind this unanticipated adaptation of technology will now fuel more relevant features and services that serve the unique needs of the user.

Developing technology that is relevant to people’s needs in context and flexible enough to adapt to evolving needs and contexts is key to innovation. It really is about making future relevance, not just making future technology.

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