You techno-optimists don’t understand how messy real-life projects are. You over-estimate the power of technology, and under-estimate factors such as sociology, psychology, economics, and biology – not to mention the cussed awkwardness of Murphy’s Law.
That’s an example of the kind of retort that has frequently come to my ears in the last few years. I have a lot of sympathy for that retort.
I don’t deny being an optimist about what technology can accomplish. As I see things:
- Human progress has taken place by the discovery and adoption of engineering solutions – such as fire, the wheel, irrigation, sailing ships, writing, printing, the steam engine, electricity, domestic kitchen appliances, railways and automobiles, computers and the Internet, plastics, vaccinations, anaesthetic, contraception, and better hygiene
- Forthcoming technological improvements can propel human experience onto an even higher plane – with our minds and bodies both being dramatically enhanced
- As well as making us stronger and smarter, new technology can help us become kinder, more collaborative, more patient, more empathetic, less parochial, and more aware of our cognitive biases and blindspots.
But equally, I see lots of examples of technology failing to live up to the expectations of techno-optimists. It’s not just that technology is a two-edged sword, and can scar as well as salve. And it’s not just that technology is often mis-employed in search of a “techno-solution” when a piece of good old-fashioned common sense could result in a better approach. It’s that new technologies – whether ideas for new medical cures, new sustainable energy sources, improved AI algorithms, and so on – often take considerably longer than expected to create useful products. Moreover, these products often have weaker features or poorer quality than anticipated.
Here’s an example of technology slowdown. A 2012 article in Nature coined the clever term “Eroom’s Law” to describe a steady decline in productivity of R&D research in new drug discovery:
Diagnosing the decline in pharmaceutical R&D efficiency
Jack W. Scannell, Alex Blanckley, Helen Boldon & Brian Warrington
The past 60 years have seen huge advances in many of the scientific, technological and managerial factors that should tend to raise the efficiency of commercial drug research and development (R&D). Yet the number of new drugs approved per billion US dollars spent on R&D has halved roughly every 9 years since 1950, falling around 80-fold in inflation-adjusted terms.
In other words, although the better-known Moore’s Law describes a relatively steady increase in computational power, Eroom’s Law describes a relatively steady decrease in the effectiveness of research and development within the pharmaceutical industry. By the way, Eroom isn’t a person: it’s Moore spelt backwards.
The statistics are bleak, as can be seen in a graph from Derek Lowe’s In the pipeline blog:
But despite this dismal trend, I still see plenty of reason for measured optimism about the future of technology. That’s despite the messiness of real-world projects, out-dated regulatory and testing systems, perverse incentive schemes, institutional lethargy, and inadequate legacy platforms.
This measured optimism comes to the surface in the later stages of the book I have just e-published, at the end of a two-year period of writing it. The book is entitled Smartphones and beyond: lessons from the remarkable rise and fall of Symbian.
As I write in the opening chapter of that book (an excerpt is available online):
The story of the evolution of smartphones is fascinating in its own right – for its rich set of characters, and for its colourful set of triumphs and disasters. But the story has wider implications. Many important lessons can be drawn from careful review of the successes and, yes, the failures of the smartphone industry.
When it comes to the development of modern technology, things are rarely as simple as they first appear. Some companies bring great products to the market, true. These companies are widely lauded. But the surface story of winners and losers can conceal many twists and turns of fortune. Behind an apparent sudden spurt of widespread popularity, there frequently lies a long gestation period. The eventual blaze of success was preceded by the faltering efforts of many pioneers who carved new paths into uncertain terrain. The steps and missteps of these near-forgotten pioneers laid the foundation for what was to follow.
So it was for smartphones. It is likely to be the same with many of the other breakthrough technologies that have the potential to radically transform human experience in the decades ahead. They are experiencing their missteps too.
I write this book as an ardent fan of the latent power of modern technology. I’ve seen smartphone technology playing vital roles in the positive transformation of human experience, all over the world. I expect other technologies to play even more radical roles in the near future – technologies such as wearable computing, 3D printing, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, neuro-enhancement, rejuvenation biotech, artificial intelligence, and next generation robotics. But, as with smartphones, there are likely to be many disappointments en route to eventual success. Indeed, even the “eventual success” cannot be taken for granted.
General principles about the progress of complex technology emerge from reflecting on the details of actual examples. These details – the “warts and all”, to use the phrase attributed to Oliver Cromwell – can confound naive notions as to how complex technology should be developed and applied. As I’ll show from specific examples in the chapters ahead, the details show that failure and success often co-exist closely within the same project. A single project often contains multiple layers, belonging to numerous different chains of cause and effect.
It is my sincere hope that an appreciation of real-world examples of these multiple layers of smartphone development projects will enable a better understanding of how to guide the future evolution of other forms of smart technology. I’ll describe what I call “the core smartphone skillset”, comprising excellence in the three dimensions of “platforms”, “marketing”, and “execution”. To my mind, these are the key enablers of complex technological progress. These enablers have a critical role to play for smartphones, and beyond. Put together well, these enablers can climb mountains.
I see the core smartphone skillset as having strong applicability in wider technological areas. That skillset provides the basis for overcoming the various forms of inertia which are holding back the creation of important new solutions from emerging technologies. The existence of that skillset underlies my measured optimism in the future.
But there’s nothing inevitable about how things will turn out. The future holds many potential scenarios, with varying degrees of upside and downside. The question of which scenarios will become actual, depends on inspired human vision, choice, action, and follow-through. Fortune sometimes hinges on the smallest of root causes. Effects can then cascade.
Hits and misses
As well as the description of the core smartphone skillset” – which I see as having strong applicability in wider technological areas – the book contains my thoughts as the things that Symbian did particularly well over the years, resulting in it becoming the leading smartphone operating system for many years in the first decade of this century:
- Investors and supporters who were prepared to take a long-term view of their investments
- Regular deliveries against an incremental roadmap
- Regularly taking the time to improve the architecture of the software and the processes by which it was delivered
- High calibre software development personnel
- Cleanly executed acquisitions to boost the company’s talent pool
- Early and sustained identification of the profound importance of smartphones
- Good links with the technology foresight groups and other roadmap planning groups within a range of customers
- A product that was open to influence, modification, and customisation by customers
- Careful attention given to enabling an ecosystem of partners
- An independent commercial basis for the company, rather than it being set up as a toothless “customers’ cooperative”
- Enabling competition.
Over the course of that time, Symbian:
- Opened minds as to what smartphones could accomplish. In particular, people realised that there was much more they could do with mobile phones, beyond making phone calls. This glimpse encouraged other companies to enter this space, with alternative smartphone platforms that achieved, in the end, considerably greater success
- Developed a highly capable touch UI platform (UIQ), years before Android/iPhone
- Supported a rich range of different kinds of mobile devices, all running versions of the same underlying software engine; in particular, Symbian supported the S60 family of devices with its ergonomically satisfying one-handed operating mode
- Achieved early demonstrations of breakthrough capabilities for mobile phones, including streaming multimedia, smooth switching between wifi and cellular networks, maps with GPS updates, the use of a built-in compass and accelerometer, and augmented reality – such as in the 2003 “Mozzies” (“Mosquitos”) game for the Siemens SX1
- Powered many ground-breaking multimedia smartphones, imaging smartphones, business smartphones, and fashion smartphones
- Achieved sales of some 500 million units – with the majority being shipped by Nokia, but with 40 million being shipped inside Japan from 2003 onwards, by Fujitsu, Sharp, Mitsubishi, and Sony Ericsson
- Held together an alliance of competitors, among the set of licensees and partners of Symbian, with the various companies each having the opportunity to benefit from solutions initially developed with some of their competitors in mind
- Demonstrated that mobile phones could contain many useful third party applications, without at the same time becoming hotbeds of viruses
- Featured in some of the best-selling mobile phones of all time, up till then, such as the Nokia 5230, which sold 150 million units.
Alongside the list of “greatest hits”, the book also contains a (considerably longer) list of “greatest misses”, “might-have-beens”, and alternative histories. The two lists are distilled from wide-ranging “warts and all” discussions in earlier chapters of the book, featuring many excerpts from my email and other personal archives.
To my past and present colleagues from the Symbian journey, I offer my deep thanks for all their contributions to the creation of modern smartphones. I also offer my apologies for cases when my book brings back memories of episodes that some participants might prefer to forget. But Symbian’s story is too important to forget. And although there is much to regret in individual actions, there is much to savour in the overall outcome. We can walk tall.
The bigger picture now is that other emerging technology sectors risk repeating the stumbles of the smartphone industry. Whereas the smartphone industry recovered from its early stumbles, these other industries might not be so fortunate. They may die before they get off the ground. Their potential benefits might remain forever out of grasp, or be sorely delayed.
If the unflattering episodes covered in Smartphones and beyond can help increase the chance of these new technology sectors addressing real human need quickly, safely, and fully, then I believe it will be worth all the embarrassment and discomfort these episodes may cause to Symbian personnel – me included. We should be prepared to learn from one of the mantras of Silicon Valley: “embrace failure”. Reflecting on failure can provide the launchpad for greater future success, whether in smartphones, or beyond.
Early reviewers of the book have commented that the book is laden with lessons, from the pioneer phase of the smartphone industry, for the nascent technology sectors where they are working – such as wearable computing, 3D printing, social robots, and rejuvenation biotechnology. The strength of these lessons is that they are presented, in this book, in their multi-dimensional messiness, with overlapping conflicting chains of cause and effect, rather than as cut-and-dried abstracted principles.
In that the pages of Smartphones and beyond, I do choose to highlight some specific learnings from particular episodes of smartphone success or smartphone failure. Some lessons deserve to be shouted out. For other episodes, I leave it to readers to reach their own conclusions. In yet other cases, frankly, it’s still not clear to me what lessons should be drawn. Writers who follow in my tracks will no doubt offer their own suggestions.
My task in all these cases is to catalyse a discussion, by bringing stories to the table that have previously lurked unseen or under-appreciated. My fervent hope is that the discussion will make us all collectively wiser, so that emerging new technology sectors will proceed more quickly to deliver the profound benefits of which they are capable.
For an extended series of extracts from the different chapters in Smartphones and beyond, see the official website for the book.
- Note that readers without Kindle devices can read the book on a convenient app on their PC or tablet (or smartphone!) – these apps are freely available.
I haven’t created a hard-copy print version. The book would need to be split into three parts to make it physically convenient. Far better, in my view, to be able to carry the book on a light electronic device, with “search” and “bookmark” facilities that very usefully augment the reading experience.
Opportunities to improve
Smartphones and beyond no doubt still contains a host of factual mistakes, errors in judgement, misattributions, personal biases, blind spots, and other shortcomings. All these faults are the responsibility of the author. To suggest changes, either in an updated edition of this book or in some other follow-up project, please get in touch.
Where the book includes copies of excerpts from Internet postings, I have indicated the online location where the original article could be found at the time of writing. In case an article has moved or been deleted since then, it can probably be found again via search engines or the Internet archive, https://archive.org/. If I have inadvertently failed to give due credit to an original writer, or if I have included more text than the owner of the original material wishes, I will make amends in a later edition, upon reasonable request. Quoted information where no source is explicitly indicated is generally taken from copies of my emails, memos in my electronic diary, or other personal archives.
One of the chapters of this book is entitled “Too much openness”. Some readers may feel I have, indeed, been too open with some of the material I have shared. However, this material is generally at least 3-5 years old. Commercial lines of business no longer depend on it remaining secret. So I have applied a historian’s licence. We can all become collectively wiser by discussing it now.
Finally, one other apology is due. As I’ve given my attention over the last few months to completing Smartphones and beyond, I’ve deprioritised many other tasks, and have kept colleagues from various important projects waiting for longer than they expected. I can’t promise that I’ll be able to pick up all these other pieces quickly again – that kind of overcommitment is one of the failure modes discussed throughout Smartphones and beyond. But I feel like I’m emerging for a new phase of activity – “Beyond ‘Smartphones and Beyond'”.
To help transition to that new phase, I’ve moved my corporate Delta Wisdom website to a new format (WordPress), and rejigged what had become rather stale content. It’s time for profound change.