Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Why Some Technologies Never Catch On...

A post on Slashdot today raises an intriguing question: Will Twitter join podcasting on the internet sidelines?

Twitter has established itself in some quarters as a must-have communications tool, and its power to connect and even incite people is hard to deny. But does Twitter have long-term, mainstream potential? Or does a poor revenue model and strong competition mean that it's destined to be a sideline Internet technology, much like podcasting has failed to live up to early hype

Whether it be Twitter, Podcasts, Linux, RSS, Joost, or other technological marvels that were once hyped as "the next big thing", there is a fundamental question that technologists need to start addressing: Why do some promising technologies succeed in penetrating the mainstream markets while others fail to ever quite catch on?

On the surface, many of the upstarts seem poised for success, at least in theory. Sharing and downloading music files remains a national pastime for the under-30 crowd, yet podcasts - which are essentially downloadable radio shows - can't quite gain a footing. Meanwhile, every new release of Linux is accompanied by hype that this time it's finally ready to compete with and even replace Microsoft Windows, yet has never cracked a 15% market share. Joost was supposed to revolutionize the way we watched television over the internet, but after months of being the "It" thing in the blogosphere, it's practically nowhere to be found.

RSS might be the most disturbing case of all. It is a fantastic technology that allows people to subscribe to internet feeds, ultimately making their surfing lives easier, more efficient, and more comprehensive. The Nerfherder uses it himself daily with Netvibes and swears by it. So why hasn't the non-wired populace started to adopt this transformative and (at least to its zealously loyal users) irreplaceable technology?

It's not because of failed business models. After all, most podcasts, like blogs, are actually produced by passionate hobbyists rather than commercial firms. And RSS is a technical standard, not a proprietary entity whose owner has simply failed to capitalize on. When you think about it, the history of the internet itself reads like a list of non-revenue-producing services that caught on big, such as Napster, BitTorrent, Email, Instant Messaging, etc.

It's also not because the technologies themselves were inferior. Quite the opposite, in fact. For example, Linux is generally recognized by the computing world as being far superior in technical terms to Microsoft Windows. To put this in perspective, does Vista really even compare to Ubuntu?

It's quite obvious that none of these promising technologies has reached, what Malcolm Gladwell famously called, a "tipping point". But his has always been a more descriptive statement, rather than a prescriptive argument that can be usefully applied to other cases. In other words, it may be true, but it's also quite useless in explaining why these technologies have failed to catch on, and what can be done about it moving forward.

The question of why some technologies succeed while others fail, therefore, cannot be adequately answered by market forces, business models, cultural and behavioral patterns, nor technical prowess. Thus, short of citing Cosmic Zen or the Greek goddess Athena as the reason for RSS's limited popularity, it remains a question in desperate need of an answer.

And a billion-dollar answer, at that.


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