Monday, December 12, 2011

Bruce's Law of Technology

Once upon a time, Information Technology consisted primarily of Mainframes, sold by IBM and one or two small time competitors.  Oh sure, there were a few Unix and VAX minicomputers around if you looked hard enough, but these were being used mostly by scientists and engineers, and nobody paid them much mind.  Mainframes were running the corporations.  Mainframes were where the action was.

Then Apple (and quickly followed by several others, including IBM) released computers that would fit onto a single desktop.  They were small.  They didn't have much power.  They lacked the basic functionality needed to do any kind of real computing, such as job scheduling.  The IT professionals gave them a quick look, realized they were toys, and then promptly ignored them, to get back to the real business of doing IT.

Once upon a time, music was played on physical media.  Changes in technology involved migrating from one media to the next.  LPs gave way to tape cassettes (with a short detour through 8 track tapes), and then to Compact Disks.  Record labels looked forward to these changes, because it meant they could resell all their old titles in the new media.

Then, somewhere in the nineties, people started talking about music files called MP3s, which could play directly on computers, or even on dedicated devices.  These files took up a large percentage of the hard drive space that was available at the time.  Their sound quality was lousy.  The record labels took a look at MP3s, realized they couldn't compete with CD quality music, and then promptly ignored them, to get back to the real business of selling music.

Once upon a time, books consisted of sheets of paper bound together between two covers. People liked their paper books a lot.  So did authors and publishers.  They were cheap and portable.  The format had survived relatively unchanged for roughly a thousand years.  They seemed likely to be the dominant format for the next thousand years.

Then it became possible to store books on digital media.  It was lousy.  Nobody liked reading a CD Rom on their computer desktop.  Portable book readers had poor screens, terrible battery life, and were all incompatible with each other.  Publishers took a quick look at these eBooks, realized they'd never catch on, and then promptly ignored them, to get back to the real business of publishing paper books.

Clearly, we have a pattern here.  A pattern that was consistently missed by the people who most desperately needed to spot it.  They failed to understand what was happening, because they ignored Bruce's Law of Technology (which is perhaps understandable, as it is being published here for the first time).  Bruce's Law of Technology is as follows:

"New technology sucks.  Until, suddenly and unexpectedly, it doesn't."

It seems obvious.  But based on the anecdotes above (and I could add many more), people consistently ignore it's implications.  They know that technology improves.  But they dont want to think about the possibility that it might overturn the world they know and understand and love.  They see its limitations, and refuse to see its possibilities, until it's far too late to do anything about it.

Somewhere out there, theres technology that has the potential to turn your world upside down.  When you discover that technology, dont discount it because it sucks.  Plan ahead for what the new world will look like once it stops sucking.  Think about how you will need to reinvent yourself, no matter how unpleasant that prospect may be.  Remember that not reinventing yourself will be much worse.  Remember Bruces Law of Technology.

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