Thursday, November 13, 2008

Coevolution of Technologies or How the iPhone stopped being a phone

In many ways the evolution of Smartphones presents a fantastic opportunity to witness how technologies morph and how they co-evolve with a society. Technology is not deterministic, in the sense that a certain technology could determine how it will be used in a certain society but is not also a blank slate. Certainly there are things that can be done with a technology and others that cannot, and this evolves as technological progress advances. How a certain society interprets, uses and selects the pathways is the result of a multitude of factors, among them, of course luck.

A few days ago some new games were presented for the iphone. Among them titles that all of us will recognize, such as SimCity and Need for Speed. Yes, I must recognize that many years ago I spent countless hours playing SimCity :-). If we recall the very short history of iPhone games we will find first things like "iPint", which plays with the metaphor of the iPhone as a pint of beer that you can drink that evolved to games like "CubicMan" using again motion sensors in the game, together with the inevitable PacMan, Solitaire, Pinball, etc... Because of the target group and thanks to the wii, we also have titles like "Brain Tunner", "Brain Toot", etc... Of course this is a personal selection :-) but it probably reflects the tendency to incorporate increasingly sophisticated games that require more time and in transform the iPhone in a gaming device. With the last round of games this trend is accelerating and is accelerating fast.

But, the iPhone was a phone, wasn`t it? I didn't do any study on the subject, but my use of the iPhone as a phone is minimal and the same thing happens with much of the people that I know that they have it. My most common has been email, as a personal assistant, reference and of course ... gaming.

However, in the smartphone market we have two great advantages: the first one is the fast pace at which things occur that allows to observe phenomena that before took many years. The second thing is the existence of lead markets that allows us to witness how similar technologies evolve in paths given by their affordabilities but in completely different ways. Let's take smartphones, there we can compare Korea, Japan and Western countries. In Korea we see how games evolved to Massive Multiuser Multiplayer Games, where massive amounts of people relate to a certain game. In contrast Japan seems to be dominated by the flash-little type of game, while in the western society the PC& console type of games seem to begin to take the lead. 

In all these cases we can find how the interpretation of a device by a certain society shapes an industry that in turn produces a different set of affordabilities because of the direction it takes . Also we can see the process of convergence around these interpretations. However, these interpretations are not unique neither the best ones, neither the ones that provide the greatest societal value. They are just the chosen ones. Again, markets provide a mechanism for convergence and evolution but not necessarily a direction that maximizes any societal value. Being aware of these mechanisms and the important societal implications that forms of communication have, sometimes you may wonder if this market mechanism should not be complemented by some societal consensus that at least promotes lines of action where markets are not effective (for example commons) while avoiding others. Compared to the speed of markets and the actual co-evolution of technologies, the mechanisms that societies have to maximize societal utility are very primitive to say the less. 

Anyway, this is not the only interesting aspect in co-evolution. For the sake of example, let's take one closely related to mobile devices: convergence. We have been talking of convergence for more than 10 years, why now? Will this results in a customer lock-in? How can companies detect it? ...

Anyway, forget about phones .... they are over! 


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