Monday, April 20, 2009

Picking a Winning Technology

The telecoms industry, along with the wider technology industry, is littered with great ideas that failed, seemingly pointless technologies that have somehow managed to find a use and become irreplaceable, and vociferous debates as interested parties battle for their technology to become the 'standard'.

But what makes a winning technology? The Betamax v VHS story is perhaps a bit long in the tooth these days, but still incredibly relevant. Indeed, this month Nokia has tried to dismiss WiMAX as a "wireless Betamax" and that while it will linger around, it will be LTE (the "VHS" in the analogy) that will win the standards war and dominate the market. However, as the article in the Financial Times goes on to correctly qualify, while VHS dominated the consumer market, Betacam was generally recognised to the the 'better' technology and indeed became the standard used by broadcast professionals.

Fundamentally, what this argument comes down to is not which is the better technology. Sadly, that seems to have naff all to do with it. In fact, it comes down to something called the 'Social Construction of Technology'. To boil it down to one key point, it's not a case of which is the 'best' technology, but rather who is saying it's the best technology. It comes down to the stakeholders, the social momentum behind the technology that determines the 'winner'.

So, VHS beat Betamax, BluRay beat HD DVD ... go far enough back, and the chain-driven 'safety bicycle' eventually dominated while the Penny Farthing was consigned to history and AC beat DC as the standard for electricity generation.

To win a standards war, therefore, it's not enough to win the technology battle. Technology does not exist in a vacuum - technology that exists for the sake of technology invariably fails, while the technology that solves a problem, that actually does something is the one that survives and thrives. Understanding the context of a technology is critical to being able to pick a winner ... choices about technology are shaped by the society in which it exists.

So, look at the LTE v WiMAX battle from another perspective - not in terms of which is the 'better' technology, but rather which has the weight of special interest groups and social momentum to define the rules of the battlefield?

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