Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Technology is not the Product

A perennial source of confusion in technology analysis is the false equivalence between technology and technical products. I refer to this as the first asymmetry. (See for example my article with Philip Boxer on Metropolis and SOA Governance.)

This confusion sometimes crops up in adoption studies, where people talk as if the adoption of a technology was the same thing as the adoption of a product, which is clearly not the case. Leading software companies may sometimes employ people to evangelize a generic technology (SOA, Complex Event Processing or whatever) instead of focusing specifically on their own company's own product range - this tactic allows evangelists from rival companies to collaborate in order to expand the credibility (and therefore the market) for the technology as a whole.

We should also note that complex products often contain a bundle of different technical inventions. As I pointed out in my blogpost on the Red Queen Effect, a product may be composed from a large number of components, each of which may be subject to technical innovation. Product innovation is not a simple linear function of technology innovation; a product lifecycle can be extremely short, but most of the underlying technology may be moving much more slowly. Or vice versa.

Thus a new device such as the iPad shouldn't be regarded as a single instance of "new technology"  but as a designed product that contains a large number of new and not-so-new technologies. If I buy a device that happens to contain special features for disabled users, based on the latest technology, can I be said to have "adopted" this technology even if I never actually use those features.

Meanwhile, some products fail to realise the potential of the available technology. For example, Plumen, a niche manufacturer of low energy lightbulbs, makes this claim about its competitors, saying "there are CFLs out there that provide a nice colour of light and that turn on quickly, but they are hidden under a sea of cheap, poor quality bulbs that are given away for free" [Plumen website].

Some types of regulation focus on products rather than technologies. See for example Australasian Biotechnology (Notes from November 1998).


"The end product is not the technology but the experiences that we make possible." Griffiths on mobile, Brand Republic, March 2005. “One of our philosophies at MobiTV is the experience as the product, not the technology.” Paul Scanlan, interviewed by Connected Planet, November 2008.

"Whatever the product is, it includes the usability of the technology." John Unger Zussman, Docufictionalizing user manuals. InfoWorld, 15 Feb 1982. Available at Google Books

See also Sameera Banduk, Marketing Manager of, explaining why his company received awards in every category except technology.

"We’re not seen as a technical company, because the technology is not the product. The technology is in the background, and it’s mind-blowing, but what you see from the website is the customer experience and the products." [Customer Focus and Geek Cred - An Interview with January 22, 2010]

And finally, see Interview with Sherry Turkle, Frontline, Sept. 22, 2009


ironick said...

"a product lifecycle can be extremely short, but most of the underlying technology may be moving much more slowly. Or vice versa."

Richard, I'm having difficulty imagining the "vice versa": a product lifecycle that is extremely long, but most of the underlying technology is moving much more rapidly. If the underlying technologies are moving rapidly and they are being incorporated into the product, wouldn't the pace of the product lifecycle be at least as great as the slowest technology lifecycle incorporated by the product?

Richard Veryard said...

If we understand "product" to refer to what the customer/consumer buys and uses, then I think this can remain fairly static while the producer continues to innovate on improved materials, improved safety features or whatever - aspects that may be invisible to the customer or don't affect the customer's view of the identity of the product.

For example, a car manufacturer and its component supply partners may develop a new technology for brakes, which is perhaps safer or more environmentally friendly or just cheaper and more profitable. The improved technology is used for replacing the brakes on existing cars, as well as changing the bill of materials for cars currently in production. But this doesn't constitute a new product, and doesn't affect the product lifecycle.

And in the software industry, producer might produce a new product version every six months, but a bug-fix every two weeks. I'd see the fortnightly bug-fix as representing technological change (keeping up with the technological innovation from malware producers and other security threats) but not product change (because it doesn't introduce new user functionality, merely protects the original functionality). So that would be another example where I'd argue that some aspects of technological change are on a much faster cycle than the product itself.

In some industries, there has been enormous technological innovation behind the scenes, but the product remains the same. If I buy firewood from a local woodcutter, I am getting exactly the same product that I would have got five centuries ago - even though the woodcutter is now using technologies that his forefathers wouldn't have dreamed of - power saws and horseless carriages and order processing software and wolf location tracking. Maybe that's an extreme example, but then hi-tech isn't a representative example either.