How to identify high-impact future technologies

"There is no reason a person would want a computer in his home," said Ken Olsen, co-founder and head of then leading U.S. computer company Digital Equipment (DEC) in 1977. A decade later Olsen again infamously quipped: "UNIX is snake oil."

He was dead wrong on both counts.

Well how does one get it right? It's a conundrum thousands of researchers, developers and entrepreneurs the world over have tried to resolve ... mostly unsuccessfully.

So how does one identify high-impact technologies of the future? That's the million dollar question. In fact, the "right" answer can be worth far more than a million bucks. The challenge is finding it.

Some industry insiders believe a review of the popularity cycle that ideas or products go through can provide valuable clues to tech prognosticators. Research firm Gartner Research has developed what it calls a Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, which is essentially a graph that charts the movement of specific technologies from inception to productivity.

Leo Marland, director of technology for IBM, likens this cycle to the waxing and waning of a film star's career.

Much like a movie star, "every technology goes through a cycle of development, initial awareness, popularity, slump, and if the technology has got what it," said Marland during a presentation at the recently concluded 2006 Showcase Ontario in Toronto. His address was titled State of the Future-Emerging High Impact Technologies.

According to the IBM exec, chances of a new technology getting widely adopted are greater when it is supported by "clusters" of complementary technologies. Such a supportive cluster, he said, is a good indication of product's "viability and potential to create a high impact on society."

He cited the rapid adoption of radio frequency identification (RFID) as an example of successful clustering.

The development of supporting technologies such as microchips, location-aware products such as global positioning systems, digital tattoos, wireless broadband networks and handsets -- all these helped RFID get off the ground and become accepted by industry," said Marland. Other observers say we need to look to the market and user community for clues and indications about how a new product or technology will fare.

Meeting a niche market, ease of use, and the right price are key success pre-requisites for a technology, according to Jackie Fenn, analyst and fellow for emerging trends at the research firm Gartner.

For instance she cited instant messaging as hitting the market at the right moment when teenagers where invading the Web. There's a demand right now for technology that facilitates person-to-person contact, she noted. "Instant messaging offers a slightly different take on meeting that need and it appeals to the market."

Fenn said the same is true of Web 2.0 and the broad collection of trends that harness creative channels such as wikis, blogs and file sharing to communicate quickly and effectively.

"Web 2.0 was how the Web was original conceived, but 15 years ago the technology wasn't there to facilitate the ease of use we now have that allows us almost a one-click capability to post content."

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