System Design & Management

Why aren't businesses building impossible products?

When the Human Genome Project was first initiated in 1990, its budget was set at a staggering $3bn and the resulting analysis took over four years. Just over two decades later, a device costing just $50,000 was used, aptly, to sequence Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s DNA in a matter of hours. This time last year, the costs had dropped to $1,000.

How can businesses ever keep up, or even hope to become more than also-rans? While the information revolution is having an undeniably profound impact on how we work, rest and play, its continued progress is not that hard to understand.

Technology, in all its glory, is frequently a red herring; while information can also become complex, it offers a far more straightforward and tangible starting point. Please bear with me as I run through some basics. 

Information exists to inform. We can be entertained or educated, we can use it as the basis of making our minds up both within and outside business. It can also inform processes and drive equipment, opening the door to automation. 

So far so good, but where do we get it? Information is generally created by capturing, then digitising and processing data, transporting it from one place to another using a generally accepted binary format. Whether we write a message or make use of a sensor, we are adding to the mother of all analogue to digital converters. 

As so often, the simplest concepts can have the broadest impact: no restriction has been placed on what data can be about, within the bounds of philosophical reason. Neither are restrictions placed on the amount of data we can store, process or transport. 

While the sky is the theoretical limit, in practice we cannot reach so high. Constraints of time, space, power and cost are directly responsible for the rate of progress we are experiencing. 

First then, time. When we create information from data, we often experience a best-before time limit, beyond which it no longer makes sense to be informed.

This is as true for the screen taps that make a WhatsApp message as for a complex medical diagnosis. As so neatly illustrated by a jittery YouTube stream, we also have a threshold of tolerance for poor quality.

Closely aligned with timeliness (in the shape of Moore’s Law) are the eroding limitations of physical space and power. Smaller devices with longer battery lives inevitably have broader use, meaning even electric razors and prescription drugs can be computer-powered. 

As we saw in the genome example, a consequence of these constraints are the costs associated with any specific use case or application. In turn, costs drive demand, which drives supply, the automation of the latter being subject to the same time, space, power and cost trade-offs.

In layman’s terms, as we use more electronics the electronics become cheaper and more usable. The resulting tendency is for initial innovations to become commodity items, as generations of proprietary IP are displaced by ‘open’ standards and software, each driving down costs still further. 

Such gradually reducing constraints have guided the progression of the information revolution, and continue to set the scene for what is practical. Examples are literally everywhere, a backdrop to 50 years of progress, from the number of sensors in an engine to the fact we now carry mainframe-class processing in our pockets. 

Compromises still have to be made, inevitably. We cannot “boil the ocean” and nor can we attach sensors to every molecule in the universe (not yet, anyway). What businesses can do, however, is recognise that the thresholds are falling — there is money to be made in doing so.

What was once prohibitively expensive can become, quite literally, as cheap as chips — in six, 12, 18 months’ time a whole number of things will become predictably possible and affordable. Business cases become feasible, price points achievable. 

So far, so obvious. What is downright weird, however, is that this shifting horizon of opportunity is rarely taken into account in product and service design. And this is the case even though product cycles often operate across a similar time period. 

How could things be done differently? The alternative is to ask the impossible of technology — to design products and services as though they would be both practical and cost-effective, even though they are not today. 

All businesses should be asking questions. What would I do if I had unlimited technology budget? What if I could engage with every one of my customers, directly, as individuals? What if I could scan all patients for all conditions on entry to the hospital, or even the surgery? What if I could talk to a holographic image of my team members, wherever they are? What if I could 3D print an entire car, or a whole different form of vehicle? On the other side of the world?

And they should not be stopping there but working on the answers, creating and prototyping designs and architectures that clearly will not work. Yet. Not only does this exercise spin up the flywheel of future opportunity, it also spawns a list of criteria that the organisation can act upon — such as the business models it needs to become a leader in the spaces that do not yet exist.

Perhaps a business will decide it does not want to operate in a certain area — but it may have value to add, for example in offering insurance policies for the driverless car or shared lawnmower maintenance and management.

Organisations large and small have the opportunity to gaze into the crystal ball — while we may not know everything that the future holds, we can have a fair stab at identifying what will become possible. 

While this is obvious, it isn’t how product plans are defined — which is why inevitably faster-moving new companies steal the lunches of so many incumbents.

Startups aren’t any better at prediction; there are simply more of them, exploring options faster than any traditional company can by itself. How much of what we call ‘business agility’ is simply down to spending less time in meetings, and more just building stuff, I wonder. Even as businesses are judged on their ability to respond to today’s challenges, they are ignoring the opportunities staring them in the face. The biggest failure of any business will ultimately link to of a lack of imagination. 


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Jon Collins

Jon Collins is an analyst and principal advisor at Inter Orbis. He has over 25 years in experience of the tech sector, having worked as an IT manager, software consultant, project manager and training manager among other roles. Jon’s published work covers security, governance, project management but also includes books on music, including works on Rush, Mike Oldfield and Marillion. See More

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