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Timing your move into disruptive technologies

Though product cycle times are accelerating, the underlying technologies unfold over many years

October 3, 2012 08:24 AM ET

Computerworld - Cloud computing. Mobile technology. Big data. Social networks. With so many disruptive technologies on the horizon, timing your move into each can make the difference between getting ahead of the competition and falling irreparably behind.

One thing that can help you gauge when to take up an emerging technology is the technology adoption life cycle. This sociological model, invented by researchers at the University of Iowa who were studying the adoption of hybrid seed corn by farmers, illustrates that adoption typically follows a bell curve, with the first adopters being the innovators, followed by the early adopters, the early majority, the late majority and finally the laggards.

It can certainly be argued that, over the course of the 20th century, technologies were adopted at a faster and faster pace. For example, the telephone took 25 years to reach 10% penetration of U.S. households, and another 39 years to reach 40%. Midcentury, |color television took 18 years (between 1954 and 1972) to reach 50% adoption by U.S. households. More recently, the smartphone needed just 10 years to reach 40% adoption by U.S. consumers, and the tablet has reached 10% penetration in less than three years.

Of course, a lot of factors come into play. Landline telephones and electricity took many years to be adopted by a majority of the population, but they both faced "last mile" difficulties in bringing telephone lines and electric cables to homes. With color television, price was a factor, as was the availability of color programming. Nonetheless, the evidence points to ever-faster adoption rates, which can leave you thinking that there's a very short window for competitive advantage around each disruptive trend.

The good news is that, while product cycle times may be well under a year, the overall trend upon which the technologies are carried typically unfolds over many years. Within each trend there are multiple enabling technologies, all at various stages of maturity and adoption. Take cloud computing as an example. If we categorize cloud computing into software as a service, platform as a service, and infrastructure as a service, it's clear that each area has its own unique trajectory and timeline. The SaaS movement has been under way since the late '90s and is more mature than PaaS or IaaS. Even within the SaaS market, certain approaches and business functions are more mature and widely accepted than others. For example, cloud-based e-mail and collaboration are far more widespread than current use of IT service management as a service.

In addition, many of the most enduring trends take many years to unfold. Mobility is a great example. While it's been around for several decades, it's only now that we have the combination of low-cost, feature-rich devices, ubiquitous access, and easy-to-use applications and interfaces that has enabled mobility to quickly become the new desktop.

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