S-curves in Innovation | Summary and Q&A

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August 5, 2017
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a16z
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S-curves in Innovation

TL;DR

Technologies go through an initial slow period, then experience rapid growth, followed by a slowdown as incremental improvements become harder. This pattern is represented by an S-curve.

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Key Insights

  • 👨‍🔬 Technologies often start off small and slow, emerging from research labs or university settings.
  • 🥺 Rapid growth occurs once everything starts working, leading to a period of excitement and frenzy.
  • ☠️ Eventually, the rate of improvement slows down, and the focus moves to building on top of the existing technology.
  • 🐢 The emergence and growth of technologies follow an S-curve pattern, with a period of slow growth, rapid growth, and then a slowdown.
  • 🤪 The PC, internet, and smartphone industries have all gone through this pattern.
  • 📰 As technologies mature, new ideas and innovations start to emerge, creating potential for the next S-curve.
  • 🚨 Machine learning and augmented reality are examples of emerging technologies that have the potential for explosive growth.

Transcript

today I'm going to talk about the way that technologies grow and emerge in multiple waves and to talk about the s-curve as a way of thinking about that one of the ways to think about how technologies emerge is that stuff tends to turn out small and slow you have in early period where the technology isn't quite working unit for emerging from univers... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: How do technologies typically emerge and grow?

Technologies usually start off slowly, emerging from research labs. As they improve, they experience a period of rapid growth and excitement before eventually slowing down.

Q: What happens during the period of rapid growth?

During the period of rapid growth, technologies become more accessible and useful. More users adopt the technology, and new experiences are created to accommodate the increased demand.

Q: What causes the slowdown in growth?

The slowdown in growth occurs as incremental improvements become harder to perceive by users. The questions shift from whether it will work to what can be built on top of the existing technology.

Q: What are some examples of technologies that have followed this pattern?

The personal computer (PC), the internet, and smartphones are all examples of technologies that have gone through the initial slow period, rapid growth, and eventual slowdown.

Summary

This video discusses the concept of technologies emerging and growing in multiple waves, using the s-curve as a way of understanding this phenomenon. The s-curve describes how technologies start off slow and small, then experience a period of rapid growth and excitement, before eventually slowing down again. The video provides examples of this pattern in the emergence of PCs, the internet, and smartphones.

Questions & Answers

Q: How does the s-curve explain the growth and emergence of technologies?

The s-curve suggests that technologies start off slowly and small in their early stages, often emerging from university or corporate research labs. During this period, these technologies may not seem very important or useful. However, as they improve and start working effectively, they enter a phase of rapid growth and excitement. This is when the technology becomes mainstream and gains millions or even billions of users. Eventually, the rate of improvement slows down, and the focus shifts from building the technology to exploring what can be done with it.

Q: Can you provide an example of a technology that followed the s-curve?

One example is the personal computer (PC). In the 1970s, PCs were just starting to emerge, but they didn't gain widespread popularity until the 1980s with the IBM PC, Microsoft's operating system, and the Mac. This period represented the peak of the s-curve for PCs, as the market was flooded with various home computers that met buyers' expectations. By the 1990s, PCs had matured, and incremental improvements were being made. However, the emergence of the internet gave PCs a new purpose and created a whole new set of experiences, leading to another s-curve for internet technology.

Q: What happened when the internet emerged?

When the internet emerged, it initially seemed like a crazy idea, but as it started to gain traction, it became an essential part of people's lives. The s-curve for internet technology spanned from the early 1990s to the late 1990s, experiencing a period of frenzy and a bubble. However, as the internet matured, the rate of innovation and exploration slowed down. By the early 2000s, most of the possibilities of the internet had been explored and developed upon, and the focus shifted to building on top of the existing platform.

Q: How does the s-curve apply to mobile phones?

Like PCs, mobile phones followed an s-curve. In the early to mid-1980s, mobile phones were considered a crazy idea with limited use. However, over time, they grew in popularity and became something that almost everyone on earth possesses. Mobile phones also experienced a second s-curve with the emergence of smartphones. While there were technically smartphones before the iPhone, it wasn't until Apple introduced its paradigm-shifting device in 2007 that smartphones truly exploded in growth. This growth continued for a few more years before reaching a point of maturity and expansion.

Q: What is the current stage of smartphones in their s-curve?

Today, smartphones are about halfway through their s-curve. From being a crazy idea, they have gone through explosive growth and now have become a universal product. Smartphones are considered the first time that everyone on earth has access to a computer. As smartphones continue to evolve and improve, the question becomes, what can be built on top of them? Technologies like machine learning and augmented reality are currently emerging and have the potential to follow their own s-curves in the future.

Q: Are there other potential s-curves beyond smartphones?

Yes, beyond smartphones, there are several potential s-curves on the horizon. Machine learning, once a crazy idea, is now a topic that everyone is talking about. As it continues to develop and become more prevalent, it could follow an s-curve of its own. Augmented reality is another technology that is emerging and gaining attention. Both of these technologies have the potential to go from a crazy idea to explosive growth and eventually become widely accepted and integrated into everyday life.

Q: What can be learned from the concept of s-curves in technology?

Understanding the concept of s-curves in technology can help us predict and anticipate the future of emerging technologies. By recognizing that technologies start off small and slow, then experience rapid growth and eventual slowdown, we can better assess where a technology is in its life cycle. This knowledge allows us to ask questions about what comes next and what can be built on top of existing technologies. It also highlights the importance of continuous innovation and the need to explore new possibilities to keep technology evolving.

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Takeaways

The concept of s-curves in technology provides a framework for understanding how technologies grow and emerge. It highlights the stages of slow start, explosive growth, and eventual slowdown for each technology. Recognizing where a technology is in its lifecycle can help us anticipate future developments and explore new possibilities. It also emphasizes the need for continuous innovation to keep technology evolving and uncover the next wave of advancements.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Technologies start off small and slow, emerging from research labs.

  • Once everything starts working, there is a period of rapid growth and excitement.

  • Eventually, the rate of improvement slows down, and the focus shifts to what's next.

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