Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Repetition with neither Tragedy nor Farce

Where technology is concerned, the repetition of history need not necessarily be either tragic or farcical. Sometimes it is just a matter of recognizing that an idea good enough to work in one context can be just as beneficial in another. This can become particularly interesting when such duplication of a good idea reflects from a new technology back into an old one.

Consider TrueCall, a recent invention by British inventors (who used to be telemarketers) Steve Smith and John Price. This is a device to protect the land lines of good old-fashioned POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) customers from unwanted intrusive calls, most of which are for marketing purposes and some of which have far more malicious intentions. The description of TrueCall given on this morning's BBC NEWS Web site suggests that the invention was not only inspired but also significantly modeled on technology that detects spam (junk mail) before it gets to your electronic mail inbox. I might even venture to be more specific and note that the basic process that TrueCall implements in the analog world of POTS land lines bears a striking resemblance to the way in which Microsoft Outlook manages its Junk E-mail Folder. This is not to deny that Smith and Price have been innovative but to observe that innovation often is a matter of adapting an existing idea to a context not previously considered. In terms of what Mark and Barbara Stefik call "The Dance of the Two Questions" in Chapter 2 of their Breakthrough book on the subject of "radical innovation," Smith and Price recognized that the "What Is Needed?" question for POTS users could be answered through the "What Is Possible?" question in the domain of electronic mail.

Nevertheless, Smith and Price may not be in the best of positions for making a killing from their innovative skill. The POTS user community is likely to experience attrition along two fronts:

  1. Cell phone users are discovering that a land line is less important than it used to be; and they are just as inclined to use their cell phones at home as when they are "mobile."
  2. Meanwhile, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services are gradually beginning to migrate from specialist providers (such as Skype) to the more traditional players, such as AT&T, and the less-traditional ones trying to "cash in on convergence," such as Comcast. Most VoIP services also allow incoming calls to be "delivered" as electronic mail messages. This makes unwanted calls just another form of spam, which means it is only a matter of time before spam-detecting technology beging to address the audio files delivered by a VoIP provider.

Thus, once we back off from the dazzle of TrueCall's bright idea, we may discover that it is the latest telling of that old joke about the monorail, which dubbed it "an idea of the future whose time has passed." Ultimately, the moral of this story may be: If you are going to make an innovative context shift, look before you leap!

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