Hype: The Social & Financial Currency of Technology

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Oculus Rift, Apple Watch, Tesla. Iridium, Apple Newton, Segway, Second Life. Hype is both the social and financial currency of technology. Always has been, always will be. Only in the tech sector does everything you do have to be the Next Big Thing. Because if it isn’t, then nobody will invest in your idea.

Here’s a very personal story. Before Amazon was even a gleam in Jeff Bezos’ eye, I was part of a team that thought data-driven online home shopping would be the Next Big Thing and we’d be the ones to change the face of the High Street forever. Clearly it didn’t work, but equally what Amazon has achieved shows our problem wasn’t the idea itself.

We failed and Amazon succeeded because they understood what a new brand or product really has to do to get consumers to make a significant behavioural change. They bridged the gap between hype and reality.

Minimise the perceived risk. Amazon started with books and CDs, so people could try the service for a few pounds. We went for all the high value items such as consumer electronics and household appliances.

Make it easy to use. Amazon was an internet launch, with easy interfaces optimized for the available speed and bandwidth that most people had. We launched pre-internet so the user experience was painful to say the least.

Build trust. One bad experience is the quickest way to kill a new product. Amazon invested massively in distribution and logistics to ensure packages turned up super-quickly whilst the nature of the products meant minimal after-service issues. Distribution was our Achilles heel and, in my view, ultimately killed the business.

Add value to the everyday. By starting with products that people buy frequently Amazon was able to become a regular part of their customers’ lives. Because we offered products that were infrequent purchases we made life much more difficult for ourselves and this also meant that if customers did have a problem we rarely had an immediate opportunity to give them another, improved experience.

Nike+ worked because there were and are millions of runners who appreciated the value it added to their regular running experience; Kindle has worked because there are enough of us book readers who appreciate not just what it adds to our frequent reading experience, but not having to find space in our homes for the hundreds or even thousands of books we’ve finished. Uber, Airbnb, Paypal, contactless payments have all succeeded because they add value to aspects of our everyday lives or our regular behaviours.

I can live with the hype itself. For me the real problem is that to maximise the hype brands need to constantly press the reset button on history so every idea seems as new and shiny as possible. So we end up peddling the promise that we can change the world overnight when in reality most of today’s successes are built standing on the bodies of yesterday’s failures. Smartphones can trace their genealogy back to the failed Apple Newton. The first VR headset was the Telesphere Mask created by Morton Heilig in 1960, although Oculus Rift probably owes more to Jaron Lanier and the Visual Programming Lab he started in 1987. A smart refrigerator that knows when you’re out of milk and automatically orders more for you? Hyped at trade shows in the late 1990s and launched by LG in 2000.

Tech creates its own virtual reality. But for the rest of the world that doesn’t live in the tech bubble, we’re not constantly on the lookout for the next big thing, we’re mostly happy making do with what we’ve got. At least until something manifestly better comes along.

So if I were a betting man I’d take an each-way bet on Oculus Rift on the grounds that someday VR will become integral to our lives, because the opportunity it offers to improve how we plan our holidays, take virtual test drives and of course entertain ourselves is just too compelling. But whether it’ll be Oculus Rift in the next 2-3 years or somebody else in the next 5-10 is up for debate. Similarly Tesla. The advance orders are impressive, but people aren’t going to queue for charging points and it’ll only take a few headlines in the Mail about a mother and baby being stranded on the M25 because they ran out of charge in a traffic jam for the halo to disappear faster than you can say “Whatever happened to Second Life?”

And as for the smart refrigerator, I think I can manage without one for a few more years.

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