It feels like something weird has happened to the technology industry.
It used to be pretty simple - a new gadget would appear, early-adopters would buy it and figure out what the interesting use cases were, the price would come down as it sold more, more people could afford it, so more people bought it.
Eventually, the gadgets would become mainstream. And "gadgets" were generic - "Walkman" and "Discman" might have been Sony brands, but I don't recall anyone really caring who made their portable tape/CD player. The benefit of one brand over another wasn't particularly clear.
At some point, it seems to have changed. At some point, there was clearly a "best" version of a gadget, and it was usually Apple's. iPod was the best MP3 player, iPhone was the best smartphone, iPad was the best tablet. (I think this is to do with the growing importance of software and UI design — with the growing complexity of gadgets, fighting against growing complexity of user interfaces has become a significant struggle
Right now, there seems to be a lot of excitement about "wearable technology". (Because everyone is expecting Apple to make a watch, I think.) The common narrative seems to be that, in the next couple of years, everyone is going to be wearing Smart Watches or Glasses (or smart earbuds or smart rings and so on.)
Now, there is an interesting thing going on in the world of health and fitness (not an area I've got a particular interest in — which might well be blinding me to a broader level of interest than I'm giving it credit for) where tracking and measuring what you do has a very clear benefit. But that is for particular people, in particular times and places.
But as a mainstream technology that "normal" people are going to buy and use? I just can't see it.
Is it because I'm getting old and cynical about the new and shiny things? I don't think so.
The thing is, everyone seems to be looking/waiting for the Next Big Thing – the gadget that is going to appear one day, and within a couple of Christmases every household will either have one, want one, or wish they had another.
I watched it happen with mobile phones — first, they were laughable gadgets for people who needed to be in touch with the office while they were driving to their next meeting, or networking on the golf course. Then they became affordable. Then everyone wanted one — for emergencies. Now everyone has one with them at (pretty much) all times.
Then the phones became smart — from pocket phones to pocket computers. Again — something that only a few people wanted (so they could keep on top of their email wherever they were) became something that everyone needed.
We watched everyone replace their record collections with CD collections, and we are watching them replace their CDs with either a library of MP3s (eg. iTunes) or streaming services (eg. Spotify.) We watched everyone replace their 23" CRT TV with 40" LED HDTVs. Everyone threw out their VHS recorders, replacing them with PVRs and DVDs. And it looks like we are in the early stage of everyone who replaced their desktop PCs with laptops now figuring out what happens when they replace their laptops with tablets.
So, naturally, we want to know what is the next piece of technology that everyone is going to have. And how is it going to change what we do?
Which brings my attention back to wearable. Because I don't think its going to be like that. Put simply, I don't think everyone wants Google Glass, or a Pebble watch, or a Fitbit, Nike fuel band etc. etc. And the devices that might be interesting to everyone (assuming a drop in cost and complexity) aren't interesting all of the time.
My guess is thats the key to misunderstanding around "wearable" – that if its going to be interesting, its going to be interesting all of the time. That, in the same way we have our phones with us everywhere we go, we will want to be wearing Google Glass (or whatever) all of the time. Not just when its useful, or when its practical, or when you're doing something where you could really benefit from having information presented to you in your field of vision? (Or maybe just when you want to be doing something with your hands at the same time as taking photos or videos?)
Will anything less be a failure? That seems to be what is being set up;
But what I’m looking for from any of the ['wearables'] companies during the Consumer Electronics Show is a device that gets the “Consumer” part of that equation exactly right, and delivers an experience people will be glad to go out of their way to actually wear – and not for a fortnight, but for a long, long time, until something better that fits the same need comes along.
Have we seen The Last Big Thing?
But not everyone wants an Apple Mac, or a 5.1 surround sound system, or a treadmill or exercise bike, or a games console, or a pair of Beats headphones. Doesn't mean that they aren't interesting, or successful, or a good business. It just means that they aren't for everyone. Not every "good thing" has to be a "big thing".
The interesting question is what if there is no Next Big Thing? What if the next 5-10 years of new technologies are going to be limited to niche markets — and there isn't another tech revolution just around the corner?
Have we been conditioned to expect something bigger?
It seems like anything less than an iPod/iPhone/iPad scale revolution would spell doom and disaster for Apple. But other technology markets (from products like TVs and smart watches, to services like Spotify or Netflix, to technologies like NFC or Ultraviolet) seem to be perpetually in Apple's shadow. Are Apple going to enter the market and destroy the competition? Or supress growth by not getting involved?
But if the Next Big Thing fails to appear, are we going to blame Silicon Valley and the tech industry for not being innovative enough? Investors, for not nurturing the Next Big Thing startup that might have been — too eager to sell out, too slow to build a sustainable business around the Next Big Idea?
Are we going to blame consumers and the economy for not spending enough money on the latest shiny gadgets — being too quick to buy the cheaper version of yesterdays innovation instead of the more expensive one which carries the true revolutionary technology? Or maybe the NSA, GCHQ, Facebook and Google for scaring everyone about what door the next wave of gadgets might be opening into our lives?
Or maybe — and probably more likely — the Next Big Thing isn't going to be a physical thing. I mentioned the impact that gadgets had when they became more about software than hardware. My guess is that the interesting developments right now are going on inside the devices that we already have — the services that are being built for a world of smartphones and tablets that wouldn't make sense in a world of desktops and laptops.
I don't know what the Next Big Thing is, but if I had to make a bet I would say that it won't be something we buy. It will be something we do.