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Tech Industry

So close, yet so far

John Dickinson says the high-tech industry is very close to realizing the benefits of tomorrow's technology. What's still missing, however, is the infrastructure to glue it all together.

    When I got into my car, there was a message on the console saying that a new engine management program had been downloaded from the satellite, and that our gas mileage should improve by about half a mile per gallon. That was good news as we set off on the GPS-directed route home from our vacation in the mountains.

    Our car's GPS (Global Positioning System) navigator planned a scenic route because we told it to avoid highways. We were just driving along according to its directions. You know the drill: "Take the next exit on the left, turn right in 500 feet," that sort of thing.

    As you might expect on a holiday weekend, the digital FM signaling system indicated traffic ahead, and the navigator responded by first warning us and then altering the route to circumvent the logjam.

    Unfortunately, the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) weather system soon informed the navigator of a snowstorm up ahead, and the navigator strongly suggested yet another route. It was getting close to lunchtime, but the navigator had already noted restaurants that had menus we would like on the alternate route. We took the suggested exit and stopped to eat. Our car's credit card transponder was scanned on the way into the parking lot, and when we got the bill, it had already been paid, including our regular tip amount.

    We got home a couple of hours later. As we pulled into the driveway, the garage door went up, the lights in the house came on, and the doors opened as the alarm system was shut down. An instant message was sent to the dog sitter telling her we had arrived home, and e-mails went out to our kids telling them the same thing. When we entered the house, the coffee was brewed and waiting in the kitchen.

    Probably the best explanation I can offer is that tying these things together is dull work and makes for dull products.
    Sounds like a lot of baloney, right? Well, it is--but not because the technologies to do all that don't exist. They do, and most are commonly available. In fact, you probably own at least half of them right now. I actually own all of them.

    What's missing is an infrastructure to glue all this stuff together. Why? The hell if I know. Probably the best explanation I can offer is that tying these things together are dull work and make for dull products. These are products that don't generate much news in the press and, more importantly, don't readily attract much venture capital funding.

    Making things work well requires something besides money: It requires standards. We live in an environment where the cellular phone industry can't seem to agree on a digital transmission technology, so

    We're entering a phase in the technology industry where the obvious products are no longer the next thing to develop. That work has already been done.
    it's unreasonable to assume that communications between digital radio systems and GPS systems will be standardized anytime soon.

    Some might question whether enough consumer demand exists to support such linkages, or whether such demand would be strong enough to financially support the required development effort. But much of the heavy lifting has already been done. What's more, the remaining work of developing transmission standards and interfaces allowing this stuff to work together will not require as much funding.

    Most venture capitalists don't think this sort of work is important. In large part, that's because it isn't very visible or glamorous. Often, it's because they simply don't understand it. But if the products became more useful--and usable--more would get sold.

    To be sure, this is going to be difficult work. But it must get done. We're entering a phase in the technology industry where the obvious products are no longer the next thing to develop. That work has already been done. It's time to develop the integuments that will make the obvious products work well together. In some cases, that also means creating the stuff that will make those obvious products disappear, replacing them with highly usable and useful appliances powered by the technology formerly on display in those once very obvious products.