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Technology takes time

Location-based services are one of today's hot trends, but the length of time it's taken for them to truly arrive carries broader lessons about technology adoption.

There are many different technology adoption models out there. Geoffrey Moore's curve--the one that uses terms such as "Early Adopters" and "Late Majority"--is a common one. And different technologies end up getting adopted at strikingly different rates. This fascinating chart from The New York Times shows how the telephone made its way into U.S. homes only over a span of many decades while the VCR went from rare to commonplace over about a single 10-year stretch.

In general, new technologies are permeating the market faster than ever before. Still, the length of time it takes for even an ultimately successful innovation to become commercially important is routinely underestimated by lots of industry watchers. I've been guilty of this myself.

One issue is that many of us in the IT ecosystem are early adopters by nature. We're enthusiastic about the new coolness for its own sake, not just for what it's capable of. By contrast, the ultimate buyers are often more conservative and mostly want technologies that have already proven themselves. It's a potential that we as analysts try to guard against, in part by speaking with different types of end users.

Another issue is that new technologies are often more interesting in combination with other pieces than they are in isolation. To use the old cliche, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. However, the corollary is that it takes more work and more time to bring that combination into being than it does just one component. Frederick Brooks discussed this reality in the context of bringing the IBM System 360 to market in his widely read "The Mythical Man-Month".

I bring up this topic because of something that caught my eye in a Web 2.0 Summit presentation by Mary Meeker of Morgan Stanley. She devoted a large chunk of her presentation to mobile trends, beginning with a slide that stated "Mobile = Incremental Driver of Internet User / Usage Growth." She went on to say that "Mobile Internet usage is and will be bigger than most think."

This computing growth includes Apple. She stated that "Near term, Apple is driving the platform change to mobile computing. Its mobile ecosystem (iPhone + iTouch + iTunes + accessories +  services market share / impact should surprise on the upside for at least the next 1-2 years." However it also includes a rich set of other devices including automobile electronics and home entertainment devices. In some respects, this is the "Internet of things" as Sun Microsystems CTO Greg Papadopoulos has called it. (Although as Richard MacManus over at ReadWriteWeb suggests, the full Internet of things, including RFID sensors and the like, is something more expansive.)

The "secret sauce" in this growth? Location-based services. Meeker quoted Mathew Honan, of Wired magazine, who wrote: "Simply put, location changes everything. This one input - our coordinates - has the potential to change all the outputs. Where we shop, who we talk to, what we read, what we search for, where we go - they all change once we merge location and the Web."

What caught my eye about all this was that I remember all the enthusiasm over the imminent arrival of the mobile Web back during the first Internet build-out about a decade ago. Here's a typical press release from a company named Optus in November 2000: "Mobile phone users can locate a close-by restaurant, chemist, bank or cinema now that Cable & Wireless Optus has launched Australia's first range of sophisticated location-based services on its Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) service, Optus Networker."

There were many such claims at the time and many proclamations that "place" was the Next Big Thing.

Ultimately it appears the proclaimers were right. But it took a while. It arguably took the second or third iteration of iPhone for applications that make use of the user's location in smartphones to take off in a big way. And thereby make the promises of press releases of the year 2000 a mainstream reality.

Some of it is just technological maturity of the device and the network. A mobile browser that can access the "real" Web with reasonable fidelity and performance rather than being restricted to a dumbed-down mobile Web turned out to be one major piece.

Key too was a development environment that made it possible for many casual developers to create applications and not just a few working closely with a handset maker.

The vast amounts of data created over a number of years through various types of social media is pretty important as well. We don't mostly find nearby restaurants through formally curated data; we find it through Yelp.

In short, the rich mobile experience isn't about one thing but many. And aligning the pieces always takes time.