The tech times they are a changing – faster than ever

This is a cross post of an article I wrote recently for the BBC College of Journalism’s blog.

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“Death and taxes” was Benjamin Franklin’s famous dictum about the only certainties in life. If the Founding Father were alive today he might add the quickening pace of technological change to that maxim.

Certain technologies are now so ubiquitous in many people’s lives that we forget how new they actually are. And if you think the pace of change is quickening then you’re right. It’s not just that you’re getting older; the classic adoption curve for new technologies is very different to that for analogue – or even early digital – technologies.

Part of the reason for this change, in my view, is the ability of new technologies to spark a ‘must-have’ response from consumers. Think of the queues outside the Apple Store every time a new iPhone or iPad is released, or the lines snaking around the block for the midnight release of the new version of Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto.

Technology arguably didn’t spark this reaction a decade ago. People didn’t tend to get excited about a new phone, or a new computer, in quite the way we do now. Nor did they plan for the future. We increasingly buy technology in anticipation of future services or needs. HD-ready TV sets are now in six out of ten UK homes but only a third of homes are currently enjoying HDTV services.

In contrast, ten years ago the take up of new services was much slower than it is now. Mobile phones and multichannel television took more than a decade to reach 50% penetration. By the time social networks and online TV were launched, it took just four to five years to reach this 50% figure. Analysts predict smartphones will reach the same landmark just as quickly, with e-readers and tablets not far behind.

But desirability isn’t the only factor in this speed of growth. Many of these new services and technologies have benefitted from other interdependent developments, all of which have laid the foundations for this faster growth.

The continued use of PCs at home and in the workplace helped social networking to initially take off, with smartphones helping to drive this further. The trend for bigger TVs no doubt helped aid Blu-ray or Wii sales (neither of which works quite so well on a smaller screen), while faster broadband speeds have made live web streaming or online catch-up TV a more enjoyable experience.

And of course underpinning all of this is price. Technology is often proportionately cheaper than it once was. This article published on the BBC News website back in 2004 reminds us that “The first video cassette recorder went on sale at Dixons in 1978 priced £798.75 – the equivalent of about £3,000 in today’s money.” (In 2011 money that would be even more.)

Similarly, according to Wikipedia, the second Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan, cost $39.95 when it was released on VHS in 1983 – “$40 below contemporary movie cassette prices”.

And I can now watch iPlayer on a £200 notebook. A decade ago a machine with a similar spec might have cost five to ten times as much. All of which means that in many cases we get more for less.

Given all these factors – from desirability to price, interoperability to increased tech specs – is it no wonder that many of us own more communications devices than we ever did?

No doubt the next decade will bring even more change, and it will happen even more quickly than it did before. As Albert Einstein said: “I never think of the future – it comes soon enough.”

Damian Radcliffe is Manager, Nations and Communities, at Ofcom. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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