A key tenet of innovation and technology is the premise that we deploy technology at a higher level (more widely and with greater frequency) as it moves from a scarcity to a surplus. I call this Law of Technological Abundance.
The classic example I like to use to describe this phenomenon is the case of computing power in the early 1980s. In 1981, Xerox released the Xerox Star. It was the first commercially available computer to provide a graphical user interface (GUI). It sold for around $75,000 and didn’t go on to garner much commercial success. However, just three years later Apple would introduce the original Macintosh. It sold for $2,500 and would go on to receive wide appeal – becoming the first computer with a GUI to obtain mass market popularity.
So what happened between 1981 and 1984? The price of computing power declined precipitously during this period. Remember that a GUI is essentially a redundant feature. We don’t need it to navigate the computing environment now and we didn’t need it back in the early 1980s. Prior to the introduction of GUIs, we navigated the computing environment by typing text commands through a command line interface (CLI). Adding a GUI in 1981 placed added strain on a very scarce resource – computing power. I’ve talked to engineers from a wide array of companies who were working this problem in the early 1980s and I often get a very similar story – they kept running into hardware constraints around available computing power. However, as computing power goes down in price, one can start to use it for nonessential applications. Or in the case of GUIs, redundant applications.
This same phenomenon played out in digital storage in the late 1990s and early 2000s. IBM introduced the first hard drive in 1956 but it would be another forty or fifty years until we could begin treating it like surplus. Prior to the early 2000s, digital storage was a scarcity that we used sparingly. I can still remember going through my hard drive and deleting files because my hard drive was full. However, what was once in scarce supply quickly became an ample resource. While we might have some limited constraints on certain devices (ie mobile phones) today, rarely do you see someone delete files or photos because they are completely out of space. These days we simply move photos and files to other places. We offload photos from our phones to computer hard drives or cloud-based storage. In many instances today, we have the same file stored in multiple places. We don’t think much about this redundancy because digital storage has moved from a scarcity to a surplus and we can therefore essentially waste it.
Economists, engineers, and scientists use the term “law” extremely sparingly. There are very few laws because economists, engineers and scientists are hesitant to suggest absolute truths that hold in all cases. One of the great powers of Moore’s Law is that it proved itself worth of the “Law” moniker. It is within this context that I recognize I am making a rather bold claim about the relationship between price and utilization.
The Law of Abundance is influenced (read: amplified) by digitization so where you see digitization playing out, chances are you’ll also see the Law of Abundance. The Law of Abundance has materialized in the deployment of digital sensors for example. Our first mobile phones were analog devices, but over time we moved towards digital ones and subsequently began embedding sensors. In 2007, Apple introduced the original iPhone and while this launch is noteworthy for a number of reasons, it would be three years later when Apple introduces the iPhone 4 that we see the Law of Abundance materialize. The iPhone 4 was the first to include two image sensors (adding the front facing camera) and two digital microphones. The first digital microphone was used to replace the previously used analog microphone which captured the user’s voice. The second digital microphone was placed on the rear of the device and is used to cancel out extraneous noises and improve call quality.
I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface of all that lies before us. The Law of Abundance will drive up the sensor count on our mobiles phones (and everywhere else) a multiple of what it is today. Look at cameras for example. As the price for image sensors has declined, these sensors have moved from a scarcity to a surplus and we’ve deployed them widely. We are not only using image sensors in our mobile phones, but across an increasing diversity of products, We use cameras in vehicles to see what’s behind us when we reverse but we have also begun embedding them into the front of our vehicles in order to enable features like adaptive cruise control. We use them in our thermostats and throughout a wide array of other newly digitized objects.
At CES this past week, I saw sensors everywhere. I estimate that of the 20,000 new products launched during the four day extravaganza, 75 percent or even more included some type of sensor and many of them included multiple sensors. Take for example the Withings Thermo, which was released at CES. The Thermo is a thermometer you hold to your forehead. It has 16 temperature sensors embedded in it.
The Law of Abundance is taking hold of sensors and it suggests we will eventually be surrounded by millions of them.