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Adoption Curves and Liver

Dr. Richard S. Wallace

Dr. Richard S. Wallace

I have a very interesting chart of technology adoption during the last century. It was originally produced by the Wall Street Journal, but I have a small copy reproduced in the book Rules for Revolutionaries by Guy Kawasaki (Harper, 1999). The chart shows, for a variety of technologies from the telephone to satellite TV, the growth of each in the marketplace as a function of year. The Y axis is expressed in percentage of (U.S.) households, so none of the curves exceeds 100%. Generally all of the curves follow an S-shape, that looks like exponential growth at first, but then eventually levels off as the technology saturates the marketplace.

Television is an instructive example. Introduced commercially in 1947, growth was slow until the "knee" in 1949-51. Following that, TV spread at an approximately linear rate until about 1958, when it began to slowly level off. By 1980, nearly 100% of households had TV sets.

Philo T. Farnsworth, like myself a native of Maine and resident of San Francisco, invented the cathode ray picture tube here in 1927. He had to wait over twenty years before his invention saw the commercial light of day!

Another interesting trend is the increasing "steepness" of the curves. The telephone, introduced in 1876, did not saturate the market until about 100 years later. The curve for AM radio starts in 1923 and levels off in 1963, a span of about 40 years. The VCR was launched in 1980, but levels off in 2000, only about twenty years. Of course, there are a lot of other unfinished curves crowded near the end of the graph--cell phone, PC, internet, camcorder etc.--whose future courses remain uncertain.

Another analysis might categorize the curves into those that look more like an S-curve and those that look more like a straight slope. The curve for the telephone is actually a bit ragged, taking a big dip downward during the Great Depression from 40% to 30% of the market (the same cannot be said of any other technology on the chart), but overall the phone curve is more like a long straight line than an S-curve.

Cable TV is also flatter than many others. From its inception in 1976, you can almost draw a straight line to its present position at 68% market share. The PC also runs in a straight line from the coordinates [1980, 0] to [2000, 45%]. In some sense, this is why the Cable TV and PC businesses are so predictable and boring. Winning over that last remaining half of households is just a matter of time and not making any big mistakes. It also tells you why people like Bill Gates always want to expand into new business areas like games and entertainment. Even when the PC market saturates, Bill can only be twice as rich as he is now. To get more, he needs another line of business.

What does all of this have to do with A.L.I.C.E. and AIML? People have often imagined that A.L.I.C.E. is like Netscape in 1995, poised to take off on the next great S-curve of growth. But I have argued it is more like Apple in 1975, or the whole PC industry at that time. We are mainly ameteurs and hobbyists, with few real business applications we can point to. Yet we all have the same kind of "fever" that gripped an earlier generation of PC enthusiasts. We KNOW this is the Next Big Thing. We KNOW we are the vanguard of the revolution.

The first Apple appeared in 1975. But the technology adoption curve for PCs doesn't even begin until 1980. Those early PC pioneers were like Philo Farnsworth and his TV picture tube. They knew that they had a great thing, but getting people to adopt it was like feeding them liver. Jobs, Wozniak, Gates and friends only had to wait five years, compared to Farnsworth's twenty. I've been at A.L.I.C.E. and AIML for almost seven years now.

I don't know if we are on the knee, on the ramp, or if the adoption curve has even started yet. I have learned in seven years not to expect miracles, and to have patience. Unfortunately we need the perspective of ten or twenty years to see what is really happening here.

I conclude with a quote from Kawasaki's book:

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." -- Howard Aiken