The Reality of the Pace of Change

“Unprecented pace of change”, “the pace of change is only getting faster”, “the pace of change is unmanageable”. These are phrases used so often in our industry and many others I suspect, but what’s the reality and what do people really mean when they say it.

While I think it’s true that the general pace of change in technology is staggering I don’t believe that the pace of change is increasing or that’s unmanageable. In fact I think changes are entirely predictable. Particularly in the general areas I’m focussed on; Telecoms and general consumer technology.

If you look at consumer technology we haven’t actually seen major change in the last 5-10 years. The first iPhone was released in 2007 and even before that Blackberries were doing email and web browsing with their sort-of-smarphones in the very late 90s to early 2000s, getting close to 20 years ago. While of course smartphone use has grown significantly and the hardware and software has continued to develop they’re fundamentally similar devices that they were 10+ years ago. The development of these devices has been entirely predictable. Since the first iPhone in 2007 there’s been a new model every single year, often pretty much on the same date. Like clockwork.

I’m going to put my neck on the line and say that the next model will be announced in September 2018, what do you think?

The same is pretty much true too for Android based handsets such as those from Samsung and HTC.

While we don’t know for sure what new features each new model will have there’s always a pretty big pot of rumours swirling in the months before a release, and actually a lot of them are pretty accurate, often from very targeted ‘leaks’ from the company themselves. Most of these hardware changes actually have little impact on what we do. A lot of new models are simply faster and thinner with better batteries, screens and cameras, with nothing particularly fundamental changing in the hardware.

Looking at the software there are clearly more fundamental changes happening particularly with developments in AI techniques allowing advanced machine vision and speech recognition paving the way for some interesting new use cases. We also 

However, if we look at the things that the majority of consumers are doing it hasn’t really changed that much in the last 5-10 years, similarly to hardware. Ultimately humans are still doing the same things they’ve always done - communicate, shop, be entertained, learn, earn money. It’s just that they’re now doing it on this thing called the Internet (which has been around in a commercial form since the early 1990s by the way).

Today’s most popular communication method is probably WhatsApp on which over 55 billion messages are sent per day. WhatsApp was created in 2009, nearly 10 years ago and was acquired by Facebook in 2014, nearly 5 years ago. It’s estimated that WhatsApp surpassed SMS for example back in 2014 in terms of number of daily messages sent. WhatsApp has probably been the dominant consumer communication method since then. The main apps of Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram (all owned by Facebook), iMessage, Telegram, Viber etc have all been around for at least the last 5 years. It is true though that these apps/services do change themselves quite often with new features and changes to how they work from a technical point of view by utilising new protocols, adding features and so on.

In terms of communication it’s always useful to remember that humans only have five senses, so realistically any form of communication will be limited to sight (text, pictures, videos) and sound. I can’t particularly imagine any communication apps being based on smell, touch, or taste. So the opportunities for significant change are extremely limited and quite predictable.

In terms of Telecoms we tend to see similar timescales for change. Approximately every 10 years there’s a new generation of 3GPP standard (3G in 2000, LTE (4G) in 2008/9, 5G in 2018), the development of which takes place over months to years. Between these major generations there can be quite significant releases but network operators still tend to take years before implementing these releases on their networks as the costs can be quite significant and testing quite intensive. The telecoms industry is heavily regulated, competitive, expensive, and average revenues have been dropping for many years which means there’s not significant outside investment (at least relative to other industries), further adding to the difficulties of deploying new network technologies and new entrants entering the market. Now it will be interesting to see how technologies such as network virtualisation change this as we progress (slowly) towards 5G networks.

People use the pace of change argument to put the blame for their lack of ability to change on to someone else. By blaming the pace of change they shift attention to the world outside of their organisation… "it’s somebody else’s fault, they’re developing things too quickly, they need to slow down to match our speed of change” is what people actually mean when they talk about the increasing pace of change.