Biz Features

Behind The Curve: How Older Tech Can Be Part of Your Business Strategy

by . January 13th, 2014

I’ve got a confession to make. As far as most twenty-somethings in my industry go, I am a Luddite. I have not owned an internet-capable phone in the past 4 years, after my last one – which i had for 3 years prior – got stolen after an inebriated night on the town. I’ve used a mobile device touchscreen maybe 10 times in my entire life.

It’s not because I couldn’t afford to get an iPhone or anything like that. I’m what fellow marketers call a “Laggard”, falling far behind first adopters, and even behind the late majority when it comes to making new trends and technologies part of their lives.

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The diffusion of innovations according to Everett Rogers. Consumers groups adopting the new technology (blue), its market share (yellow). The peak of the yellow curve is the Saturation level

Laggards aren’t always late because we’re technophobes or are ignorant about tech developments, though this might be a one of the things that define most of us. Nor is it necessarily because we’re conservative.

In my case, it was a conscious decision to only prioritize things that would improve my actual quality of life and personal productivity. I’d concluded constantly upgrading phones and tablets would run counter to that, and I’ve been stuck with 2008 hardware since.

It’s not just individuals who make a choice not to adopt the latest technologies either. In many business applications, the cost of adopting new technology far outstrips the benefits of maximizing existing tech. Windows XP for instance, despite being a well over a decade old, is still the second most used desktop operating system, with 28.33% of all desktops running it as of December 2013. Well over the 10.49% the 3rd placer, Windows 8, claims as its market share.


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New products based on unproven technology will often come at a premium when they hit the consumer and general B2B market. There will invariably be some issues with these first generation products, and this is especially true with software. While product testing is arguably better than it’s ever been, these kinks can often be serious and cause downtime for your enterprise.

As a result, many government and private industrial facilities continue to use decades-old legacy systems and technology – with interesting results. A natural emphasis on new tech has created a situation where engineers and programmers would rather study more current technology and programming languages as opposed to older ones  such as COBOL, for instance. But sometimes the older systems work a little too well.

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Upgrading might be more expensive than just hanging on to the existing platforms and developing new applications for them. In fact, many of these systems work so well they managed to exist well beyond the working years of the people who created them.

We’re already experiencing a domestic shortage of programmers and technicians who could work with these systems, giving rise to a small but crucial legacy-tech development outsourcing industry in India.

However, it’s rare that being a laggard is a deliberate choice for a business – it’s often a question of cost vs. benefits that keeps new trends from being adopted. Thing is, we all see benefits differently – and this is exactly why a few businesses make it a part of their philosophy to make the most out of old technology.

Doing Different Things With Old Tech

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In 2001, executives at Apple realized that miniature disk drives were becoming a lot cheaper and more durable than they had ever been. While its competitors were using these and larger (both in capacity and size) disk drives in laptops,  Apple went in another direction (ripping off the HanGo Personal Jukebox) and developed the iPod, and the rest was history.


HanGo_PJB100_Personal_Jukebox

While the idea wasn’t really new, the superior user interface and marketing (things that are not necessarily dependent on the latest tech) gave them the advantage. Over the course of the decade, Apple continued to succeed with products that were behind in specs that were often derided by tech reviewers but earned the loyalty of the majority of its customers thanks to the user-friendliness of its products.

Nintendo is another company whose products are famously lacking specs-wise to its competitors. Most of their products, including the hugely successful NES, Wii, and Game Boy were developed with technology more or less a generation behind its competitor. On purpose.

Why Settle for Old Technology?

A lot of the time, you aren’t settling with it so much as exploiting the inherent advantages of a known system. Gunpei Yukoi, one of Nintendo’s most famous designers and the creator of the Game and Watch, Game Boy, and NES laid down a design philosophy he called “Kareta Gijutsu no Suihei Shikō” – literally meaning “Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology“.  The main idea is to use only cheap, well-understood technology in new ways.

The theoretical benefit is to reduce risk, lower sourcing and development costs, and to encourage a culture of creativity within a company culture by restricting options – similar to how minimalist artists set boundaries for their work.

It’s not a perfect approach for obvious reasons – you can get stuck a bit too far behind. When their main rivals Sony and Sega adopted CDs for the PlayStation and Saturn systems, Nintendo stuck it out with cartridges, which meant their games were hard put to match the level of its rivals as far as sound and visuals meant, even though their N64 was the most powerful in terms of raw computing power.

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It was telling that the Sega Saturn was the most technologically advanced (though again, not the most powerful). Far ahead of the PlayStation as far as specs went. However, it was such a huge leap that it’s unconventional architecture was much more challenging to develop games for. In the end, the PlayStation’s right mix of performance and simplicity was a huge part of the reason why it led both the N64 and Saturn in terms of both sales and available games.

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The N64 however, was still a success thanks to the fact their focus on creating in-house games that focused on gameplay rather than visuals. It also helped that the N64 was much cheaper to manufacture, helping them reduce unit costs. However, their cartridges were several times more expensive to manufacture and had much less space than CDs, with each cartridge having having only a maximum capacity of 64 MB compared to 650 MB on a typical compact disk.

This meant their games were up to $10 more expensive on retail than the same game ported on the PlayStation. It also created problems with sales projections as there was a chance they could get stuck with expensive cartridges if a title did not sell well.

In the end they N64 was held back a bit because of their philosophy of only going with the most mature technologies and had its share of success because of the same conservatism in actual game design. The PlayStation, with the “worst” specs was actually a success because Sony adopted new technologies where they mattered most.

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On the other hand, the same line of thinking resulted in  Nintendo’s refusal to adopt a color screen for the Game Boy in order to conserve battery life. This is often given as the biggest reason it prevailed against the other portable video game systems of the era –Sega’s Game Gear and the Atari Lynx.

The same strategy was later applied with subsequent platforms, including the wildly successful Nintendo Wii.

How Does it Apply to You?

The primary advantage of using understood technology is definitely cost and risk reduction. Another is that you’re arguably forced to focus on the things that actually matter – like customer experience or actual productivity. Most of us don’t need the latest version of MS Office or Adobe Creative Suite as much as we often think we do. The same things apply whether  you are developing new products, or when you’re streamlining your production processes.

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On the other hand, you still need to keep up to date so you could figure out which things matter. In Nintendo’s case, they may have missed an opportunity to capture the market outright had they decided to develop a CD-based console instead of sticking with cartridge technology.

When Should You Upgrade?

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While the fear of being left behind is legitimate, there are risks in adopting something new solely for the sake of novelty or because you feel everyone is doing it. Doing everything you could to stay on the bleeding edge of whatever trend that comes up is clearly not a formula for success.

Innovation can still happen without the use of new technologies, and there are legitimate reasons for not getting the newest tech or indulging in the latest practices for your business. On the other hand, continual laggards will always miss the boat at least a couple of times. Then again, we all do.

If you feel that an upgrade will make for a better workflow and better customer experience- go ahead. If you’re not sure, then you might want to reevaluate the risks. It’s always difficult to tell for sure which popular trends will take off in a meaningful way, and which ones will just be a flash in the pan.

Delighting your customers with a flawless and memorable experience however, will always be in style.

All images sources from CC and Public Domain via Wikimedia.coms

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.

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