THE BLOG

What Makes Technology Evolve?

04/08/2015 09:41 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015

A whole new language has emerged in recent years to describe and explain how technologies can spread.

For example, if a new thing is seen as "disruptive" of an existing way of doing things, it is fawned over as the next biggest, best thing, and investors often turn themselves into pretzels to get a piece of the action at any price. Yet that by itself is not a guarantee of success.

While disruption is one important new way to evolve technology, there are even surer ways.

Another, perhaps more basic and important way, is what I have called for 50 years the Xerox effect.

Up until plain paper copying became ubiquitous and cheap in the 1960s -- other than for long industrial scale runs of copies like old fashioned printing--something that few young people have even heard of or experienced was 'carbon paper' which was limited to about 7 copies. It was very messy, slow, and a pain in the neck, but was effectively the only game in town.

Then Xerox invented the 911 plain paper machine which was a tour de force of evolution, but that by itself was not enough to insure its success. Xerox struggled for several years to edge into the market. Then it finally got really smart.

They decided not to sell the machine but to sell copies instead. They put counters on the machines and charged 1 cent per copy. Lots of people thought that was really cheap because they calculated the numbers of copies they were making at the time and it was not a giant number.

One law firm I knew, for example, installed one machine for large document reproduction and installed a second one to replace carbon paper for everyday correspondence. The steno staff objected when they were ordered to STOP using carbon paper. A compromise was reached for a one month trial. At the end of the month not a single steno person wanted to go back to carbon. Result: the numbers of copies went up enormously. Where 7 copies had been the limit, now there was no limit--so everybody made a lot of excess copies 'just in case'. That was a lot of pennies for Xerox.

Xerox hit the jackpot. They not only had a better copier, they had a whole new way of mass communications. And no one had yet dreamt of an Internet.

What had happened? Until Xerox, people had to cope with 7 copies. Xerox CREATED a whole new demand that virtually no one had foreseen, because if you could NOT have it, you did not KNOW you need it. Hence the 'Xerox effect' is when a new technology makes something new possible that people discover they need and want, from that point forward it will grow organically. Word of mouth really works better and cheaper than ads.

As we think back on the last 75 years, how many Xerox effect cases can you think of? A great many of the new Apple Apps do a bit of that. Perhaps the iPhone itself spawned a whole new market.

Microsoft and its Windows, Outlook and spread sheets enabled things that were already done to be done better, easier, more reliably and faster.

Google, etc. did away with phone books, dictionaries and other information sources.

Many more fantastic inventions have made life faster, richer, and more interesting in a lot of ways.

But so far there really is nothing that helps most people cope better with how to deal with today's vast information overload.

For example, even with Facebook, Twitter and dating services, are people better equipped today to select a really suitable life partner?

Even with lots of help with job searches, are people better equipped to pick the right job--either employee or employer?

Has it gotten easier or harder to raise children in this new world?

I have been looking for a new app that might be called "Crystal Ball." It could help someone view the future based partly on past experience and partly on extrapolation of future trends down to the personal micro level.

Despite dreamers who keep looking for a crystal ball, if someone creates one, that would likely be the Xerox Effect PLUS.