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microprojectors: the poverty of predictions!

March 30, 2008

On the New York Times (March 30) there is an interesting article on micro-projectors

“The (micro)projectors may be particularly useful for business presentations — for example, when road warriors need to show a product video to small groups. No coordination would be needed to arrange for a screen. Instead, a patch of wall within a cubicle or restaurant could serve for an impromptu presentation. Carolina Milanesi, a research director in London for Gartner, the research firm, says she thinks the microprojectors are most likely to appeal to business travellers who, for example, could use them to beam PowerPoint shows from their smartphones”
And: “Insight Media forecasts a substantial and fast-growing market. “We anticipate total sales of more than $2.5 billion by 2012 for the companion models,” Mr. Brennesholtz said, and $1 billion in revenue for projector modules that are integrated into cellphones and other devices”.

What is the problem with this prediction? Simple, it ignores exaptation and more generally how new applications emerge.

Behind any forecast there is a hidden set of assumptions. In this case the assumption is: a micro-projector is just a tiny projector! Ergo, it will be used in the same way! The newly acquired portability will extend the current applications, not change them. Linear thinking!

The disruptive innovation model is a good example of exaptation. Imagine a new technology which underperforms (in Christensen’s language, ‘is not good enough’) the incumbent technology under a set of attributes that current customers value. The new technology cannot compete with the incumbent and will survive only and only if it can find or create a new emerging niche, where its different ‘package of attributes’ turn out to be advantageous. Usually this happens by trial & error. In this way, the disruptive innovation escapes competition by becoming something else. It may eventually become ‘good enough’ to attack the incumbent’s market position from below, that is, from the least demanding customers segment. The incumbent suddenly sees a new player coming out of nowhere. In fact, what was until a moment before a product living in a different non-competitive world, enters into the incumbent’s competitive space. The problem for the incumbent is that the pre-adaptation that makes possible the disruption is usually discovered when the disruption starts, not before! An exaptation!

The take-home message is that disruptions are often preceded by a process of application discovery: underperforming technologies survive by creating new niches based on new non-competitive applications. How are the new applications discovered? Well, once prototypes are set free in the market, they will link with the nearly infinite universe of idiosyncratic needs, contexts, wants and combinatorial imagination of users out there. The co-evolutionary process between prototypes and users creates the new application space, it makes the rules of the game as it goes along.

So what’s likely to happen with the micro-projectors? That depends on another set of questions? Is the microprojector an underperforming technology? Is it disruptive? Is it going to be exapted into something else? If scaling down causes a change in the way projectors are used, then a microprojector might become something very different from a conventional projector. If this happens, then the last to know (what may happen) will be the experts!

If I were in charge of the development and commercialisation of microprojectors, I’d rather give a number of them to a group of highly diverse (cognitively diverse, á la Scott Page) group of people and invite them to play with the microprojectors, link with existing technologies, invent new behaviours (that the MP enables), form communities around the new behaviours, etc. In other words ‘exapt’ the microprojector!

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