Tough Through It can be a long wait before a killer application validates the commercial viability of an emerging technology.

At the Mobile Business Congress we attended earlier this month a keynote speaker predicted that “in a few years’ time” we would all get a refrigerator just because it would be able to talk to our mobile phone. Why? “Because the technology will be there” – an exact replica of the conversation we had fifteen years ago, when the catchphrase “Internet of Things” was first coined in Kevin Ashton’s presentation to Procter & Gamble.

People seem to forget the .com bubble at the turn of the century was, in fact, a Tech/Media/Telecom bubble. Everyone was at the party of the millennium, not just a bunch of Silicon Valley whizzkids and their investment bankers. Based on a shared set of beliefs, old and new telecommunications companies piled up debt to outbid one another in the auction for the British third-generation (3G) mobile phone licenses in April 2000. At the height of the frenzy 22,5 billion pounds had been raised: 2,5% of GNP and five to ten times the initial estimate. Not much later the 3G expectations bubble burst and those billions vanished into thin air.

Consumer behaviour tends to change much more slowly than marketeers, engineers and financiers envision. 3G services saw years of delay in carrier roll-outs because of an inability to tackle blind spots, and very limited customer uptake due to a lack of applications. Why would I need online broadband if I cannot put it to good use while on the road? IT research company Gartner termed this period during which user demand plays catch-up to next-generation product supply the “trough of disillusionment,” characterised by a lack of faith in the ability to successfully monetise the product or service.

The trough of disillusionment for mobile 3G services proved to be long and deep. Not so for Apple’s iPhone. The first generation was a 2G device that sold only 6 million units over its first and only year of existence. The iPhone 3G however launched in July of 2008: more than 1 million were sold in its first weekend alone. The difference? Whereas the iPhone 2G showed off what mobile broadband technology could deliver, the iPhone 3G actually delivered. Consumers loved the way they could finally make full use of the capabilities offered by the carriers although many still balked at the steep price. 3G carriers stepped in and happily subsidised iPhone purchases. They jumped at the opportunity to lock customers into longer-term data usage subscriptions, which finally filled those 3G data lanes that had lain unused all those years.

The Tech/Media/Telecom bubble ought to have taught us to beware of expecting too much too soon. But know that troughs of disillusionment do eventually give way to the “slope of enlightenment”. Even though very often they are overcome not by the Motorola’s or the Nokia’s that we most hoped to deliver when ex

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Nikolaas Bellens