Coburn, Pip. The Change Function: Why Some Technologies Take Off and Others Crash and Burn. New York: Penquin Group (U.S.A.) Inc., 2006. Pp. xviii + 220. Illus. Hardcover, $24.95.
Technologies take off when the perceived pain of adoption is less than the perceived crisis. One example is the Atkins Diet, while another is a flat screen TV, where the crisis may be that all the people one knows have one. There are lots of examples in this book, mostly of failures, like the PicturePhone or Interactive TV, and most are related to electronics or computers. A reason why technologists do not pay attention to the pain of adoption, or to the plight of customers in general, is that they are infatuated with Grove’s Law—success comes most surely from making an order of magnitude improvement—or Moore’s Law—the cost of electronic devices decreases steadily as long as production continues. Coburn argues against the strategy of making blockbuster improvements that will become economical if only sufficient people buy. He argues for a cycle of small improvements, of accepting risk of failure, of learning and iterating. Big changes are big risks for the supplier and a pain for the user. Changes in invented technology may be inexorable, but changes in what customers will pay for are not inevitable. The focus on customer decisions makes this analysis of technological change distinct. It is fun to read, although people’s motives are probably more complex than described—whose crisis was large enough to pay $600 for a brand new iPhone?