Why Technology Inflections and Innovations are Often Driven by Performance Mismatches

When we think of the various technologies that have been created in IT, one question that arises is how and why some technologies have been successful while others have not. In most cases, technologies that have been successful addressed significant gaps between existing technologies and the needs behind those technologies. Typically, these gaps occurred as the technology on one side of the gap evolved more quickly than the technology on the other side of the gap, with the effect of significantly increasing the size of the gap. The result is that significant needs are not satisfactorily addressed the existing technologies, driving the creation of new technologies to fill the gap.

Often times these gaps are created by the differences in technologies that are used together to create “solutions”. Some technologies such as processor or memory speeds evolve more or less “continuously” and smoothly, often driven by a single factor (in this case, semiconductor process improvements). Other technologies such as the PCIe bus, networking speeds, or similar cross-industry technologies, are driven by both underlying technologies and standards groups, resulting in evolutionary steps that are more discontinuous. Complex solutions often bridge multiple technologies (information theory, mathematics, software, and all the varieties of computer hardware), each of which is evolving at different rates, and driven by factors that are often uncorrelated with that of other technologies or even the original problem set.

There are a variety of examples of the emergence of these gaps, and new technologies being created to fill the gap. When computers moved from simple text-based display interfaces to graphics-based interfaces, the performance of existing processors and display driver hardware was not sufficient. This drove several companies to develop new technologies which eventually lead to today’s graphics processing units (GPUs). Similarly, as the performance of hard disk drives (HDDs) leveled out while main memory, CPUs, and the PCIe bus continued to increase in speed created a significant gap; this gap led to the commercialization of flash storage and solid-state drives (SSDs). We will examine a couple specific gaps that relate to storage and processing in our next blog.