Are all emerging technologies doomed to ride the hype cycle rollercoaster, blossoming during a period of inflated expectations only for people to subsequently lose patience and walk away until it finally makes an impact on the market?
When Jackie Fenn left IT company Logica to join the analyst group Gartner in 1994, the World Wide Web was just beginning its move from a research curiosity to a global phenomenon. Fenn's job as an analyst was to look at this and other emerging technologies, such as video-on-demand, and gauge their likely impact on large companies and governments around the world.
Looking back at previous technology introductions, Fenn found a common pattern. Whether it was artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, high-level computer languages or personal computers, each had been through a period of inflated expectations only for people to later lose patience and walk away until finally they made some impact on the market.
Although it is hard to look at the evolution of technology without seeing these repeated waves of excitement and ennui, Fenn gave the phenomenon a name. At the start of 1995, she wrote a one-off report pointing out the phases that afflict most technology introductions, providing titles such as the Peak of Inflated Expectations or the Trough of Disillusionment, leading finally to the Plateau of Productivity and populating each with examples. The context for the report was to indicate the generic trade-offs between risk and benefit of each stage, under the heading 'When to leap on the Hype Cycle'.
Fenn did not intend the hype cycle to be a series. But clients soon asked when the next one would appear and other analysts adopted the idea for their own sectors. Ten years later, Gartner decided to publish a summary of what was hot and what wasn't, and has issued one every summer since 2004.
The wave upon wave of overhyped technology has provided each annual update with plenty of examples. The most recent, published in August 2014, was peppered with 45 technologies, half of them still climbing to the top before the inevitable crash in popularity.
As Fenn and colleague Mark Raskino pointed out in their 2008 book on the hype cycle, there are in reality two components to the curve. One is a bell curve that describes the hype and backlash phases as expectations soar and are as quickly dashed. Superimposed on this, is an S-curve that follows the contour and phases worked out by Everett Rogers when he was a professor of rural sociology in the early 1960s. Responsible for coining the phrase 'early adopters', Rogers made this the second phase on his curve of adoption, following the innovators and just ahead of the early majority, before a technology moves to acceptance by the late majority and finally the laggards.
Technology consultant Howard Fosdick put the two together in 1992 in a three-stage diagram, published in Enterprise Systems Journal two-and-a-half years ahead of Fenn's five-stage version. Fosdick focused primarily on the promotion of technologies driven by analysts and commentators in the news media. But that does not tell the whole story of the cycle. Publicity does a lot to sow the seeds of hype, but for anything to stick around longer than a YouTube video of dancing cats, a technology needs adherents.
Geoffrey Moore's book 'Crossing the Chasm' documented how in sectors such as IT, moving from the early adoption to the majority phases was fraught with difficulty. Companies would quickly run out of cash brought in by eager early adopters as they tried to engage the attention of the more sceptical majority. This is the point at which many technologies suddenly go from rising stars to false starts.
The split between early adopters and eventual mass adoption has parallels with the work of another student of Rogers' work. In the late 1960s, Frank Bass tried to bring maths to bear on the business of marketing and developed a model that splits the market between the actions of innovators and imitators. Bass took the view that the mass market is socially driven - people see what others have and buy it - but innovators would make decisions primarily on the merit of the product, albeit helped by mass media to let them know it exists. In the products Bass focused on, this meant product advertising.
There are some similarities in the Bass model to the hype cycle. Innovators are eager to try out a new technology and the companies selling the product are equally keen to promote its use. But as the innovators stumble across problems, their enthusiasm wanes. Some walk away while others persevere quietly until their neighbours eventually realise that the product is worth having. By that time, the product is well on the way to the plateau.