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Culture Changers Beget Tech Success

Several months ago, reports surfaced that inventor Dean Kamen had developed a mysterious product that would change the world. Dubbed “IT,” or “Ginger,” Apple CEO Steve Jobs was quoted as saying that once government officials had seen the machine, “you wouldn’t have to convince them to architect cities around it. It’ll just happen.”

It’ll just happen? My guess is that Jobs has never experienced the pleasure of asking his local municipality to fix a pothole.

So what was this hush-hush invention that had Jobs and other tech luminaries so excited? Inside Magazine discovered that IT is actually a two-wheeled, hydrogen-powered scooter.

Yes, a scooter.

I wish Kamen the best of luck, but it may be some time before a scooter, whether powered by hydrogen or a 9 1/2 Nike, changes our culture. Particularly at the reported price tag of $2,000. Can you imagine running a direct marketing effort for a $2,000 scooter in this economy?

However, the buzz that surrounds IT comes from an awareness that every few years an emerging technology begins to reshape our culture. The new product liberates people to explore previously unseen opportunities in their professional and personal lives. The behavioral shift leads to widespread change in the way people do business and relate to others.

Hand-held technology is a good example of a recent “culture changer.” Cell phones and hand-held organizers enable you effectively to be in two places at once. Consequently, you are now more likely to travel for business and pleasure because you know you can keep things under control at the office and at home. You also are more likely to maintain contact with business associates and loved ones simply because you can, albeit through electronic communication rather than the personal touch.

The Four Rules

While doing research for a book, I discovered that all successful technology appliances have several things in common. There are underlying sociological and psychological reasons for why one product changes the way people live while another sits on the shelf.

From that research, I have developed “The Four Rules for Ultimate Tech Success.” This guide will come in handy as you evaluate new technologies for potential direct marketing efforts.

For a new product or technology to change our culture, it must:

Fulfill an urgent need. Example: the microwave. In 1976, the microwave oven became a more commonly owned kitchen appliance than the dishwasher, reaching nearly 60 percent of U.S. homes. Why? The 1960s witnessed the rise of the women’s movement, and the early 1970s witnessed the rise of inflation. Ergo, mom went to work. With both parents at the office, no one was around to cook a nice dinner in a gas oven. The microwave answered the call for a fast, simplified way to make dinner. It made lives more convenient, and its success changed the culture in many ways, from reinforcing the two-earner household to arguably ending the traditional family meal.

Make our lives more appealing and entertaining. Example: the Walkman. The Walkman’s effect on our culture is immense. Do you recall ever seeing a jogger before the Walkman was launched? And, today, do you see anyone jogging who is not wearing a Walkman? So what came first: America’s fitness craze or the success of the Walkman? It is a chicken-and-egg question. But there is no doubt that millions of Americans were encouraged to jog or go to the gym because they could listen to their favorite tunes in solitude. It made exercising more appealing and entertaining.

Provide more options. Example: the mini-satellite dish. I am sufficiently old to remember when there were just three major television channels. How did people survive? But then cable television came along with more than 50 channels. At the time, it seemed revolutionary. But all of life is mere evolution. Cable television simply fueled a thirst for more, more and more. The mini-satellite dish, which provided more than 200 channels, gave the television viewer exactly what he wanted — more special-interest channels, more sports programming and more movies. However, it should be noted that cable television operators are rolling out new digital boxes that will be able to match satellite channel for channel. Consequently, satellite television companies (and cable television) soon will add interactive services to their lineups in the continuing quest to provide more options.

Add convenience and be easy to use. Example: e-mail. Historians will write that there once was a time when people actually called each other on the phone or perhaps met for lunch. Today, most communication, particularly in business, is done via e-mail. The reason is that it is so easy and convenient. Simply type your message under someone’s e-mail address and hit “send.” What could be easier? (It is almost too easy. Just ask anyone who has regretted sending an embarrassing or nasty e-mail to a co-worker or friend.)

The use of e-mail has changed our culture, and it has contributed to the success of the Internet. Many Americans started surfing the Net because they felt more comfortable with the concept of electronic communications after using e-mail.

So what new products and technologies will be tomorrow’s culture changers?

The personal video recorder meets the four rules, as do more sophisticated hand-helds that offer video and audio options. Video on demand, which allows you instantly to watch a new movie at home, will likely eliminate the weekend ritual of going to the video store. And what about Net-based video game consoles? Just sit back and watch how they change our culture. Because of their increasing realism, video games soon will be more popular among adults than teen-agers. Last, broadband connections installed on PCs and televisions will unquestionably change many people’s leisure schedules, increase use of the Net and perhaps even end the digital divide.

But, from this viewpoint, it is hard to see a scooter fulfilling someone’s urgent need.

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