Technological change comes in waves; mobile will be the largest technology wave in history, dwarfing all prior technology cycles.

Technology has progressed at a blistering pace since the invention of the transistor in 1946 and the integrated circuit in 1958, from mainframe computers that once filled a room in the 1960’s to today’s compute-intensive smartphones that fit in the palm of your hand.

Gordon Moore[1], Fairchild Semiconductor’s Director of R&D, wrote in an internal paper that was later published in Electronics[2] magazine in April 1965, that the number of components on an integrated circuit had doubled every year from 1958 to 1965 and he believed such growth would continue at that pace well into the future. Caltech professor Carver Mead coined the phrase “Moore’s Law” in 1970 to capture the power of Dr. Moore’s observation, forever immortalizing it in history.

A few years later in 1975, then a founder and senior officer of Intel, Dr. Moore modified his “law” stating that the number of components in integrated circuits had doubled every two years since 1958. Dave House, an Intel executive, correctly observed that it is actually chip performance that doubles every 18 months, through the combination of greater silicon density and faster transistor switching speeds. It is this final modification that has remained true for the past 35 years and foreshadowed technology’s widespread impact on the world.

If semiconductor performance doubles every 18 months, as Dave House observed, then its performance increases by 10-fold every five years and 100-fold every ten. I will argue that it takes a 100-fold increase to create a technology discontinuity and it is these discontinuities that have created the big technology waves.

As such, the technology industry has seen five such semiconductor-driven discontinuities in its 50 year history.

As I discussed in my previous blog, mainframe computers dominated the 1960’s, minicomputers the 1970’s, and PCs in the 1980’s. Corporate networking was the primary technology wave of the 1990’s, while the 2000’s saw the desktop Internet emerge as the next major technology trend.

Each of these waves was the direct result of the compounding effect of semiconductor performance caused by Moore’s Law, whereby the dramatic increase in silicon density allowed for significantly smaller and higher performance technologies to emerge. Smart, powerful, highly-portable mobile devices are the natural extension of this 50-year trend.

Interestingly, the magnitude of each technology wave has been significantly larger than the prior one. Just as the PC cycle was larger, more global and had a bigger impact on business and consumers than mainframe and mini computers, mobile will be significantly bigger than all prior technology waves. In fact, although smartphones and tablet computers are less than 5 years old, mobile devices are the fastest consumer adoption cycle in history and already have surpassed the PC industry. It is important to recognize that mobile technology and its market penetration have many more years to unfold.

To reinforce my point, a few fun statistics around mobile include:

  • There are over 1 billion wireless users today. Smartphone penetration is running at about 25% and more smartphones will ship in 2013 than PCs
  • It is estimated that 2.5 billion mobile users will be connected to wireless broadband networks by 2017, with over 50% of the devices being smartphones and tablets
  • There will be more smart wireless devices in use in 2017 than the entire PC installed base

As the final litmus test, your mobile device is the first thing you look at in the morning and the last thing you look at before going to bed, and few of us are away from it for long in between.

Mobile will have a bigger impact on business and consumers than any prior electronics technology. Mobile is big.


[1] I had the opportunity to travel with Dr Moore for a day in 1985. I asked him about his “law.” He responded that he was curious how I was planning on spending the 1 million transistor budget that would be available to every individual in the US within a decade. I did not have much of an answer for him at the time, but ten years later I realized his prediction was correct.