Missing the inflection points in history

Something I’ve learned recently: A commonly missed implication of incremental improvements are inflection points. These are most obviously seen in hindsight and very hard to identify while you’re in them, especially if you’re on the sidelines and not on the ground level building things.

At a certain point along the trajectory of technology becoming better, faster, bigger, or smaller, a threshold is hit, breaking a barrier and allowing a whole new set of possibilities. What feels like small 5% increases in performance each iteration may turn into a critical turning point once you’ve hit a 50% performance increase. Perhaps now you’re able to power a device with a smaller battery, leading to a smaller device or more room in the design for additional hardware, unlocking innovation and a step-change in form factor.

Innovation is not linear.

As an outsider trying to make sense of technological change, the connections I’ll try to make may not be accurate. They are simply speculations.

Example Inflection Points

Here are a couple I can think of:

Network speeds

Once a certain network speed becomes common, new capabilities are unlocked. For example, once 5G becomes widespread, I imagine what is possible on mobile phones will radically shift as network connectivity will make on-device feel as fast as in-the-cloud. How might physical phones change in response to this?

Smartphone penetration

If enough people have smartphones, the informal network can support new types of products and services. I imagine ride-sharing services like Uber would be unable to launch even 1-2 years earlier as there wouldn’t have been a dense enough population of riders and drivers who had smartphones.

Other potential inflection points

  • What became possible when computing power hit a certain threshold? Did that contribute to things like bitcoin mining?
  • What became possible when internet penetration hit a tipping point towards the masses? Did that enable a wave a technology startups?

It’s fun and interesting to think about these types of things, as it might provide us a tiny glimpse of the future. What other technological advances are we missing?

One way to start to think about inflection points is the classic “why now?” – what has changed in recent history to allow a certain idea or trend to catch on?