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4 Digital Laws

2011 October 12
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We digital folks are a rebellious bunch.  We don’t like being told what we can and can’t do.  We like to think anything is possible and, sometimes, we even make good on our hubris.

With each passing year new products come to market that amaze us, not just through technological sophistication, but because they unlock desires and urges that we never knew we had. Alas, we often fail more than we succeed.

The most successful players fail the most. It’s a part of the price you pay when you set out to innovate.  At places like Google, failure is almost a religion.  Yet there is smart failure and stupid failure.  Smart failure happens when you trek out into the unknown.  Stupid failure happens when you ignore the rules.  These four are the most important ones.

1. Kryder’s Law

The first piece of digital legislation is called Kryder’s law and was first noted in this 2005 Scientific American article.  The basic idea is that storage capacity doubles every twelve months.  Here’s what it looks like:

 

When the Apple II launched in the late 70’s, it had barely 100 kilobytes of memory and cost between $1000 and $2000.  You could get more memory, but a 10 megabyte disc would cost about $5000, more than the computer itself! Today, you can buy a terabyte, enough to store roughly a thousand full length movies, for less than $100.

The result has been that we generally don’t care very much about disk space anymore. We no longer delete e-mails with attachments to free up space and there are plenty of companies that will let us store gigabytes of data, or  tens of thousands of times the capacity of the original Apple II, for free online.

Of all the digital laws, Kryder’s law is the easiest to abide by, because it is such a slack law. However, every one in a while, something comes along that will stretch it’s limits.  The last was digital video.  The next will most likely be holograms.

2. Moore’s Law

You’ve probably heard of Moore’s law, which is our oldest and most famous guiding principle.  It was first identified in 1965 by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who made it the guiding light for his company.  Come hell or high water, he knew that they would have to double the processing speed of their chips every eighteen months to two years.

It looks like Kryder’s law but actually runs about 50% slower.

Early on in the digital age, processing speed was the major problem.  Our computers weren’t fast enough to do perform basic tasks and rapid improvement in this area determined overall performance.  It was the first thing we would ask about when we went to buy a computer.

That’s changed, of course.  Now chips are so powerful that an everyday mobile phone is far more powerful than the computers that sent a man to the moon.  We care much more about portability and price than we do about processing speed.

Nevertheless, there are some important issues regarding Moore’s law.  Firstly, because of Kyrder’s law, storage capacity is growing faster than processing speed and we are entering a new era of Big Data, where enterprises store massive amounts of information and even ultra-fast chips have trouble processing it, so we need clever algorithms for data mining.

Secondly, what’s driven Moore’s law is our ability to make transistors smaller so that we can cram more and more onto a silicon wafer.  However, there are limits.  We can’t make transistors smaller than a single atom.  As I explained in an earlier post, we’ll hit that limit around 2020 at which time we’ll have to make the leap to quantum computing.

3. Nielsen’s Law

While we have as much storage as we need and the power to process all that data quickly and cheaply, accessing it is still a problem.  Nielsen’s law estimates that bandwidth doubles every twenty-one months, so this last component of digital experience lags behind both storage and processing speed.

Many online resources are slow to load on mobile devices. Anybody who tries to watch video online is acutely aware of the limits to bandwidth and, as we are entering a mobile era of post-PC computing, increasing bandwidth is key to user experience.

One reason that mobile apps are so popular is that they store a lot of information on the device and are therefore less dependent on a constant connection to the cloud. It’s no wonder that mobile phone operator’s are marketing their new super-fast 4G services so intensively right now.

New bandwidth standards are expensive to implement.  They require new licenses, infrastructure and so on. So improvements come to market not every 21 months, but mostly in huge shifts in user experience at longer intervals.  4G will make a big difference but its effect will erode away as storage and processing speeds outpace it.

Expect 5G around 2020 and 6G to come along about ten years after that.

4. The Caveman Law

The first three digital laws determine what our technology can do, but say nothing about what we want it to do.  That brings us to perhaps the most important and most subtle principle of the digital age.  Michio Kaku calls it the “Caveman law” and it can be stated as follows:

Whenever there is a conflict between modern technology and the desires or our primitive ancestors, these primitive desires win each time.

Caveman law infringements come with the harshest penalties.  If you attempt to defy one of the first three laws, you’ll probably never get your product out of the lab.  However, Caveman law violations can easily come to market and often do.  Often, it is only after investors have lost their shirts is it clear that a breach has occurred.

The Caveman law is also my favorite piece of digital legislation.  It represents our greatest assurance that our technology will remain our own.  Products that comply with the Caveman law delight us, become wildly successful and spur more innovations along a similar path.

The Genius of Steve Jobs

Many people admire Steve Jobs for breaking the rules.  However, it should be clear that while he flouted business conventions, he adhered strictly to the digital laws.  He never rushed into new markets, but waited patiently for capabilities to catch up with concepts. When they did, he sprung into action.

Furthermore, while he tolerated Kryder’s, Moore’s and Nielsen’s laws, he revered the Caveman law.  It was, for him, the one to rule them all.  While other technology companies touted their products’ features, Apple focused on the experience and the deep desires that their creations would unlock.

That, as we all know now, made all the difference in the world.

When he passed away last week, we lost a true genius.  Lots of smart people can do all sorts of complex things.  It takes a person of special talent to never lose sight of simple ones, when everyone around you, competitors, co-workers, business journalists and all the rest, want only to muddy the waters.

Even in dreams, there are laws.

– Greg

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Riki permalink
    October 14, 2011

    IMHO what Jobs (probably instinctively) knew better than anybody else was best summarized by a quote of Marshall MacLuhan:

    “Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    I like it! Thanks Riki.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  2. October 16, 2011

    Great reading! Love the last law – it is what I call the “superego” in marketing, and explains why, regardless of whether you use a PC or a Mac, you’re still with a “qwerty” keyboard (for the English language, at any rate); why cars will always have indicators in orange and brake-lights in red; or why port will always be red and starboard green; etc.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    I like that one too (but maybe just because I like the idea of being a caveman)

    :-)

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  3. Bobby permalink
    June 29, 2013

    The early computers (8-bit era) such as the Apple II had ONLY 48K of memory. Not 100. The first Atari 800 also had 48K of RAM. It wasn’t until the Atari 800XL that 64K was standard. Then came the Apple IIc and the 130XE when 128K and beyond was possible.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Yes, you’re right. Don’t know where I got 100 from. Thanks for correcting me.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  4. Bobby permalink
    June 29, 2013

    Also Steve Jobs was no genius. He copied the “desktop” on the Mac from something else – and had to license it. He copied, sued to stop competition and innovation. He didn’t even build the Atari Breakout coin-op prototype he got paid $5000 for (it was Wozniak, and got only $500 for his work by Jobs). The only thing he contributed was marketing over-priced technology.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Bobby,

    Steve Jobs was no engineer. He WAS a genius!

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  5. Aaron permalink
    February 26, 2014

    Hi Greg,

    I have looked for some primary sources of Jobs talking/writing about the caveman law (maybe not by name, but in principle), but have had no luck. Do you know of any?

    Thanks,
    Aaron

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    It was not Steve Jobs, but Michio Kaku. I believe it was in “Physics of the Future.”

    – Greg

    [Reply]

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