Lessons from the past. Remember the promise of smart cards?

Written by on August 4, 2016 in Opinion with 2 Comments

Black holePeople who have been around for a while know that more companies go bust because they were ahead of the times than because they were behind them. Smart cards and companies that bet on their success supply slightly chilling examples. In the 1990s, smart cards were the ‘next big thing’.

My colleague, Tony Poulos, informs me that he saw early smart cards in a Philips lab in the Netherlands in 1989. They were being tested as personal security device for logging on to network terminal and PCs and their first commercial use was by Bull provided stored value public phone cards for France Telecom.

My first recollection was seeing a bus shelter advert at the Mobile World Congress, when it was still in Cannes. Featured was a street seller, handing over a badly wrapped gift, that looked as if it was a locally made water jug. He was holding his other hand out, and the caption was ‘cash or phone, sir?’

Smart cards were seen then as something that worked with a phone or inserted in it, in addition to the SIM card. This was the beta for wallets. In fact, some smart cards are still out there in useful niches as stored value cards in addition to being debit or credit cards, plus a multitude of other uses.

The problem back then was not with the cards, the problem was with the devices.

There were several companies who were ready with their bit of the new technology, waiting to make the world sit up and take notice. They went bust because the devices (and probably a lot of clever networking) were both not ready. Everything took two to three years longer than anyone thought, and the companies simply ran out of money.

It is no coincidence that people like Rupert Murdoch are almost never the first movers in new technology. They wait and watch, and then, if the technology looks proven and promising, buy the most successful looking small companies.

And this lesson from the past brings up some interesting ‘what ifs’.

What if the Tesla crash makes the regulator delay approval for autonomous cars?

What if Google does not get clearance for its Project Loon balloons? Or is forced to rethink the height of flight or rethink the materials?

Or someone dies as a result of a search result? This, of course, has happened. And the Chairman knows how fragile his, and other, online businesses are. In a statement to the workforce he said, “if we lose the support of users, we lose hold of our values, and Baidu will truly go bankrupt in just 30 days!”

What if Apple Health, or any of the new alliances between – for instance – Alphabet and GlaxoSmithKline hit major delays with the FDA, or some accident causes massive press coverage that dictates everything goes quiet for a while?

Or some kid gets run over catching another Pokemon?

Already this year, Ericsson has almost halved its prediction of 50 billion connected devices to 28 billion by 2020.

There are a lot of new technologies out there that, whilst they aim to enhance human life and experience, could also do the opposite.

As Jeff Jonas, chief scientist with IBM said, some time ago now, ‘our toes are dangling over the edge of a very different future’.

Technology is great, technology is leading edge, and therefore will have uncertain outcomes. We therefore need to be careful before proceeding too fast.

Whilst it goes against our grain not to embrace disruption and new ideas and technology, we are faced with a dilemma. Go too fast and unpredictable things will happen. Go too slowly and companies will go bust, or suffer financially, waiting for the green light.

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About the Author

About the Author: Alex was Founder and CEO of the Global Billing Association (GBA), a trade body focused on the communications sector. He is a sought after speaker and chairman at leading industry conferences, and is widely published in communications magazines around the world. Until it closed, he was Contributing Editor, OSS/BSS for Connected Planet. He is publisher of DisruptiveViews and previously BillingViews. .


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  1. Robin Burton says:

    The greatest challenge lies in the sphere of social organisation. Technology is proceeding to successfully automate many of the boring and tedious tasks that used to be done by people. Yesterday I checked onto a flight at Arlanda Airport in Sweden and dropped off my bags without once interacting with a human being. Most things I buy are bought without interacting with a human. Soon they might be delivered by machine too. How, I increasingly wonder, will we all qualify for our share of the wealth being created? How will we all earn a living?

  2. Bob Machin says:

    And a lot of people, I sense, are responding to this. Though I know I’m misinterpreting you, does ‘interacting with another human being’ have to be boring and tedious? Personally, I want to talk to someone as I check in, as long as it’s still reasonably efficient. I want to talk to the postman in the morning, find out what’s going on down the street and wish him a good weekend (in passing, I remember sitting through a surprisingly interesting presentation from the Belgian Post Office which described how they were reskilling their post people to provide social services that would increase their value to customers). I can’t be the only one who consciously gives the self-checkout in the supermarket a swerve – partly because I like to engage with my species, but also because I will have marginally increased that person’s chances of keeping a job. Technology and automation is fantastic in its place, but I predict a trend towards ‘slow living’ over the next few years as we realise that people have to be part of the picture too…

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