The time for pragmatism in tech is now

The tech industry has always prided itself—and for good reason—on describing and building products, services, and business models that look to the future. The technologies behind many of today’s advances are arguably helping define our future. Because of that, it’s become quite normal to think and talk about these developments as having to unfold over the course of several years before their true impact can be accurately measured. But the COVID-19 crisis is focusing a dramatically different lens on many of these efforts and forcing companies to think (and act) on completely different timelines.
Today’s situation is also getting people to think differently about what technology products can and can’t do for them, which is leading to some important reassessments of what really matters as well as what’s truly useful and what isn’t. Frankly, in many instances, it’s a rethinking that’s been overdue.

Reassessing and/or revising expectations has some potentially profound implications for tech companies, which can then smartly recognize ways they can shift both their messaging and even their product strategies. It also opens up some interesting opportunities to make meaningful improvements in existing products. Last, but certainly not least, it also provides an incredible opportunity for at least some portion of the tech industry to turn the increasingly negative narrative about big tech around and to reposition the tech industry as a beneficent force that can help improve our society and our world.

Thankfully, the manifestations of these new approaches are already starting to happen in both big ways and small. T-Mobile, for example, quickly got the FCC to give its approval for what’s called Temporary Spectrum Access to increase the available bandwidth they had at 600 MHz—which the company uses for both 4G and 5G service—by essentially “borrowing” unused spectrum from Dish and Comcast.

(…) provides an incredible opportunity for at least some portion of the tech industry to turn the increasingly negative narrative about big tech around and to reposition the tech industry as a beneficent force that can help improve our society and our world.

Because T-Mobile had already built-up a good part of its network infrastructure for its 5G deployment, it was able to move much more quickly than it would have otherwise been able to. In addition, the company followed up this week by also launching a new low-cost ($15/month) plan sooner than originally planned. For their part, both AT&T and Verizon also joined in the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge and made similar efforts of their own to increase available bandwidth, remove data caps for broadband services, pledge not to turn off connectivity plans due to financial hardship caused by the crisis, and more.

Collectively, these quick efforts showed the telecom industry as a whole to be very responsive and sensitive to the issues at hand, all of which should certainly go a long way in improving consumers’ perception of them. Throw in the fact that, as of now, the critical telecom and data delivery infrastructure has held up remarkably well given the huge increase in traffic it’s had to deal with from the many people working and living exclusively at home, and it’s arguably been an impressive week or two for the telecom industry.

Yet another interesting example and set of data comes from Cisco, whose equipment powers large segments of these infrastructure networks. On a call with Cisco executives and CEO Chuck Robbins, the company talked about having to approach these network loads in entirely different ways than they had in the past. Rather than taking a more systematic approach to problem solving, they freely discussed having to make adjustments in real time—a clearly different approach to what they’d done in the past, and yet, based on what we’ve been experiencing, a successful one.

Not surprisingly, the Cisco execs also discussed the incredibly robust demand they’ve seen for their networking products—every company is looking to their bandwidth—as well as the enormous traffic increase (up to 24x) that they’ve seen for their Webex videoconferencing and remote collaboration services. Clearly, these are things that companies need immediately, so Cisco’s ability to adjust its own networks on the fly to meet these huge demands speaks volumes about the pragmatic approach the company is taking to address these issues. One interesting side note from the Cisco call was that the vast majority of Webex client software downloads was for PCs over smartphones, once again highlighting the real-world value that PCs (laptops in particular) continue to play.

Many other tech companies also announced their own efforts to address some of the concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic has created. In fact, as a long-time industry observer, it was very encouraging and even heartwarming to see how much concern that the tech industry was displaying.

In a different and yet thematically related development, IBM, along with a number of government labs and technology partners like HPE, made the decision to open up access to many of the world’s fast and most powerful supercomputers to scientists who are working to battle the virus. It was a smart, fast, pragmatic decision that serves an incredibly important cause and highlights, in a very public way, the efforts that IBM is making to assist in whatever way it can.

Of course, many other tech companies also announced their own efforts to address some of the concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic has created. In fact, as a long-time industry observer, it was very encouraging and even heartwarming to see how much concern that the tech industry was displaying. While it may prove to be short-lived, there also seems to be much more willingness for companies to consider partnering with each other to help create new solutions that, in otherwise normal times, might not happen.

Even with these efforts to provide quick benefits, however, the new “normal” has made it clear that much work still needs to be done, particularly in making some tech products and services easier to use. Case in point: given the huge increase in video calls that I and most other people are now experiencing, it’s easy to find instances in applications like videoconferencing that need to be improved—and quickly. If you’ve ever suffered through trying to troubleshoot your audio and video connections for these calls, for example (and let’s be honest, who hasn’t), then you understand the need. Something as obvious as having a button on the main page of an online service or in the launch screen of a videoconferencing app to let you test your connection (or even better, to use some kind of AI or other software intelligence to fix it automatically), without having to log-in to an account or find the buried preference settings, seems like a very easy thing to do, yet, it’s just not there. These are the kind of small pragmatic differences that companies should also be thinking about.

“Necessity is the mother of invention”, and there are likely few times in recorded history when the necessity of thinking and acting differently has been more urgent.

To be clear, the more pragmatic approach to creating, marketing, and even selling tech products that the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing upon us doesn’t have to come completely at the expense of forward-looking technology advances. The R&D-focused efforts within the tech industry that are enabling things like quantum computing, or the latest neuromorphic chips that Intel recently unveiled, remain an absolutely essential and defining part of the business.

The difference now, and likely into the foreseeable future, is really more one of focus and emphasis. Companies need to look much harder at the types of changes they can make here and now both to existing products and upcoming products. I’d argue that the tech industry had gone a little too far down the path of promising long-term revolutions without thinking enough about short-term implications. If nothing else, I expect that one of the more important outcomes that will linger on after we pass this crisis will be more attention to what kind of ideas, products, and services make a difference in the near-term—not just in some far off “vision” for where things might go.

Of course, it’s also important to remember that necessity is the mother of invention, and there are likely few times in recorded history when the necessity of thinking and acting differently has been more urgent. As a result, an even more important silver lining from our current crisis is that we will soon start to see and enjoy the inventive benefits of many of the most brilliant minds in the world who are spending their time thinking, from a present-focused pragmatic perspective, about how to solve many types of tech-related problems both big and small. It’s not clear when, how, or in what exact form those innovations will appear, but I have absolutely no doubt that they will arrive and that we will all benefit from them.

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