Hold on to your hat

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Several headlines and stories have caught my attention since last week’s blog post. Consider them signs of the time — the latest examples of disruptive technologies.

The first appeared in the April 14 issue of The Wall Street Journal: “Ads for Web Surpassed Papers in 2010.”

The report said U.S. Web advertising last year rose 15 percent, to $26 billion, eclipsing traditional media and surpassing for the first time newspaper ad revenue. Going forward, I suspect that gap will only widen. The story notes that the growth rate last year for the Web is still only about half of what it was before the global recession of 2008.

The broad trend certainly reflects what we’ve seen at Trade Only and at our sister consumer brand, Soundings, where unique online visitors, page views and advertising revenue are growing steadily as the ways that audiences consume news, information and ads continue to evolve.

The same WSJ issue had a small piece about how the global demand for personal computers has declined for the first time since the end of the recession. The reasons? The growing attractiveness of tablet computers to consumers and businesses. The trend also is being driven by the development of faster, more efficient computer components, which the story said are extending a computer’s “useful lifetime.”

More change, more disruption.

Then there was the news last Tuesday that Cisco was mothballing the groundbreaking Flip video camera, which it purchased from the founders for a reported $590 million just two years ago. That created a buzz.

But whether the Flip camcorder — a compact, inexpensive, some would say “elegant” disrupter — was the victim of the increasingly powerful (and popular) smart phone or was simply a bad fit for the networking equipment giant is unclear.

That follows reports that the halcyon days of the digital camera market may be over. The cameras in cell phones are expected to eventually become the primary consumer device for capturing images. Smart phones also are said to be putting dents in the markets for GPS devices, watches, portable music players and — who would have guessed it — alarm clocks, according to reports.

Disruptive products and technologies — smart phones, tablet computers, mobile Internet, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, cloud computing and a host of other technologies and the gadgets and services based on them — are altering the world in which we live, from business to media to entertainment and far beyond. It’s nothing new. Look at what steamships did to the age of sail.

We all need to be better aware of just how these technologies can help or affect or alter our businesses. And we probably need to be a little more adroit in adapting them to the way we build, sell, service and distribute boats, parts and accessories. To the way we communicate with one another and with our customers.

More change, more mobile gadgets with even more computing power are just over the horizon. It doesn’t matter whether you or I, or anyone in our industry for that matter, can see the tops of their sails quite yet — someone can.

To that point, I recently listened to a video roundtable with visionary computer scientist and Yale professor David Gelernter on the Edge Foundation’s Web site.

The topic was not disruptive technologies, but I think this comment by Gelernter succinctly captures the enormous sweep of just what is possible:

“In the final analysis, the question is not what can software engineers build; it’s a question what do users need?” Gelernter said. “If we identify user needs, the software technology will come along, in combination with hardware, obviously, and interconnect technology.”

“Hold on to your hat,” my father says whenever change swirls like a gust of wind. He is 91, a World War II veteran, a child of the Great Depression and a lifelong small businessman who still lives independently and has seen his world change from one of knickerbockers, outdoor plumbing and Babe Ruth swatting home runs out of the Polo Grounds to whatever blur of globalization characterizes today.

With the speed and power of a line squall, disruptive technologies continue to shorten product cycles and help us shape and reshape our world.

Hold on to your hat, indeed.

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