Phase Change – How the Same Thing can be Different

November 19, 2008

IStock_000004181725XSmallWhy does water suddenly become solid when cooled to 0° C even though it’s just the same old H2O?

That last drop from 1° to 0° C makes so much more of a difference than 2° to 1° that it gets a special name: phase change. This happens when the character of a system suddenly changes even though its environment (e.g. how hot it is) is only changing gradually (the slowly cooling water in the ice tray).

Why does this matter?

Because this effect doesn’t just happen in the freezer.

The iPhone surge
A much reported story: in the Christmas period after its release, the iPhone was responsible for 50 times more traffic to Google than any other phone even though it held only one fiftieth of the market share (FT, NYT). Since then, Apple has become the third largest phone manufacturer (by revenue) after Nokia and Samsung (DF), in only 17 months. This shows the huge impact that a (substantial) incremental improvement in a piece of technology can have. The mobile internet is now booming: ad requests to mobile advertising marketplace AdMob tripled in the year up to Oct 2008 (MN).

Grid parity
Another example is photovoltaic power – solar panels. In 2007, the Spanish government introduced an incentive offering 40 years of guaranteed payments from the moment you started putting juice into the grid. Without this ‘feed-in tariff’ solar power only broke even with oil at a cost of $3,000 per barrel. With, it suddenly became competitive, causing entrepreneurs to install four times as much in the year 2007 as had ever been built (and maxing out the programme’s 400 MW limit). It is estimated that solar panels will become cost effective on their own (the mythical grid parity, when generation costs are the same as for fossil fuels) in the next 20 years. What happened in Spain will happen the world over, potentially sealing a new model of distributed power generation.

Touch me
A final example, for now, is touch screens. In another first, the iPhone allowed people to experience the visceral satisfaction of bypassing the mouse and keyboard and putting your grubby mitts on the very thing you want to move. While the keyboard cannot be beaten when working with text, the immediacy of multi-touch interfaces will make us faster for everything else – they will also be more fun to use. Fully fledged touch interfaces will also affect our image of computers – small devices become more usable (again, the iPhone comes to mind) and large ones suddenly become useful. See Jeff Han’s firm, Perceptive Pixel, and their pioneering interactive wall (http://www.perceptivepixel.com/). The form factors we use most often are also adapting: HP announced today the HP Touchsmart tx2, the first multi-touch consumer notebook, with more developments on the horizon from Apple (who have been injecting touch into every new device), and Microsoft, who highlighted the technology their demo of Windows 7 at the PDC. Of course, Bill Gates has been drooling over tablet PCs for a while. Perhaps this will be as big a revolution as the mouse.

Through falling price, better business models and plain better design some classes of products will get beyond the small percentage of early adopters who are willing to overlook their foibles. After the threshold, they can blow their predecessors out of the water as users find formerly irritating tasks now surprisingly pleasant. A good enough product can change attitudes on its own, and network effects and social proof can help fuel explosive growth.

It’s worth remembering that these sudden changes can be a long time coming. Multi-touch technology is over 25 years old (link), and solar panels were first tested in 1954 at Bell Labs. There can be a very long period of glacial growth after the first breakthrough during which only users with very specific needs take on the products, so it pays to keep an eye out.

This blog will look out for these kinds of phase changes in technology, business and society.

The example below illustrates this for the mobile web. A caveat: this is skewed towards first world countries with good computer web access. Countries who are only just developing their internet infrastructure do not necessarily need an iPhone experience for mass adoption of a simplified mobile web to happen.

Phase change copy

What do most of these have in common?

  • A mass market in waiting: Whereas the minority of early adopters care about how it works, there is a mass market who care mostly about what it lets them do. The phase change occurs when this mass market suddenly finds that the technology helps rather than gets in the way. Only a minority put a solar panel on their roof just for the sake of it.
  • A fairly even lot: The mass market often shares many characteristics compared to the relatively varied early adopters, who come from various specific niches. Most people putting solar panels on their rooftops have similar energy needs. Most computer users use the same small minority of functions. This means once a technology reaches the critical point, it can suddenly benefit a considerable number of people.
  • Non-linear: Even a small incremental changes can cause a big leap in functionality. As soon as you have an LCD screen larger than 22” or so you can view two documents at once, a proven productivity boost. Another example: if mobile browsing gets good enough, you no longer need desktop PCs. The water freezes even though the temperature drop is the same one degree that got it close. Though the product of incremental changes, these leaps can trigger the phase change for the whole system.

Writers such as Nassim Taleb (The Black Swan), Eric D. Beinhocker (The Origin of Wealth), Marc Buchanan (Ubiquity) have talked about how complex systems can undergo swift and cataclysmic changes once they pass certain critical points. What matters is this: the building blocks don’t change so much. We’re still talking about phones, solar panels, touch screens – but their gradual improvement can suddenly give the world a new incumbent.

What will be the next big phase change for our society?

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