Anyone who attended two major Silicon Valley tech conferences over the past ten days came away with a couple of clear impressions. One is that disruptive technologies are having a huge impact on the consumer space, an influence that will only grow in the months and years ahead. And second, those technologies are trying to succeed against some of the longest odds imaginable.
Let’s take Bitcoin for example. Can there possibly be anything more disruptive than creating a new currency for the world?
A panel of Bitcoin experts debated that and other relevant subjects at the C2SV (Creative Convergence Silicon Valley) conference and music festival in San Jose, California a few days ago. Bitcoin is a decentralized digital currency that was created by some programmers about four years ago. It’s basically cash that lives on the Internet.
As Bitcoin struggles to gain acceptance, the biggest issue has become its anonymity. Unlike our current, highly regulated monetary system where credit card transactions and bank accounts are carefully monitored, large amounts of digital currency can change hands with little or no accountability at all. This has made adoption difficult as the banking industry and legal authorities cast a wary eye. “If you can get law enforcement on your side, you’ll be in really good shape,” said Chris Larsen, founder of OpenCoin (Ripple Labs).
Gaining law enforcement’s acceptance might be even more of challenge based on news events over the past few days. When the FBI arrested a San Francisco man last week for running an online black market drug selling operation known as Silk Road, it was discovered that drug buyers were using Bitcoin to make their anonymous purchases.
The die may now be cast. If Bitcoin is to become a legitimate form of currency, it will likely have to subject itself to regulation, something that true tech disruptors genuinely loathe.
Another disruptive area is technology for healthcare. In just the last two years there has been an explosion of new smartphone apps to measure everything from the number of steps we take each day to more serious metrics like blood pressure.
This has created a debate within the technology community itself about direction that healthcare tech will take. “Software is going to replace doctors? That’s crazy!” said Orlando Portale, chief innovation officer at Palomar Health.
Portale spoke at the Glazed conference in San Francisco last week, a day-long event created by Stained Glass Labs to focus on the growing wearable computing market. He was part of a panel discussion that highlighted a growing concern within the healthcare field over the rise in devices which can generate medical data. As mobile tech products become more sophisticated in proving patient information, tech companies see huge opportunity. But the government sees a need for more regulation.
As if on cue, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced just a few days ago that it will turn its attention to apps which allow smartphones or tablets to act as medical devices by measuring blood pressure or glucose. The government’s concern is that if the app doesn’t work correctly, a wrong diagnosis could endanger a person’s life.
When it comes to home security and monitoring systems, one of the biggest game changers has been the Nest Learning Thermostat. Introduced just two years ago by former Apple executive Tony Fadell (also known as the “father of the iPod”), the “smart” thermostat monitors your daily home routines and adjusts heating or cooling accordingly. Priced at $250, the Nest has been shipping close to 50,000 units a month. That kind of growth is encouraging a lot of other companies to dive into the home monitoring pool.
But some of them are finding the waters to be deeper than they expected. “Honestly, when I started down this path I didn’t think it would be this difficult,” said Jason Johnson, founder of August, maker of a $200 keyless lock system powered by a mobile app. Johnson, who also appeared last week at Glazed, is confronting the challenge of building a hardware product that can rapidly gain acceptance by consumers, many of whom may believe that their metal keys have been working just fine.
When the home can intuitively determine the intentions of its occupant, or a mobile phone can accurately read critical health data, or we can all pay for goods using currency we can’t even see, that’s pretty disruptive. It’s also hard to build and gain mass consumer acceptance, especially when faced with government regulation or headlines like the Silk Road fiasco. As one speaker at C2SV put it last week, these technologies “will either be worth nothing or they’ll be worth a whole lot.” And it will be fascinating to see which way the disruptive winds blow.