Potter’s Principle: Communication’s Rising Pace of Change

Marc Price

No technology has transformed lives more than the ability to communicate at a distance. The first smoke signals, signal flags, and lighthouses offered opportunities for conveyance of important news at a speed faster than a human, a horse, or even a train could achieve. They transformed military and planning, public safety, and greater awareness of the world beyond one’s local town. But it was the introduction of telecommunications, says Marc Price, CTO of MATRIXX Software that had the biggest impact on systemic change.

The first transatlantic cables almost miraculously enabled different continents to align currency markets, trade, and news of import. Before this invention, wars would rage for weeks even after peace had been concluded. The results of elections, or sporting bets, would not be known for weeks. As people adapted to these innovations, financial markets, gambling, and military planning evolved to incorporate information of faraway events and life would never be the same.

The First Telephone

In 1844, the first telegraph message was sent from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Maryland. By 1866, a first telegraph line had been laid across the Atlantic Ocean from the United States to Europe. The telephone line was set up in Boston in 1877, and the telegraph gradually fell out of widespread use. The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries were a time of change and rapid expansion, as the telephone went from being a luxury that a few could afford, to a necessity in everyday life.

For about a hundred years, conveyance of messages through Morse code and then voice transformed business models, lifestyles, and the way humans interact, meet, and socialize. These services were charged by the letter, the word, and the minute by the companies conveying this service. But it was after World War II that models changed again, with automated switching onto toll networks for differentiated pricing. In 1951, the first direct dial long-distance telephone call was placed in North America, and subsequently the service was deployed throughout the world.

As Ben Potter of AT&T posits, it took one hundred years for the business of communications to change but once it did subsequent changes occurred faster and faster, at the rate of a half-life that would disrupt in the century to come.

Communications Changing Lives

For the next 50 years following World War II, communications meant ubiquitous use of local and toll switched networks across the globe. In the early to mid 1990s, cellular technologies including GSM and CDMA were deployed, enabling the conveyance of signals between radio towers and handsets of various sizes. These mobile devices once more changed lives and businesses forever, with new models propagated by the operators to support voice and messaging data. In alignment with Potter’s Principle, it took fewer than 25 years for the next big change, with cellular broadband networks dominating communications in the decade of 2010 onwards. The era of data, and video over data networks, fueled new apps and associated services, enabling mobile commerce, online dating, and corporate video conferencing.

In 2015, data services enabled the Internet of Things to go mobile, with smartphones, smartwatches, and GPS trackers becoming mainstream.  With 2022 behind us, Potter reckons the half-life principle applies to new services now emerging in the 5G era, as the formation of new ecosystems between operators and enterprises, and wholesale use of ubiquitous connectivity in emerging appliances, vehicles, and everyday devices will once again change what it means for our lives.

What’s more, the pace of change is consistently accelerating. It is reasonable to assume that in 3 years, the scene will alter once more, and perhaps the year after that as well. Artificial Intelligence is becoming incorporated into our everyday life at such a rate we cannot anticipate the effects in the next few short years. New chipsets are emerging to take advantage of low power signals and fuel sensors and diagnostics to create an all-new connected experience in smart homes and businesses yet to emerge.

Operators worldwide must prepare not merely for new business systems every few years, but to prepare their business systems to change at a rate that is ever faster, with no end of the half-life principle in sight.

New Technologies, New Business

Looking forward, it is impossible to say if Potter’s Principle of ever-shrinking timelines apply, for telco’s innovations yet to come. But it is reasonable with what we know to expect a more rapid pace of change, and to anticipate the future will be upon us before we know it. Communications has been arguably the most transformative technology in the last 150 years. How will it alter our lives further when everything is connected? Potter says we may not need to wait long for the answer.

Ben Potter is a lead solution architect at AT&T. The views expressed are solely the opinion of the author and do not reflect the position of AT&T.

NOTE: This post was adapted from an article that appeared in Vanilla Plus, April 26, 2023.

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