It's taken me a while to put my finger on what bothers me about the way the world has been treating companies like RIM and Nokia. It's turned out to be something quite simple: we've turned into a bunch of short termers, focusing on the next 18 months or so, rather than remembering tech doesn’t turn on a dime – and neither do markets.
A career or two back before I became a technology journalist I was a research engineer, working in academic and commercial research labs on technologies that would take the best part of a decade to become mainstream. I spent a chunk of the early part of the 90s in a freezing cold hut in a Coventry car-park testing some of the first DSL equipment in the UK, technologies that didn't roll out to most homes until the start of the 21st century (and a decade later we forget how the modem used to be an essential piece of kit). The same went for my lab full of cable TV equipment and a batch of the first TCP/IP cable modems, or the reports I wrote on the HiperLAN wireless technologies that only now are arriving in the high speed 802.11ac standard.
It's what UI research guru Bill Buxton calls "the long nose", those years of research and development needed to make a product ready for the consumer. From the mouse to the touch screen to WiFi to DSL, there's a 10 year period for them to travel the road from invention to consumer product.
So why are we insisting that companies with good business models and millions (even billions) of customers in growing markets need to change course overnight? They have cash in the bank, and transition plans from existing to new technologies, but we're insisting on rushing them to announcements and to early releases of technologies that aren't quite fully baked? Do we really want companies to turn into modern versions of Osborne Computers, pre-announcing new products while the old are still in the market?
Most of us aren't engineers. We look at devices and unconsciously assume that they've arrived full formed, like Athena emerging from the head of Zeus, the dreams all made solid, the dreams all made real. We don't know, and often don't want to know, about the years of work, and the teams of hundreds of hardware and software engineers, of designers and scientists, that have taken an idea and turned it into silicon and plastic. We don't think about how the convergence of so many technologies that let us play Angry Birds as we sit on the bus. And perhaps we should; and then perhaps we'd understand why it takes organisations three or four years to understand just how a market is changing, and then more than two years to develop a new OS and the hardware to go with it.
Perhaps the companies in question also need to push back, and explain what they're doing and why. One good example of this is the work that Microsoft is doing with its Building Windows 8 blog, where the Redmond giant is clear about its ambitious plan to build an OS not just for this year, but for the next decade of computing developments. It's detailing its work in depth – along with its rationale for the decisions it's making – giving a keyhole view into the engineering process. Of course it can only be part of the picture, as it's a process that crosses so many boundaries – from silicon partners to OEMs to third-party software and driver developers – but it's a part of the picture we rarely see.
Unbox a device and you're unboxing more than a decade of engineering investment. We stand to lose a lot if we forget that, and we stop valuing engineering in favour of short-term stock market gains.