(Hype circles part 1) It’s not if, it’s when

This is the first of a series of three posts on hype circles around tech innovations.

In the early noughties the web was a sterile, text-based world where a custom link style constituted pushing the envelope. Anything beyond this was exotic, desirable and more than a bit profitable. When a former piece of drawing tablet software called Flash stepped up to the plate and looked like it could break through and unleash creativity on the ASCII uplands, people got excited. 

Flash fever was a gold rush. Mining the gold occurred mainly in people’s bedrooms, in the hope of joining the few lucky souls who had hit a seam of $1,000/hour work either composing ‘immersive soundscapes’ that sounded like nightclub lift music or creating shadowy animations that looked like a school kid’s flip art. 

At the height of this fever, there were two big Flash conferences a year (East Coast US and West Coast US, like you need to ask). I missed out on Flash Forward New York 2001: a niche conference where the opening session was Run-D.M.C., so I had to make do with the next best thing: Flash Forward San Francisco 2002. 

The big news at Flash Forward San Francisco 2002 was the release of Flash 6, the moment that saw an awkward and limited adolescent piece of software unsure what it should do with its life grow up into something altogether more serious. When I say serious, the part of the upgrade that was sending everyone wild was the development of Flash’s scripting language – ActionScript – from a slightly home grown version 1.0 into a fully ECMA compliant, object oriented version 2.0. 

I’d done a bit with ActionScript, but following the crowd that was welcoming code bores in faded Microsoft t-shirts to the motion graphic design party seemed uncool. So I went and spoke to some people at the booth that didn’t seem to be getting so much traffic. They were from a company called Sorenson. They told me that Macromedia – who owned Flash – had asked them to do something truly impossible, and they’d delivered. I played along and asked what Macromedia had asked for, and they played along and offered me the clincher to their sales line: a video and audio codec in under 300 kilobytes. 

I was probably even more impressed than they’d hoped: 300k? In 2002, video and audio online meant a plug-in from someone like RealMedia or QuickTime, and 20+megabyte downloads over dial-up (which meant you actually bought a magazine with the plug-in on a cover disk rather than knacker your phone bill or prevent anyone you shared a residence with from making phone calls for a day). 300k, as part of an overall Flash plugin under 500k? That was a game changer: even on dial-up, there’s a fighting chance that users would wait for that to download in order to see the site, rather than close the window or view the boring ‘text only’ version.

I returned to my job at a publishing company, creating books on web motion graphics technologies, convinced that I’d seen the light. This was the future. I specced, commissioned and delivered what I think was the first book solely devoted to video and audio in Flash.

I was, it turned out, entirely correct on the easy bit and utterly wrong on the difficult bit. 

The advent of video and audio provided by the Flash plugin was a game changer: YouTube wouldn’t have been possible without it, and made use of it for the first five years of their existence, even at one point controversially forcing Apple to secretly subvert their ban on the Flash player to allow iPhone users to access YouTube. 

But this shift only took place long after the company I worked for had gone bankrupt. It wasn’t all bad: the video book did well enough to become the first book I commissioned that got translated into Japanese, but a modest success wasn’t the game changer I was looking for. What mattered to the company at that point was revenue and in my enthusiasm for revolution I’d championed an approach that depended on a five to ten year shift to be successful. The factor that made me into a chump and the YouTube founders into multi-multi-millionaires was simple: video online needed the rollout of mass broadband that was underway just as YouTube was getting started three years later. 

The lesson I learned was this: predicting what tech is going to be important in future is not that hard; predicting when it’s going to be important is. It’s not if; it’s when. 

I’ve seen this play out a lot of times since. Predicting that Generative AI is going to be important is easy; predicting when it becomes critical is hard. Benedict Evans recently commented: “What does that mean for generative AI in the workplace? Whatever you think will happen, it will take years, not weeks.

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