There's almost nothing written about more than how our lives will change by coming technological shifts. Endless opinions express that the time is right for products to completely alter our world and that we ought to prepare for them before we get left behind.

Technologies such as electric vehicles (EVs) and autonomous vehicles are in vogue and getting this treatment. Autonomous cars are near or far away, depending on who you ask. The "Uber" market, which allows smartphone access for ride/taxi service as the first leg of all services, is changing lives. Then there's the much-hyped Internet of Things (IoT), which promises incredible growth for machine-to-machine (M2M) data gathering and execution.

The next big thing

Technology revolutions +
How do you keep up with just these technology revolutions, not to mention many others as well? If you're charged in your company with making investments for future products, which ones do you believe in and to what degree are you willing to spend resources (expenses)? These thoughts are at the forefront of every manager and engineering executive as they allocate resources.

Is there a good answer to the question? There is, but unfortunately, it will only be clear in hindsight. Each of us can list many reasons why a change is coming and how it is inevitable. But is it really possible to define ahead of time what the next "big thing" is?

Normal advances in technology are certainly almost-daily planning exercises: semiconductor line widths will shrink, processing power will jump, chip sizes will get smaller, and data communications speeds will grow. These are plannable because they are typically current methods, though sometimes new technologies are needed to make them happen (think 5G). They assume that better technology will gradually improve performance. Many of these plans will come to fruition and are the main approach of product plans.

What will it take for the next big thing?

Arguably unplannable
Does this mean that these plans should be abandoned? Not at all. Normal business plans continue an existing business. Certainly, they envision technology improvements, new methods to improve performance, and even competitive entries that they must fight off. The job is not to explore wholly new fields, unless they see encroachment on their market.

The task of finding the next big thing goes to an investing group, either in-house or a related venture arm that isn't burdened with the present business. They are free to use their investing skills with ample backgrounds in technology, business, and finance. A pseudo- or real-venture capital group looking for that special thing that can be bought at an early stage or at least give insight to new markets through an investment in this new thing.

Will it work?
It will spend resources, it will give more of a view different from the internal thinking, and it will satisfy management and the Board of Directors. It is necessary, but not sufficient. Is there a better way? No one has found the answer as yet.

Frankly, for the next big thing, we’ll know it when we see it. Do you see any other "life-changing" technologies on the horizon besides those I've mentioned?

Fred Molinari is the former CEO of Data Translation, a pioneer in the business of PC-based data acquisition.