Winning and Losing In High-Stakes Technology

Special report

Everybody loves to be on a winning team. But how many of us have found ourselves bound hand and foot to a great white whale of a project—a grand adventure doomed to fail because it is rife with politics, or with incomplete assumptions, or with an overabundance of optimism unbridled by practical project planning, or because it has simply been overtaken by forces beyond its control?

There are lessons to be learned from both sides of the win/lose equation. How do projects go off the rails when they start out looking good, at least on paper? And what makes a successful project tick?

Technical prowess alone is not enough. It's all about the details: is the project in sync with the shifting shoals of government regulation, market competition, investor interest, politics, and, murkiest of all, the public zeitgeist?

These questions inspired this issue of IEEE Spectrum.

The winner and loser choices here reflect nothing more, or less, than the opinions of this magazine's staff. Starting in July, the editors begin making lists of ideas for the January winning and losing categories. Ideas come from many sources: interviews with IEEE members, senior members, and fellows, including Spectrum's editorial board members; interviews with non-IEEE sources such as analysts; published articles, news stories, Web sites, and projects the editors hear about while working on other stories. Then for the next month or so, we debate the lists at our weekly staff meetings. Overall, this year we considered more than 50 possibilities before coming up with our final list.

To pick the winning and losing projects, we judge their feasibility, and whether or not what they are trying to accomplish is worthwhile. We analyze projects in light of technical and technology-related factors: regulation, competition, relevant technology and market trends, and cost/benefit analysis.

For winners, we look for specific projects, not a company or a class of technology. The project must be in some sense novel. Its beneficial social, economic, or environmental outcomes outweigh any negatives. And the technology underlying the project must be proven to work, or at least be very likely to work. The likelihood of success must be evident from the fact that the project seems poised to capitalize on clear-cut trends in business, technology, society, or government.

Lose some (Apple Lisa 1). Win some (Apple iPod).

Our selection of losers will no doubt arouse the ire of some, especially when our objections appear founded on subjective issues that are related to technology, but that are not purely technological. But technology does not occur in a vacuum. It lives and dies by market, regulatory, and political factors.

The criteria for the losing category are, again, that it must be a specific project rather than a company or a class of technology and that it must be in some sense novel. But in this case the project or its technology has negative outcomes that outweigh any positives. Or, its poor chances of success are evident because the project is at odds with trends in its niche. Or the project's technology flat-out doesn't work, or seems to have a good chance of not working.

It's worth noting that by our selection of article topics every month, not just in January, we are constantly giving an implicit nod to endeavors we believe to be "winners"—and giving a thumbs down to those projects we criticize. If you find our choices utterly wrongheaded, we want to hear from you. We hope to provoke a debate on what makes a technology project succeed or fail.

Now to the fine print. The inclusion of a project here doesn't mean the IEEE or its organizational units or its members are endorsing or rejecting it.

As we said in last November's anniversary issue, over the last 40 years Spectrum has sometimes brilliantly predicted major tech breakthroughs and occasionally mistaken dross for gold. We hope we got it right here.

The editorial content of IEEE Spectrum magazine does not represent official positions of the IEEE or its organizational units. Please address comments to Forum at n.hantman@ieee.org.

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