What Separates Winners From Losers?

You tell us whether these 7 emerging technologies will flourish or fizzle

3 min read
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Photo: Erik Dreyer/Getty Images

You win only if you aren't afraid to lose, as the saying goes. And as anyone working in volatile, fast-moving, highly competitive tech areas knows, many projects fail. That includes the wow project, the sure thing, and even the practically guaranteed King Kong of killer apps. It is not a game for the faint of heart.

So here we go again. For the third year, we have compiled a list of winning and losing technologies. We scrutinized more than 50 risky, innovative projects to try to understand what makes some projects succeed and others fail. We've come up with five winners, five losers, and a new category, “You Tell Us." These are projects where we were stumped about what the outcome would be. For these, especially, we're interested in your opinion—tell us if they're winners or losers, and why. To weigh in, write to us at spectrum@ieee.org. We want to continue the debate on what makes technology projects succeed or fail.

Novel technologies crash and burn for countless reasons. Their intended markets are too crowded or don't even exist yet. Sometimes the projects are based on beautiful ideas that, sadly, don't translate into technologies that anybody really needs. They may be too expensive, or worse yet, not really work. Underestimates of how much time and money it will take to bring fabulous technologies to market have doomed many projects. Then, too, the list of technologies swept away by uncontrollable market shifts is incredibly long. And every now and again, there are the inevitable “brushes with stupiditsliney," in the words of U.S. television talk-show host David Letterman.

To restate the obvious: the winner and loser choices here are the opinions of this magazine's staff. Every July, we begin making lists of ideas for the winning and losing categories. Ideas come from many sources: interviews with IEEE members, senior members, and Fellows, including IEEE Spectrum's Editorial Board members, as well as interviews with other, non-IEEE sources. Candidates are also chosen from published articles, news stories, Web sites, and projects the editors hear about while working on other stories. Then, for the next couple of months, we discuss the lists at our weekly staff meetings. For the first time this year, to complete the process, we used an informal board of advisors to vet our pared-down list and help guide our final selections.

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

We look for specific projects, not for a company or a class of technology. The project must be in some sense novel. Its beneficial social, economic, or environmental outcomes must outweigh any negatives. The technology underlying the project also has to be proven or at least has to appear extremely likely to work.

Losers, too, must be in some sense novel. But in this case the project's technology struck us as having likely negative outcomes that outweigh any possible positives. Or, its poor chances of success seemed evident to us because, for example, the project appeared to be at odds with trends in its niche. Or the project's technology simply looked suspect.

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

As you read about our winners and our losers and the intriguing projects in the “You Tell Us" category, remember that in the great game of technology, you can't win big unless you're willing to fail, and, indeed, probably have failed already. With that in mind, we salute everybody involved with the projects described in this issue—win, lose, or draw. These people had the guts to believe in something and accept the risks and tumult of trying to bring it to fruition. They're an inspiration to us all.

The editorial content of IEEE Spectrum 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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