Canadian Investment Review

Technology Hits and Misses

Written by Scot Blythe on Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017 at 5:01 pm

square pegWhen he was a fund manager, Duncan Stewart owned a company in the public-key encryption business that was worth more than a billion dollars at its peak. Their implementation of that technology turned out to be an enormous success — it underlies almost all secure mobile transactions. However, the valuation of Stewart’s company tumbled to $30 million, before getting acquired for $100 million. The problem wasn’t the technology; it was that no one made that much money at it.

Stewart, now director of research, technology, media and telecommunications, Deloitte Canada, contrasts himself with the usual run of motivational speakers who talk about new technologies: he calls himself a “de-motivational speaker.” He takes the example of consumer 3-D printing — “a factory in every home” which many said would take off in 2015. But, he notes, “a device that costs around $1000 to buy, takes 40 hours to learn how to use properly, needs to be recalibrated every time you set it up, and then takes between eight to 10 hours to make a small piece of crappy plastic is not the next great consumer technology of the future.”

The consumer market for these printers has collapsed, but they are still very useful in the business market.

There are other hits and misses according to other forecasters.

One thing characteristic of the misses is that they neglect the human dimension. That encompasses the fate of the printed book — which was supposed to succumb to e-readers. And it may tell against virtual reality devices. It’s one thing to don a helmet for 20 minutes to play a video game; it’s another to lug it home to watch TV with family and friends for hours at a time.

One problem in the virtual reality headset industry is that it seems to appeal almost exclusively to men: “toys for boys.” That’s not to dismiss enterprise applications. Stewart sees considerable interest for virtual reality applications in the real estate industry, for example.

The human dimension is also at work in the adoption of mobile devices. Where people thought consumers would abandon their PCs in favour of tablets, surprisingly, the traditional laptop and PC have managed to survive. Indeed, tablet sales are falling sharply, expected to be down almost a third in 2017 compared to the peak in 2014.

To be sure, younger people in particular use banking applications on their smartphones, mainly to quickly check account balances and transfer money. But for other transactions, they seem to prefer a traditional computer with the bigger screen and keyboard.

As Stewart puts it: “Do you use your mobile banking app
on your phone to check your balance? Sure. Do you use it to transfer money over to a friend? Sure. Do you use it to look at three months’ worth of credit card statements on a four-inch screen? Are you out of your mind?”

For financial services, there are the big decisions — how to invest or, at later stages, how to manage an estate, remain the purview of face-to-face interactions. “The role of human beings — which is not to minimize that robo-advisors will be a part of the landscape — but especially for young people, handholding and experience are just absolutely critical,” he says.

And that perhaps gets to the nub of tech hype: “The global technology industry is a junkie, it needs its fix, which is why they’re pushing at you that everything is going to be the next big thing.”

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