They Promised Me Jetpacks! What SaaS Product Teams Can Learn from Predicting the Future

Brent Sleeper
Oct. 31, 2018 by Brent Sleeper

Where Will Your Product Be in 30 Years?

Ken Norton is passionate about helping product teams thrive and do great work. A former product exec for Google, Yahoo!, and others, today he’s a partner at GV. Ken recently published a thoughtful (and thought-provoking) essay that challenges the horizons product teams typically use when building a vision for their product. In his view, SaaS and other technology businesses ought to be looking a lot further down the road when it comes to strategic planning. Thirty years ahead, in fact.

At first blush, that seems ridiculous. How can product teams make any reasonable prediction that far ahead? (After all, there are times when even anticipating changes 30 days ahead seems a bit challenging.)

But the point of taking the long view is not to predict what specifically our technology will look like in 2048. We’re almost certainly bound to get it wrong. Author Daniel Wilson has a particular love of pop culture futurism. As his hands-on advice in How to Survive a Robot Uprising makes clear, past futurists predicted all manner of great inventions and technology that still do not exist, from teleportation to self-contained skycraper cities, hoverboards, and moon colonies.

So what’s the alternative to wide-eyed science fantasy? Ken points to Facebook’s approach as an example for modern software teams: Facebook’s roadmap addresses concrete features and upgrades for six months out, but no further. But after every round of updates, they take a serious look at how the industry landscape is changing, and where they want Facebook to be in 30 years—and then iterate their roadmap based on that outlook.

It’s an approach that embraces the fact that technology is a shifting landscape, driving and affecting even larger landscapes around it.

As Ken points out, this approach makes a crucial distinction between a product roadmap and a product vision:

We want to think about the external forces that will shape the feature, not the features derived from them. This is also about forecasting, not predicting. 

What Will Email Engagement Look Like in 2048?

For SaaS teams and others who rely on email to drive user engagement, a 30-year horizon might seem especially fraught. It’s easy to assume that nothing—or everything—about email will change. After all, email’s a well-established, proven technology. And besides, who knows how those crazy kids in 2048 will engage with their bionic social implants.

To get some perspective, let’s step into our email WABAC Machine and rewind 30 (and more) years ago.

Wayback Machine

Considering how email has evolved over that time gives some helpful perspective to the idea of looking forward to distant horizons. And it might help today’s SaaS product teams consider—or even drive—opportunities we’re barely able to imagine today.

The Future of Email… in 1962

History tells us that email was first developed in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson. From a technology perspective, that might seem an eternity ago. Yet it was even earlier, in 1962, that two different publications forecast the next half-century of technology transformation, foreshadowing email’s place in it.

First was Everett Rogers’ publication of his book Diffusion of Innovations, which gave us the first “tipping point” model for new technology adoption.

The key point Rogers made? That technology adoption is societal, and reaching a true technological tipping point is the product of the convergence of a lot of different factors. Big-picture prognostications and transformative trends are usually only realized when incremental progress happens on a lot of fronts, and the timing is right for a convergence to drive change.

The second example was contemporaneous with—but assuredly not informed by—Professor Rogers’ tome. It gives us a fascinating bookend to his insights. In 1962, the comic strip Our New Age posited a radical vision of the future of mail delivery and user engagement.


Our New Age is a great example of credulous, jet-packs-for-everyone futurism. But I don’t share it just for laughs. Both of these ideas from 1962—how massive transformations take place, and imagining possible outcomes on how we live or work—are necessary parts of creating an effective 30-year vision.

Or, to put it another way, an entire generation of engineers and technologists were kids in the 1960s, growing up witnessing the real-world innovations behind the Apollo program while also absorbing the promises of Star Trek. In large regard, they’re the people who shaped the world we live in today.

Even if Captain Kirk never opened an email. Or had a social media account.

30+ Years of the Future, in Hindsight

Let’s take a walk through the history of email to see what kind of predictions would have seemed too off-the-wall or ambitious to make at various points along the way.

1969: Email was possible thanks to the launch of ARPANET, of course.  The first successful ARPANET message was a UCLA student programmer, Charley Kline, at 10:30 pm PST on October 29, 1969. The first successful message? The word login. Not surprisingly, an earlier attempt had sent the l and o, but the system had crashed. So it could be said “lo” was the first fateful word sent over what would become the Internet.

1971: Besides inventing email in 1971, Ray Tomlinson made another important decision: He used “@” to separate the username from the computer name, which later became the domain.  Before he came up with this, messages could only be sent to separate users on the same computer.

  • Who could have predicted? That as of 2017, there would be over 6 billion email accounts worldwide, sending over 3 billion legitimate emails per hour.

1973: ARPANET makes its first trans-Atlantic data connection to the Unversity College of London. The GDPR. was not even a gleam in anyone’s eye at that point. By that time, 75% of ARPANET’s traffic consisted of email.

1975: John Vittal at USC lays a cornerstone by developing the first modern email program, MSG. Two key features? The inclusion of the “reply” and “forward” functions.

1978: Gary Thuerk of DEC sends out the first unsolicited commercial email message to 400 California ARPANET users. Outrage ensues, but as he recalled later, “we sold $13 million or $14 million worth” of VAX computer systems because of his first-ever spam.

  • Who could have predicted? That 48% of email traffic in 2018 would be spam, though it’s seen a steady decline from the 71% seen in mid-2014.

1989: Lotus Notes email software is released.

1991: ISPs arise, allowing widespread Internet access, but the creation of the World Wide Web that same year opened far wider horizons.

1993: IDM and BellSouth launch the first PDA-functioning cellphone, a 20 ounce device priced at $900 that was a phone, a calculator, a fax machine, email device, and pager – all in one! Sign us up.

  • Who could have predicted? That one day the most valuable company in the world would have a $1 trillion valuation, built mainly on its iteration of the “cellphone” – or that this Goliath would be Apple?

1996: Microsoft releases Internet Mail and News 1.0 as part of Internet Explorer; the application is later renamed Outlook. Hotmail, meanwhile, offers free email service that’s available anywhere. The next year, Microsoft buys them up for $400 million.

1988: One of the first major Internet worms, “The Morris Worm,” is unleashed, caused major service interruptions and paving the way for the unceasing stream of malicious attachments and attacks that plague us to this day.

2003: The RIM 850 and 857 BlackBerrys get released, focusing on email to such a successful extent it disrupts the entire mobile landscape.

2004: The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act of 2003 goes into law. The same year, the Sender Policy Framework (SPF) is introduced, providing an email validation system for preventing spam.

2007: The first-generation iPhone is released, supported by an entirely new ecology for downloading new functions and apps, including email clients.

  • Who could have predicted? That the mobile app economy would be projected to be worth $6.3 trillion by 2021, with a user base of 6.3 billion…and that email would be a fundamental part of SaaS app providers’ success?

2018: Wearable tech, smart homes, digital assistants, and more are the next big thing. But are they the future?

The Future’s So Bright

The iPhone and subsequent mobile tech have driven the most recent turning point for email. Ubiquitous smart and wearable devices (and let’s be clear: today’s Alexa and Siri, or Fitbits and Apple Watches are just the start) might be the next chapter in how we interact with and understand email. Still, let’s not assume we know what that looks like. Three-year or 5-year product plans that claim to know the answer really are a roll of the dice, as Ken Norton might agree.

Certainly, anyone still waiting for personal jetpacks knows that it’s impossible to predict technology innovation with much specificity 30 years out. But defining your product’s or company’s mission in terms of a 30-year strategic vision might well be what helps make your mark.

Consider leaders like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, or Marc Benioff; they defined their companies’ value propositions not in terms of specific product features, but rather the existential benefits they bring to customers’ lives. Even as the tech, form, and scope of the products their companies sell today are far evolved from the initial ideas they pitched, each can credibly say their 30-year vision remains true.

And email? Many functional and implementation aspects of email have changed dramatically over the past 30 or more years, but its core value has adapted to new contexts and capabilities. SaaS product teams and growth hackers have applied it to new applications, and how they build engagement, relationships, and trust with their users. Yet it remains, as it ever was, a universal, connected, and open platform for communication.

What’s your product team’s 30-year plan? I’d love to hear how you define that vision. And I’ll email you when my jetpack arrives.

Brent

 

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