One of the most illuminating busts from the dot-com bubble was the ill-fated Digiscents. The company was intent on turning the internet browsing experience into an olfactory one via the iSmell (no relation to Apple): If we were browsing an article about a forest, we would be able to smell the pine trees right there at our desktop. In its time, iSmell raised more than $20 million in venture capital and even produced a working prototype that looked something like a shark’s fin with holes, but it never got further than there.
By 2001, the company went bankrupt.
In retrospect, co-founder Joel Bellenson admitted that the iSmell was “too complicated” to ever get beyond prototyping and testing.
The iSmell is a important footnote in tech history, because if you attend any startup event, conference, or workshop in Asia today, there are still many would-be entrepreneurs channeling their energy into iSmell incarnates: products on the bleeding edge of technology that will unlikely have any real-world value.
These founders believe that the more radical their idea, the greater their chance is of succeeding. They want to discover. They want to invent. They want to light up the world like Thomas Edison finding the right filament.
We should not completely discount the value in radical, off-the-wall product ideas, as a minority of them will have some utility. But founders need to realise that they can often help more people by going from A to B than by leaping to Z. There is enormous value, in short, in incremental innovation, which often combines existing innovation in a new formula known as a convergence technology.
The problem is that many entrepreneurs do not even realise that some of the most beloved tech products are convergence technologies. As tech journalist Brian Merchant details in The One Device, the iPhone is one such example of a convergence technology. All of the technologies present in the original iPhone — the software, the hardware, and even the multi-touch — had long been in existence. Apple’s innovation, then, was in its unique integration of these elements. Contrary to popular belief, Steve Jobs did not invent the smartphone. Rather, he packaged it in such a way that magically tapped into mass popular appeal. He was as much an integrator as he was an innovator.
Convergence vs. moonshots
If more founders realised the value of convergence technologies, we might get more of the innovation that results from the marriage of disparate products and less of the moonshot ideas that might never make it past the dustbin. A quick scan of the tech ecosystem in Asia shows that some of the most successful companies are built around convergence technologies.
Take Promogo, for example, which was just this week acquired by Go-Jek. All of its component technologies were widely available. Car wrap advertising is common. In-vehicle entertainment and advertising via a tablet is also common. And dashboard analytics are a staple of any modern enterprise-grade solution. Promogo’s innovation is in combining these elements into an ad-tech solutions ecosystem that was valuable enough to merit interest from one of the biggest tech companies in Southeast Asia.
Even companies that appear on the bleeding edge of tech in Asia may actually derive their innovation in convergence of technologies. One such example is Pundi X out of Indonesia, whose technological line is well-established. There are many other crypto cards (be they debit or credit). There are many digital point-of-sale devices. There are also many crypto payment processors. But no company combines these technologies into a crypto payments ecosystem quite like Pundi X, and the proof is in their traction.
Deep into a global rollout of more than 100,000 devices, Pundi’s XPOS allows any user to transact with crypto. All they need to do is pay with their Pundi XPASS card at a designated terminal, and they’re using crypto in-store as easily as they would with a mobile wallet or debit card. Pundi X has already been deployed at such locations as FAMA Group eateries in Hong Kong and to almost 30,000 festival-goers at Ultra Taiwan 2018 – there is significant utility, in short, in convergence technology.
That some of Asia’s brightest companies are already succeeding with convergence technology should not underestimate how difficult it is. Dreaming up any product requires imagination, yes, but seeing how different technologies can be combined requires even bolder imagination. You must grab disparate pieces and fit them together jigsaw-like into a product, solution, or ecosystem that creates a sum greater than their individual parts. In other words, entrepreneurs must perform the magic of making one plus one equal three.
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