We're getting close to the season of  giving, and, if you're anything like me (or my kids), that most often includes gadgets, many of which have a severely limited shelf life. In my house those gadgets start as piles that litter the floor space under the Christmas tree before eventually ending up cluttering every shelf of one of my two home office closets; I just can't bring myself to toss any of them. Like my 1918 Smith & Corona typewriter, I'm sure my Apple Newton will one day end up on Antiques Road Show. 

Few things illustrate how fast technology is moving and evolving as these artifacts of a three decade long pursuit of the leading edge of innovation. 

It got me to wondering what the hottest gadget this year would be and if there was some sort of invisible trend line that all of these gadgets were following, a trend that could have shown the way to the future but which, at the time, I couldn't grasp. Sure enough, one emerged. I've labeled it the "Christmas Reminders and Assorted Paraphernalia" that I couldn't live without trend. Yes, if you spotted the whimsical acronym it's not accidental, but the point here is a very serious one.

Predicting the future by the past

It seems that the tech gadgets which reach a Christmas list tipping point are among the best candidates for shaping the long-term trajectory of technology and our behaviors. 

Of course, drawing a trend line going back in time will always create a narrative that makes perfect sense. Kind of like going back and plotting the stock market . That's because when you look backwards there's only one path to the present--the one we took. However, when we look forward from the present the paths to the future are infinite. Still I was struck by the way the collective story line of these gadgets was so difficult to spot until very recently. 

Before I unveil the 2017 can't live without gift, think back to the early and mid-2000s. What were the really hot gifts that were on everyone's Christmas list? Here are a few that I came across in my personal archive:

  • The Nintendo DS, Xbox 360, and Wii, without which your home was simply not equipped for a family gathering unless everyone invited was old enough to play charades. 
  • The iPod, Nano, iPad, and the original iPhone, each an essential gift to demonstrate your tech savviness, lack of budgetary constraints, and adeptness at Angry Birds.  
  • Amazon's Kindle and DXG's first 10MP camera for under $200. If you've never heard of DXG you must have missed the Christmas of 2007.
  • A Garmin GPS. Yes, that was still the gold standard before smart phones became the GPS device of choice. 
  • And if you want to go back another decade to the dark ages at the end of the last millennium, there was the Palm VII, which came complete with its own flip out radio antenna for wireless communications. I thought flying cars and jetpacks couldn't be far behind! 

By the late 2000s the assortment of different gadgets had become comical. One company even began marketing an e-holster, a shoulder slung gun holster that was not intended for small arms but rather as a way to carry your many portable gadgets on your person at any one time. TSA security had no idea what to do with that. (eHolster still exists but with a somewhat less 007-like holsters.)

The most desirable gift of 2017 is... 

Fast forward to today. What's the hottest gift you could possibly find under your tree? I'll give you a hint, it's not an iPhone X. 

IBM recently released a new Watson app, Watson Trend, (see the video below) that uses AI to look at user sentiment and chatter to identify the hottest holiday gift of 2017. The #1 gift chosen by Watson gained twice as many points as the second most popular gift. And it was....... the Apple Watch. 

"So what," you say, "another silly gadget that will go from your wrist to the back of your closet." Probably; it's what happens to all technology, but there's a deeper significance to this and the trend I was referring to earlier?

What this says about the future isn't what you think

But Apple Watch is a flop, right? Not true. Although Apple is notoriously private about sharing data on Apple Watch sales, generally accepted numbers seem to agree that Apple Watch sold more units than the iPhone in its first year and it took the iPhone nearly five years to reach the same (estimated) quarterly sales of the Apple Watch after 3 years.

Yet, we find all sorts of reasons why a smart watch won't work. We did the same with cell phones. An AT&T sponsored McKinsey & Company study in 1980 projected 900,000 cell phones by 2000. That was les than 1% of the 109 million that were actually in use by 2000. Today there are over seven billion cell phones. 

We consistently underestimate the power of disruptive technology to change our behavior and then we underestimate the ability of new behavior to fuel the technology. It's why so few people predicted that Apple today sells more iPhones in a week than it did during the first year of the iPhone's introduction. 

Two things strike me, one that's fairly obvious and one that's a bit harder to project. 

The first is that it's our behaviors that have changed the most. We believe we cannot survive without a smartphone. Once a technology becomes impossible to live without it, it creates an immutable behavior that we cannot unlearn. It's why about 15% of us actually sleep with our phones--in our bed. That number more than doubles for millennials and Gen Z.  In addition, 80% of all smartphone users are never farther than three feet from their smartphone during any given 24 hour period.

The second is that the last 10 years of technology evolution have all been moving us closer to the development of a single unified device for capturing, recording, communicating, and sharing all of our digital experiences. The proliferation of smart phones was not due to a greater need for making phone calls, but rather it was the replacement of myriad separate technologies that had each become indispensable. As part of that trend the smartphone has become indispensable. How many times have you left your phone at home, in your hotel room, or outright misplaced it and then had a sudden panic attack? 

So, when you consider how tethered we are to our smartphones and how indispensable it has become the Apple Watch, especially if it's cell enabled, suddenly starts to make sense as the perfect platform from a behavioral standpoint since it is always attached to you.  

In fact, take a look at Apple's Apple Watch commercial to get a sense for how behavior is the central character in the story line, taking center stage over technology. The zero-g slow-mo effect at the end of the video is basically saying, "Try doing this with a smartphone!" 

The Apple Watch points to a future in which the technology becomes so synonymous with our behaviors that we will be unable to function as productive members of modern society without 24/7 access to it. 

The even better news? That pile of gifts will take up considerably less space under the tree and in my closets.