Gartner’s Hype Cycle 2017: A Familiar Curve for Ebooks

Stephen Cole discusses two "billion dollar froth-fests" in the short history of ebooks.

Gartner's Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies 2017
Gartner's Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies 2017 [Credit: Gartner, Inc]

George Walkley’s excellent innovation newsletter, Inflight Engineering, just highlighted Gartner’s report, Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies 2017. The report provides a cross-industry perspective on emerging technologies and trends. It argues that an emerging technology will typically pass through five stages before achieving broad adoption.

Here’s how Gartner explains the predictable phases of this cycle. The hype cycle drills down into the five key phases of a technology’s life cycle.

Innovation Trigger: A potential technology breakthrough kicks things off. Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven.

Peak of Inflated Expectations: Early publicity produces a number of success stories — often accompanied by scores of failures. Some companies take action; many do not.

Trough of Disillusionment: Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers of the technology shake out or fail. Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters.

Slope of Enlightenment: More instances of how the technology can benefit the enterprise start to crystallize and become more widely understood. Second- and third-generation products appear from technology providers. More enterprises fund pilots; conservative companies remain cautious.

Plateau of Productivity: Mainstream adoption starts to take off. Criteria for assessing provider viability are more clearly defined. The technology’s broad market applicability and relevance are clearly paying off.

The dramatic trend line in this chart certainly reflects our own experience with consumer ebooks[note]Scholarly ebooks cut a very different, more orderly trajectory[/note] over the last 17 years and leads me to think that, although the ebook might be in its Trough of Disillusionment, it is poised for sustainable growth.

There are good reasons for optimism. But first, what just happened? In the case of ebooks, the Peak of Inflated Expectations in 2014 was out of all proportion to the genuine consumer demand that existed before the Kindle came on the scene. Ninety per cent of the buzz that ebooks generated from 2008 was not generated by ebooks at all. It was paid for by Amazon.

In fact the real Peak occurred around 2001. Back then, every book fair and trade journal was crackling with hyper-expectation. Adobe, netLibrary[note]Spent $110 million between 1999 and 2001[/note] , Questia[note]$130 million[/note] , Barnes & Noble, Microsoft, Gemstar[note] Gemstar reportedly paid US$ 400 million for two nascent ebook devices in 2000[/note] and others splurged in an effort to own the promising ebook market.

But it soon became clear, especially to those who had invested in new, clumsy technologies, that people, mostly, didn’t want ebooks.

At BEA in May 2001 I met with the head of Adobe’s ebook effort. All around us were vast, glittering booths packed with bright young things in polo shirts touting their ebook solutions. I said, “Look, Tom, I think we might not be in the same league here. is only selling 40 ebooks a day.”

He paused and then replied, “Forty? Forty a day? Woah, no Stephen, that puts you at the top of the league.”

Until that moment, I’d assumed we were getting something wrong. Judging by the press releases, the air-punching and braggadocio of our gigantic competitors, it looked like they were flogging millions of those critters to growing hordes of avid ebook fans; fans who had overlooked But no. The full horror of what was unfolding dawned on me.

I’d been embarrassed to think I’d spent $2 million of our shareholders’ cash, only to be selling a trickle of ebooks. In the same few years, the startups and behemoths had burned over a billion dollars, with little more to show. It was a shouty, bragging train wreck.’s consumer sales grew from that low base in 2000 at an annual rate of 20%, relentlessly, until 2008 when we spiked significantly in the midst of another billion-dollar froth-fest.

To be continued…


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