Book Review

Uncommon Sense

Uncommon Sense: Out of the Box Thinking for An In the Box World, By Peter Cochrane, ISBN 1-84112-477-x, Published by Capstone, 2004,

A series of articles published in form the basis for this book, which looks at the effect that new technology has on business and its implications for society. In many ways it attacks conventional wisdom and forces a reevaluation of the effect of technology, often exposing flaws in the business logic that lead to many investments and decisions.

The book is aimed at technologists, managers, and professionals who are interested in change and progress, offering them a glimpse of the future. It is easy to read, with liberal use of figures and tables to aid understanding.


Cochrane begins by looking at the communication of ideas, particularly fairly complex and novel concepts. He notes the lack of agreement on the major concerns of the future and bemoans the handling of complex business and political topics—and the lack of engineering type rigour applied to their assessment. He suggests a much more rigorous modeling of complex business problems is required, especially of business processes, which are typically complex and inter-related, so treating them as isolated "stovepipes" is inappropriate and error-prone. Cochrane emphasises the need for nonlinear thinking.

Cochrane's analysis continues with an assessment of technology markets, not surprisingly beginning with the forces behind the dot-com bubble, with particular reference to the effect that the so-called new and old economies have had on each other. He suggests that short-term approaches, with their tendency to hit high-visibility symptoms and not the underlying commercial factors, are a barrier to progress. Cochrane reflects that whilst the dot-com boom is over, it is now clear that the online world has been very successful and has dragged the old world along in its wake.

The book then looks at change: considering the adoption of new technology and the impact effect of the Internet, comparing this new technology with the adoption of television. Cochrane spends a significant amount of time on both entertainment and learning. He examines topics as varied as security, the ease of movement of information across borders, and the role of specialist and general devices.

His assessment of security considers the range and rate of spread of threats and some advanced countermeasures such as biometrics. He considers the nature of change programmes and the harmful ways insensitive micromanagement can affect their progress.

Cochrane explores the role of the consumer in deciding which technical innovations survive, as exemplified by the growth of the American cable TV (CATV) market. He notes that most consumers have a fixed level of disposable income and new innovations allow them to redirect rather than increase their level of spending. Cochrane argues that this truth is reflected in the saturation within the mobile handset market and the dynamics seen between the media companies and new innovators such as Napster.

The penultimate collection of essays considers the speed of innovation. Cochrane notes that many consumers are suffering from "technology fatigue" and many products are suffering from "feature death." Here he discusses stagnation within the mobile market and disillusionment with the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), and Bluetooth. He notes that the adoption of technology is linked to the willingness of customers to pay.

Cochrane concludes by looking at leading-edge variables, including reliability, noting that this variable goes hand-in-hand with maturity, with the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) delivering extremely high levels of reliability and most modern IT solutions delivering considerably less. He makes this comparison a critical test of the five-nines availability claims of many new technology solutions. Cochrane looks at some more less-conventional ideas such as the replication of ant logic in IT systems and the possible future use of plasma screens and voice recognition as convenient input/output devices. He notes the increasing intelligence of devices, but also acknowledges that rapid communications and minimal hierarchy can triumph over better organised structures as demonstrated by protesters in France in 2000 and 2001.


Cochrane takes the reader through many contemporary technology developments and concerns and in the process invites his readers to form their own views. His mission is to "communicate the implications of what we have done, are doing and are about to do." In 50 short articles, delivered in 233 pages, it is possible for the author to cover only a small portion of a rapidly growing field, providing sufficient detail to appeal to the technologist without losing the bigger picture. He examines the implications of new technology for society and notes that the progress we are seeing means that we have to take on the new, changing the way we manage, operate, and govern our businesses as a result.

The Author

Peter Cochrane is the ex-BT Chief Technologist, who with a group of ex-Apple Computer technologists founded Concept Labs, where he advises a range of companies across the world. He has published widely, holds B.Sc., M.Sc., Ph.D., and D.Sc. degrees from Nottingham (Trent) and Essex Universities, is an Apple Master, and is a visiting professor at London, Essex, and Southampton Universities. He is best known for his incisive and often provocative views on the United Kingdom and world telecommunications industries.

—Edward Smith, BT, UK

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