It’s about our rate of innovation

In just two days Media Evolution The Conference begins in Malmö, Sweden. This blog post is about one of the themes of the conference that strikes me close to heart as a futurist – Man & Machine.

I’m writing this on a train, on my way to meet both colleagues, acquaintances and people I’ve so far only heard of but never met. For myself and most people this is something we look forward to. We love to meet, talk, exchange thoughts and ideas.

The same drive, true since the human race was spread out in pockets on the Sahara savannah (which wasn’t a desert back then), is one of the reasons us humans love to go to conferences, to pick up the phone, to read blog entries like this one. We’re simply the chatty animal.

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Creativity surplus as virtual work

In the spring of 2008 I sat in the audience at Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, watching Clay Shirky on stage. His talk about the cognitive heat sink, on how television had disrupted humanity from spending large parts of our time on being creative, on producing things we wanted to produce, to being simple receivers of information pre-packaged by someone else made a huge impact. Shirky compared the amount of hours we spend watching TV with projects like Wikipedia, and hinted at a future where instead of watching TV we would use our creativity to create other projects like it.

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Porous Companies

I recently tweeted that I love working at a big consumer facing company. I’ve been lucky in that in many of the places I’ve worked I’ve been able to interact directly with the people using what I’ve produced, but at the same time I feel that I’ve been unlucky in that I haven’t always been able to receive when they’ve wanted to reciprocate.

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Unwillingly disconnected

I recently made a comment in a thread on future developments in bio technology with the view that I already consider myself to be technically augmented. Thanks to my mobile and its always-on connection to the Internet I have access not only to global human knowledge, but to my social circles and situational as well as location based information at the point of need.

Actually, that’s only true most of the time. When traveling, although there are some exceptions, that augmentation of mine is cut off. I become disconnected – and it hurts.

I’m writing this while on a train, which is one of the more positive traveling experiences. My mobile is connected throughout the trip, and if the train company offers WiFi (or I bring my mobile broadband) my laptop is as well. Since the train manages to arrive at my destination without needing my constant attention and guidance, I can also write blog posts like this one. Let’s claim that trains fulfill two of the three needs I’ve identified as being important when traveling – and let me get back to what they are in more detail later.

Tomorrow I’m going to catch a plane to Munich, where I will participate in a panel on Thursday with a topic related to this blog post. I fly quite a lot. When in an air plane, being connected becomes more complicated. We’re told to turn our mobiles off (with dubious motivation, but that’s a topic for another time) and to only use non-wireless equipment while in the air. To be fair, there are some airlines now offering in-flight WiFi, but it’s still an exception. I’d say flying currently only fulfills one, maybe two, of the three needs we have when traveling.

The conference I’m going to be at is Telematics Munich, an event focusing on the in-car digital environment. I like cars. I’ve had a driver’s license for about 18 years now and for most of that time I’ve commuted daily by car. For traveling, it’s a strange environment. While passengers in a car have a similar experience to passengers on a train, it’s quite hard to be connected as a driver. There’s no problem with the actual connection to the Internet, but since constant attention is needed to stay (safely) on the road there’s a struggle of concentration. Some research claims that the dangers we associate with using mobiles when driving is actually due to the shift in attention, and while headsets and voice commands allow us to at least have our hands free it’s still not optimal, and this is an area where I project a lot of future development to take place (not only self-driving cars, as is being researched by our friends at Google). Driving, currently, can be said to barely fulfill a single one of the three needs we have when traveling.

In my view, those needs are:

1) Being connected [to the Internet]
2) Having available attention [to act upon events]
3) Reciprocating information [about the travel itself]

This third need is barely being tapped into at the moment, and this is where I see very fertile grounds for new ideas and new business opportunities. One of the first well executed solutions I came in contact with was Waze, the crowd sourced navigation service. It feels quite natural that it’s the current speed with which you can travel on a specific road that’s important – not the speed limit or historic data. The current road conditions being easily crowd sourced from the very ones currently traveling on that road, and easily collected through their Internet connected mobiles.

But what about all the other dynamic conditions around us when traveling? Seatguru helps me select good seats when flying, but how can I find out where the currently shortest queue is for the bathrooms? Is there fresh coffee in the bistro on this train right now? Do I know the persons in the car in the other lane up ahead?

Let’s call it social. It’s either the perfect use of an otherwise overused term, or it’s at least the best one I could find. I want traveling to become more social, dynamically, at the point of need, where everybody reciprocates.

This is what I want to discuss in my panel at Telematics Munich. I’m currently on the first leg of a train-flight-car trip to get there.

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From dumb to open, made for TV

In the mobile business it’s common to hear statements like “smartphone adoption happening faster than predicted”. In that specific case the fallacy is likely that of mistaking Internet devices and smartphones for the same thing, but the shift in itself is interesting. Consumers are moving en masse from devices that could mostly only do one or a few things well to open devices that satisfy our needs to connect.

I predict the same thing happening not only to the small screens in our pockets, but our big screens hanging on our walls. The thing we still call “TV”, which even with the latest sets that can connect to specific Internet services, is pretty non-smart.

Depending on where you live (and if you’re an early adopter), you’ve either upgraded once or twice over the last ten years. One move to flat screens and one to HDTV, or both upgrades at the same time. The industry is at the moment in the startup phase of another upgrade, to 3D.

I claim that 3D is not the next must-have feature, the one that will get consumers to upgrade their sets again. I claim openness – the same disruptive shift that is currently happening in the mobile industry – is about to happen to the TV industry as well. 3D will tag along, the actual device tech is not that much more expensive if you’re going through the early adopters once again, but it will not be in the driver’s seat.

Disruptive shifts are hard to predict, and they cause havoc in the market place. Established truths and important players might get switched around, and existing predictions get thrown off the mark. That is, the exact same thing as we’re currently seeing in what’s – in error – called the “smartphone bloodbath” by Tomi Ahonen (who is otherwise my first stop when I need numbers!).

Current predictions of the potential size of the 3D TV market are based on consumers reacting to the 3D proposition itself. If you throw complete openness in to the mix, where the big screens on our walls become as intelligent as the small screens in our pockets are becoming, I’d claim the size of that market – as well as the speed of its creation – is severely underestimated.

Openness will fuel the next TV upgrade cycle. It will, as usual, be quite disruptive.

PS: Don’t miss out on the additional discussion seen in the comments below!

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When geolocation tries too hard

Disclaimer: Some of the information in this post is speculation from my part on how the Foursquare system works. I’d be happy to include any necessary corrections.

I’ve been a somewhat avid user of the two competing location check-in services Gowalla and Foursquare for quite some time. They’re similar enough for me to be able to pretty much use them both in the same way.

Until last week, while on vacation in Protaras, Cyprus. When I was visiting different establishments in Protaras town and couldn’t find them in one or either of the services, I – as usual – added them myself. Oddly enough, Foursquare kept telling me after I had added some of the places that I was too far from them to be able to check in (or, get the points and badges for the check-ins at least).

Being of an investigative mind, I started thinking about what could be the cause, and came upon the following explanation. In their effort to curb cheating, Foursquare matches my geo coordinates to street addresses, and then does a reverse lookup on the address they got and match it back to my coordinates when I try to check in.

That system likely works well where the service they use to match coordinates to street addresses is of high enough granularity, but causes the problem I experienced in areas less detailed. In Protaras, the main street is a mile or so long and all locations are matched to “Protaras Main St”. The reverse geo lookup for that main street results in coordinates placed in the middle of its full length – and thus whenever you’re at an establishment at the beginning or end of the street, Foursquare’s cheat detection system kicks in.

This, then, becomes somewhat funny when you’re the one that just created the venue seconds before – as my recent tweet on the subject tried to capture:

While this specific example has a simple solution – anyone who just created a venue at a certain geographic location is likely at that certain geographic location no matter what the street address reverse lookup says – the point I’m trying to make is that while our automated systems keep getting smarter there are instances where we’re sometimes trying too hard. When we do, if there’s no possibility for the user of the system to correct the automation we cause frustration. Since we’re increasingly relying on crowd sourcing in mapping the world around us there’s very little room for frustrated users.

When context awareness and expert systems work, we seldomly notice them. When they fail, the result is often worse compared to not having tried at all.

It looks like you’re writing a letter. Would you like help?

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Sony Ericsson at Web 2.0 Expo New York

Sony Ericsson Web 2.0 Expo New York booth

Sony Ericsson Web 2.0 Expo New York booth

As you might’ve seen if you follow me on Twitter –
@troed – I’m at the Web 2.0 Expo conference in New York this week. While some of my thoughts on the conference are in my tweets, more will come when my hotel gets the Internet back up working (or I get back home) – but until then there’s one observation I’d like to share.

I now know why some believed teenagers weren’t using Twitter.

Web 2.0 safety sign

;)

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Speed of Innovation

A basic problem when trying to project a possible future is defining some sort of metric relevant to the area you’re researching. In this post, I’m going to detail one such metric that I find interesting when looking at the future of [mobile] software platforms – Speed of Innovation.

No matter where you happen to work, it’s a sure bet to claim that the majority of innovation in operating system features (scheduler advances, memory allocation algorithms), applications (music players, games) and services (location based wikis, streaming media) comes from others. When not affiliated in a way that makes the choice of for you, you tend to choose a system where you have easy access to make modifications – often Linux and other unix derivates.

Open source is a bit like basic research in that there’s no immideate economical benefit for the person(s) sharing innovations with others, but everyone knows that building a better common base allows for greater later innovations (similar to applied research).

Thus, once innovation has happened – and it’s likely it will have happened on an open source system – it will spread to similar or compatible systems. If someone were to publish a better process scheduler, it would quickly spread to platforms where no or very small changes to the original invention are needed.

These platforms would score higher on the Speed of Innovation criteria.

Now, of course it’s possible to duplicate all the innovation (according to some measure of relevance) to a proprietary platform, but it’s quite expensive (and more so the larger the differences from the original). This can be quite hard to accept if you’re a company with an existing large investment into a proprietary system, but as Seth Godin says – we must ignore sunk costs.

Now, not everything has to do with low level operating system APIs. There’s been a shift towards open third party development lately, especially on the smartphones-that-aren’t-smartphones. This has happened partly due to a change in turnaround times from development to getting the application into the hands of actual users (via app stores) but also due to an increase in platform capabilities and better development environments. The future in this area is projected to be what’s called web application development, web apps, and thus in the Speed of Innovation metric we need to take that change into account as well.

Interestingly, it’s the same thing. There’s one web component available, open source, where much of the innovation in the field tends to happen – Webkit. As detailed above, that component is available on unix platforms and if you’re already working with such a platform all new developments benefit your system with no or minimal changes.

Combining an open platform where much code already exists with a modern web engine and display framework and you get a platform where third party innovation will happen at a rapid pace. So rapid, it suddenly becomes less interesting to look at actual support for feature X today, and instead plot a trajectory where feature X is likely to have been supplied by someone, within a certain time frame.

It’s thus less a game of writing long lists of requirements, and more a game of simply (hah) projecting general technological development. Us futurists love to do that. For everyone else:

If you’re a developer, you want to be where you can fulfill your vision.

If you’re a consumer, you want to be where you can do what you want to do.

If you’re a handset manufacturer, you need to be where that innovation happens.

Android™ by Sony Ericsson – the XPERIA™ X10

Android is a trademark of Google Inc. Use of this trademark is subject to Google Permissions.

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It’s not about smartphones

For a long time we (meaning manufacturers, analysts and marketing entities) have divided mobile phone devices up into two categories, so called feature phones and smartphones. There’s also been an implicit “budget” category consisting of feature phones with, less, features.

Since some time back, I’d claim this has changed. There are now devices on the market that are used in a different way, signifying a disruptive shift in what’s usually known as the mobile phone industry. The common denominator between the categories I just brought up is the word phone, while these new devices are seen as something else.

Enter well known usability expert Jakob Nielsen, whose research into mobile web experience divides the device market up into three categories instead; feature phones, smartphones and touch phones.

While touch phones as a name indeed describes most of these devices on the market today, most existing touch devices haven’t got the usability Nielsen is referring to and it’s also likely that other forms of navigation than strictly touch is possible. Thus, there ought to be a better name for them. I like MID, short for Mobile Internet Device, since I believe these new devices to have shifted the primary use case from being phones to being windows to the Internet.

The addition of a new category, where the dividing line is both the usability [of the web] as well as a new primary purpose [Internet, not phone calls] causes some change looking at the existing industry. These devices are still viewed from an analyst perspective as being smartphones, and thus we see interesting headlines on who sells the most smartphones on the market vs who makes the most money on these devices, without realising that it’s an apples vs oranges thing [slight pun intended].

I was one of the original designers of the Sony Ericsson P800, a device that with the tech available then (2002) could be seen as being one of the first to [try to] create this new experience, but they would still not be in the same category. Something else has changed.

Working at a mobile manufacturer, especially with research, means you sometimes find yourself using a device that might be a bit, ehrm, unstable. That recently happened to me, and I found myself in the pretty interesting situation of carrying a device that restarted itself in the middle of phone calls. All of them.

Still, I kept using the device – something I wouldn’t have done a few years ago. It turns out my primary purpose of carrying a small digital device with me is not about making phone calls any more, it’s about being connected to the Internet at large – in a way that is both easy to use and optimized for an Internet/web experience.

This also indicates another problem with naming them just touch phones, or touch devices. To be able to be a true window to the Internet means that I should be able to perform all the activities I’m used to, while mobile. Adding touch to what is otherwise a feature phone, or just using a smartphone, doesn’t give me the same experience since the device limits what I’m able to do, in one way or another (lack of third party applications, or restricted third party applications). Openness, is the last dividing factor.

These devices have an active aftermarket experience. I can count on – even expect – the Internet services I’m using to be reachable with excellent usability either through the web or through low-cost (even free) applications, produced by anyone with a minimum of creation and publishing effort.

Thus, a new category of devices has been born. They’re not smartphones, they’re something else. And we love them.

For more on how open source and openness will enable a shift in speed of innovation in the mobile arena, please come and listen to my presentation on the Future of Open Source in Mobile, at OSiM Amsterdam 15-16 of September

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