Well actually it’s a rubbish report on broadband in general but it’s a classic effort nonetheless. It names and shames, it’s timely and it’s not holding back. I suspect it’s simply a vehicle to get a few names in the news, but it could have a darker side. I don’t know.
It’s clearly negative overall and will by its nature and timing get attention. People will jump on board and say “I told you so”, just like they’ve done with global climate change, the Y2K bug and the Ozone hole. But of course the yea-sayers were actually right about both the ozone issue as well as the year 2000 problem, so they may well be right about climate change, too. And unlike climate change we actually did something about ozone depletion and Y2K remediation. Indeed so successful were we at fixing these problems that loony revisionists can now sit back and say “there was no problem after all”. Well there was, folks.
So what’s wrong with fatter pipes and faster broadband? Well read this and the original report and come back.
Done? OK, let’s try some quotes and pick it apart a little.
Firstly, I can’t be bothered with Peter Martin’s summary as it adds nothing and just focuses on the local political aspect (gosh, did Rudd pick his figures carefully? Shock!) rather than looking at whether or not the report stacks up overall.
Instead I’ll just look at the “working paper” by Kenny and Kenny.
So who are Kenny and Kenny? A pair of brothers, apparently. Robert Kenny calls himself a telecoms and media consultant with “Communications Chambers”. Whatever that is. His brother Charles Kenny is a ‘Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development’ and a ‘Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation’. Now a brief search fails to find “Communications Chambers”, so it may be new or keeps a low profile. That’s a worry, either way.
At least the Center for Global Development is easy to find and confirms Charles Kenny to be a real person with more than a little cred in the area of technology and global development. Similarly the New America Foundation exists and Charles again appears to stack up. A bit reassuring.
Along the way I found that Stuart Corner describes Robert Kenny as a member of “Communications Chambers a UK based “association of leading experts in the fields of telecoms, media and technology [that] advise on issues of strategy, policy and regulation.” He has previously held senior roles in strategy and/or M&A for Hongkong Telecom, Reach and Level 3 and was a founder of IncubASIA, a Hong Kong based venture capital firm investing in online businesses. His brother Charles is a development economist working in Washington DC.”
So that’s the background as I see it.
On with the show.
The working paper itself is called “Superfast: Is It Really Worth a Subsidy?”. So immediately the authors are making a judgement by labelling the enabling fibre technology “superfast“, rather than objectively calling it fibre or fibre to the home or optic fibre or a host of alternatives that simply describe an enabling technology that equates to a fatter data pipe to homes, hospitals and businesses, etc etc. It’s not even simply fast, it’s super-fast, like a jet or a fast car. OTOH I have no problem with questioning the subsidy-side of things.
Having said that, in the local Aussie case of the NBN the business case suggests that whilst the taxpayer will stump up to kick off it stands a good chance of being self-sustaining over the longer term. And I tend to believe that in essence it will at least pay its way. So ‘subsidy’ is actually moot.
Now the executive summary basically calls into question the whole point of going beyond “basic broadband” and poo-poos the idea that going ‘faster’ means anything at all, based on existing data. From this summary, we know that broadband is better than dial up, but they ask why should we expect ‘better broadband’ to be better again? Why should we assume that we will even use it? Why indeed assume we’ll use it for such things as home working when this will necessitate a change in our social behaviour?
All good questions, but they have equally obvious answers too. Why wouldn’t we use it when we’ve used other improved networks, be they roads, rail or broadband? Haven’t we seen a shift to home working and greater remote accessibility to work, government services, medical records and so on already, and why wouldn’t we expect that to grow? And if we do nothing but add users to existing broadband will it not simply slow that service down? Can we afford to risk doing nothing?
Another point raised is that competing technologies may overtake optic fibre – which is indeed always possible. But optic fibre has been the king of this arena since at least the 1980s – and has withstood every challenge so far. How long do we wait?
I particularly note this dot-point in the executive summary: “Frequently business or government applications, such as remote medical imaging, are used to make the case for FTTH. But these applications require fiber to certain major buildings, not to entire residential neighborhoods (and these buildings often have high speed connections already)”.
Which seems to misunderstand the whole argument for fibre to the home. Hospitals and government departments may well have big pipes already but we are talking about changing the way we do things, not keeping the status quo. The question is how do we get high-speed medical imaging into local doctors surgeries, not just the big city hospitals? How do we get it into the homes of the ill and the elderly in suburbia, as well as to remote or even regional locations where doctors are scattered thinly and patients face hundreds of kilometres of travel? Will enhanced copper or wireless cut the mustard now, let alone in 30 years time?
They also make an unsupported statement in the summary: “A decade ago telcos wasted billions of shareholders’ money on telecoms infrastructure that was well ahead of its time – governments are now in danger of doing the same with taxpayers’ money.”
That may well be true – they don’t clearly reference the comment so I can’t check exactly what they mean – but presumably the competitive commercial pressure to roll out the cable or wireless technologies that drove this “wasted” investment was an enabler for the current broadband, pay-TV and mobile cellular phone networks that we use today.
So while it may arguably have been “ahead of its time”, was it “wasted”? If it resulted in unnecessary duplication, maybe. If it could have been spent more wisely on other opportunities, perhaps. But don’t say it’s fact unless you can prove it. And why would government investment in FTTH broadband be considered the same sort of “waste” as duplicated, rushed investment in premature, risky technologies, when fibre is far from the technological risk that is alluded to and hardly an unproven technology?
The introduction really takes the cake, comparing Concorde with FTTH. Flashy, risky, fast – and presumably doomed. To quote: “All else equal, faster is better – surely. But faster technologies don’t always triumph; think of passenger hovercraft, maglev trains, and suspersonic airliners.”
Well it’s not equal at all. Comparing individual transportation devices like hovercrafts and Concorde with a network of fibre optic cable is misleading and at best quite bizarre. Such individual devices are fixed-size objects of great risk and complexity that have little in common with a well-proven fibre technology roll-out. It’s not apples with apples, is it?
The report goes on: “These technologies didn’t fail because they weren’t superior, but because the demand wasn’t there, or was insufficient to justify cost. Concorde (if it hadn’t retired) would still be the fastest passenger aircraft today, having first flown in 1969. At the time it was being developed, supersonic passenger flight was expected to become ubiquitous. It turned out that the incremental benefits of speed to most customers was not worth the extra cost.”
Well that’s also quite unsupported. There are many who believe that Concorde, for one, was politically as well as technically hobbled. It was noisy, dirty and strangled (possibly quite rightly) by legislation. It was often not allowed to supersonically overfly populated areas due to the sonic boom generated, thus robbing it of key markets. It was too small and there was insufficient political will to develop the product, especially given the fuel cost spike in the 1970s and the concomitant US push into larger airframes and lower per-seat-mile costs. It simply isn’t as simple as faster is always better or the consumer simply not being willing to pay a premium. It got political and it stayed like that right to the bitter, cruel end. And it has nothing to do with laying fibre.
It’s a bad start. The authors go on to question the numbers, the past impact of existing broadband and the likelihood of a poor return for the investment. They have (to their credit) bothered to reference many of these latter statements and I have no real argument against contrarian views. But I am a bit bothered that they can be so negative about what seems a reasonable infrastructure investment. Why? What happens if we do nothing? Clearly there’s an opportunity cost to everything, even not investing carries a risk. But to put a negative spin on such a positive enabler seems misplaced, at least to me.
FTTH is not a risky, cutting edge technology at all; it’s upgradeable, so it can handle even greater needs; and it is an enabler for proposals and ideas that have been “out there” for at least 20 years but have simply lacked the bandwidth to get going. Sure you can question the likelihood of individual ideas actually gaining traction, but history also shows that when we build an enabling network, be it the Internet or a physical transport system, it gets used – and often in unexpected ways. It also is a multiplier – what is enabled here will likely percolate and expand over there. I can’t put sensible numbers around it, they would be a guess.
If you do want numbers that stack up, build the network and take measurements before and after.
Yes, it carries a risk – who knows what comes next? But when we have aging copper in the ground that will in coming years need to be repaired, replaced or simply disconnected, why not seize the opportunity to swap over to something proven and better? Especially when wireless hasn’t yet shown the coverage or capacity needed.
Interestingly – and predictably – Opposition Leader Tony Abbott jumped on this report and said that “I certainly want my computer to work effectively, but I’m far from convinced that the people of western Sydney, for instance, think that putting a wire into their house so that their computer is chained to the wall, so to speak, is more important than fixing up the transport mess.”
Tony obviously hasn’t heard of WiFi in the home, so how good is his analysis?
Want more? I’m out of action or simply can’t be bothered now, but John Quiggin has a bit of a discussion going and David Havyatt has an interesting perspective on it as well.
Here’s a big call from “Carsguide”: To quote Friedman; “somebody ought to call Steve Jobs, who doesn’t need to be bribed to do innovation, and ask him if he’d like to do national service and run a car company for a year. I’d bet it wouldn’t take him much longer than that to come up with the G.M. iCar.”
Interesting that what they seem to be saying is that a lack of top-level ‘visible’ leadership, rather than a lack of researched, developed, targeted, marketed and timely product, is root cause here. I’m pretty sure that a passionate, charismatic leader may well have still chosen to build too many of the wrong product, especially so if they were a long-term ‘car-guy’ (of either sex) and a bit blinded by their own wants or dreams.
In fact there are many, many successful companies in the US and elsewhere, with effective leadership at all levels, not just at the top. They may not garner much publicity and they may not be very charismatic – but they do get results. Is it important that they be charismatic like Jobs, or for that matter like Obama, or even – going to extremes – Hitler or Mussolini? There’s a danger here that a so-called ‘great leader’ will in fact take us where we shouldn’t actually want to go.
As for Jobs being the master of innovation and success, he’s been in and out of Apple, come back as the messiah and in many senses lucked into marketing a true game-changer at the right time – because Apple was almost as close to the edge as GM is now. He made sure Apple’s MP3 player was slick, and priced it correctly. He made it look and feel better than the competition, and marketed it brilliantly. What has come since is a series of slick updates and a sideways move into hyped-up cell phones. Whilst they have technically excellent product, they remain a packaging and marketing company with a deft spin on look and feel. Is that what a car company needs to survive? Maybe. Or maybe they just need to step back, look at where we are headed with global warming, peak oil and so on and just take a big, brave bet on something very different.
Rather than simply re-working what we’ve had since the turn of last century.
Well things are coming together as people realize just what can be done with inbuilt accelerometers. Apart from protecting hard drives from major injury (the original purpose), and gaming (which one supposes is a purpose the iPhone accelerometer could be used for), it could be wired into the Grid using the UD or BOINC software ‘clients’ that are used now to farm out data for various medical or extra-terrestrial data crunching. These Gridded accelerometers can then send back reports on any movement, including earthquake tremors: (via PCWorld) Elizabeth Cochran sensed an opportunity to save lives when she realized laptops can be used as seismometers to detect earthquakes. Many laptops have an accelerometer, a sensor that detects motion and free fall, and that can be used to detect the intensity of earthquakes when a laptop shakes, said Cochran, a seismologist and assistant professor at the department of earth sciences at the University of California, Irvine.
Now if these devices also had a GPS unit onboard then we could pinpoint exactly where the quake is, although simply keeping “proximity” software updated with location would do the trick (with more error).
I previously mentioned the possibilities here and here. In brief, an accelerometer senses movement, so if you know where you start then it can track your movement through space in 3 dimensions, which is useful for gaming (as a controller), training (for example as a tool for induction, as in ‘walk ten steps, turn right, that’s the cafeteria’), measuring (calories, Watts, whatever), virtualization (mapping an area for later use in virtualizing a task or a building) – you name it. OTOH privacy-minded people may think this is all too much like Big Brother watching me, although with cell phone triangulation and mobile GPS already well embedded in society I think we can let this one through to the keeper as well. You can always disable it, or join a Luddite sect.
From Forbes (you may need to register to read): “cloud-computing-utility-tech”
The article discusses small startups taking market share early but being a bit wary of the big players moving in later. I could take the article to task in that “cloud” and “utility” computing are not necessarily the same thing, and that the big players are actually already there… but the point made is that the big guys like IBM and HP are leaving some gaps at the lower end, preferring for now at least to sell clients big datacentres full of their hardware rather than sell them a scalable MIPS-only share of “the cloud”.
On the other hand InfoWorld reports that IBM is pushing cloud computing to universities.
Indeed from my muddled memory IBM coined or perhaps popularised the term “utility computing” so I guess they have a big stake here (and yes, I work for another part of IBM and these are my opinions only). So believe what you will. In any event, when significant margins fall out of the datacentre hardware market we’ll see utility computing finally and completely arrive. Selling the big iron in individual cooled and hardened sites for individual customers will just not be worth it, and economics will force the swap. Perhaps IPV6 and global warming together will make it happen…
OK, Google’s a search engine, but what’s Google Sites? Well, in Google’s own words…Google Sites is the easiest way to make information accessible to people who need quick, up-to-date access. People can work together on a Site to add file attachments, information from other Google applications (like Google Docs, Google Calendar, YouTube and Picasa), and new free-form content. Creating a site together is as easy as editing a document, and you always control who has access, whether it’s just yourself, your team, or your whole organization. You can even publish Sites to the world. The Google Sites web application is accessible from any internet connected computer.. Did you get that?
Google has a finger in every pie these days, even the enterprise space. The what? You know, the big-businesses that control our lives; although you can always just pretend to be big in this virtual world. (Whether that means you too can control our lives I don’t know.) Anyway, if you own a domain name for example – and as a blogger you’d certainly want to think about it – you can sign up for Google’s Mail service, the Docs applications and of course Sites. Ah, so what was Sites again? Well it is in essence a few cool HTML templates designed around basic website needs. So you pick the closest thing to what you want and go personalize it. You end up with a club membership website, or an Intranet portal, or whatever you want. For free.
OK, so enough of plugging Google. Is Sites actually worth it? Well yes, it’s free. No, but is it really worth investing time in? Probably. If you have a need to use Google’s cut-down online spreadsheet tool and want to share it easily with your collaborators, yes. If you own a domain name and want to look flash on the cheap, yes. Is it secure? Maybe. You can control permissions, which is a start. Is it truly enterprise-ready? No, I don’t think so; but it is so darn close that Microsoft must be sweating somewhat. It’s certainly a glimpse of the power of online applications. When other developers truly jump on board and add real grunt to this web-enabled engine, boy oh boy… watch out.
A lot is happening out there in techno-land, but it’s mostly hidden from view. We see the shiny new gadgets, we wonder what’s next. Well we can imagine what’s next by looking at what’s out there now and extrapolating. We can also factor in the alternatives plus all possible eventualities to arrive at a probability analysis of “the future”. Let’s do all that in one quick blog post, eh?
- We have ever-smaller, ever-more-powerful gadgets (think cell phone and PDA)
- We have more types of gadget than ever before (think cell phone, flash drive, digital cameras, GPS, watt meters on bicycles)
- These gadgets can connect to an ever-more-pervasive Internet
- These digital gadgets are getting cheaper.
What can we extrapolate from that? Competition will drive down price, volume drives down cost. Gadgets will get smaller, will connect seamlessly with online resources and converge. So you get cell phone with camera, then cell phone with camera and GPS, then cell phone/camera/GPS/PDA and finally cell phone/camera/GPS/PDA/watt meter, or more likely and generally cell phone/camera/GPS/PDA/accelerometer. Which is really a whole new gadget, because this new device can communicate wirelessly, store data, capture images, sense where you are and even sense what you are doing. It can tell if it’s moving, or upside down. Logically it can detect light and guess if it’s in a bag or if it’s on a table. It knows if you are walking, driving, riding a bike: and how fast. It can tell you how much energy you burned during the day. It can download or upload data, or features, as needed. With this power to download new features as needed it could morph into something entirely new just by sensing where it is, what other people or gadgets do in these situations or what you did with it last time it was in this position. It becomes one portable tool for all places, all uses.
You could think along the same lines with television and radio, or anything really. You could find yourself with small portable devices that adapt to a situation – you get in a car, it takes on the navigation, communication or entertainment chores without any instruction. It may even carry your personal preferences as to seating position or driving style, communicate this to the car, and the car adapts to you. You step out, sit in an office at a desk with a Bluetooth keyboard, it senses that object and that location and becomes a powerful business computer. It downloads your work data and applications – and away you go.
OK, so we have a way of predicting what could be, but what about probabilities? What are the possible alternatives? What are the threats? Well a quick look in the news will tell you that political instability, changes of government, increasing pollution, competition for resources, global warming and cost of oil are all things to factor in. Can this gadget survive, or even prosper, when oil runs out? Can we power it? Is it sustainable?
I’ll let you decide the probabilities on all of that.
I mentioned earlier that some laptop computers – Lenovo ThinkPads for sure – come with in-built accelerometers (to sense imminent impact and shut down the HDD) that can be tapped into by other applications… well Tom Yager has just mentioned in his blog that the iPhone has that feature as well, and he goes further in suggesting both gaming and general user-interface applications. I too can think of many more applications for accelerometers, but that gaming idea is a good one that opens up another rich vein of income for Apple and the iPhone. In my personal vision of the future all handheld or small-format devices will converge, and coupling a processor, input system and visual output with an accelerometer plus GPS and multi-modal wire-less communication (G3, WiMax, WiFi, Bluetooth) opens up a wealth of serious applications.
Maybe you’ve heard of pervasive computing – where everything is connected to the Internet and computes in some way, even if it only does so via The Grid – and you probably think that’s 50 years away. Yet you also know of prototype ‘wearable’ computers, and carry an MP3 player and a GSM digital cell phone with inbuilt camera and bluetooth connectivity to boot. You’ve also heard of – and maybe have at home – WiFi and WiMax. Yet you still don’t think pervasive computing is close at hand. What about those digital photo frames? What if we attach those to the Internet, like some manufacturers have done with refrigerators and, ahem, some funny lumpy bean bag-like things with screens? Yes, really. Little screen-things that sit on your desk and keep you updated. Like Chumby does (US-only at this time but boy oh boy do I want one. It’s a photo frame, a news feed, does email and social networking and is also an alarm clock!). Yes folks, it’s ambient computing. Now ain’t that real close to pervasive?
OK, so I think the way of the future is less actual travel and more virtual travel. That means more Internet connections, more working online. Although I still burn a bit of coal (at the power station end of things) by running my PC, overall I save a lot of energy by avoiding the gasoline otherwise spent in commuting to an office. I also save time, which I spend with my family… and by taking ‘time out’ to blog and maintain my websites. Although blogging is very much a sideline for me, born of my inner need to keep on top of changing technology, it’s key to where we are headed in the future. With that in mind I’ve test driven a few things bloggish lately which I’ll share you ’cause I can.
- Twitter, well I’ve mentioned this before, and Jaiku, ditto. Both great for microblogging. These are tools for bloggers who have become jaded and no longer wish to write heaps, or for readers who just want one place to read everything. Microblogging is also great for staying in touch as it can be updated so darn quickly and easily. You just log in and whacko! a great big list of microblogs appears before your eyes. Assuming you’ve subscribed to a few, of course. You can send your favorite blog streams to Jaiku and they’ll aggregate them
- Tumblr will aggregate your blogs and create for you… another blog! Fantastic service! You get to look at everything in the one place, even your Flickr stream
- One way to get your content out of blog A and into page B, or blogs A, B and C into page X, is to use Feeddigest. It’s a great little RSS aggregator that grabs your latest blog posts and bundles them into packages of your own design. You then take a bit of code away and plug it into your blog (or another page you maintain) and your content will be streamed into that space, automatically, as it happens. I use it on my blogs to provide a window to all of the other stuff I do. I can make the content as broad or focused as I desire and can customise the look and feel. Let me stress this is just a way to move your own content around, it doesn’t write it for you or steal someone else’s work
- You can of course use Freshcontent to get some some relevant news items streaming into your page, stuff that you don’t have to write yourself but adds value to your site. Don’t abuse it, this adds value and convenience – it’s not enough just to stream headlines, is it? You actually have to create as well!
- And of course I use Skype, one of several alternatives; what would we do without VoIP? (Probably just continue to move to cell phones and G3 I guess, and WiMax and all the rest. We’ll do that as well, eh?) It’s everywhere now but will get even bigger. With Skype and its ilk you can call PC-to-PC generally for free, and can call “out” to a landline for a small fee. You also get video, so the video phone is here, now. You can also buy real phone numbers so people stuck Skype-less on landlines can ring you. You can buy these numbers from a range of countries, so you can act like a big wheel and make friends or clients happy with local dial-in to your own VoIP system. I’m sure someone is already offering an OpenSource online PABX, I just haven’t stumbled upon it yet…
- Oh, and this is handy: RSSfeed to email conversion. You can also get RSS to podcast audio via Talkr
I could go on, but you get the drift. Great tools that help you blog in many places from anyplace.
OK, this is for the technically minded, but it occurs to me that your laptop could be a lot more than just a mobile computing device. It could also be a very large bike computer, or a power and g-force measurement device for your race car. Oh, sure, you knew that already, but I don’t mean by adding extra sensors. No, I mean by using the built-in accelerometer! If you have a decent and recent laptop, one with the shock-sensing hard disk automated shutdown and lock feature (ThinkPads have this, for example), a whole new world of uses opens up. Yes, you need to write some fancy software, but hey, it’s an idea! Cool, or what? And yes, I got the idea from this ibm.com article on footstep mapping (yes, really!) using the Lenovo ThinkPad. The ThinkPad was an IBM PC until they sold off that business to Lenovo.
(Note that whilst I also work for IBM, this is my opinion only, not necessarily the corporation’s. And I’m not just trying to get more Lenovo sales… because it won’t help me one bit. Rather, it’s just a cool idea.)
Have you ever read a headline and drew conclusions that weren’t supported by the following text? Well I just had that sort of moment. I read the headline ‘Is CVS-Caremark out-innovating Apple?’ and thought I’d be reading a comparison between two firms based around the subject of innovation. Intead I got a story about how products may or may not “fit” the needs of individual consumers. Like if you slim down a notebook and call it something “airy” because it’s light, it may now lack features that some people need. In which case you buy the “fat” version, I guess. I surmise that these Harvard Business people think that any new product represents “innovation”, and maybe they are right. Perhaps even varying the size – or simply the colour – of an existing product is an innovation.
I tend to disagree. To me an innovation is something that makes you go ‘a-ha!’ or ‘why didn’t I think of that?’, not a shuffling of features or an earnest desire to be merely different. Innovation is (again, to me) a real change, small or large, where you invent a new thing, a new way of doing something, or a new use for an existing thing. It’s not about trifles, or even incremental improvement. It’s a leap.
So does Apple “leap” in that sense? I don’t think so. Way back when, in the olden days, Apples were just one of many backyard computers. Now the home-brewed PC itself was an innovation. Taking the big-iron computer and re-thinking it and re-packaging it as a personal device was a leap. But Apple wasn’t first to do that (was it the Altair, instead?). But they were good at it, and they incrementally improved their design over time; but Jobs and Wozniak were riding a wave of innovation that started elsewhere. (Bill Gates rode that same wave, of course, but ended up on another shore.) Sure, Apple showed great flair and resoucefulness in those early days and made something useful out of what was a hobbyist’s plaything. In bringing it together and fashioning a total, usable unit they innovated to a degree – although to what really must be an obvious and fairly simple degree. They just put together a nice, more widely usable package. Perhaps a better one than most, but just another option in the bustling pre-IBM PC marketplace. Does Apple’s ‘innovator’ tag come to us from these early years? I doubt it. Most people have forgotten or never even knew of the Apple I or II.
Indeed if Apple are innovators because they brought together some nice external ideas and made a marketable package out of it, what about IBM’s slightly later effort? They took parts from all over the company and made something different. Again they leveraged existing ideas, but they assembled a complete package and marketed it. Innovation? As much as Apple’s, surely. (Potential conflict of interest! OK, I work for IBM, these are my views, not necessarily the company’s.)
Just to extend this argument historically, Apple Corp didn’t invent the mouse, or the GUI, but they brought them together in one machine, and may have been first or close there-to. It’s line-ball but they certainly deserve credit for their vision, and by persisting with that ‘ease-of-use’ concept they were certainly exercising creativity in their PC designs. Maybe in that sense they were innovators? Certainly Xerox and the separate inventors of the GUI and mouse, respectively, were truly innovators, but they didn’t get the product to market. Not successfully, anyway. So are the innovators the low-key inventors, or the successful marketers?
OK, let’s be generous and say that Apple innovated in moving from the old green screen Apple 2 era to the mouse and GUI Lisa and Mac era. They implemented a few good ideas (mostly from elsewhere) and have run with them ever since. Sure, they have made them stylish, and colourful, and smaller, and they have fiddled with the technology and the operating system to make a grander design; but exactly where is the innovation? By leaving out the disk drive or the Ethernet card? By forcing the market to move to their preferred technical solutions? By locking up the box and prosecuting the clone-makers? Is that innovation, or is that tactics and strategy?
Which leaves us with iPod – and again they neither invented the MP3 file format or the MP3 player, but they did get a product to market quickly and did give it the best marketing push imaginable. So they had both good timing and a sweet design. Perhaps that sweet, simple design was the innovation? Perhaps, although again it wasn’t new, was it? It was an adaptation of tried and tested ideas from the video industry, amongst other places. Still, that’s good enough, isn’t it?
In bringing these ‘invented-elsewhere’ ideas together into great, simple designs and getting the product to market swiftly Apple may indeed be said to be innovators, if only by degree. Am I too harsh? Well, what exactly makes you think of Apple as innovation machines? What Apple ideas have no peer in your mind? The mad colours and clear boxes? The simple interfaces? The effectiveness with which they hide the internals of there PCs and avoid using cooling fans? Is it enough that they dominate the MP3 player market, whilst barely scratching out 4% of the PC market? Can successful innovators really have so little impact on the market that they can effectively be ignored in their mainstay product line? Or is it enough that they are a great niche marketing company with a fantastic spin on innovation? And a charismatic leader, of course.
It all depends on how you define and weight things, doesn’t it?
Yes, I know, I do go on about it. Labels. Again. I also mention video gaming, right at the bottom…
But to start with labels, and where better than with Astrology? Astrology “works” for many people both because it is so accurately imprecise and because it taps into what seems to be true. You believe you really are a Scorpio, for example, because the description is so vague yet targeted: variously a noble, lofty eagle of destiny coupled with a vicious sting. Truth is that everyone has a sting of some sort in their tail, so it rings a bell. And everyone feels noble aspirations at times, so again it “fits”. You can do the same with all 12 signs. And you want to believe that it’s you because it sounds right and it’s generally a pretty safe flag to wave. None of the signs – even the promiscuous Pisceans – are so utterly bad and nasty that no-one wants to “belong”. They are safe homes defined more by the position of solar and planetary bodies than ourselves, so they are apart from us and “objective”. These are clubs we automatically join just because, and we find it agreeable to so so. Of course if we don’t find it so agreeable and believe ‘this just doesn’t sound like me’, we can always delve deeper into the obscurities of rising signs and oppositions and have an ‘ah-ha’ moment that welds us to our charts. Or simply adjust our time of birth a fraction because mum wasn’t sure about that, was she?
Of course it may be that there’s something “to” astrology, other than possible psychic forces at work (maybe) and a small correlation with the planet Mars (true), but it hasn’t been proven – yet.
Now with the “Generations” label it’s much the same. We are born into it, for starters. It “sounds” right and it has a wealth of scientific-sounding correlation to back it all up. If you are a classic boomer born after the 2nd World War you can feel the connection with other boomers. Maybe you lost relatives in the war. Maybe you remember the shortages, the rebuilding, the focus on doing things right and better this time. You remember the fear, the anger, the pain. You grew up in dour, struggling families with little hope. And it affected you; you determined within yourself to break free, to declare war on war itself, to expand the mind and give peace a chance. You gained optimism out of shared heartache and helped build a better world. And then you feasted on it, taking the wealth that you created and building more. And you remembered where it came from: hard work, loyalty and dedication. And kept it for yourselves.
Alas your kids didn’t share the immediate post-war privations and struggles and shrugged off the idealism and optimism off the 1960s. They were Generation X and they were angry. They didn’t want to just accept what their parents wanted for them, they saw things differently. Jobs were harder to find and they took what they could. They saw wealth all around but couldn’t share in it. They were disenfranchised. They latched onto technology and travel and meandered through their lives, rejecting the home-style values of their parents and making for themselves a more mobile, flexible and detached lifestyle. Oh, and they grew up with the fear of an imminent nuclear holocaust, too, so that affected them lots, eh? But out of all that we got a services-based economy with 24*7 fast food, so it must be all right. And they too grew up and had kids and trips in the country.
Except that the Next Generation has to work those poor hours for low pay and no overtime, whilst bathed in the light of a computer screen, one ear on the MP3 player the other on their mobile. Of course it’s what they want, but, isn’t it? They want flexibility in everything because that’s what they have grown up in. They don’t want a career now, do they? They want to flip and flop and dabble. And those aging boomers had better understand that, rather than whinge about the youth of today and their techno-babble, lack discipline, poor grammar, lousy spelling and loose morals. Oh, but they still eat at Maccas, travel widely and take drives in the country
I could go on. You can smell the truth in there, can’t you? It rings true, if only because the media bombard us with this message about generations and differences on a daily basis. We never hear about similarities, only the differences. We don’t get good news, just bad. Kids are never going to be good enough in this world and we’re going to tell them all about it. Older people just don’t get it – especially if it involves technology – and never will. Kids these days don’t display loyalty and they shift from job to job relentlessly – but that’s because it’s what they want, not because it’s how our modern economy works. I think you get the drift.
Of course it’s labelling. It’s black and white and filled with generalizations. But if you randomly sampled a thousand people across these ‘generations’ you’d get a thousand variations of life, genetics, experience, preferences, skills and education. You’d find common ground in emotions, feelings and human urges like reproduction, of course. And you could say that generally the youngest people have the least influence on society, the least independence, and the least accumulated wealth and experience. But you could do that sample at any point in history and it would ring true. It may shift temporally – we on average live longer and stay at school longer as well – but it’s part of our human reality.
Of course the labelling starts with some innocent marketing surveys. You’d find that at one end of the scale ‘older’ people tended to like big band music, but then they went to dance halls and listened to the steam radio, so what do you expect? They didn’t have MTV or MP3 players after all. And post-war ‘boomers’ tended more towards rock, but this was the great age of rock and roll, so again what do you expect? Some of them actually hated rock, and some didn’t care. Some like surf music. Some liked country or classical. Some still listened to swing, for goodness sake. But we didn’t ask them that. And underneath they are still human, with feelings and emotions based on a million years of humanity. Why do we latch onto the merest, thinnest skin of our being and label people X, Y and Z? Because it’s easy. Because it makes targeting markets easier. We can spin a convincing story around a product and say it targets “generation Y” and throw our dollars into youth websites and viral campaigns. And because we are fond of joining clubs, especially clubs we have automatic membership of, we accept our labels.
The biggest thing to take away from my ranting and raving is that people remain people. Our environment is important, sure, but we remain human. And we continue to learn and grow and adapt throughout our lives. It may be easier for young kids to adapt to and use the latest techno-gadgets but they aren’t the only ones to use them or to see the usefulness. Not all young people are gadget-focused, either. Old or young, each and every one of us is individual – so let’s de-emphasise “generations” and just treat us all as equals.
Which brings me, perhaps surprisingly, to the future of video games. If you click on the link you’ll see that the Nintendo Wii has outsold its competitors from Microsoft and Sony. How has it done so? By de-emphasising the “generational” focus and simply becoming easier to use. With fewer controls, a more natural action and a broader (read less male-centric and techno-focused) approach it appeals to more people. You’d imagine that someone would have thought of this earlier… now if they applied this thought to more techno-gadgetry imagine how quickly we may all adapt to new technology, irrespective of our generation or our labelling?
From Forbes mag: http://www.forbes.com/2008/02/08/future-video-games-tech-future07-cx_mn_de_0211game.html?partner=alerts
We all die; although some of us are also re-born, perhaps. But what about an artistic, if commercial, concept? Do artistic constructs die? For example can we truly say that the ‘album’ is dead, in the context of popular music? Of course we can say it, but what does it mean? Is it death in terms of sales alone, or can the spirit live on? I have some 300 hundred vinyl albums in my house – have they just gone skywards? Obviously not (but I’ll check). Or is it the vinyl itself that has died? Well they still make ‘em flat and grooved, so they can’t be totally dead. Or is it the format – the loose coupling of a musical story, an artist’s selection of music that expresses a time or a feeling and fits one of several fairly well defined shapes and sizes? Maybe that’s it.
The first part of that ‘format’ definition surely won’t die – capturing the essence of an artist’s creativity at a time or place, or their particular feeling at that point in time will go on and on. We will continue to make and record music that expresses time and place. But the restriction in shape and size of output may indeed alter. There is no need today to restrict ourselves to 20 minutes of reasonable quality audio per side of LP vinyl, for example. Or even to pack 60minutes onto a CD. We can stream MP3s ad infinitum if we want. But is that an album? Or do we have to redefine ‘album’?
Seems to me that an album is a package of sorts. It must have a theme and a defined size. Photo albums continue to be like that, even in a digital world – they are defined in some way. Otherwise they are just unsorted collections. This is after all our model for musical albums. And just because we can stream data ‘forever’ doesn’t mean we should discard the album as a concept. Or the concept album for that matter. So I think it still exists, but exists in a world where it faces a challenge: do artists want to retain and work within this album format, rather like poets may want to write in sonnet form? Or do they prefer to live with and embrace digital streaming and the endless track-mashing that comes from single-track online sales?
What prompted this rave was this CNET article. The point is that online sales of single tracks takes control away from the artist and gives it to the consumer. All of the artistic pretension in the world can’t overcome the buyer’s urge to buy and listen to only the music they like. But how different is this from the recent past, where we may have bought an album but only played the singles; or simply bought the singles. We’ve always listened to what we liked. Except now we can make these choices even easier and even burn our own CDs in the shape we prefer, if we want. More to ponder in our changing world I guess.
OK, you didn’t ask, but here I go. Some thoughts and questions to consider for today.
- Why is it that the bicycle industry can make frames that are compatible with the drivetrains of at least 3 major manufacturers and the componentry of just about everyone? Doesn’t that (otherwise very sensible) component commonality impinge upon product differentiation?
- Why is it that automotive companies can barely get it together to share wheels and tyres and sundry hidden mechanicals and electricals? Sure they have tried to share platforms and engines, and there are plenty of exceptions, but generally they keep reinventing the wheel; or in this case the complete drivetrain and monocoque shell. Does this more complete individualism grant some competitive advantage or are they simply blind to the savings that they could make for themselves, their customers and the world?
- Why is it that the PC industry is split so unevenly between the bespoke “locked-up” designs like Apple’s and the open, modular and shared componentry that the “IBM-compatible” (or perhaps ‘Intel/Microsoft architecture-compatible’) makers comply with? What can we take away from the far greater market penetration of the latter approach? Or the higher prices and possibly ‘cooler’ designs from the low-volume makers?
- What is the best approach for the world (including our living environment as well as our economic one)? To evolve shared componentry in all cases and thereby reduce overlap and waste; or to instead foster maximum competitive differentiation with bespoke, individualised design? Or to balance the 2 approaches? Or to find a 3rd way?
- If there is ‘a better way’, should governments mandate it? Car safety legislation would be one example when government has enforced a common standard of safer design, however I have the sneaking suspicion that there are better, lighter, cheaper safety systems than the amazingly contrived explosive ‘airbag’ system that car companies have foist upon us. Airbags are of course less intrusive than helmets, harnesses and the like – but are they ‘better’? Is this an example where the compromise reached favours maximising car sales over implementing good sense? Or do the practical problems of getting people to wear harnesses and helmets outweigh the benefits?
These are the questions on my mind right now. More later, I’m sure…
It seems that we can’t let go of labels. As I have noted before we continually stretch the labelling logic with increasingly weak definitions for Baby Boomers, Gens X and Y and of course the weakest link of all, Gen Next. And we can’t leave the Web alone either, with Webs 1, 2 and now 3. But can you tell the difference? Does it matter? Do we agree on the definitions? No, no and no! But Forbes mag has taken a stab at it.
Well things do change, don’t they? When I started my working life in the mid-’70s modems were quite literally huge boxes offering staggering throughput around 1200 bits/second. Let me think that through for a moment. These were big boxes commonly mounted on walls in banks which tied distant computer terminals to mainframes via telephone lines, so that transactions could be completed “instantly” and printed in passbooks. At 1200 bits per second. Hmmm. Amazing anything got transmitted at all. Fast forward to 1985 and I was connecting at just 300bits/second but using a modem a bit smaller than a shoebox, or about 10% of the size of the first modem I ever worked with. By 1987 I was hooking up to bulletin boards using plug-in PC cards at 1200 bits/second, and a year later at 2400 bps. And shortly thereafter 9600bps. Things were certainly zooming along. But I got bored and drifted away.
At that sort of connection speed the world was really just sending text and numbers. For that it was fast enough. But it was very much a call-pause-respond sort of thing, especially over any distance. It wasn’t replacing face-to-face meetings or threatening to send couriers and the post office to the wall. But it was magical, and we could all see the future possibilities. And in 1990 I saw the Internet for the first time and thought, yes please. Suddenly we had a real world-wide platform to play on and email (with attachments) was workable. But it was still a geeky thing. But by 1994 it was in the daily news, big-time, and the world was shifting under our feet. I can remember my stunned amazement when the world of geeky text and numbers transformed itself into the World Wide Web of graphics, colour and motion. And I jumped back into the world of modems.
So in fast succession we went from 9,600bits/second to 56,000bits/second, yet we wanted more. Now I sit here at home connecting at 7,616,000bits/second and I still want more! And of course we will get more. And with every increase in speed comes an increase in quantity and a change in nature. Things become do-able. Video gets better and better. VoIP becomes clearer. Instant Messaging becomes more instant. Graphics get bigger and better (or worse!). And we inch a bit closer to true virtual reality.
Which is where I start thinking about work, life and friendship. We are quite accidentally teaching our kids how to submerge themselves in a virtual world, where even the nature of friendship is changing. You can see and feel the generational gap. Kids just do it, they connect by phone, face, IM, SMS, chatrooms or Web2.0 – whatever it takes. Old fogeys like me embrace it, sure, after all we are here too – but we also remember the ‘good old days’ of actually having to meet people, to see our teammates and friends face-to-face and to engage in different, human ways. We remember the old ways of facial expressions, of hand gestures, of shared jokes and raised eyebrows. But kids these days use avatars and emoticons as much as expression and eyebrows. Sure, not everyone is ‘into’ it, just as not everyone does everything in life exactly the same. But you can see the shifts happening.
Some of this is good. Working from home can be isolating or it can save petrol. It’s up to us to make it work, to identify when we need to do better. I can easily fall into a lament about the passing of the good old days, when teams were groups of people in one physical location, not avatars roaming around a virtual world. But as bandwidth increases and applications get better at being virtual I can see a day when it all becomes seamless. A day when being virtual is just as engaging as being real. Now it could sound scary, but it could just be what we need to do to survive and prosper. Sitting on our hands crying about change won’t bring our past back to life. It’s time to move on and make the future work for us.
Lots of recent words on the young these days ditching the technologies of the elderly.
Thus we have PCs displaced by super-powered mobile phones and email ditched in favour of instant messaging. Well I reckon it’s not quite like that at all. Sure, hand-held devices are becoming more powerful and can do more, but they can’t do everything. I don’t want to use Photoshop on a hand held, for example. Or Office, for that matter. Maybe I’ll do a draft, or a sketch on a handheld but I’ll do the real work on the PC. If youngsters are ditching PCs it’s because they don’t need to do the heavy lifting that a PC can do. They are satisfied with faster, lower quality and less functionality. And that’s sweet. Most of us only use a fraction of what a PC and its typical applications can do – maybe only 10-20%, if that – so it’s only natural that we’ll adjust our tools to suit our real work and home needs. In that way I think handheld devices will continue to erode some of the PC market, and convergence of features will continue to shift people to new devices with new multi-functional capabilities.
So PCs are indeed going to have to evolve, and even then will lose more market share. They’ll shrink in size but retain that heavy-lifting grunt-ability we need to do full-size jobs. Equally, however, the miniature-sized devices will continue to grow their abilities upwards and become much more like miniature, portable computers. Sounds like they’ll collide in the middle. So what’s really happening here?
Well PCs aren’t dying, they are evolving, just as the hand-helds are, too. These new converged devices – cell phones with CPU, memory and camera, for example – will grow into still more capable hand-held PC modules that will plug seamlessly into full-size keyboards, scanners and monitors when you need to use Office or Photoshop or whatever. When we need that still-more-big-iron-grunt, extra memory or some specific applications we can download it all off the web and “the grid” and simply leverage the scale of the Internet to boost the performance of our modular mini-PC. In this way the PC-in-a-big-box will have morphed into a more portable device; just be careful not to lose it somewhere on a train or a taxi, OK?
Does that mean it died? Or is it more like dinosaurs evolving into birds?
As for email, well IM is just like email but quicker, looser, more free and easy. It’s part of a continuum between casual and formal communication. I expect to see the divisions and distinctions blur over time so IM simply becomes email when needed, or an email simply becomes an IM. It all depends on the application – if your email application only does email then that’s what you are stuck with… but if it can morph into IM on a whim, so will you. Again, does that mean email is dead? Nope, it just evolved again.
Here’s an InfoWorld piece on this subject.
Personality is such a unique thing, so individual. It’s both an inner force that shapes and filters our thoughts and actions and an outer shield that we project to identify ourselves to others and to protect our inner self from harm. It’s our essence, isn’t it? If we feel something we feel it via our perception filters, which are embedded in our personality. If we do something we do it in alignment with who we are and how we think. If we meet and greet someone we project our personality onto our outer skin, or hide it from harm if we don’t wish to expose ourselves. How we make those decisions, whether to be open or closed, jolly or sombre, deep or shallow, is very much up to us, our past experiences and our reaction to the environment around us at the time. If we step outside our skins to act out a fantasy, or shift our perceptions or behaviours to fit into social or work situations, that’s entirely within our control. We may have some ingrained beliefs and “default” options to fall back on but we are powerfully human and mutable to suit the need. You need to be tough-minded to do a job, so you do it. You don’t sit there thinking ‘I’m an introvert and I can’t do this’. Well maybe you do. Point is, only you know what you are thinking.
Unless of course you believe in personality tests. Or believe that they are meaningful, or that they tell you something useful. Personality tests are meant to map you to a fixed number of “qualities” and degrees of belonging within each quality. It is of course labelling – and again it’s very human to want to do this – and it’s tempting to believe that in answering a multitude of carefully selected questions we will be lured into revealing our inner natures, our core drivers. Now I love these tests, I really do. They are great fun. And sometimes I get those “oooh-ahhh” moments when I think yes, it really is me. It really is. But then I get the same feelings from a good astrology reading. Where lies the truth?
I think the jury is still out. It hasn’t been sufficiently demonstrated that personality can be measured, or deduced from cunning questions. We can’t even be utterly sure that you and I are reading the same meanings into the same questions, or that we have the same truthful intent when answering. And we certainly can’t reliably predict our behaviours, let alone our work performance, from our personality assessment. We actually have powerful, possibly unique human thinking processes that let us adapt ourselves to suit the need. That’s why we are at the top of the food chain, not down the bottom with only pre-written reactive programs to help us find food and survive.
Which is why I get the creeps when I read stuff like this: “They thought he was a surface guy. They didn’t think he was deep enough to be the ceo,” says Carlick. But he aced the Myers-Briggs personality test they made him take, and he became chief in February 2004″. Oh please. Is it possible to “ace” the MBTI? I think the journalist in question means that the personality type indicated by the test results is strongly correlated with being a CEO. That is to say that some brilliant researchers somewhere have done a large number of MBTI assessments on many CEOs and have found a statistically powerful connection between certain personality types and those that occupy the top job. Hopefully these same researchers have dug deeper and found that this correlation holds true for successful CEOs and that there’s some defining characteristic that sets them apart from unsuccessful CEOs. Otherwise you may just be repeating the same hiring patterns of the past, irrespective of performance outcomes. And proponents will say exactly that, that they have correlated MBTI results with job roles and successful behaviours. If so, where’s that compelling data? I’ve looked, it’s just not there.
And how do you know for sure what’s going on inside someone’s mind when they complete the MBTI? What if they are lying? And are good at it?
And why don’t we all just give up, accept our labelling and go do what “they” tell us we would be good at? Is my blood boiling? You bet!
Of course there’s a postscript. Having “aced” the MBTI the CEO in question went on to “rename the company Intermix, nixed half a dozen failing businesses and gave MySpace Chief Chris DeWolfe free rein and more resources. MySpace grew from 1,000,000 members to 24 million by October 2005, when Rosenblatt sold Intermix to Fox for $650 million–an eightfold increase from the company’s value on day he arrived. Rosenblatt walked off with $23 million.” Well that proves it, doesn’t it?
Cars. I like them, I really do. 200 years ago only the most intrepid or desperate of us ventured outside of our villages, and it involved great risk to do so. In some measure the automobile and its accompanying infrastructure has facilitated the breaking down of barriers between villages, towns and cities, even more so than the train or ship. It has made it far more practical to go and visit the unknown and opened the eyes of many more people to the fact that there really is nothing to fear but fear itself. It’s akin to what the aeroplane has done to help break down barriers between wider geographies, like nations themselves. Of course cars and planes are not the only factors – trade is a big one, and breaking down barriers to trade has probably had a bigger impact again. The idea that a country or region has to be self-sufficient and can’t rely to any great extent on other regions persists today but has fewer supporters. In this new global world we have more trade because we have a more fair and open approach to markets; and the gains made include a more peaceful relationship between nations as well as vastly more trade and thus economic activity. On the back of that we see more air, road and sea traffic between cities and nations.
This increased traffic and freer trade (it’s not perfect yet and imbalances abound) has allowed our economic system to drive increased specialization and a greater reliance upon more efficient producers, wherever they may be. Unfortunately part of the success of that system has relied upon subsidized oil. Because it seems so important to trade, we have fostered an imperfect market based on unreal costs. Now’s a great time to look at those costs and start balancing the equation to set things right. We need to preserve the good effects of almost-frictionless trading whilst pricing the oil, coal and gas appropriately, in a way that reflects the real costs.
Which really is my thought for the day. Perhaps the IT industry will assist us in keeping the barriers down between nations, if the Internet is kept free and open with no massive vested interests (like governments and corporates) dominating and blocking communication. Of course it’s not always free and open now, and there are always limits set, openly or by stealth. I have no easy answer, but there are some tough decisions to be made all round, aren’t there?
Yes folks, there’s a flight simulator built into Google Earth and by Jove it works. Just try ctrl-alt-A or maybe ctrl-windows-A when over a location and a screen will appear giving you some options. It works, and it’s as realistic as Google Earth itself. Big wow factor. I picked it up from Techcrunch, here.
Need to draw some flowcharts? Used to Visio but not tied to it? Try Gliffy or a newcomer from Lenovo, Best4c, for free diagramming and charting on the web…
LIve version of Firestarter… weird, creepy.. fan-tas-tic.
Outside of rock, of R’n'B and the classics, there lies the Prodigy and electronica. I do like this…
Read about the virtual Rome project here and check it out here. Yes, I mean Ancient Rome. Absolutely engrossing.
OK – I really like this idea. First let me paint this picture. You have a sqillion MP3s, videos and images on your PC and no backup. Or you backup onto another PC or a storage unit. Or maybe you backup on a few DVDs. Whatever, it’s a pain. But if your main PC dies you lose the lot, so you take the small pain over the big, big pain. Now Drobo is a smart storage box that takes 3.5inch hard drives in standard bays. That’s not new – you can buy big external HDD boxes that plug in via FireWire or USB anyway.
The SMH is spruiking the end of the computer, as the young people of Japan adopt smaller form factors in lieu of PCs. They suggest that this trend will spread across the world. I tend to agree, although by ‘computer’ we have to accept that they mean ‘PC’. And I have some reservations. Japan is a smaller, more densely populated country that Australia, so wireless communication is easier – and cheaper. This applies less so to the US, but similar geographic factors do apply.
Another cool tool… Trendtracker from MobiFeed.
Check out IBM DeveloperWorks online – and especially Spaces, a new social-networking-Web 2.0 collaborative developer area. I’m not that technical – I understand maybe 45-50% of what’s going on but I love to stay informed of what’s at the cutting edge. This is a great site to visit and browse but as I say it’s for developers and those interested in coding with IBM products or open standards. (And yes, I work for IBM and these are my views, not necessarily the company’s.)
When I’m not risking life and limb on the freeway I’m safe and sound in my home office. One difference between here at home and my “real” office is that that I get a lot more work done at home; another is that I don’t waste as much energy getting to work. But the biggest difference is I’m on my own. Sure, I can IM other workers. I could video ‘em via IM, in fact. Or I could ring them on the old fashioned telephone. But what if something akin to Second Life was used as a virtual office, so that I could touch base more easily and with just a bit more “presence”?
Well check out Sun’s virtual office. Or Qwaq. Yes, I said Qwaq.
Well it seems like they have been around a very long time, but 25 years isn’t really much at all, is it? Heck, I’m turning 50 this year myself. Aaargh. It’s interesting to pause and reflect, though. Those big, flat vinyl pressings and the machine that spun them, and the needle that dropped into the groove were fantastic things to watch and wonder over as the music poured out from nothing more than a wiggly line on the platter. It was transparent technology, too. You could use nothing more magical than a ball-point pen to bring out a less amplified (and less accurately tracked) impression of the recording. It really wasn’t any more fancy than the day it was invented, just a bit more refined.
Whereas the introduction of magnetic tape had elevated the reproduction quality and enhanced – or simply allowed – portability, the advent of the CD tore the whole analog house down and rebuilt it digitally. Analog audio-purists may scoff but the sound quality and reliability of CDs as a delivery mechanism was not just convincing, it was devastating. I used to track down the “best” vinyl, usually imports, and pay top dollar for a record that 25% of the time would already have sonic flaws on day 1, and that 100% of the time would begin to wear out from the very first play. Half of my collection – which I still have, of course – are scratchy and simply don’t play well. They may have been loved, but they were soft and open to erosion by that fantastic diamond-tipped stylus. But all of my CDs, irrespective of age, still run as intended. OK, there are some naff ones where dodgy source material was used, but none of them have actually worn out, skip, jump, repeat or simply fail to play because a bit of dirt or fluff got in the way.
Which is all very well but I still love my big, bad vinyl and the extra acreage available for sleeve design… and interestingly the CD with its tiny sleeve has provided us with a transition form between the record sleeve as a protective sheath and work of art on its own, and the MP3 file which has no need for a cover, a sleeve, a plastic box or anything more than the ones and zeroes from which it is composed. Even more interesting to me is that it was the mobile phone – another gadget that has made the analog-to-digital conversion over the last 25 odd years – that has paved the way for mass acceptance of lower quality sound, allowing us to more readily forgive our sonically-challenged, highly-compressed MP3 files in the first place. It’s all linked, somehow. Maybe it’s a conspiracy
Well, compelling enough for me, anyway. Apart from the sheer joy of all the stuff you can read, from online libraries to Wikipedia, there’s also…
- Online maps, like Google’s, which you can use to get you around, or use to document and share info, or mash up into new web services
- Weather radar, and other meteorological services including satellite maps
- VoIP, nearly-free telephony
- Online shopping, my personal favorite – books, DVDs and whatever from Amazon, stuff from dealsdirect
- Online databases, especially those that leverage a community of knowledge creatively, like IMDB
- Online serve-yourself services, where you provide the content, like YouTube
- Lots more, I’m just tired and want to stop. But just think about online communities, bulletin boards, forums, blogs, podcasts… and the opening up of ideas, thoughts, opinions, hobbies and specialties, from being something that was often distributed only via select, formal channels, to freely and openly searchable via the web.
Well, so Forbes says, anyway. They report what many have thought before, that mobiles will converge with computers, and that Apple’s iPhone is a glimpse of the future. Indeed in Japan and Korea this is probably the present case rather than a possible future. It doesn’t take much thought to imagine converging the cell phone that everyone carries with them with the MP3 player many of us carry, or the digital camera for that matter. And if you can receive SMS then why not email? Or Web pages? Or even scan barcodes on billboards? And determine your location with an onboard GPS receiver to help you navigate your world. And once you have that sort of memory and processing power on board (and we already do!) then it’s apparent that you have a personal, powerful, mobile computer in your pocket. Right now.
It’s a done deal, isn’t it? Well it is if you like tiny keyboards. The iPhone certainly is slick and creative when it comes to simplicity and ease of use, and that display is made for computing as well as navigating the controls. But it’s just an incremental improvement, not a huge leap. And whilst for many people a computer in the pocket, perhaps with speech-commands rather than typed text, will be enough computing for 90% of their lives, for me it falls way short of the fullsized box I’m working on right now – and that’s actually a laptop
I suspect we’ll see the big box decline continue and the laptop will reign supreme for a while; and we’ll certainly see far more people with mobile pocket computers in the future. I personally see a diverse computing format, with many ways to do many tasks, each converging onto smaller, more mobile and interlinked devices that sense what you want to do when you enter a particular environment. It may be that the hand-held device becomes just the interface alone, with the computer itself embedded in the environment, for example. In your desk, or hanging on the wall, perhaps. Time will tell.
Wal-Mart one moment, Macy’s the next. Dell is trying hard to resurrect a slightly faded reputation by showcasing its PCs at Macy’s department store, New York. It certainly gets the media interested, and I’m sure plenty of people will drop by the temporary Dell store-in-store. Apart from the usual technical claims (which to be fair everyone makes – PC technology is universally available, by and large, with only the truly high-end offering cutting-edge innovation) and new “age of style” features, including new colours. OK, can’t hurt, but people were painting their PC boxes different colours 20 years ago… and style surely has been the province of a few notable companies, Apple included, for some time. But it’s interesting to see Dell push into new forms of promotion and marketing and again we’ll sit back and see what happens next.
The most obvious business connection is with Second Life – if only because it’s had good media coverage and many corporates like IBM and Dell have built virtual spaces there already. IBM in particular (yes, yes, I work for IBM and these are my opinions, not necessarily the company’s) has made a name for itself with virtual representations of open-level pro tennis matches that re-create reality ball by ball. But a metaverse of 3D worlds is being used by small and large compaines alike to promote products, hold special events, generate innovation and generally just “be there” in case it does take off. Consider these metaverse-related options…
Octaga… very business oriented, building visualisations in 3D of major projects like highways and corporate training simulations.
The Torque Game engine… very much a games engine but capable of relatively easy development and with low-latency Internetworkability – so bringing lots of people together in a virtual world – perhaps a business world – over 56kbit modems or better is a reality. C2C Simulation use TGE in their military and ‘cultural’ simulations.
An alternative games engine is Unreal… and it has an extensive portfolio of successful games to demonstrate its impact on the market.
Or consider the big player in MMOG, BigWorld… offering what appears to be a comprehensive suite of development and server-based operating environments that will robustly support massive multiplayer online gaming, or perhaps your corporate virtual needs.
Perhaps Open Source is your preference? Check out the Croquet Consortium… and Qwaq, a virtual corporate collaborative forum built on OpenCroquet.
Or, lastly, how about the big-iron MMOG BitVerse? Yes, I know, more IBM content but it is an interesting take on what can be done with Linux running on some big-iron servers. Taikodom from Brazil’s Hoplon is the offshoot virtual social, or perhaps sci-fi, world.
Anyway, if none of that interests you I’ll let you go and do some Google searches of your own… maybe start with Kaneva?
Well, I told you so. I told my lecturer in Strategic Management almost 3 years ago, too. Dell’s core competence is in assembly and distribution of PCs, not routers, TVs, MP3-players, big-iron servers or even services. My contention was that they know how to market a good, low-cost PC clone and that nothing I’ve seen tells me that they have the depth to leverage that low-cost PC assembly and distribution across all other consumer goods and into specialised areas such as IT services. And so it is proving. So I’m right – and also wrong.
How so? Because they could do “it” (ie grow into new areas) – or some of it – if they get the mix and timing right. They do have a core competence in assembly and distribution, and they also know Internet and phone sales backwards. What they need to do is leverage exactly those things, not every thing. If they can put products down that pipeline that benefit from direct sales and low-cost just-in-time assembly of commoditised yet optionable configurations then you’ll maximise Dell’s strategic advantage. Otherwise you are just stuffing the pipeline with (a) a brand that people can’t quite link with the goods in question and that simply fails to convince (a Dell MP3 player or TV?); or (b) a brand that they know and trust but linked with goods that offer little (if any) extra incentive to buy (routers, say, or just about anything outside of the core PC line); or (c) a product that is so different from Dell’s core that potential buyers will just scoff – or perhaps even laugh (like services). Now they may have some success in some segments, but they risk losing their brand’s power by dilution. That’s my 10 cents worth, anyway.
Whilst I’m on the topic of computing and Google’s virtualisation of reality via maps and satellite images, it’s interesting to speculate on where this leads. If you photograph and embed streetscapes you can also photograph and embed your own world. Some people are already doing this but mashing photographs, audio and video of your house, friends and family into this sort of streetscape, like people already do with Google Earth, makes this unreal world come alive. You could zoom into a street, knock on a door and see who answers… and then walk into their life, if they let you in. You could vist art galleries, museums, anything… even catch a train. Great for learning purposes. It could also be merged into virtual worlds like Second Life or Kaneva. It will be very unlike 1975, and it’s coming real soon, good or bad.
Check this out, too: Microsoft’s “surface computer”, where you interact with a flat screen, put an object on top like, say, a paintbrush and it recognises it’s a paintbrush and allows you to paint on the surface.. no keyboard, no mouse, just touch and drag and use objects that come to hand. This is a video btw so you need broadband or a lot of patience…
Forbes hints at what comes next here: advertising, of course. You create this ultra-realistic 3-D mapping environment (be it Google’s, Map-Quest’s or Microsoft’s) and of course we stick up virtual billboards as well. Not so ultra-realistic now, is it? More like reality mashed with the advertiser’s whims. When you think this through you get to not just a new type of online reality, but the opportunity to merge that seamlessly with unreality, as with Second Life or any nuimber of multi-player games. If you get the basic building blocks right you can set up your billboards virtually – and I do mean virtually – anywhere.
Not so cool? How about a news report on TV that allows you to click on a detail in the background, bringing up extra options such as a map, or a 3-D view down a street nearby, so you can see the context of the news. If you get your geo-locations aligned with with virtual ones you could get your avatar involved in reporting, viewing, or even participating in the news, or anything else on a screen, really. With the obligatory billboards, of course, to pay for it all.
Forbes reports that Dell has indeed gone mad and turned to the bricks-and mortar retail channel – Wal-Mart, in fact – to get sales growing again. Now if you are an e-tailer who relies on pocketing the extra margin available from ‘disintermediating’, ie cutting out the ‘middle-man’, how exactly do you make any money by selling via Wal-Mart? Wal-Mart will hardly want to sell above your online price, so effectively you thin down your margin and take a smaller slice. Now this extra volume does hurt your competitors, sure, and it does keep your volume up (keeping per-unit costs down) and your revenue climbing in total value terms, but with less margin. Assuming this is an on-going arrangement, not a one-off that Dell walks away from in 6 months, the prospect is for ever-thinning margins… until?
I always imagined Dell would run out of products to cut the quality out of and assemble at bare-bones cost plus miserable margin. OK, they have been better than most – plenty of people jumped in and made clones – some of them pretty well (think Compaq). And Dell hit upon a few great ideas – efficient assembly of cheap parts, low cost production and low-cost sales via the phone and the Web. But I never imagined they would go retail. OK, they haven’t – yet. But they might! There’s a story here at Forbes that suggests a retail outlet could bump up Dell’s flagging fortunes. Yes, and cut their existing low margin as well. Perhaps with their efficient assembly line they can afford to lose a bit of margin in order to win another (maybe) $US800m in sales. That’s how most of the PC makers do it, anyway. And Dell are reputedly masters of the art of just-in-time, low-inventory manufacturing, so maybe they ahve more up their sleeves than meets the eye. Whatever happens, HP will lose some sales.
There’s no doubt that we have much more scope for data logging in new cars than ever before. In fact they have to log some data just to work. Velocity, acceleration, G-forces… these are monitored for various driving aids, from anti-lock and anti-skid to air bags And engines must instantly adjust to environmental conditions as well as your driving inputs, that much is certain. And it’s well known – but probably not thought too much about – that data is logged and saved in order to provide feedback to the car service mechanics on how the car was used – so that the appropriate service intervals may be applied and mechanicals like brakes kept in shape. Drive your car hard and it’s always been apparent to the mechanic – but now they can tell you about it in a a lot more detail. So what’s the problem, if there is one?
Well I don’t think it’s a big problem myself, but a privacy advocate or a conspiracy theorist may have a bone to pick. With all that data – from outside air temp to actual gas mileage and even location (via GPS or cell phone triangulation) – now available, and ‘black boxes’ available to store it, what are the abuses that can occur? Well I suppose speeding becomes easier to detect. And if the government doesn’t like certain habits or styles of driving then that could be bad, as they may charge more for that sort of behaviour… or they may follow you around and see where you are going… but realistically what does it mean? That Orwell’s big brother has arrived? That we can actually verify your speeding habits, or ascertain who’s telling the truth after a car crash? Well maybe that’s no so bad… unless the idea of hiding from the law appeals to you. In which case drive an old car.
CNet has a story on this topic here.
Google has apparently (in one survey) lifted the “most powerful brand” mantle off GE, according to a report in BNET. But has it really? You may recognise a brand such as Google’s and even choose it as your favourite search engine (or stock investment, perhaps); but that’s very different from purchasing finance, a house, a computer, a car or an electronic appliance. Whilst it has obvious value it’s only as valuable as what it represents, or what you can do with it. Recognition alone is not enough. In Google’s case it probably represents to many people the Internet, a youthful entreneurial spirit and mathematics beyond our ken. To others it’s a financial star, a stratospheric stock that is leveraging smart people and smart technology into a brimful pipeline of advertising revenue; and whilst it hasn’t been around long it will now be around “forever”. For young people it doesn’t matter – 10 years olds today will indeed think of Google as having been around “forever”. We recognise the name easily because it’s a “hot” site on a hot new media horizon. We also think of all the cool tools and online apps, the openness and integrity of the young founders and want them to succeed. And first and foremost it’s the search tool of choice. It’s also an empty vessel that makes a lot of noise. To mix up my metaphors completely, when will this worm turn?
For the answer, let’s look to history. I can remember using Altavista as my preferred search engine, maybe up until 2000 or so. It had that “buzz”, that new and sligthly secret aspect that hinted at my coolness (ha ha) and delivered “better” search results. It was funky and had a language translator with a cool name, too. I can remember other search engines, and many of them have done well to keep leveraging off that initial 5 or 6 year burst of WWW growth – some almost as spectacularly as Google. But where is Altavista now? Well it’s here, and the translator is here. They still work fine, indeed they return pretty much the same results as Google, for my purposes anyway. But they didn’t have a name you could use as a verb, or indeed invent that page-linking search weighting idea or even a way to bring in a broad revenue stream, like Google Adsense has brought home the bacon for founders Page and Brin. And without money or growth they stagnated, so what they do on that site now is basically what they did back in 1999. Altavista is still a great search engine but it lost the mantle of “top dog” around 2001. It slipped away as quickly as its star had risen.
So much for history. (Google has written its own history here, by the way.) What of the future? Google’s brand has great recognition and they have leveraged that name to the hilt. They have done a great job of bringing in revenue whilst staying “funky”. I don’t cringe and I don’t really mind people saying they “googled” something..well OK, a little. But they still have respect and they have so many cool tools that I can’t really dislike them. Like Netscape circa 2000 they seem to have a plan to wrest the desktop off Microsoft, and I can’t say that’s a bad thing… cashed up, they may well do just that. In fact they need to do that, or Microsoft may well slowly grind away, undermining their advantage with alternatives that by just being there, loaded and ready to go in your PC, become the norm. Google needs to take ground, new ground, quickly, all the time. Hence the seemingly endless stream of new tools. They need to stay ahead of Microsoft in all areas and IBM, HP and their ilk in the enterprise space.
And they need to watch out for the guys in their garages, tinkering away with new stuff that may yet take over in the blink of an eye.
Songware? It seems odd that a great live band like the Who would find itself promoting software-generated songs, but apparently Pete Townshend has been working – nay dreaming – about this for 30 years. Who’s next grew out of Lifehouse – Pete’s idea of a connectedness that expressed itself through songs… and was for Pete a glimpse of a future world where connectedness was pervasive, electronic and creative. Which brings us to The Method, software that apparently takes personal data like a birthdate, a photo, an audio file and a beat and produces music.
Pete talks about it here on MP3.com… The legendary Who guitarist and songwriter said… that he is set to launch a new Web site that he has been thinking about for nearly 30 years. Dubbed The Method, Townsend said the site will use music composition software to take a person’s physical attributes and compose a brand new, personalized piece of music for that person.
“I’ve been thinking about this for such a long time,” he said. “The gathering that the Internet offers is meditation. You lose yourself when you’re listening to good music.” Townshend said he hopes the site will provoke more people to take advantage of the immediacy of the Web.
And Yahoo! says this: Rocker Pete Townshend on Wednesday unveiled an Internet-based software program that will help music fans compose personalised tracks at the click of a button. The Who guitarist/songwriter said that with a voice recording, a digital image and a rhythm clapped into a microphone, his new “Method” software will create spontaneous digital music and allow anyone to be a composer, and possibly a rock star. “You can put data in and get a piece of music out. It’s as simple as that,” said Townshend, a technical wizard who pioneered the use of the synthesiser more than 35 years ago on the classic tunes “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley.” The project, which started percolating during his art school days in the 1960s, was developed by mathematician/composer Lawrence Ball and software developer Dave Snowdon.
From May 1, users will be able to get free access to the Web site (http://www.lifehouse-method.com) for three months, and will be able to compose instrumental tracks that they can e-mail or post on their Web sites. From August 1, it will become a subscription-based service.
Sounds intriguing, anyway.
NetworkWorld reports that the US military has invited tenders for a ‘router in space’ test… nothing that unusual really, but it does take the Internet off the planet so I thought I’d mention it. Hopefully this blog’s IP packets aren’t reaching you via Mars, but the day will surely come…