I’ve not been posting much, November last year was the last time I got anything out, but I have been reading a lot. So I figured I’d put up a bunch of links, all of which I think are worth reading. In no particular order…..
Instead I asked myself: “what other ‘vicious circles’ in science and philosophy could one unravel using the same linear-algebra trick that CLEVER and PageRank exploit?” After all, CLEVER and PageRank were both founded on what looked like a hopelessly circular intuition: “a web page is important if other important web pages link to it.” Yet they both managed to use math to defeat the circularity.
Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of my confidence is the way I sustain eye contact. Some people have called it the “predator stare.” Sociopaths are unfazed by uninterrupted eye contact. Our failure to look away politely is also perceived as being aggressive or seductive. It can throw people off balance, but often in an exciting way that imitates the unsettling feeling of infatuation. Do you ever find yourself using charm and confidence to get people to do things for you that they otherwise wouldn’t? Some might call it manipulation, but I like to think I’m using what God gave me.
Another thing to keep an eye out for? Markings that have been blasted away. The FAA keeps strict rules about how paint or marks are removed—they’re absolutely never to be painted over, since the decay of the new mark might wear away to reveal conflicting information. Instead, airports have to sandblast or power wash the old paint away and re-do it.
And yet, the panel seemed perfectly comfortable speculating for over an hour on what features in the Apple Watch would be delivering a great user experience and how users would find the Watch valuable. This really surprised me because the panel of experts was speculating about features that are available to test run today…on Android Wear.
Silva related how the top bankers in the nation were asked to contribute money to save Lehman. He described his disappointment when Goldman executives initially balked. Silva acknowledged that it might have been a hard sell to shareholders, but added that “if Goldman had stepped up with a big number, that would have encouraged the others.”
“It was extraordinarily disappointing to me that they weren’t thinking as Americans,” Silva says in the recording. “Those two things are very powerful experiences that, I will admit, influence my thinking.”
Essentially their model — a lot of seem to be reliant on “eventually we hope AOL or Yahoo will buy us, and then it’s their problem if we don’t make any money.” So they’re doing some really good journalism, but I think there’s a problem there.
When I talk about this false precision, this great hope for reliable, precise formulas, I am reminded of Arthur Laffer, who’s in my political party, and who is one of the all-time horses’ asses when it comes to doing economics. His trouble is his craving for false precision, which is not an adult way of dealing with his subject matter.
By comparison, news-related applications do not requires a lot of phone resources. They collect XML feeds, some low resolution images and render those in pre-defined, non-dynamic templates. They use a tiny fraction of a modern smartphone’s processing power.
Yet the attack involved not merely the towers, but two other actions, in particular a successful attack on the Pentagon. Why is it that only a few people take proper notice of that? If the 9/11 operation had been a conventional military campaign, the Pentagon attack would have received most of the attention. In this attack, al‑Qaida managed to destroy part of the enemy’s central headquarters, killing and wounding senior commanders and analysts. Why is it that public memory gives far more importance to the destruction of two civilian buildings, and the killing of brokers and accountants?
What triggers a mutation? Schumpeter insists that this evolution is disciplined above all by new consumers’ needs combined with the new institutional forms that must be invented to reliably meet those needs.
Venture capitalists may remind founders not to get carried away because they may need to raise money again soon, perhaps in a less-favorable market. Fundraising at a lower valuation is known as a “down round.” It’s a major Silicon Valley no-no in terms of perception, and it can have negative effects, depending on the other stipulations of the agreement.
In Yemen you don’t really talk while eating. This makes the heavily-armed diners staring up at me from their carpets seem even more menacing. The wait staff, on the other hand (at least I assume that’s what they are) run round shouting at the top of their voices. Almost everyone has already purchased a bag of qat, which they’ll start chewing after lunch. The qat is leafy and kind of bulky, and comes in a colored plastic bag. Some men tuck it under their shirt, so it hangs over their belt like a paunch. Others carry it in their hand. The effect is to make everyone look excessively health conscious and obsessed with salad.
The fifth principle asks that managers trust developers and create a pleasant work environment that motivates good work. The eleventh principle advocates for self-organizing teams—giving developers autonomy and freedom to choose the projects and features that most interest them and avoiding a dictatorial style of management.
It can be indexed and searched efficiently, even by hand. It can be translated. It can be produced and consumed at variable speeds. It is asynchronous. It can be compared, diffed, clustered, corrected, summarized and filtered algorithmically. It permits multiparty editing. It permits branching conversations, lurking, annotation, quoting, reviewing, summarizing, structured responses, exegesis, even fan fic. The breadth, scale and depth of ways people use text is unmatched by anything.
I’m sure it happens every day – that a kid in one of these far-flung places can find a new favourite band, send that band a message, and that singer of that band will read it and personally reply to it from his cell phone half a world away. How much better is that? I’ll tell you, it’s infinitely better than having a relationship to a band limited to reading it on the back of the record jacket. If such a thing were possible when I was a teenager I’m certain I would have become a right nuisance to the Ramones.
In order to gain the position of a global financial super-hub, and potentially that of world financial capital, the City of London has been making an effort to attract Chinese and Islamic finance, both in rapid expansion.
We no longer know what neighborhood we’ve wandered into, we don’t know the shape of the building, or the condition of the room. We don’t know what other people are wearing — our first and most profound way of signaling cultural affiliation and social-economic status.
“But as time went on, every time there was a problem in the camp, he was at the centre of it,” Abu Ahmed recalled. “He wanted to be the head of the prison – and when I look back now, he was using a policy of conquer and divide to get what he wanted, which was status. And it worked.” By December 2004, Baghdadi was deemed by his jailers to pose no further risk and his release was authorised.
That’s why, internally, our top-line metric is “TTR,” which stands for total time reading. It’s an imperfect measure of time people spend on story pages. We think this is a better estimate of whether people are actually getting value out of Medium
I, personally, want to put a gold chain on my phone, pop it into a waistcoat pocket, and refer to it as my “digital fob watch” whenever I check the time on it. Just to make the point in as snotty and high-handed a way as possible: This is the decadent end of the current innovation cycle, the part where people stop having new ideas and start adding filigree and extra orifices to the stuff we’ve got and call it the future.
This is just a really pleasant read. I was aware of the Burning man festival when it was still a fairly unknown event in the freak calendar. I was young enough, although not terribly young to be honest, to imagine I would go. Not this year, of course, next year, next year would be the year I’d get it together and get out there. The rather ironic desire to get organised enough to get out to Burning man was not something that hit me with the same laconic amusement that it does right now.
This rather wonderful recounting of a trip to Burning man tells the tale of Wells Tower, his 69 year old father, and 2 of their friends, and what they encountered when they got there. Tower senior, an economics professor with a voting record that included support for George W Bush, and his son are not the kind of people you might expect to see at such a hippie mecca, but that combined with the simple fact of the enthusiastic immersion of Tower senior, and the nervous, sceptical but sincere engagement of Tower junior makes this a true delight.
It also reassures me that I’ve still got plenty of time to book my own Black Rock experience. Next year. I’ll be organised enough next year.
This is a short interview with Michael Wolff taking a small, but forensic and caustic, sledgehammer to the state of play for digital media in 2014. He doesn’t go into depth here but this is a quick read that should give you pause for thought when you consider the challenges that lie ahead for the health of digital publishing. I think we can turn the corner, that we can find a way to retain some quality in the landscape (quality publishing environments…as Wolff points we aren’t suffering for quality of information) but Wolff holds a bleaker vision than I do, even though we overlap on a great deal of what is happening.
Ian Bogost had been somewhat critical about the world, as he perceived it, of social games. The push for monetisation, the unthinking assumed ownership of a players time (he observes that deadlines, driven by absolute time, not game time force a user to play through the imposition of dread. Miss that harvest point….no sir, you don’t want to do that), among other things. Anyway he was challenged, not unreasonably, to experience the developers side of the experience. And so, part game, part art and fully satirical, he created cow clicker, a game where you are allowed to click your cow every 6 hours. It was never a huge success by social game standards but it still pulled 50,000 users at its peak. This article gives us the detail.
Finally a long exploration of what happens when opiates hit a community and what subsequently happens when those opiates are taken away again through invasive and draconian law enforcement. This is the story of Subutex, and what happened when it took over the drug scene in Georgia (Europe not the US), and then when a deliberately aggressive government program more or less eradicated its usage.
There are no folksy tales here that either side of the drug debate can take solace from. Those that advocate for a loosening of drug regulation must surely be appalled by the widespread adoption of Subutex abuse prior to the legal crackdown, while those that seek zero tolerance regimes must acknowledge that a safer (but not safe) drug that really doesn’t kill many people (even compared to the likes of methadone) has now been replaced by the sheer horror of krokodil.
Instead of retiring his syringe, he injected krokodil, a homebrew so vile that I had to ask him twice to repeat the recipe. It is simple. First get codeine from a pharmacy. Then mix it with toilet-cleaner, red phosphorus (the strike-strips on matchbooks are a good source), and lighter fluid. Voilà, your krokodilis served.
You did read that right.
Earlier this year Netflix and Comcast had a little contretemps about their peering agreement. Unless you spend time trying to keep up with the various layers, and the players therein, that make up the technical infrastructure of the internet then that statement potentially means absolutely nothing to you whatsoever, but actually its all quite important.
Peering is the name given to the agreements that cover the terms for transferring internet traffic between networks and they are a fundamental cornerstone of the modern internet. Because there is not one single network that covers the whole world it is important that traffic can be exchanged, as required by the needs of the user, with the least possible friction. Historically these agreements were made between engineers and each network simply agreed to open to each other as required, no money involved. Comcast decided that they wanted to buck that history and demanded payment from Netflix. Netflix suggested that prior to this negotiation Comcast were deliberately allowing congestion in certain parts of their network to negatively affect Netflix’s customers (something Comcast denied) and that they had no choice but to pay the ransom.
Level 3 is one of the big global internet backbone companies that carry enormous amounts of web traffic. They are the one of the companies that pay for, and own and maintain, the cable that runs under the oceans. This post on their blog lays out some of the dynamics that go into peering agreements and even though this post doesn’t deal directly with the situation between Netflix and Comcast it should probably give you enough information to understand who is playing the shithead and who isn’t.
I never did try playing Go the ancient Chinese strategy game, and after reading this article i’m starting to think that that is no bad thing. Like chess its a 2 player war game, but unlike chess its a game (possibly the only game left) that retains an unbeaten crown in human vs computer match-ups. Machines beat humans at checkers in 1994 and chess was added to the list in 1997. Now, 17 years later Go still holds out, and holds out with comfort. Every year the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo hosts the UEC cup where computer programs compete against each other for the opportunity to compete against a Go sage, who will be one of the world’s top Go players. The challenge is not one of brute force computing power, its more about strategic understanding and the fact that by all accounts we don’t really understand what goes into being a great Go player, human or otherwise.
Ever wondered why the airwaves are licensed by the government? If you think about it a little, the chances are you will come to what seems like a very simple and straightforward conclusion, which is that the airwaves are licensed so that broadcasting signals don’t interfere with each other. To ensure that when you tune in to 97-99 FM here in the UK, you will receive radio one, not some other outfit broadcasting on the same frequency. Which is all well and good except that electromagnetic waves simply don’t interfere with each other. This concept of interference seems to imply that there is only so much space on any particular frequency that can carry signals, that there is only so much spectrum available. Colours are on the same spectrum as radio waves, separated only by their different frequencies, to suggest that spectrum is limited is to suggest that there is only so much Red to go around, which is clearly a farcical concept.
All of that, which is sound and uncontroversial 6th form physics, does raise some interesting questions about our radios and TVs and mobile phones, all of which broadcast across licensed electromagnetic frequencies. It turns out that the problem of interference is a problem of the broadcasting and receiving equipment not the natural scarcity of the airwaves. We have a system that limits access to frequencies because we are still using a technology base optimised to an old technical paradigm.
This piece published in Salon gives you the full detail and quotes extensively from the work of David Reed an important and prominent scientist from MIT, famous for writing the text that nailed the modern architecture of the internet. Understanding what is actually going on here turns out to be entertaining and enlightening.
I don’t know whether this last link is being serious or not, and that alone might be the best observation I have to make about the state of modern economics.
Alex Tabarrok is a right leaning economist who authors the blog Marginal Revolution with Tyler Cowen, both are professors at George Mason University in Virginia. This short post, one of many from the right responding to the fuss being made by Piketty’s Capital, offers “2 surefire solutions to inequality”. One is to increase fertility among the rich, dilute the inheritance and reduce capital concentration. The other surefire way? To reduce fertility among the rich! The author of the post puts a lot more detail into this position than I do here. I’m leaning towards the opinion that he is simply having a laugh, but then as he is an economist i’m really not so sure.
I’ve had my eye on high frequency trading (HFT) for a little while. I was initially fascinated by the overwhelming need for connectivity speeds driving up the cost of real estate near the exchanges. If you could locate your trading operation next to the exchange the tiny fractions of a second saved by geographical proximity were worth huge amounts in naked profit.
The whole thing struck me as another example of short term profiteering taking precedence over the more sensible longer term allocation of risk and investment capital (which is after all what stock markets are supposed to do).
The long term trend of shareholding periods has been in decline since the 1960’s when shares were held on average for 8 years. The following 2 links are in disagreement about what the average holding period was in 2012 but whichever data point you prefer, 5 days according to Businessinsider or 22 seconds according to London’s Daily Telegraph, it is clear that we are using the mechanic that is the stock market, in a radically different way than we have ever done before.
Part of the overarching societal philosophy of share ownership was that the long term incentives held by investors, via shareholding, would act as a brake on the incentives for larceny, held by the professional management class. But those long term incentives can only act as a brake if the shares are held in a long term pattern, and today that is not the case. To be fair this is not a triumph of the managerial class over the investor class, this is driven by the profiteering of Wall street and London’s City too. Simplistically more trading generates more trading income, but there are other factors acting here too.
Firstly we have a global capital investment paradigm that is focused on the needs of finance capital not production capital. This so called casino approach to capitalism, and its relationship to production capital, is best understood through the analysis of Carlota Perez in her stunning, and surprisingly accessible, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital. This is a very quick summary of her ideas.
Secondly, and something that has only surfaced into popular discourse recently, it appears that there is a fraudulent mechanic in widespread use as a result of HFT. Michael Lewis has penned the expose in his book Flash Boys.
In essence the advantage bestowed on certain traders as a result of their proximity to certain exchanges generates more than quicker sight of price movements. The original story of HFT was that this small advantage generated thousands of small arbitrage trades, but the window of opportunity to make these trades was so small that it could only be accomplished by computers acting autonomously via algorithms.
Among other things Lewis has showed that the various routings around the multiple exchanges are illegally skirting regulations that are designed to present the same price on all exchanges at the same time. This means that a trading outfit that operates on multiple exchanges can make trades based on the market intelligence of a received order. If a client instructs the trader to buy all 10,000 shares at the price they are listed they will need to buy them from multiple exchanges, but the trader’s ability to communicate to the furthest exchanges faster than the official price channels sees them instruct their machines at those locations to buy what is available. The end result is that the original client will only receive say 4000 of the shares they wanted. The differential 6000 shares are now owned by the trader, but only because of the inherent value generated by knowledge of the instruction for the original 10,000 transaction.
Interestingly a key component here is the difficulty of verification.
This lack of human insight about what is occurring through these technical networks, obscures knowledge of what is happening so much so that fraud can flourish. In this regard it is very similar to the fraud rife in the ad tech networks for digital display advertising.
This link from the Washington Post sets the scene very well, explaining the nature of the wider problem.
This piece, published by the NYT is actually an adaptation from Lewis’s book and details how the situation was eventually understood and the actions being taken to rectify the problem. Its long but really good.
In 2006 Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London with the lethally radioactive chemical Polonium. If you recall the incident at the time you will remember that it took a long time before anyone was able to understand what was happening to him, what the poisoning agent was and where he was poisoned. The original location was believed to be the Itsu sushi restaurant in Piccadilly although it eventually turned out to be the Pine Bar in the Millennium hotel in Grosvenor square.
The story is much more involved than any 5 minute news segment could possibly have hoped to portray, which I guess is not a surprise. Litvinenko himself was no innocent, with a history in the feared FSB and the KGB before that. He took a stand in favour of Boris Berezovsky over Vladimir Putin, something that no ordinary man would do, and maybe ultimately was contributory to the situation he found himself in.
This article is very long but if you enjoy a spy story, fictional or otherwise, then you will certainly enjoy this. Something I didn’t understand was how much concern was raised by the presence of Polonium in London. The decontamination program employed a staggering 3000 people and operated across 50 different sites, 2 simple numbers but they invoke images of a Men in Black style clean-up operation happening under our noses but with no obvious sign whatsoever that it was happening.
The article also describes the strange world of the Russian Oligarchs and as a result tells part of the recent history of the post cold war Russian experience.
It’s worth finding the time to read this. For fun.
This next piece is also a pleasure to read if only because it is so refreshing to hear an American president (ex) talking so candidly about the role and position of America in the world today and issues within the scope of American domestic politics as well. Jimmy Carter never was like all the rest, whether you agreed with him, whether or not you are a natural republican or a natural democrat it is difficult to fault his sincerity and his integrity. There aren’t many world leaders that it’s easy to say that about.
On the topic of religious persecution of women’s rights.
Well, they actually find these verses in the Bible. You know, I can look through the New Testament, which I teach every Sunday, and I can find verses that are written by Paul that tell women that they shouldn’t speak in church, they shouldn’t adorn themselves and so forth. But I also find verses from the same author, Paul, that say all people are created equal in the eyes of God. That men and women are the same before God; that masters and slaves are the same and that Jews and Gentiles are the same. There’s no difference between people in the eyes of God. And I also know that Paul wrote the 16th chapter of Romans to that church and he pointed out about 25 people who had been heroes in the very early church — and about half of them are women. So, you know, you could find verses, but as far as Jesus Christ is concerned, he was unanimously and always the champion of women’s rights. He never deviated from that standard. And in fact he was the most prominent champion of human rights that lived in his time and I think there’s been no one more committed to that ideal than he is.
I’m not a religious man but I do wish there were more prominent leaders who hold a strong faith, willing to call out the contradictions within their religious texts and simply choose the side that is kind caring and decent instead of aggressive and divisive.
This is a fun way to look at the concept of lag. What we have here is an Oculus Rift, headphones, a webcam and a Raspberry Pi all put together to increase the lag from a third of a second to 3 seconds. It’s actually an advert for a Swedish fiber ISP selling fast connectivity, but that is easy to forgive as the message is well delivered and amusing. Its not about virtual reality at all, but it does nonetheless bring home how important latency is in the VR experience.
Ok, so this next video is VR as VR, as in it doesn’t show the Oculus interacting with the real world. Still great though. Its early days for the Rift but this is a good start, a taster if you will.
This video combines a few different development memes from the computing world. The internet of things, interface development, home automation, office automation, projection. It also shows some of the development directions that I discussed in my recent post about mobile. Its a table, 3 lights, a wall and a computer than can hear and see. Very interesting.
Finally a small change of direction. This is a group of kids reacting to Walkmans. There is lots in here and it is a joy to watch (particularly the one kid smarter than the others who seems to know his own mind, most are appalled at the observation that a Walkman cost $200, he calmly observed that an iPad costs $700). Perhaps the biggest take out is that the paradigm of mechanical, not computational, functionality is just beyond them. They poke the buttons gently, as you would with a touchscreen, there is no concept of opening the device, no expectation that another item is required (the cassette itself), or even headphones, and horror that a cassette might only hold 16 songs! There is some succour here for the older among us, if you have ever been confused by a new technology, or watched a parent in a similar situation, then this video will have some ringing similarities. Clearly, misunderstanding technology goes both ways.
I don’t like getting my content from apps. I use the mobile web instead if I have to, but the majority of my web access is on a laptop with a nice big screen, which means my prejudice doesn’t hurt me too much.
I know that that sets me apart from the majority of smartphone users, but as I said before, my primary web access point isn’t my phone so the limitations of the mobile web that have enabled app culture don’t really hurt me.
I also believe that it is a culture with a short shelf life.
It is a system with an unusual degree of friction in comparison to an easily imagined alternative. The whole native apps versus web apps argument that has been running for years now is largely decided, at any one point in time, by the state of play with regard to mobile technology and the user requirements of said technology. I’m pretty certain the technology will improve faster than our user requirements will complicate.
That easily imagined alternative is pretty straightforward too. A single platform, open and accessible to all, built on open protocols, that can support good enough access to hardware sensors, is served by effective search functionality and doesn’t force content to live within walled gardens.
The web, in other words. Not fit for purpose today (on mobile), but it will be soon enough.
Monetisation possibly remains a challenge but I’m also pretty sure we will eventually learn to pay for the web services that are worth paying for. Meaningful payment paradigms will arrive, the profitless start up model/subsidised media (which is what almost all these apps are) can’t last. We will get over ourselves and move beyond the expectation of free.
Should everything be on the web? No, not at all. For me there is a fuzzy line between functional apps and content apps. The line is fuzzy because some content apps contain some really functional features, and vice versa. Similarly some apps provide function specifically when a network connection is unavailable (pocket, for example). The line is drawn between content and function only because I strongly believe that the effective searchability of content, via search engines or via a surfing schema, and the portability of that content via hyperlinks is the heart of what the web does so well and generates so much of its value. If all our content gets hidden away in silos and walled gardens then it simply won’t be read as much as if it was on the open web. And that would be a big perverse shame.
Why can’t we just publish to the stream? Because it is a weak consumption architecture, it is widely unsearchable (although I suspect this can be changed although we need to move beyond the infinite scroll real quick) and because you don’t own it (don’t build your house on someone else’s land). That’s another whole essay and not the focus of this one.
I’ve felt this way for a long time so I am happy to say that finally some important people are weighing in with concerns in the same area. They aren’t worried about the same specific things as me, but I can live with that if it puts a small dent in the acceleration of app culture.
Chris Dixon recently published this piece calling out the decline of the mobile web. I think he is over stating the issue actually, but only because I think the data doesn’t distinguish effectively between apps that I believe should be web based and those I am ambivalent about. He cites 2 key data sources.
The ComScore data for total web users vs total mobile users is solid enough, showing that mobile overtook desktop in the early part of this year. Interestingly the graphic also shows that desktop user volumes are still rising, even if the rate of acceleration lags behind mobile. Not many people are taking this on board in the rush to fall in love with the so called post PC era. It’s important because to really understand the second data point, provided by Flurry, you have to look at the very different reasons people are using their mobile computers.
Flurry tells us that the amount of time spent in apps, as a % of time on the phone/internet itself, rose from 80% in 2013 to 86% (so far) in 2014. That’s a lot of time spent in apps at the cost of time spent on the mobile web.
But the more detailed report, shows that that headline number is less impressive than it at first seems. All that time in apps, it turns out isn’t actually at the cost of time spent on the web, not all of it anyway.
Of the 86%, 32% is gaming, 9.5% is messaging, 8% is utilities and 4% productivity. That totals 53.5% of total mobile time, and 62% of all time in apps specifically. The fact that gaming now occurs within networked apps on mobile devices, rather than as standalone software on desktops, only tells us that the app universe has grown to include new functionality not historically associated with the desktop web. It tells us that this new functionality has not been removed from the mobile web, that in this case the mobile web has not declined. As I said I agree with the thrust of the post I just think the situation is less acute.
Chris Dixon’s main concern is for the health of his business, he’s a partner at Andreessen Horowitz (a leading tech VC), and he is seeing the rise of 2 great gatekeepers in Google and Apple, the owners of the 2 app stores that matter, as a problematic barrier to innovation, or rather a barrier to the success of innovation (there is clearly no shortage of innovation itself).
He’s not alone Mark Cuban has made a similar set of observations.
Fred Wilson too, although he is heading into an altogether different and more exciting direction again, which I will follow up in a different post (hint, blockchain, distributed consensus and personal data sovereignty). Still this quote from Fred’s post sums up the situation rather well from the VC point of view.
My partner Brad hypothesized that it had something with the rise of native mobile apps as the dominant go to market strategy for large networks in the past four to five years. So Brian pulled out his iPhone and I pulled out my Android and we took at trip through the top 200 apps on our respective app stores. And there were mighty few venture backed businesses that were started in the past three years on those lists. It has gotten harder, not easier, to innovate on the Internet with the smartphone emerging as the platform of choice vs the desktop browser.
The app stores are indeed problems in this regard, I don’t disagree and will leave it to Chris and Mark’s posts to explain why. I am less concerned about this aspect partly because it’s not my game, I don’t make my money funding app building or building apps. But mostly I’m unconcerned because I really believe that (native) app culture has to be an adolescent phase (adolescent in as much as the internet itself is a youngster, not that the people buying and using apps are youngsters).
If I am right and this is a passing phase can we make some meaningful guesses as to what might change along the way?
I’ve been looking at mobile through the eyes of Clay Christensen’s innovators dilemma recently, which I find to be a useful filter for examining the human factors in technology disruptions.
Clearly if mobile is disrupting anything it is disrupting desktop computing, and true to form the mobile computing experience is deeply inferior to that available on the desktop or laptop. There are, actually, lots of technical inferiorities in mobile computing but the one that I want to focus on is the most simple one of all, size, the mobile screen is small.
Small small small small. I don’t think it gets enough attention, this smallness.
If it’s not clear where I’m coming from, small is an inferior experience in many ways, although it is, of course a prerequisite for the kind of mobility we associate with our phones.
Ever wondered why we still call what are actually small computers, phones? Why we continually, semantically place these extremely clever devices in the world of phones and not computers? After all the phone itself is really not very important, it’s a tiny fraction of the overall functionality. Smartphones? That’s the bridge phrasing, still tightly tied to the world of phones not computers. We know they are computers of course, it’s just been easier to drive their adoption through the marketing semantic of telephony rather than computing. It also becomes easier to dismiss their limitations.
Mobile computers actually out date smartphones by decades, they were/still are, called laptops.
Anyway, I digress. For now let’s run with the problems caused by small computers. There are 2 big issues, that manifest in a few different ways. Screen size and the user interface.
Let’s start with screen size (which of course is actually one of the main constraints that hampers the user interface). Screen size is really important for watching TV, or youtube, or Netflix etc
We all have a friend, or 2, that gets very proud of the size of their TV. The development trend is always towards bigger and bigger TV screens. The experience of watching sport, or a movie on a big TV is clearly a lot better than on a small one (and cinema is bigger again again). I don’t need to go on, it’s a straightforward observation.
No-one thinks that the mobile viewing experience is fantastic. We think it’s fantastic that we can watch a movie on our phones (I once watched the first half of Wales v Argentina on a train as I was not able to be at home, I was stoked), but that is very different from thinking it’s a great viewing experience. The tech is impressive, but then so were those little tiny 6 inch by 6 inch black and white portable TV’s that started to appear in the 80’s.
Eventually all TV (all audio visual) content will be delivered over IP protocols. There are already lots of preliminary moves in this area (smart TVs, Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV) and not just from the incumbent TV and internet players. The console gaming industry is also extremely interested in owning TV eyeballs as they fight to remain relevant in the living room. Once we watch all our AV content via internet protocols the hardware in the front room is reduced to a computer and a screen, not a TV and not a gaming console. If the consoles don’t win the fight for the living room they lose the fight with the PC gamers.
Don’t believe me? Watch this highlights reel from the Xbox one launch….TV TV TV TV TV (and a little bit of Halo and COD)
The device that the family watches moving images on will eventually be nothing but a screen. A big dumb screen.
The Smart functionality, the computing functionality, that navigates the protocols to find and deliver the requisite content, well that will be provided by any number of computing devices. The screen will be completely agnostic, an unthinking receptor.
The computer could be your mobile device but it probably won’t be. As much as I have derided the phone part of our smartphones they are increasingly our main form of telephony. As much as it is an attractive thought we are unlikely to want to take our phones effectively offline every time we watch the telly. Even if at some stage mobile works out effective multi-tasking we will still likely keep our personal devices available for personal use.
What about advertising? That’s another area where bigger is just better. I’ve written about this before, all advertising channels trend to larger dominant experiences when they can. We charge more for the full page press ad, the homepage takeover, the enormous poster over the little high street navigational signs telling you that B&Q is around the corner. Advertising craves attention and uses a number of devices to grab/force it. Size is one of the most important.
Mobile is the smallest channel we have ever tried to push advertising into. It won’t end well.
The Flurry report tries to paint a strong picture for mobile advertising, but it’s not doing a very good job, the data just doesn’t help them out. They start with the (sound) idea that ad spend follows consumption ie. where we spend time as consumers of media, is where advertisers buy media in roughly similar proportions. But the only part of the mobile data they present that follows this rule is Facebook, the only real success story in the field of mobile display advertising. The clear winner, as with all things digital is Google, taking away the market with their intention based ad product delivered via search, quite disproportionally.
There are clouds gathering in the Facebook mobile advertising story too. Brands have discovered that it is harder to get content into their followers newsfeeds. The Facebook solution? Buy access to your followers.
That’s a bait and switch. A lot of these brands are significant contributors to the whole Facebook story itself. Every single TV ad, TV program, media columnist or local store that spent money to devote some part of their communication real estate to the line “follow us on Facebook” helped to build the Facebook brand, helped to make it the sticky honeypot that it is today.
And now if you want to leverage those communities, you have to pay again. Ha.
Oh but there’s value in having a loyal active base of followers I hear the acolytes say. Facebook is just the wrapper. Ok, then in that case ask them all for an email address and be guaranteed that 100% of your communications will reach them. Think that will work? Computer says no.
Buying Facebook friends? That’s starting to whiff too.
That leaves Google/search. The only widely implemented current revenue model that has a future on the mobile web. Do you know what would make the Google model even more effective? A bigger screen, and a content universe on the open web.
To be fair the idea that we must pursue pay models is starting to take hold in the communities that matter. This is good news.
Read this piece. It’s as honest a view as you will find within the advertising community and it still doesn’t get that the mobile medium is fundamentally flawed simply because it is small. There is no get out of jail card free for mobile, unless it gets bigger.
Many of the businesses we met have a mobile core. A lot of them make apps providing a subscription service, some manage and analyze big data, and others are designed to improve our health care system. The hitch? None of them rely on advertising to generate revenue. A few years ago, before the rise of mobile, every new startup had a line item on its business plan that assumed some advertising revenue.
What did you think about the Facebook WhatsApp purchase? It can’t have been buying subs, it’s inconceivable that most of the 450m WhatsApp users weren’t already on Facebook. Similarly even though there is an emerging markets theme to the WhatsApp universe, Facebook hasn’t been struggling in pick up adoption in new markets. My money is that Zuckerberg bought a very rare cadre of digital consumer, consumer’s willing to pay for a service that can be found in myriad other places for free. WhatsApp charges $1 a year, a number of commenters have noted this and talked of Zuckerberg purchasing a revenue line. I think they have missed the wood for the trees. That $1 a year, its good money when you have 450m users, for sure. It’s even better when you have nearly a billion and many of them are getting fed up with spammy newsfeeds. What will you do if you get an email that says “Facebook, no ads ever again, $5”. He doesn’t just get money, he also gets to concentrate on re-building the user experience around consumers, not advertisers.
The WhatsApp purchase is the first time I have tipped my metaphorical hat in Zuckerberg’s direction. The rest is morally dubious crud that fell into his lap, this is a decently impressive strategic move. I still won’t be signing up anytime soon though.
Ok. Small. Bad for advertising. What else?
Small devices also have necessarily limited user interfaces. The qwerty keyboard for all of its random derivation works really well. There is no other method that I use that is as flexible and as speedy for transferring words and numbers into a computer.
The touchscreen is impressive though, the device that, for my money, transformed the market via the iPhone. My first thought when I saw one was that I would be able to actually access web pages and make that experience useful through the pinch and zoom functionality. I had a blackberry at the time with the little scroll wheel on the side. Ugh. But even that wonder passed, now that we optimise the mobile web to fit on the small screens as efficiently as possible. No need to pinch and zoom, just scroll up and down, rich consumption experience be damned.
Touchscreens are great, they just aren’t as flexible as a keyboard. As part of an interface suite alongside a keyboard they are brilliant. As an interim interface to make the mobile experience ‘good enough’, again brilliant. As my primary computing interface … no thanks.
When the iPad arrived the creative director at my agency, excited like a small child as he held his tablet for the first time, decided to test its ability as a primary computing interface. He got the IT department to set up a host of VPN’s so that he could access his networked folders via the internet (no storage on the iPad) and then went on a tour of Eastern Europe without his MacBook.
He never did it again. He was honest about his experience, it simply didn’t work.
What about non text creativity? Well, if you can, have a look inside the creative department at an advertising agency. It will be wall to wall Apple. But they will also be the biggest Macs you have ever seen. Huge glorious screens, everywhere.
You can do creative things on a phone, or a tablet but it is not the optimised form factor. It seems silly to even have to type that out.
If small is bad, and if mobile plays out according to Christensen’s theories (and remember this is just speculation), then eventually mobile has to get bigger. Considering that we have already reduced the acceptable size of tablets in favour of enhanced mobility this seems like some claim.
For my money the mobile experience goes broadly in one of two ways.
In both scenarios it becomes the primary home of deeply personal functionality and storage, your phone, your email (which is almost entirely web accessible these days),your messenger tool, maps, documents, music, reminders, life logging tools (how many steps did you step today) as well as trivial (in comparison) entertainments such as the kind of games we play on the commute home.
The fork is derived from what happens with desktop computing. The computing of creation and the computing of deeper better consumption experiences.
We either end up in a world with such cheap access to computing power that everyone has access to both mobile computing and desktop computing, via myriad access points, and the division of labour between those two is derived purely on which platform best suits a task. Each household might have 15 different computers (and I’m not even thinking of wearables at this stage) for 15 different tasks. This is a bit like the world we have today except that the desktop access is much more available and cheap, and not always on a desk.
Alternatively, the mobile platform does mature to become our primary computing device, a part of almost everything we do. This is much more exciting. This is the world of dumb screens that I mentioned earlier. If mobile is to fulfil its promise and become the dominant internet access point then it must transcend its smallness. There are ways this could happen.
We already have prosthetics. Every clip on keyboard for a tablet is a prosthetic.
We already have plugins. Every docking station for a smartphone or a tablet is a plugin.
The quality of these will get better but they still destroy the idea of portability. If you have to haul around all the elements of a laptop in order to have effective access to computing you may as well put your laptop in your bag.
I can see (hold for the sci-fi wishlist) projection solutions, for both keyboards and screens where the keyboard is projected onto a horizontal surface, the screen onto a vertical surface. Or what about augmented and virtual reality? Google glass is a player, although the input interface is a dead duck for full scale computing, but how about an optimised VR headset that isn’t the size of a shoebox? Zuckerberg might have been thinking about the metaverse when he bought Occulus but there will potentially be other interim uses before humanity decides to migrate to the virtual a la “ready player one”, VR could be a part of that.
The more plausible call is a plugin / cheap access model hybrid. Some computing will always be use case. I think it’s likely that a household’s primary AV entertainment screen for example, the big one in the living room, will have its own box, maybe controlled by a mobile interface but configured such that your mobile platform isn’t integral to media consumption. The wider world, though, I think will see dumb screens and intelligent mobile devices working together everywhere. Sit down slot in your mobile, nice big screen, all your files, all your preferences, a proper keyboard (the dumb screen is largely static of course, so it comes with a keyboard) and touchscreen too of course, all in all a nice computing experience.
There are worlds of development to get there of course. Storage, security and battery life among other areas will all need a pick up, but if we have learnt anything since 1974 it’s that computers do get better.
I really woke up to Christensen’s theory with the example of the transistor radio, which was deeply inferior to the big old valve table tops that dominated a family’s front room, often in pride of place. The transistor radio was so poor that the kids that used them needed to tightly align the receivers with the broadcast towers. If you were facing South when you needed to face North, you were only going to get static. But that experience was good enough. Not for mum and dad who still listened to the big radio at home, but for the teenagers this was the only way they could hear the songs they wanted to hear, without adults hovering. All of those limitations were transcended eventually and in the end everyone had their own radio. One in the kitchen, one in every teenager’s room, the car, the garage, portable and not portable. Radio’s eventually got to be everywhere, but none of them were built around valves like those big table top sets.
Mobile computing is a teenager’s first wholly owned computing experience (I’m not talking about owning the hardware). It happens when they want it to, wherever they are. It’s also been many an older person’s first wholly owned computing experience, and it’s certainly been the first truly mobile computing experience for anyone. I might have made the trivial observation that laptops were the first mobile computers, and they were, but you couldn’t pull one out of your pocket to get directions to the supermarket.
Christensen’s theory makes many observations. Among them are that the technology always improves and ends up replacing the incumbent that it originally disrupted. The users of the old technology eventually move to the new technology, the old never wins.
We aren’t going to lose desktop computing though. Or at least we aren’t going lose the need states that are best served by desktop computing, if you want to write a 2000 word essay, your phone is always going to be a painful tool to choose. But you might be able to plug it in to an easily available dumb workstation and write away in comfort instead.
At least let’s hope so.