Category Archives: the future

Products that are features are going away

Sometime in the year 2014 the number of people using mobile Internet devices will surpass those using desktops, at about 1.6 billion, or 22% of the world’s population. Because most humans are unlike office workers in U.S. metros and spend their days actually moving around, handheld devices are the future of communications. To meet this peripatetic need, device interfaces are getting smaller and simpler.

Which means convergence is coming.

TomTom, Garmin and other GPS makers will be the first victims. Berg Insight reports that global shipments of “personal navigation devices” will crest in 2011, and then slump as GPS map functionality becomes a feature, and not a product, of handsets and car dashboards everywhere. The destruction of once-cool products is nothing new. Google Maps chewed up businesses tied to online directions. Microsoft erased Netscape by making a web browser part of its operating system. iPhones and the Droid are cannibalizing the camera industry by making photography a feature of a mobile handset. The list of once-hot products that really were attributes to be absorbed elsewhere is long: Kodak film, portable game players, Word processing programs, snow tires, home-cooked meals.

Now consider the list of current products that are likely to fade into broader systems. USB drives. Camcorders. Radios. Web browsers. Netflix envelopes. The United States Postal Service. Eyeglasses. Twitter. Each business seems insurmountable for a given time, until one of two things happens: A market entrant arrives with a better product that swallows the old one (Facebook being the one to watch here, communications subspecialists); or a new service ecosystem is born that spreads its branches over old products (the Internet digesting letter mail and bill presentment).

This is all a natural evolution, because products have to go through a period of rapid innovation and experimentation to be born and adopted before they settle down to common interfaces, which in turn are swallowed by a few leaders. The next victims are likely Foursquare and its LBS kindred, clever systems that help you find people in real space that are really just a feature waiting to be tacked on to a better network (hi again, Facebook). Yet even massive players face the same threats; Microsoft reigned over computers for three decades, but cloud computing may kill its software core. Facebook could rule for a decade more, but if your social graph becomes truly portable and owned by you, you’ll no longer need its portal. Businesses defend themselves with several shields, including innovation (hello, 3-D disc players), entanglement (damn you, wireless termination fees), or ensnarement (hmm, a Facebook Like button all over our favorite websites). Similar to vitamins, these tactics help companies live longer, but never forever.

Shrinking visual inventory is giving Darwinian consolidation a push. We look at products with our eyes; products are becoming mobile; mobility diminishes space. As billions of consumers connect more frequently through small mobile devices, they will want a convergence of services that fit in their hand. These same people have limits in their minds of how many products they can learn and use daily, so the power laws that apply in adoption of any product (how many watch brands can you name?) will drive consolidation into a handful of leaders. Why would you want to learn, as good as its financial-house-in-order help is, if Facebook Banking could make your finances as easy as chatting with Sis?

The great irony of our age is that after two decades of massive digital experimentation, we may end up with simplified glass tablets that do everything, accessed via a few monopolistic services. The web is fragmenting into a million devices, but those gadgets in turn are consolidating into a few major systems. Click and tap. We want it all, especially if one button will suffice.

Image: Frans Persoon

The motives of futurism

Our friend Max Zeledon, likely annoyed by tweets from SXSW, grew sharp tonight. “I’m increasingly becoming bored with tech pundits,” he wrote, “who continue to overreach when it comes to the future, pretending to know what the next ‘big’ thing is when in fact nobody can predict the future.” We reflected:

We’re all guilty of this to a degree. Since we all write or speak differently, perhaps it comes down to motive. Some (I like to think myself) write about future trends because we’re curious, we’re challenged, we’re puzzled, we have questions and we’re trying to sort it all out. Others may do so for more purely self-promotional motives, riding the Gartner hype cycle to draw attention to their speaking or book deals. The problem is there is huge demand for this type of bullshit. Humans, business people in particular, are exposed to massive amounts of data and have a hard time ingesting it; we long for frameworks to help us understand the world; when someone gives us a new model to screen the noise of data coming in from the future, we latch on. It could be a survival instinct, a weather forecast for winter storms ahead, but there’s deep hunger for future predictions. The demand may come from fear we’ll fail, or hope we’ll win, so we buy into Who Moved My Cheese silliness to guide our next decision. I hope I’m not the guy feeding this to make money or to build a modicum of fame. I hope I just write because I’m trying to solve the puzzle in my own head. But thanks for the warning.

Google Earth to make history playable from every angle

The first thing you think watching Georgia Institute of Technology combine security video feeds with Google Earth maps is cool. Then, like Gizmodo, your brain clicks to freaky, worrying a real-time view of the entire planet may give Big Brother the perfect tool for spying on people.

But play it all the way forward and you see a future where Google, if it builds on this experiment, can record all of history from every angle — soccer games, airplane crashes, presidential movements — for any of our descendants. This requires a little patience, people, but if we can fit video cameras into iPod Nanos, surely it won’t be long before we can combine all visual feeds into one kick-ass model. And then, as the centuries roll by, history will no longer be words on paper written by the victors, but instead real views. Imagine seeing Gandhi or Jesus Christ or Moses in action. We can’t today, of course, but a thousand years from now our descendants may look back and see us, and the inspirational leaders or demonic tyrants among us who write tomorrow’s future.

Gaming history

In the near term, say, the next 100 years, the impact will be greatest on media conglomerates. Today only a handful of huge communication firms rule the entertainment world — Bertelsmann, Disney, NewsCorp, TimeWarner, Viacom, and Vivendi Universal. But these giants and the advertisers who ride next to them may lose audiences, if entertainment becomes seeing anything from anywhere in the past with Google Earth zoomability. Movie night circa 2030: “What do you want to watch, honey?” “I don’t know — say, let’s boot up Mount Rainier exploding in 2019 and watch the people flee Seattle!”

When the world’s history is one gripping video game, entertainment will get real. Perhaps this is science fiction. But then, so is flying through the air in steel tubes and having a global communicator device in your pocket.

NYT needs new computers, but does the future?

We’ve been wondering when computer technology will tap out. This seems counterintuitive, since we all chase the new shiny thing and programs continue to strain old systems and Moore’s law is still chugging, but really — what do you do other than type at work and play with photos or video? Intel and computer makers have moved away from the chip-speed claims of the 1990s, where every six months PCs seemed obsolete when a faster microprocessor hit the market. Now, today, do you even know what your computer processor clock speed or bus speed are? Do you care?

When things become commodities, prices fall. In the future companies might give away laptops or cell phones, making plug-ins to the internet and cloud software systems as common as the electrical outlets on the wall in your home. Devices would shift in two directions: disposable — plastic tossaways that get you online for a while — and luxury, the future Apple titanium shells you might still buy and flash as a signal that you’re wealthy, intellectual, or ready to mate.

When glass panels are all around us and we have instant always-on access to a virtual world, hardware makers may go the way of the buggy-whip. Marketing will change, too — the one-thousandfold increase in content means advertisers might have no way of reaching consumers, unless they buy access to individuals. You could end up with your own CPM — a unique price on your head for advertisers to buy not media, but just you.

In this future world, you would be the center of the marketing universe, surrounded by free panels that take you where you want to go. Advertisers will have to be personal and relevant to get your attention, because otherwise they will never intercept you. Mass marketing will be dead.

Hopefully by then The New York Times will have new computers.