Friday 31 October 2008

A magic week...

As my visit to Boston comes to an end, and I fly out of Logan airport on Halloween night, I reflect on a week of meeting some top people.  These include students and faculty of MIT media lab, and those from other companies that were also there at the same time.  The innovative environment there seems to get the creative and collaborative juices going amongst most of those present.  

Today I met a professional magician, and a researcher of the power of wonder.  It was a fascinating as well as very apt way to conclude a magical week in Boston, Massachusetts.  I also wonder if there must've been some magic going on that ensured my return flight was on time for a change too! 

Thursday 30 October 2008

Robots with feeling...

One of the more memorable aspects of visiting the incredible innovative environment which is the MIT Media Lab is always the robots they have on show.  This has been true of all my previous visits and was no different today this time.  

Robots which just do mechanical tasks that humans and then simple machines used to do previously, such as welding pieces of cars together, are already relatively accepted and therefore unimpressive to many people.  Robots that take movement further and are mobile and appear to solve more general problems tend to seem more impressive to more people.  

But robots that can appear to empathise with humans and even exhibit aspects of emotional understanding and expression themselves are more impressive still to almost everyone.  This often has an emotional effect on visitors and people who meet such robots for the first time.  It is most impressive of all when the inventor and constructor who has built the robot feels emotionally affected by the result of his/her work, ... by the appearance, actions and behaviour of the robot.  This is beginning to happen.  It will be very important in the future.

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Bubbles and benefits

There have been a few bubbles in the course of history.  Those bubbles have typically left us with benefits.  The 1880's bubble left the legacy of the railways.   The 1920's bubble left much of the public utility infrastructure in its wake... The 90's dot com bubble left an internet online infrastructure in its wake.   What will the current bubble of disruption leave us with?  Even if it leads to a revision of the way banks work, it's hard to see how any significant infrastructural investment will result.  The big benefits of the past have provided a partial springboard out of difficult economic times.   It's not obvious to many what the springboard will be this time.

Tuesday 28 October 2008

Hands on the G1

Today I had my first chance for an actual play with the first phone to be launched based on Google's Android architecture, the G1.   I had read many reviews and gave my synopsis in an earlier posting to this blog, but it was nice to touch and try one for myself.  

My first observation is that the reaction of a user to this phone may be very different depending on whether they have a Google account or not.  It is impossible to make or receive a simple phone call with this device until one has created a new Google ID or entered the details of an existing account.   The problem here is not that this costs any money (it doesn't of course), but rather that the people in the world who have or desire to have a  Google account are a particular skewed population.  This may be fine if the target audience for G1 matches this but not if the intention is to sell to a more general audience.  

My second reaction relates to the connector provided on the bottom of the G1.  It seems to amount to an HTC proprietary version of mini USB with extra audio connectors.  There is no separate audio jack to plug earphones into to listen to a call or music playing on the phone for example.  And the connector is hardly standard either.  Apple received (rightly) some flack for the decision to put a recessed audio jack on the original iPhone which restricted the earphones that could be used to the ones Apple provided with it.   They subsequently removed this restriction on the 3G version released this year.  I wonder if the successor to the G1 will also revise the thinking behind the connectors used.  I haven't seen much complaint about this for the G1 yet it not only requires a specific earphone termination but also USB connection/power cord too! 

Apart from some issues with how well the included mail program handles other IMAP mail systems and some user interface inconsistencies, the general performance of applications on the G1 seemed reasonable for the first version.   However those who describe it as an iPhone killer are missing many things ... including that Apple has added so many corporate-friendly features, a significant one being full exchange support in the iPhone software updates.  But the G1 is an interesting device and will probably achieve the idea of fragmenting the marketplace further from the established players, something that I feel may well be more important in the Android strategy.   Anyway I suspect a large number of technical internet-savvy, the open-source fraternity and tech-industry people will love it as their phone.

Monday 27 October 2008

Competing in an Open World...

While over here in Boston, I have been looking at some of Professor Rebecca Henderson's  (Sloane School) work, and specifically in the first instance her work on how corporates can compete in a world of public open standards.  It is a great example of how if you examine only the 'what-if' scenarios you seriously close off the possible rationale for change or for doing the unexpected.  Examining the 'what-if-not' scenarios however, which is one of the points Rebecca makes in her thoughts on competition in the public open world, can lead exactly to the unexpected and disruptive ideas for innovation.   And further, however unusual the alternative scenarios might be, 'what if you don't but your competitors do' can be an incredibly powerful driver for revising strategy!

For a week here in which I expect to be amazed by the technological, it is good to begin Monday by thinking more about business strategy and the non-technical.  One of the great benefits of visiting a place like MIT is to combine its output with the knowledge and understanding we have within the corporate environment of our customers' worlds and problem spaces.

Saturday 25 October 2008

American beauty in Innovation

Arriving here in Boston for a week of immersion at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I am looking forward to learning about many new technology innovations and meeting some of the best academics and students in a whole range of fields of expertise.  This has certainly been the case on every previous visit and I expect nothing less this time.  

The five hour time difference has meant I automatically woke at 5am this morning but that should improve over the next couple of days!  Particular areas I am looking to investigate this week at MIT include robotics, bio-tech, consumer electronics and nano-tech.  Those of you who have heard me speak will know that I already often use examples from MIT in a number of ways.  I hope to update and add new material 'to the pot' this week.  Relationships with top academia are very important in deriving a view of the future which also has groundings in real research objectives today.

Thursday 23 October 2008

Northern Ireland & Innovation

Well despite the last post to this blog, I did eventually get to Belfast and then on to Newcastle in Northern Ireland one day later than originally planned.  I gave my speech as intended to the Civil Service conference being held there.  The plane was evidently repaired from twenty-four hours before and indeed some of the flight crew remembered me from the aborted flight the previous day.  

While at the conference, and after I had made my contribution from the platform, I had an interesting conversation with one of the delegates on the subject of innovation.  I was able to outline the relative success of initiatives such as new ideas schemes, scouting teams in other geographies, and central facilitation and management of innovation within a corporate organisation.  We also discussed the idea of an 'innovation dividend' as a measure with which to evaluate the effectiveness of research on other operational areas of a business.  This exploitation of innovation is always the most difficult part, spanning the chasm between research and operations.  But it is insufficient to innovate only at the idea generation department.  The best organisations look to innovate all along the business value chain, from research through to operational support.  This not only re-enforces the culture of innovation throughout the organisation, but also provides for the biggest potential gains.

Tuesday 21 October 2008

Aborted trip !

I was hoping to write this blog entry from Belfast today but my trip had to be cancelled due to a fault with the plane that I had boarded.  An eagle-eyed ground crew inspector noticed a few drops of liquid from one of the engines which turned out to be a fuel leak and after much testing, the plane was declared unfit to use until repairs had been effected.   The subsequent delay was too long for me to make the conference I was due to speak at.
I would like to think that some technology on board the plane would have detected such a problem, but it demonstrates the importance of the human touch still today.  

Friday 17 October 2008

Beware the bank fraudsters ...

My last couple of blog entries have been around the subject of data protection and the security of online computer activity ... this third in the series takes a topical spin on these subjects.  

The current financial turmoil affecting the banking sector and money markets offers a new fertile opportunity for the spammers and ID theft crooks.  With all the increased focus on retail banking security of deposits, and the subsequent taking over of some banks by others, expect to see a new wave of email scams in the names big name US and UK banks purporting to need you to do some account administration online which inevitably will require the submission of some personal data.  The renaming of any merged financial institutions will also open up the possibility of fraudsters using new domain names for spoof websites that seem realistic.  

Of course the thing to do is completely ignore the instructions of emails from your bank to offer up *any* information - no bank will use this method to request such data, especially by sending you to website link from an email.  Some banks have information on their web site which details an email address you can forward such phishing or other suspicious emails you might receive in their name to - so that they can be investigated properly.  Happy & safe surfing this weekend ... !

Thursday 16 October 2008

Personal computer security

Surveys show that there is a great misunderstanding and general ignorance about security on personal computers.  For instance, many people asked think their systems at home are protected by a firewall when the firewall is actually not enabled, or that because they have installed some virus protection software that they have done everything they need to do.   The general awareness of the public about how to be as safe as possible when using a computer online is actually very poor.  And on top of all of this, messages produced by software that runs on many personal computers which ask users to make a choice actually give totally inadequate information for people to make this choice rationally.  For example, the Windows XP system may announce to the user that updates are available for your computer... do you want to install them Y/N?  Many people have no notion of whether it is wise to say yes or no!   And there are many more technical messages that get issued which describe something that has been detected as happening and ask for the user to confirm some action, though most users would not understand the consequences of such confirmation. 

In the future, there will be many more ways that malware will attack personal computers and other devices.  These devices will be even more essential to people and carry even more personal information, and so people need to be better educated about what they can reasonably do to reduce the risk of bad things happening.  It is never going to be possible to make everything totally safe, but it is a question of better understanding risk.  I believe computer system manufacturers also have a responsibility to help users manage the risk better rather than giving them choices which are not explained and cannot be understood or acted on with reasonable confidence by ordinary users.

Wednesday 15 October 2008

Online data protection...

There are some that refuse to do online banking because they feel its too risky.  There are people who don't have credit cards and even bank accounts due to a lack of trust.  In practice these days it is already too late for the technophobic to opt out entirely from electronic data storage by the organisations they have to interact with or do business with.  At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who have so many store loyalty cards and are involved with so many Government departments or other organisations that they think nothing of the electronic footprint they leave behind.  Surveillance and security cameras also mean that many people especially in the urban environment are practically trackable wherever they move around. 

In the future there will be more electronic footprints left by more people, more tracking and surveillance by cameras and other sensors and less choice for people to be part of it.  There have been so many recent UK examples of data being left insecurely somewhere or lost entirely which adds to the concern of the population at large.  Fundamentally, most of the breaches of data loss, though enabled by electronic storage, have been down to human behaviour.  Culturally, this is something people have to adapt to.  This means both in terms of perception and behaviour.  The online data train has already left; it is a question of learning to deal with the cargo it carries. 

Monday 13 October 2008

Preparing for innovation

Some companies are better at innovation than others.  But much of the success is not about the ability to generate new ideas and implement them in products but how the organisation manages the process of innovation.  Apple has demonstrated many examples of this in the past and I believe are about to do it again tomorrow with the launch of their next generation of laptop computers.   I believe this launch will herald the beginning of a transition of Apple's Mac hardware to support the Open-CL facilities to be released in the next generation of their operating system known as Snow Leopard.   These facilities will provide for a significant jump in computing performance by the use of graphics processors to do more general processing tasks when they have spare capacity.   Apple did this before with the advent of WiFi 802.11N technology by ensuring that the bulk of machines out in the field would support it when the relevant software upgrade was dropped.  

I'm sure that tomorrow's laptop unveiling will mention a switch to Nvidia chipsets, but that there will be a few other headline grabbing announcements.   The significance of the Nvidia switch though will be that they are already committed to support for the Open-CL architecture.  For Apple, it will mean that the hardware pieces will be put in place for when Snow Leopard debuts, and the user experience of existing products can be significantly improved by updating the operating system.   It is this pre-planning of products which allows the software to exploit the hardware (or vice-versa) which is central to but often un-obvious about their business innovation.

Sunday 12 October 2008

Human, robot & hybrid employees?

The last blog entry mentioned the employment of robots within more organisations.  We should not expect robots to necessarily resemble human forms with arms and legs for example.  Many successful implementations especially when viewed from the viewpoint of human cultural acceptance of their new machine colleagues, will take alternative forms.  

Advances in bio-tech though will offer other opportunities.  This includes the 'enhancement' of humans through neurally-linked machine components.  Initially we will see this for those who require some help due to disability but later the option will be there for others, and in the corporate environment, it may be that for performance reasons there is some motivation to use the technology too.  We will eventually be more comfortable with humans being 'chipped' in the same way that animals already are.  The nature and capabilities of this chip will develop and evolve over time.  The initial impetus might be security, but it could also evolve into a platform for future human enhancement.  

Friday 10 October 2008

Work is an activity, not a place!

While as I remarked in a previous blog entry education has remained much the same over a very long period of time, the way business is conducted today is quite different from how it was in the past.  Businesses have evolved in the way they operate.  But still the future of business will be considerably different again. 

Structurally I expect a polarisation from the global corporate to virtual community-based enterprises.  While using the word virtual, businesses will build upon their fledgling use so far of virtual worlds for some activities and operations.  And employees will assume more power individually than they do today.  In response, businesses will have to be more individual about how they facilitate flexible working patterns and how they measure and reward performance through benefits.  The talent market for businesses to select from will be more diverse and more demanding.  Instead of assuming talent will come to them, companies will have to make flexible arrangements for employing the best people wherever they want to locate.  And the preoccupation with work-life balance will be superseded by work-life integration.   The latter will be supported by personal consumer-driven devices that integrate personal and business information filtering it as appropriate.  

More businesses will employ robots as well as humans.  Human employees will be valued much more for their abilities to be creatively innovative and to manage others from an emotional perspective, rather than simply valued because of their knowledge and skills.  Those who can manage relationships and networks of people will also be in demand, especially when they can effectively lead and manage people over distance.  

Thursday 9 October 2008

Apple's next act ...

It's now official that Apple will showcase new laptop models on October 14th.  Rumours have been circulating (as usual) for weeks.   Various interesting ideas about form factors are floating around.  But I guess that they will want to modify the design to perhaps incorporate some features from the most recent MacBook Air model, and any further slimming down over existing models will require some redesign or configuration of the ports placed on the edges of the device without compromising on the overall connectivity provided (which they could afford with the Air).  I hope they will also be bold enough to also incorporate some features from the iPhone in terms of multi-touch.  

Apple have also traditionally been very careful with the naming of their products and the addition of a new suffix word to the MacBook range with the advent of the "Air" will not have been a one-off and accident.  I suspect this is part of a plan.  The distinction has for a long time been between consumer and pro versions ... the era of the laptop is now well established and consumers are now beginning to drive IT sales for business use too (the consumerisation of IT) so a new wider range of laptops named by form factor and features would be very appropriate.  It would also match the naming convention adopted for iPods (touch, nano etc.)  

Apple have also prepared investors in recent calls for a lower profit margin through the introduction of upcoming revolutionary products.  Lowering the entry cost of their laptop range at the point that global western economies are entering recession would be a shrewd move. 

On the 14th October we will see what happens.  But I will be looking with interest given that I am writing this on a G4 Powerbook ... which is due for replacement.  

Friday 3 October 2008

Supermarket trust & privacy

As the world develops becomes more and more instrumented by sensors, cameras and other means of tracking people and their habits, some are increasingly worried about issues of personal privacy.   As more and more data containing personal information is stored on more and more electronic systems, there is an increased probability that we will see examples of information leakage such as the personal data loss examples recently occurring in the UK.   More people worry about the latter than what their supermarket knows about them, despite these sort of organisations knowing and deriving far more about their customers through loyalty card schemes.  The truth is that people worry less about giving up personal information if they perceive some benefit back in doing so.  In the supermarket's case, it may be money-off vouchers, online shopping lists and home delivery or whatever.  The fact that a benefit is perceived is more important than what it is.  

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Woz on innovation

Today I had the pleasure to meet personally Steve Wozniak, one of the co-founders of Apple Computer Inc.  It's clear from listening to him and reading his book that he worked extremely diligently on electronic design and to a lesser extent computer programming around the time of the birth of the mini and then the personal computer.  He was genuinely innovative as an engineer always priding himself on improving on the way others had addressed the same problems by thinking different.  It's also clear that one of the lessons of innovation success is often exquisite timing; being in the right place at the right time with whatever ideas come about.   Woz certainly managed that.  But it was nice to meet someone for whom the engineering achievement seemed genuinely much more important than fame or fortune.