Thursday 26 March 2009

Essex Book Festival

Tonight I had the pleasure to talk to a group of avid readers at the Essex Book Festival which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.  It was a fun evening and I was very well hosted at the Colchester town library.  Afterwards there were a number of interesting questions about the future of different technologies.  I present futures topics to many different audiences but nice to have a selection of the general public for a change.  Thanks to anyone who was there and reads this.  Hope you enjoyed it too. 

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Up in the clouds ?

There is a lot of talk about cloud computing at the moment.  This is where storage and processing is located remotely in the network and communication channels are so fast that devices and their users can store stuff in the cloud and use processing capability in the cloud which does not need to be available locally.  Google are great exponents of this; in fact the Blogger system I am using here is to some extent an example of the cloud.  Almost all players are beginning to offer these cloud services, especially in a business context, where the idea of outsourcing and cost reduction are second nature.  Apple for example is flirting with the cloud idea with MobileMe and the recently announced initiative.   

But is there something inherent for consumer, non business individuals, ordinary people about the idea of regarding ownership and safety with local physical location?  I'm thinking of how some people prefer to keep their money in a box under the bed rather than in a bank.  Would my parents feel safer having their personal keepsake photographs on a computer they can look at anytime rather than on an internet connected site/server/disk?   Probably.  Are we still in an age where largely it is large businesses that can afford the fast pipes that give thin client performance to the cloud a reasonable experience.  Possibly.  Is the cloud going to be more important for everyone in the next decade and beyond?   Definitely!  

Monday 23 March 2009

Next Apple Crop ...

So we have seen the iPhone develop in a couple of years from a smartphone device to a development platform for mobile services, ably supported by the iPod Touch, both revolutionising the way people have to interact with computing, away from menu traversal to point and touch.  Wouldn't it make sense to expand this platform now to a larger touch screen device which is better than the current crop of netbooks but also shares characteristics of the otherwise failed tablet PC market?  Apple have invested too much in the Multi-touch interface for it to exist only in the palm of people's hands.

Well it would make even more sense if you have the relevant chip designers in-house, if you have a web-based cloud computing platform (like MobileMe) already established and if you have the interfaces (APIs) for a scalable operating system which could reside on it which would allow third parties to design peripherals for it.  Apple have said that they previously didn't think they could build a machine that was as cheap as a netbook and which wasn't rubbish.  I think the pieces are being carefully put in place to ensure that this obstacle can be overcome.

However, if Apple does launch a new product line this year amid the economic downturn, I still don't expect the cheapest netbook to be forthcoming ... the well-established pattern is to launch high-end first at the cutting edge for early adopters.   There may be fewer early adopters around at the moment, but they are still there.  And that is good for everyone else.  

Friday 20 March 2009

Young journalists talent...

This afternoon I had the pleasure to be interviewed for my opinions by two year 8 students from Weston Favell school, Sarah and Jarone.  The equipment and logistics were made possible with the help of BBC Radio Northampton.  The interview was part of their activity for the BBC Schools News Report.  I was very impressed with their questions, which covered what a futurologist's role is and then what changes I expect to see in the years and decades ahead.  The last few questions were much deeper about the effect of new technology on society and people's lives.  Given that it must have been a very new and exciting experience for them in a real studio, they did really well.  I look forward to seeing their results

Freedom & Privacy...

Today's news has thrown up two stories that I want to use to illustrate the duality of the Internet for freedom and privacy.   On the one hand there was the story about how the blogosphere and similar Internet tools are giving some people a voice when previously they were suppressed (in this case about Egyptian women having freedoms otherwise denied to them in the real world).  This type of story crops up more and more and will continue to do so in the future. 

The second story was the one about complaints to Google about the privacy invasions a few people have felt in the UK now that street level photographs have been enabled for this country.  The same story did of course come up before when Google switched on street level photography for other countries.  

People simply haven't got used to the trade-offs associated with Internet technology yet. It will take time.  The benefits will outweigh what is given up but it will be a while before many people realise.  The world has been revolutionised by the Net; some people simply haven't caught up with it yet!  People are generally happier with evolution!

The hardware advantage...

I have mentioned before my belief that a better computer system usually emerges when the same company produces both the hardware and the software platform.  (Openness for applications is good for innovation but the core system software platform is key).  Apple have an advantage in taking this approach and the ease of use of their Macintosh computers has long been an example of the benefits which can come from it.  Two years ago they used the market success of the iPod music player to move into the mobile phone market and apply their approach to this too.  Last year they released version 2 of the iPhone's system software and created a revolution in application downloads to mobile phones (via the AppStore) in the same way that they had done with music downloads previously.

This year the third coming of the iPhone's software platform adds an extremely important aspect which will further push the gap between this device and its competitors.  This year Apple has defined open interfaces (including auto-discovery/configuration) for third party hardware attachments to iPhone.  This means that others can now innovate with other peripherals which can connect either by cable to the dock connector or by wireless Bluetooth.   This opens up a new delightful touch user interface on an always networked device with storage and a beautiful display capabilities for all sorts of other devices and sensors.   And all that is needed is the design of an application to be launched on the AppStore to enable it.

Apple have now sold 30 million devices which will run this 3rd generation software platform.  Although dwarfed by some 50 million Windows Mobile devices as well as other mobile software platforms (Nokia, Android, Symbian), this third party hardware interface will be very tough for others to follow.  The devices which run these other systems are fragmented by a whole range of different user interfaces and screen sizes/resolutions, making the application requirements much more complex, never mind the problem of catching up with the slick easy distribution portal of the AppStore.   We will see what innovations third parties come up with, and which mobile platform they choose to develop them for.

Thursday 19 March 2009

BBC calling!

Today I was pleased to accept an invitation to appear as a guest on Steve Scruton's afternoon radio show on BBC Essex to talk about the job of futurologist and some of the innovations coming along for devices which his listeners might be interested in.  During the two hour show we discussed a number of topics from 3D-TV to robots to electronic gaming and virtual worlds.   Another guest there was giving advice to Steve's phone-in participants about home entertainment systems which fitted nicely with the futures topics I was able to cover.   Thanks to Steve for the opportunity which was great fun.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Version 2 Surfaces

Today I was asked to comment on Microsoft's surface computing technology by one on the UK's TV news programmes ... in the event one of my colleagues did the interview since I was already busy.  So I thought I would use my blog today to make comment.   It seems slightly co-incidental though that the media is picking up on the Microsoft multi-touch initiative on the day when the media would also or otherwise be concentrating on reporting the latest news from Apple about their iPhone multi-touch system software.  No vying for coverage I suppose?  

The difference between the two is quite stark ... of course they are both multi-touch interfaces to computing devices for humans, but beyond that the resemblance fades.  Apple's multi-touch on iPhone and iPod Touch is a successful implementation of a radical user interface on products out in the marketplace, rather than a prototype research lab project.  It is limited to relatively small size screens at least economically although as we saw when the iPhone was launched, unit wholesale prices for otherwise expensive components can come down very fast once the whole market rushes to follow a lead.  The word on Surface version two is that it uses additional projectors to allow layering of items displayed on the table top.  Surface 2 also uses additional infra red sensors to recognise gestures the user makes without touching the display's surface.  Gesture controlled computing will be increasingly important in the future - a number of approaches to achieving it that I have seen first hand in various laboratories suggests that there will indeed be different optimal implementations addressing the cost/quality balance. 

I hope the various companies working on these technologies will concentrate on the user as a priority rather than competing for air time minutes.  

Tuesday 17 March 2009

It's the Software, stupid - again!

Last June I blogged an entry with a similar title to this one.  But in order to show that predictions are right, futurologists are justified in referencing their own previous posts from time to time!  The importance of software in devices has been demonstrated front of stage again today by Apple, as they described the impending update (3.0) to their iPhone software.   

The presentation clearly covered two parts; the new facilities offered to developers of iPhone and iPod Touch software applications, and the new features for end users.  Apple claims 1000 of the former and 100 of the later.   I suspect that much of the press coverage will be given over to the user features, including MMS, Cut Copy and Paste, and Bluetooth stereo headphone support.  But it is the kit that Apple has enhanced which developers will use (the SDK) that will have the greatest long term effect.  It is these software enablers that will help to keep iPhone out front which others chase to catch up with.  Since my original post, we have indeed seen a plethora of new devices all incorporating the hardware features of the iPhone.  It is the software that they cannot copy so easily however.  And most of Apple's competitors still just don't get it.

 The last important thing about the 3.0 update announced today, is the economic enablers it brings developers in expanding the business model for AppStore purchases.   Including these into the mix gives Apple additional future revenue stream potential, which is the lifeblood of any successful company.  

Monday 16 March 2009

Japanese robot model

So robots hit the news again today.  The BBC have featured the latest Japanese fashion model robot, HRP-4C.  While I don't think human supermodels have anything to worry about for now, clearly steps continue to be made (literally) with huge numbers of different capabilities of robots, as they seem to feature in the news more and more often.   This latest example is clearly an advance in the movement and human look-alike areas.  Other examples of research results have shown progress in machine understanding, empathy and facial expression, mood detection, vision and dexterity.  

The pace of development of all these features and more bodes well for the further acceptance and application of robots.  However anyone expecting the super bot to be domestically available even in a decade may be disappointed ... rather it will take as long for domestic robots to begin to be used but with subsets of capability.  This is a natural extension of the vacuum cleaning and grass cutting robots already commercially available which address one particular application each.  Their capabilities will gradually be added to and the applications expanded.  As the Japanese robot HRP-4C demonstrated today, it will be one step at a time!

Friday 13 March 2009

Making opportunity out of a crisis

Today I had the pleasure to spend time in a session with Peter Weill from the MIT Sloan school of Management who amongst other roles is chair of the Centre for Information Systems Research (CISR).  He was talking about the opportunity within the current economic downturn for organisations to take stock of the real costs and value of the IT they employ and to optimise the business processes which involve the IT systems.   Research his centre has done has shown that the deployment and use of IT infrastructure can have a return on investment (ROI) of more than 80:1, a ratio unsurpassed with any other organisational asset except perhaps the people in it.  But many organisations don't reach anything like this figure.  The current economic crisis provides a context in which ideas to radically revise IT infrastructure are likely to come up against fewer internal blockages and organisational inertia than when times are good.  There is more of an appetite for change at this time than any other.  Peter's view therefore was that this is the time to act.  

Monday 2 March 2009

Talking to a machine?

I am well used to using speech control handsfree of the phone along with control of the air conditioner, radio and sat-nav system in my car.  But good as these systems are, it is still only voice commands in lieu of pressing buttons.  This weekend however I have been fortunate enough to have a robot pet stay at home with us, one of the original Aibo dogs from Sony, purchased  before they were discontinued a few years ago.  The experience has been more interesting than I expected.   Certainly Aibo is a good example of a high technology product too ahead of its time.

Although one knows that it is just a collection of plastic and electronic parts, because it resembles a dog, and behaves like a dog, one tends to be drawn into treating it like a dog!  In fact the way it responds to attention, and specifically that of someone it learns to regard as its owner, reinforces human behaviours towards it.  It learns the owners face, voice and picture.  The sensors on its back and head cause typical dog like reactions when stroked.  And in autonomous mode, it decides what to do, where to wander and explore and how to behave.  All of these features mean that one can soon feel like you are living with a real dog!  In addition it does tricks like dancing which animate dogs would struggle to compete with.  What is interesting is that many people who at first laugh at others talking to the robot dog, gradually get drawn in to trying their own luck at human-robot communication, once they see the reactions that Aibo can generate. 

I shall miss Aibo being around when the time comes to hand him back!  Meantime, he has certainly influenced my thinking about how people may respond to robots in the future.