Thursday 29 October 2009

Business Breakfast Cafe

This morning I had the pleasure to present some futures messages at a breakfast meeting of small and medium business enterprises. This type of session is always interesting for me because of the wide range of people and businesses present. The breakfast and coffee was very good and I especially enjoyed meeting members of the group before and after the formal presentation. Thanks to those who invited me and to all those present who attended.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Wearable displays

While all the talk these days is about touch screen displays, the form factors of future devices will exploit rollable and foldable displays, before the display is separated from the device altogether. The first instantiation of this separation is likely to use special glasses which the user wears and which projects an image onto the lens. I have already seen some excellent prototypes of this sort of display by Konica Minolta in Japan.

Another Japanese innovative company NEC have now given details of what I expect to be the natural successor to the glasses based displays, a prototype retinal display. The 'tele-scouter' has been described as a tiny retinal projection display and microphone mounted on a frame in front of the wearer's eyes. The application they have described it being used for is to translate and display languages. This seems a bit ambitious even for a prototype at this stage but it is good to see these types of innovation beginning to see the light of day. One quote even states that NEC hope to bring something based on this technology into the market during 2010 so watch this space!

Monday 19 October 2009

Kindle or kindling?

The Kindle is Amazon's attempt to do with reading books what Apple did with the iPod with listening to music. It's an e-book reader using a monochrome e-paper like screen which you can hold in the hand. And its strongest point is that it is linked to the Amazon book store machine which has been so successful with paper versions.

However this will not revolutionise book reading like the iPod revolutionised the music industry. Certainly it will mean that more players in the publishing industry release more electronic titles but I don't see it replacing the paper book in the same way that electronic music downloads have replaced the majority of music media forms. It's all about the experience. The actual experience of listening to music is basically similar whether your earphones are plugged into an iPod or a Walkman or a stereo system. The actual experience of reading a book feels quite different when holding a book of paper pages and when staring at a screen and pressing a button to advance pages. I can see that a minority of people who travel and carry around a lot of heavy tomes with them at present might choose the device but its wider attractiveness is questionable.

And then there is the overall experience of using the Kindle device. The screen is quite small. There is less text on each screenful compared to most books' pages. And there is a waste of space on the bottom third of the device where Amazon has found it necessary to put a plastic button keyboard which makes the Kindle look reminiscent of an electronic calculator of old. The Sony e-Reader is at least a better design with more touch screen real estate and no plastic keyboard. However they do not have the relationships and hence volume of media content to bring to their offering.

There is another player in the wings who could combine ease of use, an experience which is much better and a store/portal with content in the e-publishing area. It is also likely that they would attempt a rather different business model too ... the price of a device with the required design and features needs a use case more than just reading books in order for people to buy it in enough numbers to ever become a mass market or revolutionary device. Watch the Apple space!

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Danger in the Cloud?

There is a fair amount of debate amongst computer folk about Cloud Computing. This is where data and increasingly applications run on servers in the Internet 'cloud' rather than the device of the user. The approach is championed by players such as Google and Amazon etc. But other more traditional players are also not to be left out. Both Apple and Microsoft have flirted with the cloud approach too. Apple have their MobileMe offering which even has an icon of a white cloud on a blue background! This provides a store in the cloud for users' data which can be synced between devices as well as other features. In early 2008, Microsoft bought an innovative company called Danger who ran a product called Sidekick. Sidekick stores its users' data in the cloud. On the 2nd October, SideKick users on T-Mobile's network could not access their online services nor their data. Even after service was restored four days later, they still had not access to their data and were later told by Microsoft/Danger that the data had been lost. This is the real danger for cloud-based systems.

There are degrees of cloud computing ... it doesn't have to be an all or nothing situation ... particularly in the case of mobile devices, which generally need charging or other basic processes from time to time. Some less than full cloud computing approaches don't remove all of the users' control of their data but simply automate the use of the cloud as a resource. Apple's approach for example is that all data on an iPhone or iPod is backed up on the user's local PC when it is charged and synced to that device, even though the active use of the device transfers the data to their MobileMe cloud. In this way, if the Microsoft's Danger/Sidekick problem happened at MobileMe, users would at least be able to restore data from their most recent local backup. Microsoft also have a cloud based service called MyPhone for Windows Mobile users. This also only backs up data to the cloud and not a local device.

So users have to be wary of vendors who place all of their data and its backups in the all powerful cloud which of course also offers many benefits for sharing and accessibility from anywhere etc. And users would also do well to understand that not all Cloud services are the same in respect of how much control they are left with for their own data.

Friday 9 October 2009

Information = power?

Many organisations today are actually very good when it comes to targeting their marketing information at you and me. Much of what drops through the door is now a product of careful computer-run analyses and increasingly relevant to the recipient. In the future there will be scope for organisations to do this analysis in real time when the customer presents themselves. In the same way, consumers will not need to price-compare the night before they go shopping next day. Instead the consumer will also be able to do an analysis of the product they are interested in, in real time in front of the shop assistant. The richness of the dialogue between customer and sales person will need to be much more to negotiate the deal. These are just a couple of ways that information will result in a different power balance between those who are taking part in retail transactions.

In addition the shop may know when a customer with one of their loyalty cards is passing near the store in a particular mall. And likewise, the customer may be notified when in the mall of special deals on items they have bought before they enter a particular shop. So presence and location will also be important information.

Some information that is available is currently held by third parties will be available to the rightful owners. At the moment your doctor probably holds your health records, although in theory you might argue that they are your personal property. The ownership of new information, not currently available to people may be especially tricky to assign.

The way we regard, share, assign ownership to, and use information in the future will be crucial. And privacy is another story completely!

Monday 5 October 2009

Unlock your car with your iPhone!

The Zipcar is a twist on the usual rental car arrangement (more like a car sharing hybrid model) where members pay $50 a year membership fee and then roughly $8 an hour for usage. Cars are left all over cities and once authorised, members can unlock and drive one wherever they need to go. Now members of Zipcar can use an iPhone application to find and book cars on the move. The application even allows the member to remotely sound the horn of a particular car they have booked in order to find it in a parking lot, and to unlock the car once they have swiped their membership card over the windscreen (windshield). About a quarter of Zipcar members apparently have an iPhone already so the market and overlap of the user base is quite good. It's an early sign of what we will see our future mobile phones able to do.

I already have a token in my pocket for my Lexus which unlocks the car when I approach it without the need to press any buttons and allows me to start the engine once inside without any key. The car already links automatically to my iPhone to allow hands-free operation. It will be interesting to see if the integration philosophy of the iPod hardware interface by car producers is repeated at an application level with smartphone platforms like iPhone, and how quickly. So in future, if I have my phone in my pocket, it may not matter if I don't carry the token anymore. Such developments do not need any further technology breakthroughs; rather it just needs the cooperation between organisations in different markets, e.g. phones and automobiles.

Friday 2 October 2009

Sony Wireless Power

I blogged before about attempts to power devices wirelessly in the labs at MIT in the USA. Now it seems that Sony has demonstrated the ability to 'transmit' 100 volts over a 50cm range. This was enough to power a small television set wirelessly! Some fairly big (40cm) coils are required to do this using magnetic resonance. There is no indication that this would lead in the short term to applications in commercially available products, indeed it might be prudent to measure and understand what effect the use of magnetic resonance might have on the human body at these field strengths first! However it demonstrates that the last common umbilical cord for consumer electronics is now under threat!

Thursday 1 October 2009

Robot cars sounding fishy?

Nature has often inspired scientists in the way they look at solutions to problems. The communication and co-operation of ants and the flight and navigation of the bumble bee are two examples of this. Now we learn that Nissan is looking at how shoals of fish manage to move at speed in large numbers together in close proximity without collisions, to inspire how to make robotic cars of the future avoid collisions as well. The car in question is called the EPORO ... which is being shown at the CEATEC technology show in Japan, one which I was able to attend some years ago. They are able to demonstrate 6 EPORO cars travelling as one shoal or group! While fish use sight and lateral line sense, the EPORO interestingly uses ultra wide band radio to "see" and a laser range finder as a lateral sensor. I have blogged before about robot self-driving cars ... these developments by Nissan are steps along the road towards this (sorry for the pun!).