Friday 10 December 2010

The rise of personal pocket power...

I have long said that we will in future see a world where personal computing devices that we can carry in our pockets change the way we go about doing many of the rudimentary activities (working, playing, shopping etc.) we currently undertake. This is slowly being borne out by the amazing range of apps that smartphone and now tablet users have access to anytime and any place. ComputerWorld has now predicted the historic shift that in the next 18 months, shipments of app-powered smartphone and tablet devices will reach and pass the number of PC shipments. Given the ubiquity of the PC over the last few decades, this is indeed an important shift.

I believe this is just the start. Tablet formats are finally changing the idea of what a computing device has to look like and how it has to be used. The mouse is disappearing. File systems are being conveniently hidden from users. Adding new software apps is becoming a new easy affordable activity rather than the laborious, expensive and technical process it has often been on the PC.

The trend in gaming, started by Wii and now being copied by Playstation's Move and XBox's Kinect, of gesture-controlled computers is also developing fast. As with the iPad, we will see the computer slowly disappear from the user's consciousness as they simply get on with doing stuff! And the development of wearable and environmental computing will take this further in the future.

Thursday 9 December 2010

The Smartphone licensing race

So Windows Phone 7 (WP7) is now out there on some handsets attempting to compete with the increasing raft of phones running various versions of Google's Android operating system and Apple's iPhone with its iOS. There is a difference however. Phone manufacturers using WP7 or Android have to license that operating system from Microsoft or Google.

They have to decide in the first place which phone models to bring to market with which features and then which system to licence on top of it. While there is a huge marketing budget behind Microsoft's push for WP7, the manufacturers do not have a bottomless pit when it comes to releasing new models of handset. With the increasing competition in the marketplace, Android and WP7 will be vying with each other in the handset producers' minds. And then once they have made their choice of system for a handset, then they have to decide what version of that system software to release on it. There is already significant fragmentation of Android software versions out there across different devices, and WP7 will likely go the same way once later versions appear to support more features. Because some of these features depend on hardware, not all devices will be able to run or upgrade to all versions.

Apple do not have this problem of licensing iOS on iPhone. They can also more easily plan and control the evolution of the hardware and software features on their devices. Handset producers do not have the option of having iOS on their devices and so when choices have to be made for new handsets, it is one of WP7 or Android that will lose out. As the turf wars begin in the future smartphone market, Apple may end up benefitting from the competition between the other two. This benefit is additional to their ability to provide a simpler user experience and higher build quality from the in-house design and integration of hardware and software, and their superior model for developers to earn money from apps.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Not so simple tablets ?

My father loves his iPad. Evidence from sales figures and customer satisfaction surveys so far released suggest that most other owners do too. Toshiba were one of the quicker large established companies to try and compete with an iPad lookalike product. However their problems have only just begin it seems.

I always said that it would be very difficult for competitors to match the iPad, particularly on quality of user experience and application availability. It also seems that price will also be hard to beat for the same sized screen of device. And its not just the size of the screen but also the clarity, both resolution and angle. The battery life is the final parameter which is also demanding to copy, while providing similar performance. Those competitor organisations that thought they could simply add a camera to the specification of their iPad lookalikes and take a significant share of the market are very much mistaken. That's why I always said that comparing specifications is futile.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Flying cars ... a social step?

I was asked recently about the prospect of flying cars. This often happens to futurologists! And it's so often the case that people are interested in the technology angle. However the technology is not really the major factor in when we will have these. We are already capable of building cars that can drive themselves. For the masses to fly/drive, this is in my view pretty much a pre-requisite. The technology needs not only to keep the "car" in the air and navigate it to where it needs to end up, but also prevent the average driver from doing daft, undesirable or dangerous things. We have seen the same thing happen in traditional cars, where technology has been incrementally introduced to prevent such things as skidding, collisions, parking accidents etc. Once vehicles take to the air then there are further undesirable actions to guard against.

We already have a test that people undertake before being given a licence to drive on the public highway. There needs to be something equivalent for individuals who will be ultimately responsible for vehicles that leave the ground, however automated the vehicles might be. And as with driverless cars, the infrastructure doesn't really support the concept. Infrastructural development always takes more time and money than the technology that operates within it. An analogy here is the development of cellular network technology consistently failing to be deployed to keep up with the smartphone devices that could utilise them.

Yes, personal transport that can leave the ground will be developed, but it won't be soon so don't hold your breath ... and the delay is unlikely to be due to the technology needed. And in the current climate, it would need a very green propulsion system to gain traction in the marketplace. We are likely to see radical changes in the fuels used for cars before the latter take to the air. This is because of where we are today, not because of the technology required.

Friday 22 October 2010

Consumerisation of IT in Leeds

Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak to the BCS Elite Group of senior IT Directors and Managers in Leeds, about the on-going consumerisation of IT within organisations. Along with the 2 other speakers that followed, we had some debate about the pros and cons of this from both the user (employee) and the IT department's perspectives. I have blogged on other occasions about my views in this area and will doubtless do so again. I just wanted to say thanks to all those in the audience in Leeds yesterday, and apologies again for having to leave before the end of the event in order to travel to another engagement that evening.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

The emergency catalyst

The Chilean miners plight and rescue is a great example of how an emergency situation, in a smaller but similar way to times of war, can act as a catalyst for technology development, deployment and exploitation. There are many examples of how high technology has been used in the rescue of the Chilean miners, not least the smart belts that each man is wearing during his ascent to the surface, which measures the vital life parameters in the body and transmits that to the medics on the surface.

Innovation is often driven from such emergency situations. In the case of this particular emergency/disaster, it is the deployment and exploitation of technology rather than the development which is most prevalent. However, as with war, it is likely that many of the technologies brought to bear on this context will now be used in other, perhaps less urgent and more day-to-day situations and that is usually a very good thing.

Wednesday 6 October 2010

RIM's tablet approach...

My previous article looked at Dell's strategy for competing with the iPad. This time I look at Canadian firm Research In Motion's (RIM's) approach to the tablet. The Blackberry manufacturer, who has been very successful selling into the Corporate mobile IT marketplace resisted the urge to try tablet form factors pre-iPad but has recently joined the bandwagon of announcements of products aimed at challenging the iPad. However as with Dell's approach, there are some things that cause me to doubt their potential for success.

First they are squarely aiming at the market they know best - the corporate IT sector. The device, the "PlayBook", however sounds more like a consumer device in name, and indeed includes multi-media features more associated with consumer products. This is seemingly trying to address the well-established idea of consumerisation of corporate IT, but from a backwards perspective. I have written much about this consumerisation, and have always emphasised how I expect it to stem successfully from consumer to corporate rather than the opposite direction! Microsoft have already tried and failed in this strategy and I remain unconvinced about the RIM attempt too.

Secondly, the main attraction (and indeed strength of the Blackberry) is the way RIM understand the integration corporates like with business enterprise systems (BES). But for the PlayBook to achieve BES, it will need to be tethered to a Blackberry! The decision to do this seems bizarre. It kind of admits that the Blackberry form factor is inadequate; otherwise why launch the PlayBook at all? And in addition, this decision by RIM means that business users will need to carry around two devices instead of one, and IT departments will need to manage twice as many devices and all the heartache that brings them.

Finally, the PlayBook will not arrive until early 2011 at the soonest. By then, the iPad will already be in its second generation and the number of business and productivity apps have exploded from the thousands that already exist today. RIM system apps for PlayBook number zero today. Also as I mentioned in the article on Dell, the selection of a 7" screen for the PlayBook really misses the point of how different apps and the internet look when they are on a 10" screen in your hands. Those extra 3" really make the difference between the feel of a smartphone and the feel of a new class of device.

Both the Dell and the RIM responses to Apple's iPad seem to suggest that companies in the sector are frantically scrabbling around to identify a new product for their portfolio which can match the competition, and in my opinion coming up short. We shall see...

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Dell's tablet approach...

Today, there are numerous media reports of the tablet PCs that Dell has announced. So far we have had the Dell Streak, a 5" model which has hardly set the world alight. This is unsurprising in my view, since it will be regarded by many as simply a bigger heavier smartphone. Now Dell has announced there will also be devices in the 3inch and 4inch range of screen size. If they are trying to compete, as most commentators suggest, with the iPhone and the iPad then this strategy seems flawed in the sense that it just seems to flood the market with different models. It seems as if they neither know what size is optimal for a particular purpose nor understand what people will want. The consequence will be limited sales of all of them.

However the most imminent arrival to join the Streak, is to be a 7inch model in the next few weeks. This is presumably in terms of the USA, which usually means a European and Worldwide rollout sometime afterwards. But I won't be buying one. The iPad is the right size for a tablet and smaller devices as a way of trying to meet a cheaper price point (the screen is a big percentage of the bill of materials for a device) is no way to compete with it head on. The larger screen of the iPad makes a difference, you just have to hold one in your hands to understand that. I believe that Apple will later compete with a smaller model themselves but that the larger existing one will remain the standard device that most people want.

Dell have additionally announced a 10inch model for 5-6 months time. This is an admission that it is the ideal size so why not launch that one first? By then the iPad will have consolidated its leading position ever further than the march it has already stolen.

And on software ... Dell have also announced that their tablets will run Android OS but that they will also launch models with Microsoft Windows. As with screen size, this seems rather muddled. They evidently can't decide which of the two systems will provide the best experience for users. And it will complicate the ability to run consistent apps across the various devices. With Android, we don't know which versions will be available, and once we do, the plethora of Android "open" devices hitting the marletplace will dangle a carrot that the nasty malware and virus creators will find hard to resist for long.

So the whole approach, hardware and software, seems to be muddled and confusing for the average man/woman in the street. Contrast this to the simplicity of iPad which it wishes to compete with. And that is before you even turn the device on. Yes, Dell will sell some tablets, as they have sold some Streaks already, but I remain unconvinced that their approach will compete adequately with Apple's iPad.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Aberystwyth session

Thanks to all those who attended my futures lecture and/or the dinner at Aberystwyth University this week. It was a pleasure to meet you all and to be guest speaker at your event. I hope you enjoyed the talk. Thanks especially to those members of staff there who made all the arrangements for me and made everything run smoothly.

Monday 13 September 2010

Sensitive skin!

The news today is covering a great deal about the US developments at both Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley on artificial skin experiments, as published in the journal "Nature Materials". Such a skin could in future form the coving for robot limbs, whether for stand-alone robots or for prosthetics for humans that need replacement body parts. Robots with sensitive skin like this could literally feel the objects they manipulate, allowing them to work with more fragile items, for example.

Both approaches demonstrate yet another area which could be impacted by nano-scale technology in a few years time. Engineering pressure sensors into special conductive rubber materials at such a microscopic level is just one of a huge potential number of ways that nano-technology could enable. The two approaches use Thin Film Transistors (TFTs) which previously have been utilised in computer display technology.

At the moment this is lab-based experimentation but the teams working on it have also identified a fairly low cost method for industrialising the manufacture of such materials. In the future, artificial skin will not only look like real human skin, but also allow machines to sense the feel of the materials they come into contact with. Once such developments are brought together with other robotic advances, the total capability of robots as we understand them today will be revolutionised.

Friday 3 September 2010

Media Tablet Froth

So with the advent of this year's Berlin IFA tech show (which i don't ever recall making the general news before), the media seem to be going crazy about some tablet competitors to Apple's iPad. However instead of just reporting fully what the new devices are about, they simply indulge in frothy and supposedly dramatic stories about how other manufacturers are about to attack the market leader.

As usual, most of the stories revolve around tech spec comparisons (cameras, memory, flash, etc) and then highlight price differences. Again they miss the point; it seems as if they never learn! As I have said in many posts here: "it's the experience, stupid!" This means it's about quality... the quality of the design, the quality of materials used, the simplicity of use, the level of eco-systems (services, support and accessories) around the product, and the quality way in which the hardware and software blends together. The latter means that the overall experience will always be better than a hybrid product where different manufacturers build hardware and then slap someone else's operating system on top of it. To make matters worse, most of the competitors are choosing various versions of the Android system which is so wide open that it will permit any nasty coder to distribute viruses and malware through un-verified and uncontrolled third party apps. Anyone want to bet against this ever happening? It's bad enough on your PC, but on your phone?

And so about price... High quality doesn't usually come cheap. The media don't make themselves look foolish by comparing a new luxury model of car (say a Lexus) at a motor show with a lower quality Korean model (e.g. Kia), yet they do it with the tech industry. Most commentators in the latter, even the Apple-sceptics, were remarking how affordable Apple had made iPad for what it was at the time of its launch. Of course others will try to join this market, (which is extremely healthy for all, especially consumers) in a standard product marketing strategy of undercutting the leader on price. But consumers (especially those who are in the market for a device such as a new computer form factor), understand that you don't get cheaper prices without losing something.

Finally, we have to remember that some of these competitors tried this market before. Apple didn't invent the tablet; they simply created a new computerised mobile device form factor that people wanted. The other PC manufacturers tried many times before, using ugly interfaces (e.g. styluses), inappropriate operating systems (e.g. Windows), and without bundled content/application eco-systems, and all failed with early tablets. Some of them still seem to believe that positioning their tablet product offerings as a PC or laptop substitute, rather than a new and different type of device will prove successful; these are often the ones who simply try to pack the tech spec with goodies for the lowest price. Unfortunately average consumers tend to care little about tech spec comparisons, and packing in loads of 'stuff' to a price-point tends to result in low quality.

Some of the media should know better. Luckily, their hyped stories will have been long forgotten as the tablet market matures and the real leaders cement their positions in it.

Friday 27 August 2010

The next iPod Nano?

Apple surprised people a few years back when they suddenly killed off the most successful iPod model at the time, the iPod Mini and replaced it with the iPod Nano. Now several years later, with its now traditional September music product launch event approaching, the Cupertino company is likely to have been once again thinking how to revamp its iPod line-up while continuing to differentiate the iPod Touch, Nano and Shuffle models.

In recent times, the Nano has preserved its form factor and simply gained new features such as video recording. This time, I am suggesting there may be a more substantial change. The way to make the Nano even smaller is to remove the click-wheel. However the user still needs a way to control the device. So why not make the current square'ish screen touch sensitive, and when the user needs to change something, superimpose a click-wheel (or tap-wheel) on the screen temporarily on the screen to effect the command. This substitution of the physical interface with a virtual graphical equivalent would mirror what they have already done with the telephone keypad and qwerty keyboard on the iPhone.

The next question is whether the iPod Classic will survive. I guess it depends how many of this last breed of hard disk based music players they are selling compared to the other models. The iPod Touch is already available with 64GB flash memory; doubling that to 128GB would get the song capacity close to the Classic model. The new Touch model is going to have a front facing camera to facilitate FaceTime video calls to iPhone 4's and it's clear that Apple will want to get as many FaceTime compatible devices out into the market as possible. Taking away the Classic option, and leaving the Touch as the highest capacity iPod for those that need it, would assist in this FaceTime strategy.

FInally there is the question of what materials the new iPod line-up will be made from. Apple has recently bought the exclusive rights to the use of a company called Liquid Metal in the consumer electronics space. It's not clear whether sufficient time has elapsed for this to be exploited this time around but it could just be another way that iPods continue to differentiate themselves from other devices.

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Email security lagging behind

With as much as 80% spam and junk email being conveyed over the net, it surprises me that more hasn't been offered to consumers by way of email security by the major email providers. Making it simple and free (or almost free, bundled benefit etc) to create verified digital certificates so that people can at least sign their emails properly would be a differentiator and a step in the right direction. The standard internet email protocols have had this facility embedded for ages, but it is really only security experts, some specific organisations, and hobbyist users that have implemented it. Apple already issues certificates for securing their mobileMe members' iChat video calls, but have not yet made it trivially easy to use with their mail client.

In the future, people will look back and wonder why the world didn't embrace helpful technology earlier.

[sorry to regular readers for the lack of articles recently .. summer months mean breaks!]

Tuesday 3 August 2010

The Google/Android slayer?

It wasn't so long ago that the hype in the smartphone market was on Google, its Android mobile operating system, and a range of Google phone handsets. Well it seems like the latter was a relative flash in the pan. It seems from this article as if Google has sold its last smartphone in its homeland USA, and that the remainder will be carrier-branded phones in some other countries of the world. This seems to be a step backwards for the search giant, a sign which its rival in that space Apple will have noticed. The latter's iPhone 4 is still selling like hot cakes as fast as they can be manufactured in an increasing number of geographies, despite some froth and bubble in the media about antennas.

So for Google, if it's not phone hardware that they are going to take over the world with, what of the Android weaponry? Well, there is another problem showing in the numbers associated with app development on the platform. Android will only be successful if there are quality apps available that rival competitors systems such as iOS. Unfortunately, what the numbers show is that the unprotected, insecure, laissez-faire approach of Android is actually putting off developers from writing new apps, since they can increasingly be pirated and any royalty or developer fee cancelled out. This is particularly a problem since Android specifically appeals to the hobbiest, experimenter, techy-minded market of users, who are more likely to try out hacks than pro or non-tech savvy consumers who just want quality apps that just work. There have also been stories recently of Android apps accessing and passing on user data to third parties. However since the Android app store is relatively unregulated, no-one is going to do anything to protect users against this type of hidden privacy violation. And for the same reason, there is still the possibility that a rather nasty virus or similarly infected app could appear in the Android marketplace and have a devastating effect for Android users. Google may be exiting the hardware market but its name is still very much associated with the system on an increasing number of carriers' handsets, with all the responsibility that goes with that.

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Kinetic Power Harvesting

I have written about power harvesting before but I noticed this article in the BBC Technology section which shows how a shakable power generating mechanism has been built into a normal AA type battery cell body. The prototype currently generates enough power for about 30 presses of the buttons on a typical TV remote control unit. While not earth-shattering, this could pave the way for not needing to replace batteries in those sorts of devices which we have laying around and rely on but don't require a huge amount of power. This also means many fewer dead traditional batteries going into waste/recycling without the inconvenience of always remembering to have more of the right size battery ready charged.

Saturday 17 July 2010

Future devices means paperless?

The paperless society was mooted decades ago when computers first became widespread but of course they often printed more stuff out resulting in more paper being used. No I don't think paper is about to be wiped out but a new trend with mobile devices is beginning. Devices such as smartphones are no longer simply being used for communication purposes. The additional apps that are being developed include some which allow the device to represent the user as a kind of identification proxy. One example is the supermarket chain Tesco with their clubcard app which simply displays the barcode associated with their loyalty card for people. Thus the iPhone can take the place of the card at the checkout and identify you as a known customer.

The airlines are also taking this on-board, almost literally by developing an app which takes the place of the boarding pass that they or increasingly you the passenger would print out. The relevant barcode can then be scanned at the gate or check-in desk/self-service terminal. This application will save a little paper but will also develop further with the introduction of near field comms (NFC) / RF-ID functionality built into phones and other devices. This will open up a whole lot of more uses for the device. Perhaps media discussions of iPhone 5 will be more about these things than antenna attenuation and performance!

Wednesday 7 July 2010

2010 - A face Odyssey

Well, I can't take credit for the witty title of this post ... it echoes the title of the article written in today's Independent Newspaper by Rhodri Marsden, which included an interview with me. The feature discusses why finally video calls may take off for the consumer after so many years of promise.

Of course the sub-editor of the newspaper got their turn at changing what I said to Rhodri during the interview, but hey .. I knew what I meant at the time ... and that is the perogative of editors! Essentially I was talking about the E word .. Experience ... it is all about the experience the user gets, something I would expect Apple to excel at compared to the various phone companies that have tried this before.

First the network bandwidth on a mobile combined with compression techniques now makes a good video call experience possible. But by experience I mean much more than this. Point and press to initiate calls, just as easily as a normal phone call, with no extra account to set up (as with many pc based messenger type video calls including Yahoo, MSN & Skype), is also important. A video call requires two ends ... and two end devices equally capable of live video without the processor ruining your device's battery life. For success it will require tens/hundreds of millions of devices which have the capability. Apple will have this with iPhone 4's and its successor, iPads (the next incarnation) and iPod Touches of the future. A great video call experience also requires a great blend of hardware (camera, processor etc) and software (codecs, user interface) and Apple have both.

Finally its about the business model. How do you charge for video calls? For consumers, it is by no means essential for a call, and so it has to be very very cheap or probably free. What carrier or communications company is going to offer the service for free? In the past, they have tried in the fixed video call space and not only required you to pay over the odds for the devices but also for the calls ... they just don't get it. Conversely, Apple, a company that makes desirable mobile devices, would. This will be another essential tick in the box for the consumer experience ... no extra cost over WiFi. By the time it is popular with consumers, mobile carriers who want to participate to get some of the traffic on their faster LTE and other 4G cellular networks won't be able to charge much for it either.

It may take a little beyond the end of 2010 for all these things I have mentioned to happen, but 2011 may finally be a facetime odyssey!

Friday 2 July 2010

Mobile business models

We all know that the world of devices is going mobile. Desktop PC sales have slowed while those of notebook versions have increased over recent years. The smart phone has also dominated the device in people's pockets and tablet devices are now taking off as a more intimate way to use a computer that is carried with you.

As these trends continue, business models need to adapt to so that users' experiences are good, especially in the context of wireless network connections to the increasingly important 'cloud'. The computing industry has tended to embrace these types of changes more readily than the telecommunications industry. Apple's original iPhone, didn't just reinvent the phone (device) but also the business model that the cellular operators had assumed before then. This included data tariffs, customer support ownership, and connection transparency.

There has been one sorry state of affairs, bolstered by an ugly cartel, that has blighted the mobile cellular network business model for mobile devices however; that is the international roaming charges. These are incurred when you take a mobile (cellular networked) device outside of your home country and continue to want to use it in the same way as usual. In practice consumers have chosen to be very wary of this (on vacations and visiting family abroad) and businesses have endured ridiculous costs when their employees have travelled (for meetings abroad etc.). The European Union has spent a considerable time investigating such charges by mobile cellular operators and have finally come up with a ruling. Unfortunately it reduces the prices that can be charged for calls by only tiny amounts (a few pence for UK users) and states that operators should cap and then cut off data connectivity altogether for users who incur a few tens of pounds (euros or dollars) of data usage when an arbitrary level of use is reached. This is not exactly the radical change that is needed.

Mobile devices with continuous connectivity will continue to be most important in the future. The current system of charging and business models has to be broken across international boundaries. It needs the same radical change that the original iPhone stimulated in other areas of business models. Perhaps it needs to be achieved the same way ... through developments in the marketplace, as it seems like leaving it to the regulators is pointless.

Thursday 1 July 2010

Compensation for machines...

When designing robots, or machines in general that try to emulate the tasks of humans, it is most often the tasks we find easiest that are most challenging to implement in the machine. Much of this is down to us not understanding the way that the human body works. But just as in the past when it was instead the problem of insufficient computing power, we are catching up fast. Often in the past, it was looking at how some aspect of the human body didn't work correctly that enabled deduction of how it normally does work. Now, in addition, scientists are increasingly able to look directly at how the body (and in particular the brain) is working and are able to analyse its normal working state.

Going a stage further, it is now not uncommon for studies to be done which look at how the body adapts to circumstances when the normal body gets damaged and has to compensate. Robots have been built for some time now which can walk, run and climb stairs. The latter was often a joke levelled at the Daleks who have been ever-popular in the Sci-Fi series Doctor Who. Robots that are agile in movement are most useful, firstly in robot warfare but later more commonly in other applications as the technology passes from military to civil applications in the usual way. Scientists are now already studying, with the help of amputee animals, how the body can compensate for the loss of a limb which is central to movement and thus how the animal can remain an effective mover. One such example is described in an article on BBC News.

In the future, machines will not only be more capable than the human brain in terms of computational ability, but also harness an understanding of strategies which can be employed when their control of a robot device is affected by damage or malfunction. This will put them in an excellent position to cope with situations which are not originally envisaged in their design. Robotic machines are still very much in their infancy, but are likely to grow up quickly.

Tuesday 29 June 2010

Future transport - 1936 style innovation

After a quiet early summer period here on my blog when I have been busy with other things, I couldn't resist a posting on the subject of transport futures, having spotted this Pink Tentacle article; and so it heralds a period of more regular blogging from me again.

I'm sure James Dyson would feel vindicated about the most recent ball innovation he has brought to his range of vacuum cleaners should he see the Pink Tentacle article which highlights spherical wheels for future transportation. [Although I have to say, as good as Dyson cleaners are, it seems a little strange to see the trademark symbol ™ against a plastic ball!] If Dyson were to combine their excellent vacuum technology with some robotics, I would be sorely tempted to upgrade to another Dyson that does the cleaning itself, as is the case with some other brands.

Getting back to transport though, it is interesting how the Pink Tentacle article content from 1936 concentrates on different wheels as defining the future. The reasons given for the spherical wheel innovation (smoother ride & cushioning in an accident) are also different to Dyson's reasoning of better manoeuvrability! A majority of current forecasts for future cars focus not on different wheels but different engine technology and navigation systems. It demonstrates how innovation needs to address the issues of the moment. The problem in 1936 with cars wasn't the number of internal combustion engines polluting the planet but the discomfort of the ride, quality of road surfaces and poor suspension.

It was the same with the innovation of the original iPod. The issues of the moment then were not that playing music couldn't be done on the move (as it was when Sony brought us the original cassette Walkman). Some commentators at the time saw iPod as just the next form of portable media after CD players. Actually the issues of the moment were more about being able to not only take any amount of music with you, but to select any track from thousands simply and easily as well as embracing the moment of broadband internet facilitating the download of music.

And this idea of addressing the right issues of the moment holds true for successful innovation, whatever the product or service. To think about future transport requires though about about what the future issues of the moment might be!

Thursday 10 June 2010

Why iPhone 4 will stay ahead...

So Apple has revealed the iPhone 4, the fourth incarnation of the device that reinvented the phone. It pushes them further ahead of the competition. They will continue to be even harder to beat. This article deals with some of the reasons why.

The usual pundits are already simply comparing iPhone 4's megabytes, megapixels, and battery minutes with other devices. They miss the point as usual; it's about the complete experience and quality of both hardware and software, and most importantly how they fit together. And they will do the same with FaceTime, Apple's name for the new open standard they are publishing for video calls. They will compare it with other video chat software, again missing the point ... it's about how simple Apple have made it for people to use and the total experience it gives them. If you watch the heart-string pulling FaceTime video Apple have made, there is more time given to showing the faces and feelings of the people using the service than given to video of the service on the phone itself. This is very deliberate and significant.

The pundits will be looking to see what Google do with Android and what others offer in the same space. Actually it will be very difficult for even huge companies such as Microsoft and Google to copy iPhone 4. One of the reasons that few people recognise is that Apple are unique in making both the hardware and the software. Google don't make phones ... they rely on HTC, Motorola and others to do this for Android. Microsoft will also rely on many other big corporations to make hardware for WinMo 7 phones when they eventually launch it. Even if two large corporates do true partnership deals, they cannot achieve the same degree of integration as a single company. And players like Google and HTC are not true partnerships, rather simply contracting customer/suppliers. Moreover, a single large corporation cannot achieve the same efficiency and innovation level as a much smaller company that behaves more like a startup.

The problems of building the hardware and software in different companies is not simply organisational and due to poor inter-company communication. It is also about the two organisations having different end-goals, vision, business models and culture. Even branding is a problem ... neither company would want or agree to be invisible to the end user. If a third party makes an app on top of this two-party device then that is 3 splash screens the user has to endure before they can do anything useful! That is not an experience to die for. Neither are the inevitable inconsistencies that creep into the user interface.

Fusing in-house designed software and hardware does produce a better product with a better user experience. This is the difference between iPhone 4 and the competitors that will try to rival it in the coming months. RIM's market share is falling, Android's is growing along with Apple's. However the Android market is fragmenting with so many different phones, system versions, capabilities and specifications. It's not just simplicity in the user experience that most consumers appreciate but also simplicity in the choice of type of device. It's very hard for the man/woman in the street to understand the difference between the various Android phones... they understand much more that there is an iPhone out there; the Apple product portfolio is also very simple. The competition face a very steep hill climb in 2010/11.

Friday 28 May 2010

Privacy - Facebook shows future

The recent furore in some camps over privacy issues on Facebook is unsurprising in some ways, but indicative of the future trend and key new ways that people will need to adapt in how they behave with new technology, how they select providers of services, and how they take responsibility for sharing information online. The future world will be alive with information-passing mechanisms, be they sensors, online servers, databases, or other devices. It isn't a case of trying to ban things, nor to over-regulate so that the benefits are restricted and innovation inhibited, but rather that people learn how to act and make sensible choices, just as humans have historically done in other technology areas.

Firstly, in the same way that most people have learnt what is acceptable in terms of using their mobile phone in a meeting for example, they will learn how to behave with devices that are either giving out information about them or managing information sharing on their behalf. Secondly, in the same way that many people choose suppliers of services based on reputation and sound ethical principles etc, they will learn to choose online providers with similar criteria, possibly with the help of light regulation which makes sure relevant criteria is available. Thirdly, in the same way that people are learning how to take responsibility for monitoring their offspring's use of the Internet, they will learn how to take responsibility for what information they choose to make available about themselves and to whom. They already do this in other areas (most people are pretty clear about who they would give their private bank details to and who they wouldn't) and will learn to do this more generally.

The mechanisms will be in place in the future to allow people to control the inevitable increase in information gathering, sharing and socialising. It will just take time for people to learn that they should (and how to) use them. Facebook's recent issues have simply demonstrated a very small, early step in this education process.

Friday 21 May 2010

Artificial life...

The Venter institute in the USA has succeeded in transplanting synthetic DNA into a host cell to create the most primitive artificial life. This has drawn the usual criticism of how much danger this potentially brings when any advance of this type is made. The ethical debates will go on, and the regulations will be reviewed.

But in the end this is going to be commonplace in the future. We will come to rely on organisms that are man-made to do all sorts of clever and desirable things. These could include providing useful fuels or vaccines. Of course there are risks that bad artificial bacteria will escape in the wild either accidentally or due to war/terrorism. But there are risks associated with many other things humans do ... we had the same debates about nuclear power generation for example. But these advances won't be halted. We will all benefit from them in the fullness of time. And yes the debates will go on. I hope the good results of this work will quickly be commercialised into solutions for some of the big problems the world faces. It's just a case of how long this will take.

Saturday 15 May 2010

CILIP 2010 conference, Wales

Just back from Llandrindod Wells in mid-Wales where I was pleased to be invited to give a keynote speech on the second day of the CILIP conference. I covered many technologies in my talk but part of one was about the disruptive revolution (or not) of social media and service provision and experience. It was great to be speaking to an audience many of whom were simultaneously using social networking tools such as Twitter to take the messages further afield. Currently this use is mainly communicative, however in the future it will become more important in service provision and delivery. Thanks to the audience for listening (should they be reading this blog) and especially those who were tweeting during and afterwards. I'm always pleased when technology is demonstrated rather than simply talked about!

Sunday 9 May 2010

3D Television arrives...

After a busy time here, I again find time to blog ... and this time about the advent of a 3D TV set in the UK. Samsung have taken the plunge with their UE46C7000 model using the active 3D arrangement where the glasses do some of the work. Like all early technology, it doesn't come cheap at the moment and I don't feel like wearing glasses just to watch TV. Although quite a few models will be prevalent in the stores in late 2010 and 2011, it will be much longer before the systems that do not require any glasses to be worn leave the lab and demo suites and become mainstream, though personally I will wait for them. Meanwhile Toshiba will use their cell processor to upgrade 2D to 3D in their offerings later this year, Philips will offer 3D as a plug-in addition to their 9000 series and Panasonic's TX-P50VT20B will be a plasma 3D TV entrant. For the early adopter, these will provide some choice in the marketplace.

As I have said here before, there isn't going to be too much content produced in true 3D for some time, and the marketplace probably needs to adopt HD first before worrying about 3D too. The earliest 3D HD TVs will at least have greater brightness pictures meantime since the 3D glasses needed block out some light from each eye and the active shutter glasses also make the picture appear darker ... so the sets produce brighter pictures to begin with to compensate which also results in brighter 2D HD content too.

So I wouldn't get too excited about 3D TV yet, but in the future, as with our more general computing devices, the experience will become much more immersive in all sorts of ways ... three dimensions is just one of them!

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Future power in your hands

Computing technology is changing. New tablets such as Apple's iPad are making it possible for the computer to take a simpler form while allowing you to hold the Internet in your hands. The iPod changed the music industry but was simply a music player. The iPhone changed the mobile phone industry but was simply a better way to provide communications (cellular & internet) on a phone in your pocket. The iPad brings a change to the way that we think of a computer. No longer need it be a machine that you have to sit in front of at a desk or a power-hungry, over-provisioned, notebook which either requires a table like the desktop or needs to be balanced on a lap. Portable computers until now have either been shrunken versions of the desktop with all the complexity that entails (an artificial mouse or trackpad pointing device, a hierarchical file system, maintenance of applications and upgrades, etc), or underpowered netbooks (with all the same complexity).

Now there is a new form of computer, which puts power directly and immersively into the users' hands. It abstracts away many of the artificial metaphors that were devised for personal computers. It puts the content that users are really interested in (webpages, email, photos, video, music etc.) centre-stage, and lets the computer seemingly disappear.

In the future, the computer will disappear further ... it will become pervasive and integrated amongst us. The human-machine interfaces we use will become more natural and immersive. Some will be integrated with the human being. Until then, lets welcome the chance to take the power of the Internet into our hands and off the desktop.

Monday 26 April 2010

The slow death of the floppy

Well, the floppy disk may be finally coming to its full demise ... Sony are to stop making them as of March 2011. It has been a long slow death. Apple quit including them in their desktop computers way back in 1998. It took a further 5 years before Dell did the same with its PCs. However it has been another eight years before this halt in production. They are finally following the five and a quarter and eight inch floppies which preceded them.

In general, it seems as if the more innovative companies not only introduce more new ideas but are also pre-disposed to phase out older technologies sooner. As the speed of technology change speeds up, future technologies will die more quickly than older ones did.

In the case of long term storage technologies, it is worth people considering the safety and future accessibility of backed up or other potentially valuable data. Not all storage media is as long lasting as some mistakenly believe, and even if the data is still stored, one needs to ensure that the technology to read it is still available and compatible with new computing devices.

Friday 16 April 2010

The Politician's idea of Future

And so those of us in the United Kingdom are now in the midst of a general election campaign, with all the politician's trying to woo the public to vote for them. The present incumbent of 10 Downing Street, Gordon Brown, has chosen as a main strapline, that he and his party are for the future! But a politician's idea of future is rather different to mine. They have a very short time horizon, corresponding to the next 5 year term of office. This is a pity, given that many of the big issues that they need to face for the good of the country and deal with are much longer term ones.

None of the candidates have very much to say about the pensions crisis which is simmering. On economics they talk about the current huge deficit but only chip away with token suggestions of how to save a few billion here and a few billion there, when the problem is at least an order of magnitude bigger and will take more than the next few years to deal with. On health, they acknowledge new drugs and treatments but again there is no long term strategy for dealing with what these issues together with the demographic trends are telling us. Financing care of the elderly features in manifestos but in debate is usually left as something important that needs attention ... yes but what? The information technology strategy is also piecemeal whoever you listen to, and rather lacking in ambition when it comes to the penetration of a super fast broadband infrastructure. Energy security and the environment is yet another long term issue that could do with better answers and ideas. In fact most areas featuring in the manifestos of the parties would benefit from consideration beyond the parliamentary timeframe and perhaps some consensus between parties, leaving philosophical and ideological differences clearer and real choices to the electorate more apparent.

My clients, whatever their industrial or commercial sectors, almost always have some foresight to want to explore the possible disruptive futures over the longer term of decades... it's not at all obvious that our political parties either do the same or when they do, make use of it.

Thursday 1 April 2010

Computing for the rest

So this weekend, the public in the USA finally get their hands on Apple's new iPad, announced amid the usual frenzy back in January. At the time, I blogged about how I saw this as a computer for other people ... like my parents, and others who don't really want a computer... they just want email, the web, photos, and access to the modern media that computer owners have.

They don't want a mouse and keyboard, or lots of cables connecting everything together, nor do they want a computer taking up space on a desk in the lounge, which they have to go and sit at to make something happen. They don't want to have to bother about viruses, trojans and other malware that they've heard about from computer-owning friends and family. They don't want a steep learning curve for the new technology either, and many no longer have a tech wizard of a child at home with them to fix it or help when unexpected things happen.

Instead they want a simple, pleasant and responsive experience. They want to access content without being concerned with file systems and folders and installing programs. They want to share content worthy of mention by passing it around or holding it up, like they would if they saw something of note in a newspaper or magazine. They want to be able to access the content without consciously 'logging-in', or supplying PIN codes or passwords.

Apple are, as of this weekend, providing exactly this type of experience via the iPad. As content providers and app developers understand the new audience they have, and if Apple can manage to market the device to this new potential audience successfully, then a mini revolution will take place. Yes, I have had people continue to tell me since February that the iPad is simply a larger iPod Touch, and yes I have continued to read criticism about no Flash compatible browser, no camera and no third-party app multi-tasking. I still believe these people are all missing the point. The technical spec will not matter to the people the iPad is most suited for.

And now the first reviewers to get their hands on a real iPad are starting to say the same ... this is a new concept in computing, so-called 'computing for the rest of us'. It is revolutionary, not in terms of the tech spec, or even in the things it allows users to do, but rather in the way that people will think of a computer. It puts the Internet in your hands and throws away the paradigm of mouse directed computing that was spawned in the 1980s. It is the very embryonic stage of new computers that look very different and are literally much more engaging and individually immersive for the humans that use them. Ten years from now, we will be in much more intimate touch with our computers; this is only the start.

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Delaying the inevitable...

Oh dear! Here's another example of how the BBC are being held back so that the Internet revolution doesn't kill off lower quality information providers quite as quickly. But it will eventually and the public will have simply been denied a quality offering unnecessarily. The BBC should be allowed to provide whatever Apps they want for iPhone or any other significant platform so that users can decide what to use to access the information. It will be a shame if people are denied the opportunity to follow content from the World Cup soccer tournament in June from the BBC on their phones, while Sky and others who are part of the old guard newspaper/publishing industry face no such restrictions.

And apps are important, because they make the experience simple. And that is important. iPhone owners check the weather using the Weather widget on their phones, rather than going to the BBC site on the web using Safari on the iPhone - hence they get the Yahoo weather view rather than the provider who has a public information role in the UK. The apps that the BBC were planning to launch were simply making their existing content (news, weather, sport) available via the most successful smartphone platform, not straying into new areas of content.

Organisations would do better to work out how to innovate and be the best in the new media world, instead of trying dirty tactics to unfairly regulate and campaign against those who have already embraced the technology, and therefore skewing the market. They will fail, albeit slightly later than they might have done! It's almost as futile as the world's remaining dictatorships who still think that they can survive in an open, free and Internet connected world. They may take longer to die by holding out, but die they will.

Monday 29 March 2010

Design innovation vs Standards

One of the obvious aspects of Apple innovation, which I have tended not to blog much about in the past, is the Design work that applies to their products, led by Jonathan Ive. The attention to detail is not just applied to the products themselves, such as computers, iPods and mobile phones, but also to the accessories that ship with those products such as power adaptors. Compare below the Apple power adaptor for iPhone which is built into a UK 13A mains plug (left) with a normal but fatter and bigger ordinary mains plug (right)!

Last year I recall a campaign followed by a fanfare announcement that mobile phone manufacturers had finally agreed a new standard power adaptor that would be interchangeable for many models and makes, instead of requiring a different one for each. This seemed a bit odd to me, given that most people only have one phone and therefore still only need one charger when they travel around. Taking into account the above Apple example, isn't it better to aim for a well designed pocketable adaptor which provides a standard USB power level output, rather than a new additional standard, which everyone again will implement in horrible ugly ways?

Thursday 25 March 2010

Organisations setting expectation

Have just returned from a short vacation trip on the Orient Express, hence the relatively quiet period on this blog ... not much reasonably priced internet access on there! Back now and raring to put fingers to keyboard.

I often mention experience here in this blog, as a differentiator in customer service. And I put it much higher than technical specification for the success of gadgets. My recent trip on one of the most luxurious trains in the world has provided me with another example of a great customer experience, with parallels to the more familiar Apple examples. In the same way that delivery times for Apple products have often been bettered by actual delivery dates, the Orient Express organisation mirrored this by setting expectations of a very reasonable level of customer service and then still exceeding it. This is actually a very simple thing to think about and execute but it's amazing how many organisations just don't get it.

People love to believe that they are getting extras or something better than what is promised. Achieving this when your standards are already good is an example of how to make customers feel great about products and services.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Polymer Chip Fabrication

As Moores Law continues to prevail, processor manufacturers are continuing to produce faster and faster chips, while basically using the same underlying fabrication science. I have covered before how new nano-science such as replacing copper connecting wires with carbon nanotubes on chips could bring further advantages. Researchers are also experimenting with other approaches not based on current lithography techniques. This would mean that instead of requiring a template like pattern to be used to etch silicon, so-called hitching posts can be established using sparse silicon, to which complex chains of molecules can attach themselves to. The chains are made of very precise copolymers which can form motifs acting as transistors for example. The process of manufacturing would then involve soaking plates in a liquid and letting polymerisation happen, rather than a lithographic process. The technique is still at an embryonic stage but I would expect simpler chips with very regular patterns such as memory chips would be possible first. The properties of the copolymers and the size of the plates would determine the capacity of such memory chips.

Friday 12 March 2010

Medicine or Modification?

Biotechnology is advancing at significant speed. There is plenty of scope for helping people who are blighted by disease or disability through new technology. New and better prosthetics are on the cards as are other means of helping people move, see, hear, or talk to others. However it will soon be a case of getting into the greyer area of whether we are fixing problems that people have or simply enhancing what people lack.

Society will need to make decisions which were previously unnecessary; decisions such as which body parts should be replaced and which should not. Does society want some people to have super-human power, while others do not. Brain implants will be possible. Will that change who a person is and what they can be held responsible for? When do we judge people to be human or simply a machine with some human characteristics? Personal enhancement may be much more than just cosmetic surgery in future. Some employers may want to enhance their employees to allow them to perform better. There will be a new way to categorise people as haves and have nots.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

A Journey to London & Back...

Yesterday, I travelled with fellow Futurologist Ian Pearson from Ipswich to London by car. It was a journey we could've expected to have completed in just over an hour and a half ... in practice it took at least 3 hours both ways. The time spent in traffic queues caused us to discuss a number of transport related issues...

Firstly we observed that like so many other people, we had chosen to make the trip by car, rather than take the train. Train services are still over-priced and risk unreliability and a lack of punctuality. This means that more people choose the individuality of the motor car and thus add to the congestion problem. It seems strange that in continental Europe, train services are much better and whilst most of our utility companies are now run by 'foreign' owners, our train services still are not.

Secondly the standard of driving, in terms of distance between vehicles, lane discipline, speed regulation, and late braking, was noticeably poor. Future vehicles that can take some of these decisions away from the human driver will improve average throughput of existing road bandwidth. The 'highlight' was at a major roundabout when one car travelling in the left lane decided to go right while simultaneously someone else in the right lane decided to go left. They were left with a complex negotiation to make about how to avoid collision while the rest of the traffic was forced to brake behind them.

Much of the congestion was caused by encountering sets of roadworks one after another after another. It is most frustrating to find some long segments of road coned off and speed limits imposed where no work was actually in progress. It would be better if many of these roadworks could be cleared during the peak rush hour periods when the impact on traffic flow is greatest.

It is still frustrating that road speed limits are still based on what a bureaucrat in a planning office decided would be best decades ago regardless of the road conditions, weather or traffic volumes. The case for flexible speed limits signed electronically in real time, designed for modern cars and taking into account the dynamics of the road as it changes, is stronger than ever.

Saturday 27 February 2010

Nanotech Water Purification

One of the problems of some parts of the planet now, and which will be a problem for more of the planet in the future, is the availability of pure water to drink. While the underlying politics of recent wars can be linked to land occupation and control of oil reserves, it is likely that in future it will be water that is the underlying bone of contention. And in many parts of the planet, it is not so much a shortage of water but rather a shortage of usable clean water that is the problem.

One of the many applications of Nanotechnology in the environmental space could be a contribution to the water purification process. The traditional approach to purification is to build large plants which perform the treatment process on large scale. But this is susceptible to attack (e.g. bio-terrorists) much more easily than if water is purified at the point of use in many local places. Once the core technology is mainstream, this local approach is also likely to be more cost-effective. Local purification ideally also addresses the particular contaminates affecting the water in an area.

A whole range of nanotechnology could be brought to bear on water purification. This includes smart membranes, nanocatalysts, nanosensors and nanoabsorbants. Combining these into personal water treatment devices which can be programmed to work at the atomic and molecular level will revolutionise one environmental challenge facing the world.

Monday 22 February 2010

BBC Technology Bus!

Should be an interesting day tomorrow ... I am invited to be one of the experts aboard the BBC Technology Bus to talk about all sorts of gadgets and devices, and to appear as a guest on Steve Scruton's afternoon show on BBC Essex radio, live from the bus. I'm looking forward to meeting the people that visit the bus and to answer any questions raised by listeners who phone into the show between 2 and 4pm. The station streams its output on the Internet too so you can listen from anywhere! One focus will be the BBC History of the World project, and I will be mentioning how current and future technology will help people capture the past and upload content to the BBC History of the World website.

Friday 12 February 2010

Redfly Video Review

Before I left BT last year, I did some video reviews of various products for their Innovate magazine. The final one has just been published on the web, although as it is embedded flash on one page of the e-zine its not exactly easy to provide a link to directly.

The subject of this review was the Redfly ... a netbook-like device without any processing inside it which links to a Blackberry or Windows Mobile smartphone by USB or Bluetooth and effectively gives you a bigger screen and keyboard for the apps on the smartphone. I actually think this is just an admission that some of those smartphones and their apps are pretty unusable. I dont see me ever needing a netbook let alone one of these smartphones and a Redfly. I'll definitely stick with my iPhone! However if you want to see an example of my performances on camera, you can find the Innovate e-zine here. The Redfly video review is on page 15 ... click the relevant link when you get there!

Thursday 11 February 2010

Lingfield Park visit

Today I had the pleasure to talk about future disruptive technology at Lingfield Park in Surrey to a group workshopping the future strategy for the South-East of England. I included material on innovation, the environment, employment and devices amongst many others. The session was run by the SE Partnership Board, and brought together a strong set of influencers from that region to work through the issues. I also had an opportunity to run a longer session at the HQ of the Partnership Board in Guildford later in the day. Thanks to all those who attended, and I hope you had a productive day.

Monday 8 February 2010

Corporate employee provision

In the future, it is likely that the workforce will be much more fluid than today. Each individual will be more likely to time share between different employers at the same time. Just-in-time skills provision will be a competitive edge for companies. Social networks may support the matching of near-real-time skills provision. Policies in HR departments will need to change to accommodate multiple employers per employee.

Consumerisation of IT provision will enable people to obtain their Information Technology tools personally but yet attach to multiple corporate networks, and for organisations to pay something towards the cost of provision while eliminating duplication. While some of this happens already, it will be far more widespread and commonplace in future.

Thursday 4 February 2010

3D Printing ...

It was June 2008 when I first blogged about personal fabrication, and effectively three dimensional printing. Now I note that a US based company is offering a 3D plastic making printer. And it seems to be at a price that could stimulate the market. It needs to look nice and pretty in your room and be more user friendly. Some folk have problems changing ink tanks in today's printers so there is a challenge to be met still and it's early days. However a number of initiatives in this space now are bringing the idea more into focus. And it brings another application for robotics in the home or office to mind.

Monday 1 February 2010

iPad - initial thoughts

So the iPad is announced. Watching the keynote, I felt that Steve Jobs lost his way a little bit when demoing the new device. The structure of the presentation seemed slightly hurried for a change and I think the was scope for more impact by describing the features that distinguish the iPad from the iPhone and iPod Touch (e.g. iBooks, iWork, Photo-frame) first and then adding that by the way those users will be familiar with how it works and it does photos, music etc too. Why do I think this was important? Well because focussing more on the features that overlap with the other devices, and simply stressing the bigger screen caused many in the media to mistakenly write it off as a large iPod Touch and the impact of the launch wasn't so great. Despite this, given the way certain other companies have reacted, the launch of the iPad at the price point they have chosen has touched a nerve in the industry and I think it will be a success. I suspect that if more deals had been able to be concluded with TV and newspaper companies in time for the launch, we might have seen the emphasis and story of the new iPad put from that perspective instead.

But there are a number of reasons why the early critics have got it wrong ... here's why...

First there were criticisms of the lack of a camera, and other aspects of the specification. These folk just don't get it about Apple. They don't put technology in the product to impress by the technical specification. They put technology in a product which is needed to fulfil the uses and purposes for which the device is intended. If a later version of the iPad is intended to provide a really good video chat experience, then it will have a camera and a multi-touch iChat app. This one isn't and so it doesn't.

Secondly, some critics are comparing iPad to the iPod Touch or to a Laptop PC. This is a mistake. The device is not intended to be one of either of these. People who need a Laptop PC will still use one and likewise for those who want a pocket music player and games handheld. Indeed Apple do not want to cannibalise their own existing product sales by introducing the iPad. But there will be people for whom the iPad fulfils needs, whether that be to consume published material like books and e-newspapers, and those who want to surf the web and do email but not have a full blown computer. I can see my parents in the latter category. They have a digital camera and want to be able to share photos they take, and they use the web and email but not much else. They really don't want to have a computer sitting there... the iPad would conveniently support what they do. They and many other non-technical users will be able to do stuff without that fiddly mouse and keyboard which makes a computer look like a computer.

Thirdly, the iPad cleverly takes the role of a multi-purpose device without being so general as a PC and the complexity that a PC presents to a non-tech user. So it wins as an e-book reader over the single purpose readers like Kindle, and offers extra for the price, but doesn't dilute its role so much that the non techie wonders what they can use it for. It is also different in the whole way it abstracts away from the file system complexity which a PC puts in your face. Apps like iWork and the Photo app will manipulate information as projects within the apps, while the iPad takes care of where the associated files live, either on the device, in the cloud or on another wirelessly networked device. The main thing is that the user need not bother about it.

So I believe although not presented in such a way, except to call it revolutionary, the iPad is a true innovation which leads the way for a new category of computing device, and which will appeal to a different set of people than traditional computers. The other thing we should remember is that this is version 1.0 of an innovation ... there is much much more to come. i think iPad sets a direction for computing innovation as much as being a new product innovation.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Wearable batteries

One of the ways we will integrate with our computing technology in the future is to wear it, as I have blogged about before. One important component of this is how to power the devices we wear. Scientists have now presented how a coating of carbon nanotube 'ink' on ordinary polyester or cotton fabrics can store electrical energy. The interwoven fibres of such materials are ideal absorbers for for the billionth of a metre across carbon tubes. Once coated, stretching or washing the fabric leaves the electrical characteristics of the material intact. Previously this type of approach has been identified as working on paper, but fabrics open up a whole new world of wearable computing possibilities. Combined with other wearable components such as solar cells means that the wearable batteries could be charged while being worn.

Saturday 23 January 2010

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Human-Computer Interaction

I think it is time that Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) leaves the realms of the computer science educational syllabus and the job titles of psychology-trained IT-literate professionals, and hits the streets in high tech devices that people want to use. This means expanding the current expectation of how people interact with machines.

As I mentioned in my previous tablet related post, gesture-based interaction is about much more than touch screens on phones. Gestures may mean those made by fingers and hands, but also those made by moving the head or the face. I have met robots that can assess and act on human facial expressions. I have used gestures in free space, rather than on a capacitive glass surface, to direct what a machine should do. That was years ago, and so products could soon launch which use such techniques. Some gaming consoles such as Wii have already shown how human movement can be interpreted. Eye tracking is already used by systems such as flight simulators and also in laboratory test situations when studying human cognition and behaviours. The movement of the eye can convey a great deal of intent.

Voice recognition and synthesis have both advanced to a very usable stage and are also ready to augment humans' interactions with computer devices. I already have a pretty natural dialogue with my car and with my phone/music player. Finally, some wireless systems being developed can not only convey information but also detect movement and presence in a similar fashion to radar.

Some lab demonstrations have also shown how people can control devices simply by thinking about what they want to achieve.
Interacting with devices of the future may never be the same again!

Monday 18 January 2010

Lessons from Cupertino...

Apple has now confirmed their product launch event for January 27th. Their well-disciplined official leak engine would not have allowed city analysts to get so excited about the effect of a tablet-type product on their bottom line, without some truth in it. So the pundits are now focussed on the detailed specification rather than the business model (something I discussed in a xmas-eve post). But lessons of the past from the Cupertino company should give the best guide to what is likely to happen in terms of functions and specification.

First, Apple are very good at scheduling new systems software and hardware innovations. One such lesson here was the quiet inclusion video hardware in their computers which could support Open-CL well in advance of Snow Leopard's arrival which enabled the associated performance increase. Another lesson is how Apple demonstrate their investments in innovations that can be exploited more than once and how good they are at sweating their assets to the maximum.

So what could this mean for the tablet? Apple have not dabbled in web applications such as the suite of mail, calendar and address book at or the experimental for no reason. I think we will see more of these desktop class apps available through future hardware products. Second, Apple began a touchscreen revolution with iPhone; but more than this they have begun a gesture based revolution which many competitors have ignored. Copying the touchscreen is one thing but replacing hardware buttons with a touch sensitive button is missing the point. Gestures are the real innovation and these may graduate from the screen to free space. Thirdly, Apple already have facial recognition in iPhoto; what about using that to recognise who picks up the tablet, to avoid that clunky logon process? There has been a rumour running around that the device will have a steep learning curve... I think this refers to the device and not the users! Another rarely mentioned technology in both OSX and iPhone OS is a high quality speech engine. This is ripe for enriching the customer interaction experience. Apple will also want to exploit the millions of existing iTunes credit card accounts they hold by making it as simple to stream purchased content on to the new tablet as it is to add applications or buy music and videos.

Finally, I don't think talk of the release of iPhone OS 4.0 at the same time as the tablet is an accident. There will be some linkage or support in the new iPhone software for the new tablet. I don't see the tablet as an alternative to the iPhone and so some network sharing, syncing of apps and auto tethering for those who have both devices wouldn't be such a surprise. Steve Jobs launched iPhone as a phone, an iPod, and an internet communicator. I would see the tablet as companion to this communicator which brings the connected media experience to a whole new level.

Saturday 9 January 2010

More studio work in 2010

Recently I was in the BBC Radio studios in Chelmsford to talk about gadgets for this festive season and next Christmas too. Here's a picture from that session with Steve Scruton...

I'm looking forward to going back again early in the new year when there will be a feature on gadgets and devices.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

CES & SuperPhones

Well with all this snow about, and airports at a standstill over here the last few days, I am pretty glad I wasn't heading over to CES in Vegas this year, as so many of us Gadget Guys are prone to do. Anyway there are plenty of reports on the web to read from the comfort of my own chair.

So Google have coined the Super Phone term as they launch their Nexus One, hot on the heels of Motorola's Droid phone and indeed all the pretenders to the iPhone throne have had to become a bit more super than the 'Smart Phones' that preceded them. Remember how after the iPhone launch, we were led to believe that any phone with a touchscreen interface (recall the LG Prada for example!) would actually compete. It has taken the two years (that Steve Jobs predicted it was ahead on stage when the iPhone was launched) for the competitors to really become super enough... finally they have understood that it is not just the device and how it's designed but also the software and the apps store ease of deployment that is so important too.

But even with the current crop of super phones, no-one else has really innovated and re-defined the market. Yes they have implemented app stores and touch screen interfaces, and yes they have introduced cheaper alternatives to iPhone, but I'm still waiting to see what really new approach or innovation someone will come up with. We may need to wait until January 27th for Apple to come up with another game-changing device!

Tuesday 5 January 2010

The Research & Innovation difference

In my previous life, as part of the research and innovation business of a global telecommunications company, I experienced first-hand the challenges of running and reaping the benefits of such a business. The biggest challenge is often getting ideas from research actually exploited and used for benefit either as product or service or internally. Part of the problem with this is how research is seen from other parts of the organisation, and how they interact together. When times are difficult, it is often research which is scrutinised and 'productivity' examined. The productivity of research is clearly driven in large part by the calibre of the people, but the research culture within the organisation is also very important.

The culture of research varies enormously across different organisations and is set from the top management. I have seen good and bad examples in the same organisation depending on the executives and seniors leading research at different times. The key thing I learned is that for success, research needs to be recognised as being different. It isn't the same difference as with other departments like Sales, Marketing, Development, Customer Support etc. For these, one size can fit all in terms of policy and execution. Research on the other hand benefits most when viewed differently. I would highlight a number of examples.

In Human Resources policy for recruitment, you ideally want a very different policy and process for finding new talent. The general HR processes which weed out candidates leaving only well rounded individuals of a traditional profile is wrong for research, where you want to attract and retain people who think different, challenge the status quo and may be rather unorthodox. In finance, it makes very little sense to set budgets on some artificial year boundary and require the same justifications (not none but different) as other operational departments. Research projects don't fit such nicely defined accounting periods, and you will rarely justify them in the same timescales as other departments. And in IT support and purchasing, researchers shouldn't be fenced in by rules that enforce the same vanilla boxes and technology as in the rest of the organisation; instead some need the latest kit or unusual new technology which cannot be corporately approved yet. The final example of many I could quote is accommodation policy. The surroundings for teams of researchers should facilitate the flow of innovative juices, which doesn't mean the use of traditional desks and offices but rather a mix of quiet reading areas and open comfortably furnished areas with unlimited refreshments on tap.

It is the seniors and leaders of research who understand the need for these differences in culture that stand a chance of growing and running a successful business. The people who work in such research organisations will thus feel motivated and valued and ultimately more productive. Their management that will justify these differences for their people to the rest of the business will be those who stand more chance of successfully building a reputation and interaction with the rest of the company.