2016/2017 Shifting Battlegrounds and Cautious Predictions for Digital

Innovation slows down in mobile devices but ramps up in bio-engineering. Voice goes mainstream as an interface. Smart environments and under the hood network and toolkit evolution continues apace.

For most people I know, 2016 has ranged between weird and disastrous. But how was it for the evolution of the digital market?

The iPhone lifecycle has arguably defined the current hypergrowth phase of the digital market. So it’s probably a good place to start. In the post Steve Jobs world, it was always going to be a question about how innovative and forward thinking Apple would be. So far, the answer is not very. 2016 was an underwhelming world for iPhone hardware (though Apple has tried harder with MacBooks). Meanwhile, Samsung which you suspect has flourished so far by steadfastly aping Apple, ironically finds itself rudderless after the passing of Steve Jobs. It’s initial attempts at leapfrogging Apple have been nothing short of disastrous with the catastrophic performance of the new inflammable Note phones/ batteries. Google’s Pixel Phone could hardly have been timed better. By all initial accounts (I’m yet to see the phone myself) it’s comparable but not superior to an iPhone 7, Google’s wider range of services and software could help it make inroads into the Apple market. Especially given the overwhelming dominance of Android in the global OS market. The market has also opened up for One Plus, Xaomi and others to challenge for market share even in the west. Overall, I expect the innovation battleground to move away from mobile devices in 2017.

While on digital devices, things have been quite on the Internet of things front. There have been no major IOT consumer grade apps which have taken the world by storm. There have been a few smart home products, but no individual app or product stands out for me. As you’ll see from this list – plenty if ‘interesting…’ but not enough ‘wow’. I was personally impressed by the platform capabilities of enabling IOT applications, form companies such as Salesforce, which allow easy stringing together of logic and events to create IOT experiences, using a low code environment.

AR and VR have collectively been in the news a lot, without actually having breakthrough moment. Thanks to the increasing sophistication of VR apps and interfaces, with Google Cardboard and the steady maturing of the space. But the most exciting and emotive part of AR / VR has been the hololens and holoportation concepts from Microsoft – these are potentially game changing applications if they can be provided at mass scale, at an affordable cost point and if they an enable open standards for 3rd parties to build on and integrate.

Wearables have had a quiet-ish year. Google Glass has been on a hiatus. The Apple Watch is very prominent at Apple stores but not ubiquitous yet. It’s key competitor – Pebble – shut shop this year. Fitbits are now commonplace but hardly revolutionary beyond the increasing levels of fitness consciousness in the world today. There are still no amazing smart t-shirts or trainers.

The most interesting digital device of 2016 though, has been the Amazon Echo. First, it’s a whole new category. It isn’t an adaptation or a next generation of an existing product. It’s a standalone device (or a set of them) that can perform a number of tasks. Second, it’s powered almost entirely by voice commands “Alexa, can you play Winter Wonderland by Bob Dylan?”, third, and interestingly it comes from Amazon, for whom this represents a new foray beyond commerce and content. Echo has the potential to become a very powerful platform for apps that power our lives, and voice may well be the interface of the future. I can see a time the voice recognition platform of Echo (or other similar devices) may be used for identity and security, replace phone conversations, or also become a powerful tool for healthcare and providing support for the elderly.

Behind the scenes through there have been plenty of action over the year. AI has been a steady winner in 2016. IBM’s Watson added a feather to it’s cap by creating a movie trailer. But away from the spotlight, it has been working on gene research, making cars safer, and even helping fight cancer. But equally, open source software and the stuff that goes behind the websites and services we use every day have grown in leaps and bounds. Containerisation and Docker may not be everybody’s cup of tea but ask any developer about Docker and watch them go misty eyed. The evolution of micro services architecture and the maturing of APIs are also contributing to the seamless service delivery that we take for granted when we connect disparate services and providers together to order Uber cabs via the Amazon Echo, or use clever service integrators like Zapier

All of this is held together by increasing focus on design thinking which ensures that technology for the sake of tech does not lead us down blind alleys. Design thinking is definitely enjoying its moment in the sun. But I was also impressed by this video by Erika Hall that urges us to go beyond just asking users or observing them, and being additionally driven by a goal and philosophy.

2016 has also seen the fall of a few icons. Marisa Meyers has had a year to forget, at Yahoo. Others who we wanted to succeed but who turned out to have feet of clay, included Elizabeth Holmes at Theranos, and the continued signs of systemic ethical failure at Volkswagen. I further see 2016 as the year when external hard drives will become pointless. As wifi gets better, and cloud services get more reliable, our need to have a local back up will vanish. Especially as most external drives tend to underperform over a 3-5 year period. Of course, 2016 was the year of the echo-chamber – a reminder that social media left to itself insulates us from reality. It was a year when we were our worst enemies. Even through it was the Russians who ‘Hacked’ the US elections and the encryption debate raged on.

One of the most interesting talks I attended this year was as the IIM Alumnus meeting in London, where a senior scientist from GSK talked about their alternative approach to tackling long term conditions. This research initiative is eschewing the traditional ‘chemical’ based approach which works on the basis that the whole body gets exposed to the medication but only the targeted organ responds. This is a ‘blunt instrument’. Instead, the new approach takes an ‘bio-electronic’ approach. Galvani Bioelectronics, set up in partnership with Alphabet will use an electronic approach to target individual nerves and control the impulses they send to the affected organ, say the pancreas, for diabetes patients. This will be done through nanotechnology and by inserting a ‘rice grain’ sized chip via keyhole surgery. A successful administration of this medicine will ensure that the patient no longer has to worry about taking pills on time, or even monitoring the insulin levels, as the nano-device will do both and send results to an external database.

Biotech apart, it was a year when Google continued to reorganise itself around Alphabet. When Twitter found itself with it’s back to the wall. When Apple pondered about life beyond Jobs. Microsoft emerged from it’s ashes, and when Amazon grew ever stronger. As we step into 2017, I find it amazing that there are driverless cars now driving about on the roads, in at least one city, albeit still in testing. That we are on the verge of re-engineering the human body and brain. I have been to any number of awesome conferences and the question that always strikes me is, why aren’t we focusing our best brains and keenest technology on the worlds greatest problems. And I’m hopeful that 2017 will see this come to fruition in ways we can’t even imagine yet.

Here are 5 predictions for 2017. (Or around this time next year, more egg on my face!)

  • Apple needs some magic – where will they find it from? They haven’t set the world alight with the watch or the phone in 2016. The new MacBook Pro has some interesting features, but not world beaters yet. There are rumblings about cars, but it feels like Apple’s innovation now comes from software rather than hardware. I’m not expecting a path breaking new product from Apple but I’m expecting them to become stronger on platforms – including HomeKit, HealthKit and to seeing much more of Apple in the workplace.
  • Microsoft has a potential diamond in LinkedIn, if it can get the platform reorganised to drive more value for its, beyond job searches. Multi-layered network management, publishing sophistication, and tighter integration with the digital workplace is an obvious starting point. Microsoft has a spotted history of acquisitions, but there’s real value here, and I’m hoping Microsoft can get this right. Talking about Microsoft, I expect more excitement around Hololens and VR based communication.
  • I definitely expect more from Amazon and for the industry to collectively start recognising Amazon as an Innovation leader and held in the same esteem as Apple and Google. Although, like Apple, Amazon will at some point need stars beyond Bezos and a succession plan.
  • Healthcare, biotechnology, genetics – I expect this broad area of human-technology to get a lot of focus in 2017 and I’m hoping to see a lot more news and breakthroughs in how we engineer ourselves.
  • As a recent convert, I’m probably guilty of a lot of bias when I pump for voice. Recency effect, self referencing, emotional response over rational – yes all of the above. Voice is definitely going to be a big part of the interface mix going forward. In 2017, I see voice becoming much more central to the interface and apps planning. How long before we can bank via Amazon Echo?

Happy 2017!

Why Digital Architectures Matter – A Business Perspective

I was recently in a discussion about digital architecture. There were half a dozen people in the discussion and everybody had a point of view, but there were two things prventing the discussion moving forward. The first was that we didn’t have an agreed view of digital architecture – a ‘what’. And the second was we didn’t have a ‘why’. 

 

My knowledge of technology architecture is limited at best. You would not want me anywhere near an actual architectural design discussion. But it was the ‘why’ question that fascinated me. Why is this relevant? Why should we bother discussing this? What’s at stake here? 

 

Let’s take a look at the competitive environments we live and work in. Increasingly, we are finding ourselves in a world of hyper-competition. What do I mean by that? 

 

First, we are competing on new parameters. Most industry leading businesses have done the basics, so the battleground for competition has shifted. Often the differentiation itself comes from an information driven or ‘digital’ part of the service. Last month, in New Jersey, US, I agreed with a colleague that a primary basis for choosing a rental car would be the quality of the SATNAV system. But it is also likely that you have done enormous amounts of optimisation on your operational models. I just read about UPS’s optimising routing by minimising the number of left turns (in the US) and their innovation on how to land cargo planes. 

 

Second, we are competing with entirely new types of players. Broadly there are 2 new types which require us to think harder. The first is the entry of established providers from other industries. For example, traditional banks have to worry about retailers many of whom are launching banking services. The second is the emergence of disruptive start ups. Once again, for Banks, you have new providers like http://www.simple.com or Square – each of whom may individually survive or perish, but collectively, they will pose some serious threats to your business model. 

 

Consider two more key trends: 

 

One, technology is now a part of the product. Almost every product. You can call it ‘smart’ or you can hide the technology but the chances that the tech component of your product is increasing annually as a percentage of your product’s value are extremely high. From Nike to Nest, everybody is doing this. 

 

Two, there is an ongoing service-isation. As most companies seek that sweet spot between pure products and pure services, technology, and specifically software, is often the delivery mechanism for the service component. After all, when you buy the Nest thermostat, what you’re really buying is the service of ambient temperature at home. Or when you buy a washing machine from Samsung, for example, you’re really buying the service of cleaning clothes. So could Samsung theoretically also send you analyses based on weather to let you know when clothes will dry faster without a dryer? Or perhaps it might analyse the performance of your washing and let you know that you’re overloading the washing machine on weekends. You can easily think of ways in which almost every product can enhanced by a service layer, which is driven by data and software. 

 

What does all this mean to our discussion on digital architectures? Here are some questions to ponder: 

 

1. If your competitor provides any core service at a lower cost than yours, could you survive in the long run? If a broadcaster can run a channel at 10% lower operating costs, or lower ad-sales costs by 10%, can their competition survive? Does your architecture allow you to run core services at a competitive cost model? 

 

2. If your competition can get new services to market faster than you can, would you retain customers? 

 

3. How do you compete against companies that have no legacy? You can get away in an internal discussion by talking about how much of a challenge your legacy is, when it comes to making changes or adding a new service. But do your customers care, when they can get the same thing elsewhere? 

 

4. Is your digital architecture designed to handle the new requirements of competition, new services, and the technology component of your products? 

 

So coming back to the challenges of digital architecture, I believe there is an absolute requirement set and a competitive requirement set. The absolute set may contain things such as scalability and response time. We learnt from the early days of the web that traditional architectures and spikes on websites were not a match in heaven. Even now, major sites crash when the world flocks to see something unfold or buy something everybody covets. Architecture that can handle spikes is a critical requirement in an absolute sense. You can estimate the boundaries and plan for them. Speed/ response time is another – we did a project once where it would take a few seconds to respond, and that was unacceptable, of course. After due analysis we discovered that each request was being routed via enterprise servers across the atlantic and back, so obviously even the physical set up needs to be understood. Other absolute requirements may include security and handling specific functionality such as streaming or transactions. 

 

But to my points above, all of this will point to navel gazing unless you also consider your competitive requirements for your architecture. This leads to benchmarking the costs of key processes, the time taken for changes, new products, upgrades and of course, your customer interface.

 

So whether you’re like UPS – extracting the last bit of efficiency so you can be that half a second faster than the competition – or whether you are the competition to UPS, the focus of your digital architecture needs to be (a) ensuring it can do all the things you need to do for your customers and (b) ensuring it allows you to be compete – by making you faster, cheaper, quicker or better. 

 

That should be the starting point of the discussion for digital architecture. 

Ranting At The C-Word!

So…

I was at a Creative Industries event organised by the Technology Strategy Board yesterday. An event designed to bring together the creative and technology disciplines. And one of the many issues touched upon was the need to break out of the ‘creative industries’ straightjacket and to explore creative roles and jobs in other industries. Which led me to thinking about one of my favourite subjects: 

The rampant misuse of the C-word. 

In fact, it’s a very close call as to which word is more bastardised – ‘creative’? or ‘innovation’? But today I’m talking about the former. What does the word mean to you? Is it a skill? Is it a profession? Is it a role? Is it perhaps just a trait? 

I have experienced at close quarters for many years, the cliched and lazy labelling within the technology industry of the concept of creative work. This usually assumes that (a) all ‘creatives’ are the same, and makes no distinction between architectural or conceptual skills versus execution and tool-level skills, for example; (b) phrases like ‘UX’, ‘UI’, ‘creative’, ‘design’ and anything else which smells of visual design related activity are all synonyms and can be used interchangeably. 

This isn’t one sided. This kind of apathetic adjectivisation is common even among creative communities, when it comes to others. You’re a techie, or a suit. Or you’re a quant… you need classifying, not for your good but more for people to be able to pigeonhole you in their mental cubicles. 

I like to think of creativity as a trait. A problem solving capability which looks at the same problem differently. By this definition Newton, Gauss and Einstein would be among the most creative people the world has known. Serial inventors, entrepreneurs and technologists are creative. The best enterprise or solution architects in technology companies demonstrate this kind of creativity on an everyday basis. 

What we commonly call ‘creative’ is actually either referencing design or art. And again, these are two very distinct worlds. Design is a science, a discipline with a clear deliverable against a defined need. You design a house, or a doorknob, or a website or a logo with a view to delivering some fairly clearly defined objectives. Consequently good design is often dependent on the effective articulation of the objectives. 

Art is also a discipline and involves technique and often, structure, but by definition the objective of art is defined by the creator and as such it becomes a form of expression. The creator might want to make a point, raise an issue, support a cause, but equally, she might pander to a whim, be overcome by a subliminal urge, be provocatively abstract or seek no meaning at all. 

You can, therefore, have creative people who have nothing to do with design or art. You can have designers who are good but not particularly creative. Unusual but true. You can have great artists who would make bad designers and vice versa. Usually on the basis of their willingness or ability to work within the structure of a brief and the tyranny of an objective.

If you wrote a book with the purpose of making money, creating a bestseller, or selling a movie script, you would be designing. If you wrote a book that wasn’t governed by the outcome, you would be an artist. You might be a great wordsmith but poor at plots. Those are examples of the techniques you need for any discipline.

Advertising therefore is more design than art. Except for those wonderful ads which are great except that you can’t remember the product or brand. That’s good art, not good design. Or those ads which are made for awards. Or perhaps, that too, should be called design. 

In the context of film-making, who is the creative brain? Definitely the director, and to an lesser but important extent, the editor, the cinematographer and choreographer, to name a few. But usually not the actors. They are usually following the directors brief. They are in effect, designing a performance.

Of course, I’m stretching a point. In every one of these examples, there is a need for creativity and artistic expression, which may well make the difference between good and mediocre, and between making history and being history. I’m simply driving these giant imaginary wedges between art, design, and creativity, to make the point bluntly.

And to state the blindingly obvious, design is greatly enhanced by creativity. You only have to look at some of the best design to see the magic touch of a creative insight or treatment. This chair, this ambulance redesign, this wheelchair, this plug, and this folding wheel, all have a creative spine which makes them stand taller than their peers. It’s just important to distinguish between the terms for better results, especially when you’re in the results (read: design) business. 

And so, every time at work I see people lumping terms together, I bite my tongue and control my fingers from typing that shouty email. But the irony is of course, that when you’re designing a mobile app, which is a highly constrained experience in so many ways, the creativity often needs to come from the technologist, and the discipline, from the designer. 

As to art, you can always find it in the gallery.