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!

Google – Back Door Innovation?

Google bought Nest this week. Interesting on a number of levels. 

Let’s start with Tony Fadell. Fadell, along with Matt rogers co-founded Nest, and both were part of the team that created the iPod. The Nest team has close to a hundred ex-apple employees. According to most analysts, this is an important component of the deal. Google is trying harder to create better hardware. The Nexus hasn’t done well. Nor has it’s Motorola division. Nest brings serious consumer electronics design chops to the table. The question is, will Google be able to use this? 

Fadell, according to articles, had personality clashes with people at Apple. By all accounts great inventors and geniuses aren’t the best of team-workers or organisation-people. Let’s wait to see how it pans out for Google and the Nest team. 

Apart from the creative talent, Google may have it’s eye on the Home. Along with connected cars, where Google has a significant stake, the digital home and digital healthcare are two key battlegrounds. Nest gives Google a route to your living room, where Apple has so far dominated, with the likely exception of your web search tool. 

It’s worth noting that the other news from Google was the prototype of ‘smart’ contact lenses. These lenses will analyse the fluid from your eyes, to monitor for diabetes. This will save the user from having to do multiple blood tests. We know that the era of smart devices is coming and these are just the starting points. 

What I find interesting is that Google exited the healthcare and energy markets a couple of years ago, when they had two very good propositions. A dashboard for managing your energy information and an online service for keeping your healthcare information in one place. Given Google’s strength, and the increasing centrality of data and analytics, I find it interesting that Google would shut down these properties and then re-enter the same markets through a device route. 

Is this because Google has accepted the Apple model that you can only win by controlling the entire hardware-software-data ecosystem? Or is it that the data driven approach was prone to a significant backlash from privacy and governmental controls, especially in Europe? Or is it that consumers like you and me are much more comfortable with innovation that we can see and touch? 

Either way, I expect to see the return of Googles Health and Energy portals, this time backed by physical devices which can woo the consumer better, while distracting the attention from the real value of the information! 

Mobile Dominates Worlds Top Brands List

The annual list of the worlds most valuable brands have been published, by Interbrand, and this year, the big news is the ascension of Apple to the throne, at the expense of Coca Cola. 

 

Top 10 brands

(http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-10-01/the-most-valuable-brands-in-america-2000-to-2013)

 

However a closer look at this highly instructive chart throws up some more interesting insights. 

 

First, that Coke has dropped two spots, and Google is now the second most valuable brand, after Apple. Neither of these two brands were in the top 10 in this chart before 2008. The visual itself shows the 2 dramatically steep rises for Apple and Google, compared to anything else in this picture. I believe Warren Buffet once said he would not invest in something he did not want his family to use. It is more than likely that Apple and Google pass this test with flying colours. 

 

Second, the dominance of technology in this decade is brought sharply into focus in this chart. There are a number of Automotive, Entertainment and Telecom companies in the mix, but with the exception of Coke, the top half of this is increasingly dominated by technology companies. IBM is definitely more of a technology company than a “business services and diversified” company. GE too has an increasingly technology focus. In fact, in 2013, GE formed a Science and Technology Committee within the board and elected among others, Francisco D’Souza, CEO of Cognizant to the commitee. 

 

Third and most tellingly, a closer look at the top 10 brands of 2013 suggests that 6 out of the 10 companies have a strong link to mobile technologies. Apple, Google and Samsung define the mobile industry today. IBM’s advertisements such as this highlight the focus on mobile technologies. Microsoft’s recent $7.2 billion acquisition of Nokia and it’s Windows 8 strategy leave no doubt about it’s intentions. (Remember, the PC market is shrinking at over 10% year on year). And Intel too, is seeking  to escape the downward gravitational pull of the PC market. The new CEO, Krzanich has already announced the focus will be on mobile and wearable chips. 

 

Even for the other four companies, Mobile is increasingly at the heart of their strategies. Coke feels that mobile is the closest they can get to their customer, calling it “between reach and desire”. McDonalds is experimenting with mobile payments at some outlets. Toyota, like many other major organisations have rolled out BYOD systems and led large scale mobile marketing initiatives. In fact you could argue that the likelihood that these companies will stay in this top 10 list in future may well be linked closely to their proficiency in the mobile space.