Thursday, December 18, 2008

Two worlds of Incomplete Intelligence

It is intriguing to observe how both Machine Intelligence and Human Intelligence are incomplete in their own unique ways.
On one side there is the machine Intelligence (or Artificial Intelligence) that operates in a clearly defined fashion. This clearly defined fashion has been dreamed up by us. And perhaps this ‘clearly defined and predictable fashion’, in which the machine intelligence operates, is what makes us say that AI is not there yet. We feel that it is not sophisticated enough to stand on its own feet and take relevant decisions in uncertain context. When the machine processes something for us, we know what exactly it is doing i.e. the sequence of steps that are helping the machine to process – be it weather reports, translating a document into another language or a move in the game of chess, but the machine itself does not know what is the meaning of that what it is doing.

On the other hand we have the human intelligence - which we, as a species, are very proud of! While doing something we not only process it accurately mentally but we actually consciously know what is that we are doing. Without flinching one bit, we can adapt in different situations. As I mentioned in my earlier post Copy Paste this is what sets human intelligence apart from the world of AI.
However it could not be more ironical to observe that we ourselves still do not accurately know how are we intelligent the way we are. In other words, we understand the complete meaning of what we are doing, but we still do not know how our Brain is accomplishing it!

Monday, December 15, 2008

This or That?

In this game or in that moment?
This picture that I have chosen to share is perhaps extreme. People tend to be less ‘gadget oriented’ when they are in an intimate situation with their partner. This is especially true for girls. However by showing this extreme gadget fixation, I want to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that everyday – knowingly or unknowingly – all of us are trying to balance the two worlds that we belong to.
If I were to take this picture as a reference – I would say that one of these worlds is represented by the game on this girls’ PSP and the other world is represented by the man who is accompanying her at this moment.
Beyond this picture – the two worlds are usually represented in more ways viz. the song on my MP3 player over the sounds of the place that I am in or the text message I am typing or reading and the call that I am making or taking and the people around me at that moment, or the file my laptop and the quality of ambience in the café where I am sitting.

Knowingly or unknowingly we are switching between two worlds more often than we realize. And more often - than we realize – we perhaps are choosing one over the other.

The more communication, entertainment & work we carry with us, the less communication, entertainment and work we want from our immediate environment.
There, of course, could be an exception to this – if the communication, entertainment and work that we carry with us are location sensitive.
However – up until that happens, we would continue to be influenced more by what we carry with us and less by what is around us.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The way we keep it, is what it is..

While traveling through central China, I observed these two unexpected ways of ‘parking’ mobile phones on at work.

Watch the waitress below as she has the phone sitting in the apron

And look at this durable store sales girl – who has her phone in a wrist band on her left hand.
Perhaps none of these two ‘mobile hangars’ are new. May be all of them have been around for a while.
I am trying to draw a parallel, with other things that we would be comfortable to sport this way? The answer to this question can shed some light on how the person relates to the device. For example the restaurant girl in the apron could well have some peanuts as snacks in her pocket – it was not for that mobile phone. Does this mean that mobile usage for her is a proxy for snack or snacking? Is it for those in between moments when one wants a quick break and then get back? Perhaps it is.

For the sales girl at the durable store – the wrist band could well be a way to keep some money or an expensive jewelry article that she cannot wear at work, and does not want to leave in her shoulder bag which she brings to work. Does this mean that for her the device is an expensive item that needs to be protected and yet carried around? Perhaps yes.
I do not have a picture to show but if you go to any Indians wedding – the chances are that you’ll see parents of the bride or the groom carrying a small hand bag to keep the small but expensive gifts given by the attendees. It is a small rectangular bag with multiple zippers, usually made of leather or Rexene.
It is amazing to observed how people find various ways of intuitively organizing their things around them – intuitive orderliness if you like. This intuitive orderliness says a lot about how things fit into people’s lives – fascinating!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Why we don’t need ‘clever’ advertising?

This is going to be a very sharp post. And perhaps it is going to attract criticism too, I am prepared!
I am curious to know the counter-thoughts - if there are any - to this line of thinking.

Here it comes – I believe that really clever people – do not watch Television! (I can say this at least for markets where I have some experience).
Clever people consume Television content fleetingly and if this is their attitude towards content, we can only imagine what would be their attitude towards commercial messages that are inserted in between by advertisers.

So they do not watch (like to watch) commercial messages? Yes, you are right – they duck it, zap it, hate it or watch it purely for entertainment value. However it would be an overstatement if we were to say that their decisions about purchase are primarily influenced by the commercial messages on Television.

That leaves us with innocent people, sitting on their couches or stools or the floor and staring at the tube. Given this – profile of audience – I wonder if it is a good idea to try and be clever and say things that we want them to know?

On the contrary – it would be worthwhile challenging our creative faculties by trying to attract the online consumer of media because s/he is really the clever one. Online audience is more likely to appreciate clever messaging as long as it is packaged cleverly so as not to interfere with online content. But today like a misguided missile, clever communication is working overtime to attract the Television audience.
However – as luck would have it – this online audience is much more in control of what it watches, than the innocent variety watching television. The Television viewer’s ultimate weapon – the remote control - is totally ineffective in front of unconventional weapons that media has developed like the ‘horizontal road blocking’, something that both broadcast media and advertisers are very proud of.

So you see it would be good if we acknowledged the simplicity of Television audience and brought some realism (simplicity that is attractive) into the work we do for this media.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

How one product got Real People, into the Virtual World, Really!(3)

With so much going right for Wii, it is hard to resist the temptation and to know the business implications of the product’s success.
Since its launch, the monthly sales figures of the console have been higher than its competitors, across the globe. According to the NPD Group, in the first half of 2007 Wii sold more units in the United States than the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 combined. This lead is even larger in the Japanese market, where it currently leads in total sales, having outsold both consoles by factors of 2:1 to 6:1 nearly every week from launch until November 2007. In Australia, Wii exceeded the record set by the Xbox 360 to become the fastest selling games console in Australian history!

Wii’s bull run is also reflected in Nintendo’s stock price. The stock has been rising steadily at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) since the September 2006 launch of the product. Also, watch how it stands way ahead of the S&P 500 Index and the Toys category.

Today in spite of being a over 2 year old product Nintendo was the top selling product during the thanks giving sales. The Wii game console was the most searched-for product on eBay, followed by the Wii Fit companion product. Consumers snatched up 3,171 Wiis over eBay, at an average selling price of $349, followed by the Wii Fit, with 1,059 sold at an average selling price of $140.
Seeing Wii’s success – it has been rumored that even competition is mulling similar platforms that offer greater interactivity.
It is worthwhile however, to note that Nintendo reinvented video games through Wii to save itself. Would Nintendo have ever challenged conventions, the way it did, had it been selling well? That’s tough to answer!

However, to us the learning is that we need not wait for a challenging situation to challenge convention. We need to constantly attack our own assumptions and paradigms and make ourselves uncomfortable. We need to embed this into our minds that at any given point in time there is nothing to lose except opportunity to do something totally new – something that would take us way ahead of the rest.

Before you move on from this thought piece to the next and it fades into the pool of ‘nice to know’ information, here is a parting thought for us to mull over the weekend. Look at the world of notebook PCs/laptops. Has there been any breakthrough innovation in this arena, ever since the notebook PC came into being? No doubt we get faster processors; different kind of LCD screens – large, small, very small, high resolution, low resolution; thin notebook, very thin notebook; long battery life; colorful casing, Ferrari casing, leather casing; and soon - perhaps even a touch sensitive screen! But do we really think that there has been a breakthrough innovation in notebook design? A breakthrough, that perhaps, makes us not look it as a notebook anymore?
Perhaps the PC makers need push themselves harder for more creativity; perhaps they need more conviction and greater courage too.
It would be great if we do not have to wait for a decline in Notebook PC sales at the hands of ‘smarter’ smart phones, before we actually bring about ground-breaking product Notebook PC!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

How one product got Real People, into the Virtual World, Really!(2)

When we look at Wii, the distinguishing feature of the console is its wireless controller, the Wii Remote, which can be used as a handheld pointing device and can detect movement in three dimensions. In other words – while playing with Wii – one does not sit and press some buttons – instead one actually engages in mimicking the physical movement of various body parts, the way one would actually do in a any real sporting event. As the user gestures in the ‘real world’ his gestures turn into direct stimulus for the actions in the ‘virtual world’.
Wii’s strength is based on competition’s apathy towards one market reality that was staring every game console marketer in their face - only existing gamers were gaming more and more but the gaming franchise was not growing.
The market was filled with products that catered to existing gamers. The PSP made it easier for existing gamers (mainly) to engage in gaming on the move. X Box 360 made it easier for console gamers to do the same stuff online with their friends thus getting the joy of online gaming to consoles, and the, then soon to be launched, PlayStation 3 promised to make games more and more graphic rich. However in this heat and dust of faster, better, richer, more powerful, there was no particular plan to expand the scope of the gamer franchise.

• Nobody was thinking why do Daddy and Mommy need to be non- gamers?
• Nobody was thinking, why can’t grandparent’s game with their grandchildren?
• Nobody was thinking how a gaming device could add more fun to an evening party!
• Nobody was thinking how a gaming device, which has always been known as ‘bad for health’, could actually offer you a fitness plan
• Nobody was thinking how could we make a gaming device that engaged girls as much as boys
• Nobody was thinking why do games always need to be about competition and not engagement

Wii, as we see later, finally became that ‘nobody’ who thought of all this and single handedly changed the entire gaming industry. It challenged almost all the conventions that we talked about earlier:

Wii challenged the convention and launched a product that offered an entirely new kind of benefit

Wii challenged the convention and defined her target group outside the existing core gaming community, and rather loosely – something totally unthinkable!

And Wii did all this at a new price point, lower than the competition

This does not imply that other game developers were not doing anything right. In fact they were doing their best within the existing gaming paradigm. All of them were addressing the hardcore gamers usually males from 13-30, the time of life, when guys see a butterfly and think “how can I most impressively squish that bug?”
Video gaming was all about driving faster, hitting harder, killing more etc. And, interestingly, the game console and even game software development paradigm was also more and more about faster processor, better graphics, improved controllers with more buttons for increased precision, so on and so forth.

Thus PS2 was to be bettered by PS3, PSP was supposed to be able to create the PS2 or PS3 joy on the go & X Box 360 was mandated to beat the others by taking the whole experience online and steal the thunder from the PlayStation series. However, despite numerous innovations, the big players in the market were still competing within the existing paradigm & perhaps this is where most of their products fell short. While all game manufacturers were taking people into the virtual world by asking them to kill, drive faster, fight harder etc, Wii brought people back to the real world, as it asked them to move hands and legs move the body, exercise and even cook!
It is this approach that attracted the attention of those ‘potential’ gamers who so far had rejected gaming as a worthless couch activity which was not for them.
Finally, a paradigm changing opportunity was created but only after one of the players in the market approached things unconventionally.

It almost seems that Nintendo was viewing the market very differently – with an entirely fresh perspective.
“What product would we have made, had we been entering this market today?”
• “What could we do that would make it easier for people to adopt indoor entertainment and gaming, that was not a board game, not a card game, not indoor physical sports and yet used enough physical activity for to be viewed as a sport and not the usual (unhealthy/unproductive) video gaming!”

This new way of looking at the market changed the prevailing dynamics

• Redefined and more importantly expanded the core video game user group by bringing older people into the gaming fold - turned it from an individual to a family activity.
It is this paradigm-challenging design, which makes 83% of people believe that Wii console fosters family-oriented play, the corresponding figure for X Box 360 and PS3 is almost half at 40% (GfK NOP, London)

• It brought girls into the gaming fold, through games that could engage them specifically (and even gave an opportunity for girls to play with their boyfriends!)

• It even brought forth new, unexpected and hitherto unthinkable applications viz. an 80 year old woman, who had difficulty in standing after a surgery, was suggested by her doctor, to take up Wii sports in order to tone up her muscles etc. There are even stories about users who have rediscovered their love for bowling, tennis & golf, all because of Wii!

• And to top it all, the biggest service that Wii has done to gaming is to make it seen more as a mainstream activity than just a nerd- fixation.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

How one product got Real People, into the Virtual World, Really!(Part 1)

Conventional wisdom suggests that we define our target consumers as clearly as possible and focus the marketing energies towards them.

Conventional wisdom suggests we develop a product that addresses existing consumer needs.

Conventional wisdom also suggests that we launch products that are better than the competition or give the same benefits at a better price!

Now imagine going back in time to the middle of 2006 and visualize yourself as a senior management person in a game manufacturing and marketing company.

Your company is losing market share (and perhaps money too!) globally. You are competing with the biggest names in Consumer Electronics and Software Development. Your competition has marketing Dollars, strong brands and products that are technically far more sophisticated than what you have ever made! Industry watchers have all but written your company off, as a potential competition for the rest of the players.
This is where your business is and you are thinking hard how to improve your company’s situation.

In the middle of this your product development team comes to you for a project review and your chief product development officer shows you a product concept that is totally different from what competition has ever done.
The new product concept is technically less sophisticated and most importantly it expects the consumer to change the way they have been consuming the product in the past. It has none of the benefits that your competition is focusing on (and leading the market because of).
Although the product can potentially be marketed at a price lower than the competition, but it makes you wonder how would, the existing users adopt this entirely new concept. The whole market is structured so differently in comparison to this innovation that you have, that going with this innovation looks like a large sized risk!

What would you do?

Some of you, by now, already know what we are talking about. But frankly chances are that had one of us been in a situation like this we would have asked the personnel in our project team to update their Résumé’s and do the needful, while we went looking out to hire the minds that made the smart products that the competition was marketing.

However, what actually happened was very different from the scenario we painted above. The project team got a green signal to go ahead and develop the prototype into a full fledged product and in a few months we had a new product hitting the store shelves – something that we now know as the Nintendo Wii. In hindsight, every great (& risky) idea looks like simple logic. However, things are very different in foresight. In foresight things are unclear, uncertain, laden with risk and very subjective. It is the foresight that puts individual judgment to the ultimate test. It is a moment of truth for our conviction and courage as we evaluate an idea.
We believe that Nintendo Wii has been developed on the shoulders of unconventional Creativity and it has been brought to the market, on the shoulders of unparalleled Conviction & Courage.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Road to Mobility & Computing Tomorrow

Everyday Media and the Markets churn out reams of information about the fact that the future of mobile phones is mobile computing.
Like many of us, I tend to believe that too.
However what is worth pausing and pondering over is “what do we mean by mobile computing?” Does it mean computing in the palm of your hand raised to the power of computing in your present day desktops or laptops? That’s a lot of computing power for a small device – it’s almost like having a small car with over 150 brake horse power (bhp) & coming with 4-wheel drive!
If this is what mobile computing means, then I am equally curious to know - what is the future of desktop & laptop computing? If mobile handheld devices of the future become all so competent, then would we still need desktop personal computing, the way we know it today?

To find answers to such questions about the future, it might worth looking into the past. Looking back into the history of innovation - more often than not – many of the new products have acquired a supplementary or complimentary role instead of completely replacing the older products.
• Personal Stereo vs. Home Stereo System
• Television/Broadcast Content vs. Internet Content
• Home Entertainment vs. Cinema Halls (a very interesting story indeed!)
• Desktops vs. Laptops
• Still Camera vs. Video Camera
• Camera Phone vs. Camera
• Gas Burners vs. Microwave Ovens
• Paper vs. Computer Screen
• Box Files Vs. Hard Disks
• Facsimile vs. e mail/Speed Post (yes, speed post is less of a technology but none the less something that competes, in some way, with facsimile!)

This by no measure is an exhaustive list of how new devices live with older ones. For example when we look at Mobile Phones vs. Fixed Line Phones or Film Roll Camera vs. Digital Camera - we immediately see how the number of examples mentioned above is not sufficient to make that point.
To know the future of desktop and laptop computing it might be worthwhile to look at what, in the first place, makes a mobile computing device mobile.
To me it is a smaller screen, smaller keyboard and lighter (and less powerful) battery.
(I am not saying connectivity because connectivity is not longer unique to classic mobile devices (like mobile phones). Even a notebook PC can be connected on the go!)
If this is what makes a mobile computing device – ‘mobile’, then I find it difficult to convince myself, that future mobile computing devices would be able to erase laptop or even desktop computing.

Mobile computing has some fundamental challenges that it needs to overcome before it can actually attempt to replace desktop computing. Some of these challenges have been briefly mentioned above, however it might be a good idea to look at these more closely now.

1. Display – small display makes it difficult to be able to everything on mobile handheld devise viz. watch videos/movies, write documents/presentations, read books etc among others (unless we do something with our eyes that makes it very easy to view anything big or small or we develop an embedded a projection device inside every mobile hand-held device. The latter might lead to new kind of challenges around need for privacy while watching content on the go, as we move around in public spaces!)
Please note that any attempt to make the present day mobile display larger, would tend to make the mobile computing device bigger and consequently ‘less mobile’. So a larger display leaves us with what we started with – just a computing device instead of a mobile computing device that we are actually trying to achieve!

2. Keyboard: So far we do not seem to have an idea as to how could we possibly make our fingers adjust to smaller keyboards. Keyboards cannot go smaller beyond a point. The way I look at it - we have already reached that point where the size of the keyboards in mobile devices can’t be shrunk much further. Even if the keyboard were of touch screen variety – the keys would require a minimum size.
In addition to this, the keyboard needs to be more comfortable to use than it is now in many of the present day mobile devices. This would be needed because unlike smart phones, when we begin to use mobile computing in its complete form, we would need to use the keyboard much more than the way we do now. We would be having our fingers pressing against those keys for much longer than we do writing short text messages or e mails.

3. People Mobility – I am not sure what percentage users of computing devices in the future would be always on the go. In other words “‘full’ computing capability on the go is perhaps not for everybody!”
So there would be a lot of people who would not want to do everything on the go. (This would perhaps hold true only as long we do not altogether become a different ‘animal’ in the next 3-5 years!)

So where does all this lead us? What could mobile computing actually mean and do in the future?
By stacking-up the events from the past and adding a little imagination to it, I can foresee a few things which I would like to share at this point.
To me Mobile Computing seems to be heading in a direction where we would still see and use it more as mobile & less as computing device.
Let me explain what I mean by this.
I can foresee (as long as we do not have a breakthrough innovation in display technology) that a mobile handheld device would have the capability to compute the way our desktops/laptops do today – and may be even better! However we might not engage the device to compute viz. write presentations, read analyst reports, process spreadsheets etc, while we are on the go* - walking, sitting in the subway, being driven to some place, sitting by the beach, or looking outside the window while sitting in an airplane.
Why would we not engage the device to compute?
Partly because the device neither has a great display to show us everything that we want to see, nor does it have a good enough input mechanism to key things in**.
Also, I am not sure if we would be prepared to think and DO so much, on the go! If we want to achieve this extent of productivity on the go – a lot of rest of the things - that we do to make our way around the physical space – would need to be on autopilot, so that we can free up our faculties to focus more on what we are thinking & doing and not as much on where we are going or if the coffee that we are holding is actually about to spill!
I foresee ourselves asking the mobile computing device to do small tasks for us viz. find some place/somebody, tell some fact etc. We can say that this is not the future because we have already heard that the mobile devices can do all this in the future and I would say well may be you are right!
That brings us to one of my favourite questions “So what would be the point of having a capable computing device in your pocket, when you are always going to be under-utilizing it?
To me there would always be a big role for a mobile computing device because in the future it could almost be something like our external hard drive is today.
What do we do with the external hard drive today? Well, we carry it around and plug in when we need to go back to all that we have on your desktop or all that could not fit into our laptop. The difference/next stage could well be - in the future we could be carrying an external computing device which we plug into any larger or worthy display and keyboard wherever we find be it home or office or airport or anywhere in between.
I can foresee the internet zones of today morphing into display and keyboard (peripheral) zones of the future. Just plug and play!
To use a present day analogy it would be like pocket laptops without a display as big but they can match (if not better) the processing capability. Also, our desk or our wall or roof could well be the display that we plug our device into!
And we plug in with wires? Well, I am not sure..may be not!

Exciting times ahead!
End Notes
*Assuming that in the future we would still need to physically move from one place to another and these travel modes still exist.

** I believe that the innovation timeline would pass through a plug and play mobile computing device much before it passes through a truly mobile computer because advancement in miniaturization of processing power is moving much faster than that of display or input technology. We do not need to see how the processing happens (so a microprocessor can become smaller and smaller up until it becomes invisible to the human eye and it would not bother us even one bit. However we need to control the input (keyboard/mouse/other touch sensitive input devices) and ‘see’ what the processor gives as output (display devices).

Friday, November 21, 2008

Big Phone-Small Phone : Pocket Phone-Jacket Phone

Last week I met this young man (26). As we started talking, he passionately described how he used his mobile phone and how many phones he had actually bought ever since he started using them about eight years back. As I discovered - even now he had at least three handsets and he used them interchangeably. This got me thinking as to what could be those occasions that he actually changed one of his phones for another.

What surprised me was the reason that he described for switching between his BlackBerry and the smaller Samsung or the Nokia phone that he had. He explained how the Blackberry was out of bounds for him during summers. He thought it was too big to be carried gracefully during the summers because during summers one wears clothes with fewer pockets to carry a big phone. The sight of a large phone bulging from the pocket of his jeans was not his idea of carrying a gadget. However he found it easy to carry the same BlackBerry during winters for the jackets that he wore, offered enough pockets to hide the phone. Given that was not using his BlackBerry to check office mails (surprising again!), it was not completely unthinkable to watch someone let go of his BlackBerry one whole season!
It is surprising to observe how people organize their mobile devices around their needs and in their own special ways.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Google Life

Google Android debuted on Oct 22nd, riding on the HTC G1 handset. However you might not have heard too many people raving about this new software for mobile devices.
Most of the people have compared it to the iPhone interface and they have been left disappointed or at least not particularly elated.
Although I have not tried the Android on G1 yet but from what I read in Stephen H Wildstrom’s review in the BusinessWeek, there is something interesting that Google is doing, which I do not know how many of us observed, but if one is using the device, one would have experienced and perhaps liked too. As Stephen mentions in his review “If you are in phone mode (while using the HTC G1) – the default state if no programs are running – then typing, initiates a search for contacts. A list of matches is thrown up as soon as you start to type and is refined as you add letters”. Needless to mention that when you are in browser window, it will open the Google window to help you search whatever is that you are looking for. However what intrigues me is the way Google has very smartly embedded the “Google way of searching” even in the ‘offline/non browsing” context. This is a great way building habit of searching for information in a certain fashion – be it ‘offline’ from contacts in your own phonebook or ‘online’ as one looks for the nearest Indian restaurant on Google Maps.

We all know that increasingly people are accessing internet on their Mobile devices and not just PCs. So, in the time to come, the stage of primary interface device might shift from the PC to the mobile device. And even in the journey towards the mobile becoming the primary device for Internet access, there would perhaps be this intervening period when the rising dominance of the Mobile Interface Usage would influence the offline interface that PCs use. I believe that Google has foreseen this and is taking steps that slowly nudge the user in that space.

Google does not rule the offline (PC) application software arena (yet!) – Microsoft is the big daddy there – however by making people become used to a certain way of searching for offline/online information on their phones - Google might be (subtly) priming them to become used to a certain way of ‘looking up’ for anything – online or offline, mobile or PC.
This sure could be a grand plan to stoke usage of present & soon to arrive, Google application software for the PC.
Ultimately we are creatures of habit and we develop habits so that we can be on auto-pilot more often and so that we do not have to think about basic things again and again. Once ‘the Google way of searching or working becomes the habit we just might be living the Google Life! The way today, irrespective of how much we might rant about it, we live the ‘MS Office life’!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Copy Paste

Just to take forward the observations from the Hiding behind the Internet – it would like to illustrate, in greater detail, the “Something about Everything and Nothing in Particular” behaviour.
One would expect that while searching for information, the user would actually make a folder on his computer where he would be saving all the information that is downloaded. Upon having downloaded all the information that is needed – one would actually proceed to go through all of this downloaded information, for to be able to take out the more relevant bits, and more importantly build his own argument or on top of this downloaded information.
However, this group of people actually skip the intermediate step, and there is no folder that is made – no documents that are actually downloaded. There is just one final output document. The documents thrown up by the search results are only ‘viewed’ online and the more relevant bits are copied into the final output document in ‘real time’. It is not difficult to guess the extent of thinking – beyond copying and pasting - that is going on while all this is happening.
It reminds me of the John Serale’s Chinese Room experiment that proved how machine intelligence (AI) is inferior to the human intelligence because it does not really know what is the meaning of that what it is doing. For example a calculator can do great arithmetic but it does not know anything about mathematics. Deep Blue can beat Kasparov at a game of Chess – but it does not know anything about Chess or even the fact that it has actually won! (Does it need to? Well, that is another topic which needs a separate context for to be discussed).
I do not mean to glorify human intelligence here – because the pace at which machine intelligence is evolving – we might be trumped soon. However I am alarmed and saddened by the prospect that a lot of people among us are becoming more and more like their machines. Inputting and outputting without conscious thinking about what their point of view is; what do they believe in; what they are actually doing; are they learning anything? How come they gave up the option to think so easily?
No wonder, many a times when these people are confronted with questions like “so what did you do today?” or “what are you doing now?”, or “what did you learn today?” they usually draw a blank. To be this is mainly because they are doing a lot but ‘nothing is really registering’! Surprising but true.

Hiding behind the Internet

We used to have libraries. And whenever we had to do a project at school, in college or even at work, we used to go to the library and ‘refer’ to the books, journals, papers etc there.
There was effort needed to access the knowledge in the library and perhaps a little more persistence to be able to find what was needed. Persistence is what signified a good search! And persistence was linked with interest. The greater the interest the greater was the desire to find out!
And then, one fine day we were handed over the ‘keys’ to the world wide in the shape of the search engine. The search engine was a place that you went to search (instead of the usual visit to the library) and you could access anything and everything – including many libraries!
There was no more walking around the aisles in the libraries– no more reaching to the top shelf on that ladder – the persistence was not needed any more, at least not as much. With the need for persistence gone – almost everybody could find something on almost everything. Knowledge access was a no-brainer reduced to the search string in your favourite search engine.

This is good – in fact it is a revolutionary achievement. But other than the fact that Internet is actually inspiring a lot many under-privileged farmers to be able to get the right price for their crops, other than the fact that it is making people, separated over thousands of miles, meet in virtual chats, Internet is spawning a new community –a group of people who I call ‘Something about Everything but Nothing in Particular.’ These are the people who do not have the answer to the questions you are asking but thanks to their internet surfing skills, they can deftly ‘cook’ something up that ‘looks like’ an answer but is definitely not it. They know how to hide their lack of understanding behind the volume of information that they generate through Internet.
I see more and more of them. They are the people who do not want to know, do not care to know but can always talk. If you take away their Internet connection – they are likely to be paralyzed - work wise!
To me this is the biggest side-effect of the rise of Internet. People who are mediocre in their understanding of things and also lack the passion to understand things are riding on four horses of search engines, cutting, copying and pasting and have create what I call a circus of pseudo-knowledge. All this, not just in a casual context like this Blog (which also might offer a lot of bullshit!), but even in formal business situations!

While there is this growing, ‘Something about Everything but Nothing in Particular’, tribe – there also is a set of people who are actually utilizing internet very smartly. For them internet is a way to connect with and reach out to the kind of people they want to work with, interact with. For them Internet is a way to energize their career through knowledge share and networking. I describe them pretty much the same way that Peter F Drucker did just that I’d like to add the ‘networked’ property to them. To me they are the ‘Network Knowledge Workers’.

Like any tool – Internet is also just as good as the hands it finds itself in. However the tool is being misused much more than otherwise. In many ways, the Internet is not bridging the knowledge divide; instead it is creating this haze that is making nonsense look like something worth going through. To me the day in not far when the online space would require higher order search engine that can separate works of ‘Something about Everything but Nothing in Particular’ from that of ‘Network Knowledge Workers’.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

A thousand words in less than a second

It is simply amazing observe how miniaturization of personal technologies is reshaping their application.
A few days back I was talking to a young man – 25 (the one you see in picture here) and he had something amazing to say about how he uses his digital camera.
For him the pictures from his digital camera are shorthand for words. At work or while traveling, he captures thoughts through images that triggered those thoughts. That is how he makes a note of what he finds noteworthy! This is how he embeds meaning and experiences so that they can be extracted later.
To him the hassle of writing - be it keying into a computing device or scribbling on a piece of paper, is very inefficient and risky! It is inefficient because it is slow and suddenly the quality of your ideas forced to slow down to the quality of your writing skills. It is risky because slow documentation with words leads to loss of precious ideas or inspirations.

On could argue – that a picture has always been worth a thousand words but to me the digital miniature image capture devices like the phone or micro digital camera are together liberating pictures.
If I were to take this one example as any indication of how things might shape up in the future – I can foresee pictures ceasing to be just objects of engagement, instead they could also acquire greater meaning, wherein they could become a utility of sorts -the kind of pictures that are taken not to be preserved beyond the point that they have served their utility.

To me this new role for picture is once again pointing us towards inefficiency of the written word, in living up to its primary role of being a way to record.
If I am not getting carried away, I would say that to me, as I mentioned in my earlier post Undocumented Irrelevance of the Written Word, the future could witness, words acquiring a more classic and indulgent role than a utility or functional role. The evolution of language to keep pace with human and machine thought, could take us towards more towards graphical representation than verbal representation.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Head Lamps to Light up the Streets?

While in upcountry two-wheeler showroom in central China, I was amazed that the average number of headlamps for every bike was more than three! Just have a look at the electric bikes in the pictures here. To me they are almost like light houses on two wheels!

I wondered for a while before I realized that as one would go further up the country side, these head lamps would not make one feel the absence of street lighting.
But it was not too long before I realized my naïveté. Most of these only looked like headlamps; in fact these were plain reflectors that were made to look like ‘fancy’ lamps!

Remember the tame reflectors in bicycles! No one likes their electric motor bikes to look like that. These reflectors look like anything but tame and that’s why they are so popular!
Also, look at the iconography for ‘international and premium associations’ with stickers like Bud & VIP etc.

To me, this is an amazing example of style mimic for something fundamentally functional!
Simplicity that looks cool and all this at not more than USD 200/- simple!

Ps: You do not need a driver’s license to ride this!

‘Kill Think’ with Drop Downs, Search Strings & Radio Buttons

I never really believed that interactions with computing devices could actually dumb us down. In fact even now, I am quite surprised by what I have realized recently and I am still trying to some to terms with it. I am surprised because I always looked at computers and computing devices as great assets for example:

* Computers as a gateway to potential new vistas through the Internet
* As tools to reach out to still smarter beings
* As great store houses of information that usually do not forget things
* Almost as an auxiliary to self, for if I want to share something in real time – I can turn on my computer and take them through it. This is almost like going to a hyperlink in my mind, which traces its path into my computer’s hard drive

However, if we were to step back and look at the entire spectrum of the kinds of human computer interface, we might be able to identify some early warning signs of how we might be doing disservice to our thinking ability by relying on ‘computer assisted way of working’.
To me these signs indicate that one needs to be careful so as not to take the Human Computer Interface protocols as second nature. However the reality is that we easily develop in the subconscious, behaviours that are tuned to work in computer situations. We then even extend this behaviour into ‘non computer situations’.
To me an example of this would be not typing the whole word for the computer would anyway prompt, or not caring too much about the spelling or limiting thinking within the number options given in a multiple choice situation. The corresponding non computer situation might be writing on a piece of paper and being totally unreadable or incomprehensible or becoming uncomfortable in open ended real life situations – where we might not have the luxury of being able to point out a right or wrong answer.
I usually refer to these situations as early examples of demise of thinking & imagination, at the hands of the drop down menu, the radio button and most critically the search bar.

As Jaron Zepel Lanier is quoted in Radical Evolution “In the computer-human loop, human intelligence is the more flexible of the two. Whenever we change a piece of technology, the chances are that at the end we might be changing humans more than the technology itself.” For example when we interact with an airline reservation bot, we get frustrated for the first few times for the bot cannot go beyond a predetermined set of responses but then after some time, we become ‘used to it’. In other words, we have aligned our way of thinking to suit the bot (and not the other way round).

Google’s benign questions viz. “did you mean bureau of Indian standards” (instead of ‘buro of Indian stndrds’, which is what people generally type) might offer a glimpse of our future spelling capabilities, triggered by the fact that that Lanier pointed out viz. “in the computer-human loop, (currently) humans we are more flexible and we adjust ourselves to the ‘level’ of computing.”
While the computer can remember a lot and process a lot (GBs and MHz’s) it still a long way from being called a reasoning device. The irony is that while we are trying to make the computers smarter, we actually might be dumbing ourselves down. We are ending syncing down instead of syncing up with machines!

May be I am being too critical of some of these everyday interface technologies, however to me it seems that because many of these customer service technologies, do not have good AI (Artificial Intelligence,) we end up going down to their level and the real fear is that the more we do that the more we would be able to do only that.

One can argue that these interface elements (viz. drop down, radio buttons etc) are used while engaging in activities that are low brow and that we do not want to invest our cerebral energies in these viz. searching for something, or filling a form or asking a question, booking a airline ticket or checking the account balance status over the phone etc. May be it is true – these really might be low brow jobs after all. However I am curious to know that while we are investing time and cerebral energies more efficiently by not allowing ourselves to think too much about these ‘low brow’ jobs, how exactly are we investing it elsewhere and how sure do we think we are about becoming smarter in this process?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Digital hunter gatherers?

We started as hunters who hunted when they were hungry. Then we started gathering the stuff, farming, rearing animals. And then we discovered this whole magical possibility of making stuff beyond fire – so, in came pots and baskets and so many other things.
Most of these things that we made were for ourselves. Then started barter and then finally we started exchanging goods for currency.
All this continued to happen up until that one day when the Gong of Industrialization sounded and was heard far and wide.
In came place of work, specialization on the assembly line, working shifts, time cards, punch cards, swipe cards and time sheets (we still do many of these regularly) and, many others which were aimed to triggering accountability. To give an answer to the question “What time did you come in today?” (“Why?”) “What did you do today?” (“Why?”).
While we were busy putting hours against people and appropriating money accordingly – we also started carrying devices of ‘superlative productivity’ viz. the Lap Top and the Pocket PC (or Smart phone). Now the work started roaming with us, at home, in the bus, on a plane – and many times (unfortunately) even while driving.
A steady movement from “home = work” to home and office as two separate entities and now finally office everywhere.
As we carry our work everywhere, as the knowledge worker makes physical space increasingly irrelevant, I am left wondering - how long we would continue to entertain the legacy of time keeping. With lines blurring all around us – it is increasingly theoretical to compartmentalize time for work and time for other stuff.

On a slightly philosophical note - the hunter gatherer era made us work any time, anywhere and even overtime - just to keep our bellies full, ironically the digital hunter gatherers seem to do just that, as they make or take that call or send/receive that mail just after lunch and dinner and breakfast too!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

HD’s Unforgiving Clarity

We talk more over phones because we have mobile phones, we send more and more text messages because it is the supreme unobtrusive way to communicate, the moment we are in a unfamiliar place we pull out our mobile phones and try to look busy, if we reach the cinema hall before our friends, we try to keep our eyes anchored to luminescence from the mobile phone screen, for we do not want to ‘feel’ vacant or not in control.

There are a lot of things that personal technologies make us do, which we perhaps would not have done otherwise! However, ‘dressing up for technology’ is something that I believe is new. That is precisely the impact that High Definition. High definition tends to amplify details up to six times more than standard definition. It means that talc-based makeup would actually be accentuating, instead of hiding, those pimples, pigmentation, eye bags, enlarged pores and, horror of horrors - wrinkles when viewed on high-def TV.
With high definition cameras now offering 720p HD video-recording capability, it'd just be a matter of time before our cameraman goes HD and we'll have to prepare ourselves for a high definition recording. This basically translates to talc-based makeup now accentuating, instead of hiding, those pimples, pigmentation, eyebags, enlarged pores and, horror of horrors, wrinkles when viewed on high-def TV.

This is bad news not just for TV / Movie personalities but also blushing brides obsessed with their appearance before the unforgiving clarity of high-definition.
No wonder that preeminent companies who are offering makeup that can ‘counter’ the new High Definition Recordings are also collaborating with Display and Consumer Electronic Technology Companies. Samsung has tied up with Make Up For Ever to present a workshop that brought together Make up and High Definition.

To me, high definition which is a kind of HiFi (High Fidelity) for the viewer is actually making the life of those on camera difficult. It would be all the more challenging for performers to manage their looks when they are being recorded during live shows. I hope I do not sound too harsh when I say this but in the future, the beauty of near perfect display technologies just might bring out the hitherto hidden ugliness of show business.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Personal Computer?

Since the dawn of micro computing era, we have always prefixed ‘personal’ to the name computer and the common assumption is that one computer is for one person. Yes, most of the leading operating systems ‘Do’ offer multiple user login option, but if I were to go with my observation in developed countries and even among the urban users in a developing country, one computer is still mainly used by one person. Also, with the demand for enterprise computers showing signs of sowdown – home or personal computing is the biggest potential revenue stream for PC hardware makers, to say the least HP’s marketing communication crusade to make people feel how their (HP) Computers were more personal again (‘The computer is personal again!’ campaign)

But why is a personal computer supposed to be a personal computer?
My thoughts on this fundamental question were triggered by something very interesting that I read at Marcus had a very engaging point of view, in his post about Microsoft Surface. He aptly pointed out that when we interact with a device like the Surface, we could be breaking a fundamental paradigm – the paradigm of ‘my computer’. The large and multi-touch screen is an open invitation to engage many people at the same time. And this is exactly what makes this device (and perhaps all future large screen multi-touch devices) different from the Personal Computer. To me and going with present day user habits and perceptions, it would be difficult to convince people to do personal computing through such an interface. We perhaps, are expecting to change very well-entrenched usage behaviour. Having said that, I must also must modify the original quote ‘great design dissolves in behaviour’ and instead say ‘path breaking technology & design can dissolve behaviour’.
Leaving hope aside and moving closer to today’s reality – I see such large screen multi-touch devices having greater potential as in home or out of home, but indoor, entertainment devices - something that the Microsoft Surface already promotes itself as, in many of its existing videos.

Going back to the earlier point about why and how the Personal Computer became personal, I feel the answer lies in the limited capability of prevailing display technologies when micro computing started.
It might sound ironical but to me, it seems that the peripheral (the screen) limited the scope of the computing device. Over a period of time (more than 50 years) when we became used to the one screen one person paradigm, in comes multi-touch, asking us to engage together and not just stay personal!
Is it unfair? May be it is, but at least we are getting the option! How we may want to use it will be more a function of how old we are and thus how entrenched our usage behaviour is or what kind of ‘new’ applications can companies develop for these devices.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Allen Adamson of Landor Associates on the Future of Branding in the Information Age

Recently I asked Allen about what he saw as the future of branding in a society where almost all the information would be easily findable and the concept of “myth” fades away?
His response is focused, here is what he believes -
Every smart organization knows that the “myth” of a brand fades as soon as a consumer realizes that the promise of the brand is not being delivered as expected. Easily findable information merely speeds up the process by which brands are outed as frauds. Strong, successful brands are not built on myths, but on clearly communicating and demonstrating what makes them relevantly different - and better - than the competition. Contrary to your premise, the more information consumers have access to, the more important branding becomes. Brands are short cuts. They help consumers make personally meaningful choices. In a world of information overload, consumers are looking for ways to simplify and speed up the process of deciding which brand is better suited to their needs. If you’re in the market for a digital camera, for example, you now have access to tons of information; which cameras have the highest mega-pixel rating, the largest zoom, the most memory, the longest battery life, the fastest downloading speed. If a brand organization is doing its job well, the branding, no matter what form or format it takes, will help you determine which brand is best for your needs. “I’m going to buy a Nikon because the company designs products for people who are really into their pictures, or I’m going to buy a Sony because it will better integrate with my laptop.”The functionality and service components of the camera, which are also considered important aspects of the branding, will validate your choice. While some brands may start out mythic in nature, myth has never sustained a brand long term. A strong brand is based on a simple, well-defined promise of relevant differentiation and a history of delivering on this promise as expected.
For those who are provoked or thought provoked, they can comment here and they might find more to mull over and debate in his new book Brand Digital:Simple Ways Top Brands Succeed in the Digital World.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Any View Anytime – Now Showing!

I was amazed to read what Damien brought to my notice through his post “Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen at your fingertips” on Crave - The Technology Blog from CNET Asia. As you'd read in what Damien has written in his post “a passerby at the Hugo Boss store in Singapore, can interact with Lewis and Heikki, access an array of information about Team Vodafone McLaren, F1-related movies, picture gallery and technical data of the race car and steering wheel - and all this from the outside of the store through a large interactive display which has been fused into the glass surface of display window. In other words the plain transparent glass is now reflecting images and is touch sensitive! This seems to be a simple display and to many readers it may be just an extension of the LCD or Plasma displays which are also quite thin. However to me it is no less than a breakthrough! I would not dwell too much on how exactly this technology works. It uses optical technology, you can find out more here Ubiq'window. What I would like to share with you here is what excites me about this breakthrough. I believe what we have achieved here is the ability to project an image on a surface that is transparent! In terms of a parallel, I think it is like having a Television screen that you can see through. This is a significant point of departure. Finally we can give different meanings (project different images) even to transparent surfaces.
I can visualize it being used as a screen that can be viewed from both the sides. I have not seen it myself yet but I assume if the passerby at the Hugo Boss store went inside and looked at the screen he still would be able to view the screenOne of the most potent applications that I can think of is Windows with a view – 24x365. Be it a cloudy say or Beijing haze, be it sharp sunshine or a heavy downpour – this can give us the choice to adjust the view from our window as we wake up in the morning and look ‘outside’. . It can mimic nature and display different things to trigger different views. The simple analog window can now even be a digital photo album.Other than these novel applications, I can see this as a smart move by Hugo Boss because not many luxury/fashion brands are seen to be high tech or innovative in that sense. This kind of initiative helps them be perceived as being ahead of others on the digital curve.

To me there is one more thing that Ubiq’Window’s new technology brings about – it turns the concept of outside and inside or the idea of front and back on its head. Imagine how a television based on this technology might be placed in our home. It no longer would have to have its back to the wall. Now it can very much be in the center because there is no blind spot the way present day TV sets have. It can bring about a dramatic shift in the way we lay out the sitting/viewing space in our homes. The couch, sofa, chair, bed or anything to sit or lie down no longer needs to look towards the TV set. I can free home décor from the shackles of traditional viewing paradigm. Freedom!
To me this tehnology seems to be more domesticable than multi touch breakthroughs like the one you see in the video below. Becasuse thse multi touch technologies still look at the screen or display from one side. The other side is assumed to be for wires sockets so on an so forth. ">
This technology from Ubiq'window. is still in its early days and I am sure there is time before it can stabilize in more ways than one. For example the projection apparatus hanging from the ceiling can get smaller. However I feel that this technology has the potential to bring about dramatic change in the way we live and hear and watch and feel - sounds, images and life!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Meaning is empty without Belief

Look at these two pictures. I captured these two moments at Luoyang (a place of great historic significance in China). The girl is sitting atop a lotus and trying to mimic the Buddha pose, just for fun. Her friends, who are not in the frame, were clicking and cheering her. The man is looking at a very old rock carving of Lord Buddha as he takes a drag and reflects (perhaps).
This shook me, more than many of my Chinese friends – may be because the beliefs imbibed in me from childhood about paying respect to God. However if I were not aware of the concept of God, or may be not aware in the way I have been told, then this statue would not have been anything more than a relic of historical value or a beautiful creation that has been preserved. And may be I would also be sitting atop the lotus with my shoes on, doing something similar.
I do not intend to pass a value judgment on anyone here but I believe it is worthwhile looking at things from the other person’s point of view before classifying their behaviour as good bad or anything else. To me things or people do not mean anything without being founded on an underlying belief. A belief, in turn, is based on knowledge and experience. To be able to have an objective point of view about anyone, we perhaps need to make an attempt to tap into their experiences and knowledge and then things look a lot simpler to understand and relate to.
I am not well read so I do not know how many religions already say something like this, but to me this is the biggest religion.
There is no walk like trying to walk in another man’s shoes for a while..
When I step back and look at this from the consumer understanding perspective– the analogy of walking in another man’s shoes comes in very handy. When I try to fathom the knowledge and experiences of the person who I am speaking with I start looking at the world as s/he sees it.
The intersection of the way he looks at the world and the way we as consumer behaviour professionals look at the world is the place where insights opportunities and breakthroughs live.
This sure is an amazing experience!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Observation, Intuition & Tactics

Watch these young men and women in red. They are at the Hangzhou railway station on a hot summer morning – when the sun can almost burn you. These people are selling Hangzhou-Shanghai bus tickets.
(Hangzhou is a popular travel destination in China, it is also the birth place of the famous Chinese silk among many other specialties that it has to its credit).
There is a train between Hangzhou and Shanghai almost every 40 minutes. Thus it would be expected, that selling bus tickets would be rather difficult given the good frequency of trains. Yet these salesmen have found a novel way of doing it. They appear around the train ticket office immediately after one train leaves and continue to be there, selling bus tickets up until 15 minutes before the next train is expected to leave. They have figured out that a sizable chunk of passengers does not like to wait for more than 15 (bus frequency is about one every 15 minutes).

They did not seem to use any technology tool to derive this conclusion however they have intuitively found a way of sequencing the frequency of bus service between the two cities. And to top it all it seems to be working fine.

To me it offers two fundamental learnings for business:

1.Keen observation and intuition helps develop a smart product or service

2.Flexibility & agility is critical as we place our product or service in the market

I am reminded of what I recently read in “Radical Evolution” by Joel Garreau, “Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.” In fast growing markets like China and India and in times of rapid technology change, agility is an imperative. There is a lot that these ingenious everyday entrepreneurs on the street, can teach us form their daily stories of survival and growth through their bottom up tactics.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Form Function Faceoff

Only after the dust settles, and the euphoria of holding a very beautiful looking mobile phone is replaced with the realism about “what am I getting for what I am paying”, will the real winner emerge.
Today, as I sit writing this, many would be queuing up outside the Sahara Mall. Today is the iPhone day!
Now Indians will get a phone on which they can pinch pictures with two fingers and make them big or small, will no longer need a stylus and yet need not press any buttons to do what they want to do, would see outstanding details on the screen, would experience desktop-like internet, would experience and unlimited new applications that can be downloaded from the App Store. And most importantly from today they will make heads turn. Well, at least a little.
So, iPhone has it all. Or does it? To me it has great form – shape, look, display, BRAND, status, some novel features to make girls in your office say “Wow!” and rub their shoulder (unknowingly) against yours, a little longer as you show them what the phone can do in contrast to the usual “New phone, nice!” and walk away kind of situation.

Attention for female colleagues apart, but iPhone has its own share of limitations, which I am sure the readers here would have already experienced of read about viz. the hugely infamous ‘no copy pasting and forwarding of messages’ (due to this Vodafone & Airtel make less money from SMSes that are forwarded, no wonder they have not shown any mercy in pricing the device!), Bluetooth only for hands free, no transferring of contacts between the SIM and the phone (strange), no recording of video (that is even more strange) and to top it all no option for external memory. So an 8 GB or a 16 GB iPhone will live as an 8 or 16 GB and die like that! Pity, in our times of expandability and modularity – we can’t do much about that on the iPhone.
This said iPhone is the greatest mobile ‘form’ that money can buy. I would have said this about functions too but because there is no 3G service in India yet, iPhone will remain a hugely underutilized device.
How? Well, for example with 3G you could have watched the much awaited Vijender Kumar fight at 9:30 pm tonight, on-the-go (and needless to say could have made more heads turn!)

While you cannot yet watch the Boxing match tonight, on your iPhone, Nokia pulled of a punch on the day of India’s second medal at the Olympics. They have tried to preempt the iPhone launch with their N96. So what makes this worth looking at as compared to the hugely attractive and so much more talked about iPhone? To me, a lot is going for it. Just sample some of the things that it offers. N96 is a dream come true for memory hungry Indians at 16 GB expandable to 24! With that kind of ‘memory’ I really do not think if N96 will ‘forget’ much. For instance it will remember 18000 songs, keep as much as 20,000 pictures at 5 Megapixel, and store as much as 60 hrs of video that can be viewed on its 2.8” screen.

It also has a novel feature called Wave Secure that will help you back up your phone on the net and even help you track it if you misplaced it. While these are more of the device virtues, which Nokia has traditionally been strong in, what are more impressive are the new applications. Maps functions helps you create your own ‘soft maps’ (I like soft maps), so you can location tag your pictures and create your own world, your own topography for you to share with those who are close. N96 also helps us access OVi, which will now finally go head to head with Apple Apps and we’ll come to know who stands taller.

So how is the stage set? Who will win? Why? What to expect?
The way I look at these two launches is Apple is finally stepping on Nokia soil. I suppose India and China are both big Nokia markets without any iPhone yet. So it would be interesting to watch how things unfold.

Some initial thoughts:

1. I look at this as a battle between form (3G iPhone, in 2G environment will continue to be more of a looker than a doer!) and function (the ‘very loaded’ N96)

2. I see this as a battle for the top slot in terms of image - Apple iPhone Vs. Nokia N 96 – Nokia’s convergence flagship
But the way I look at it now, Apple could win round one – the first batch of sales, because a N96 still looks like a Nokia, and people have seen that look and are a little jaded. They want to flirt with design. And for people ready to pay that price – functionality can take a break for a while (until at least as long as they do not get bored with their iPhone)

3. This might sound a little provocative but I see a lot of girls buying the iPhone – it’s a beautiful thing to carry and it does cute things too!

To me while the iPhone is entertaining, N96 is entertainment converged but people will take time to discover the meaning of entertainment converged, till that time they will fiddle with their iPhones.Another thing, a little unrelated but interesting none the less, is to watch that will be useful to track is iPod sales in India after the iPhone launch. I understand that Apple will end up selling fewer of those, because the iPhone can do a good deal of personal stereo pretty well.

At the end, I look at iPhone’s launch and its predictable success, (unless the devices have a bug or something that makes people regret their decision) as an example of how great product design can cover many a weaknesses of the product. I see N96 as a great workhorse who unfortunately still looks like many other Nokia phones that came before that - one of the reasons why it would be overlooked by many who actually need it.May the better product win!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

At the face of it

Spot the driver in the picture that you see here, can you? Unlike India where it is much easier to tell the server from the one who is being served, in China it is very difficult. Usually you cannot tell who is who, at least in big cities. Because if the driver is wearing very clean, contemporary clothes and shoes, if he is busy keying in stuff into his PDA with the stylus and then we all sit together to eat, it becomes virtually impossible to tell one from the other. I am sure it might not be as difficult to tell the difference for people who know the language but sometimes (only sometimes) not knowing the language helps in gaining a point of view. Sometimes not knowing the answer is useful, because it helps you wonder constructively.

Coming back to the difficulty in telling one from the other, I think this a great sign. It means that the society is progressing at a pace wherein in there is lesser disparity, at least in some ways and some places. I am sure there is a long way to go but at least things seem to be moving in the right direction.

Now look at these two men below. Almost a contrast to the big city driver in their looks, aren’t they? Before you conclude that this is a ‘home theatres for the homeless’ kind of situation, I must add that these two men, staring at the bikini clad women on the screens, are sitting in an electronics super store in a tier 4 city in China and the sales woman is helping them choose the LCD TV that they should buy.
Surprising? Well, not really. In terms of money some farmers might be making as much if not more than the driver on the right in the picture above, however their expenses seem to be much less in the village. Add to it the price of a Chinese LCD TV does not make you mortgage anything to be able to own it!

I am sure the readers here would have read many stories about the poverty in rural China. However I feel that no picture is ever complete. If that is a reality, this is another reality. The way I look at these two examples is that technology adoption is moving down the economic pyramid. This is a great sign. I believe that technology adoption would further speed up the process of bridging the gap between the haves and have nots. Also, to me development (especially in a large country like China) cannot be a high precision activity. There will always be difference in the levels of development across regions and across occupations. However it is important to note that there is movement in the right direction and that to me is a very promising reality!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

I can hear you thinking

I have always been a believer in this and I always will be. Best interface is the one that can read minds rather than wait for my hands to do something or my vocal cords to make some noise!
I wrote about this a few months back when I was passionately attacking ‘classical languages’ like English and others that we have grown up speaking and writing. I as I said then and continue to say now, these languages were not developed keeping computing in mind (read earlier post “Undocumented Irrelevance of the Written Word”).

They we designed for ‘classical social interface’. However as we interface with ever more powerful computers, ‘as our needs extend beyond classical social interfacing’ we need an interface language that that can match up to the task. So when something like Epoch (from Emotiv Systems, see more here comes over the horizon, I see hope.

I have not tried Epoch yet, from what I read and hear about it, it brings us a fair picture of the things to come and at USD 300/- (around RMB 2100/-) it is worth trying out to get a feel of how future interfaces might feel.
Epoch is fundamentally a mind reading headset that helps you interface with your computer (it uses the same technology as in EEG – electroencephalography but without the gel!). In other words if it works as I imagine, in the time to come, it should be able to replace your keyboard and mouse.
Though right now it seems to be more of an entertainment tool because the primary applications is immersive gaming but I feel it can become much bigger than this. It could be a dramatic shift in human computer interface. The iPhone technology ended the need to press a physical buttons because the screen became the button; the Wii technology ended extended human motion to real time onscreen responses, and Epoc promises to completely rid us from getting physical with our machines!
I might sound like a technology fanatic but if we were to think objectively, in the past we have been very unfair to the way computing works. The computing world is the world of bits and bytes, which of course is much more efficient than the human or physical world of atoms and molecules. However, just because we live in the less efficient world, we have always brought down the interface to the level of inefficiency that typifies the physical world. But with neuro-impulse interpretation, we stand to break free from the fundamental limitations of the molecular side of us being humans. To me, human neuro impulses come closest to the bits & bytes efficiency and accuracy paradigm of the digital world. Neuro impulse is like the digital side of our biological or molecular existence. Thus if we can set up an interface with our computing devices at the neuro impulse level, then we would be interacting with these devices in the most efficient way that biological evolution can permit us to, today.

Another key reason for me to stand by the neuro impulse future is that it promises to democratize technology in an unprecedented fashion. As I wrote in my earlier piece, people would not need to be ‘language-wise’ before they could start using the benefits of the new technologies.

It is worth thinking at what level would we be picking up neuro impulse – would it be just an impulse or would we need to wait for the impulse to be given a word form before it can be interpreted. Right now I guess we are at the latter, however I keenly look forward to language independent neuro impulse recognition for superior interface with computing and more importantly a better life!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Functional Frills!

I am sure we all have seen Pedestal fans, and in different sizes. I am sure we have seen pedestal fans that rotate for a wider wind sweep to serve more people. Ever wondered why nobody ever found a way to rid us from the hassle that every time the fan speed had to be adjusted, we had to walk up to it and do it?
Well, as I discovered a few weeks back, somebody actually did. How many of us would have seen a Remote Control Operated Pedestal Fan. Here is one from a less than million population township in Central Eastern China.

No big brand but functional product design that’s relevant to the market.
How much? About RMB 200/- (roughly USD 35)

It is interesting to note how features get loaded, even to the seemingly basic products like a pedestal fan.
To me this is almost like an inspiration to get Functional frills into value for money products and build relevant differentiation. For example as my friend Deepak recently mentioned, why can’t we have no frills mobile phones with folding USB ports so that we can use them to transfer data without waiting for Bluetooth connectivity or looking for the PC connecting cord (which we seldom remember to carry around). Add to it we can even replace our USB flash memory sticks with such a feature in the mobile phone. I am sure most of the readers of this post would have lost at least one of their USB flash memory sticks by the time they find this post :)

To me, functional frills could be defined by some basic characters
1. Functional Frills are Hardy: Dust, heat, climate compliant/ tolerant
2. Functional Frills are Cheaper: Cost effective
3. Functional Frills are Physical: Based on hardware more than software
4. Functional Frills Differentiate: Help in bringing uniqueness to basic products/models/Designs
5. Functional Frills & Mobility: Help in making travel easy; need not carry different things any more – one can do more

One of the most compelling example of Functional Frills is Flip, an award winning Digital Video Recorder from Pure Digital starting at as less as USD 129/-. Flip is super simple, thus easy to use, can be connected to TV and has a USB that can help you connect it straight to the PC too. It is designs like these that make people adopt gadgets effortlessly.

Simple cost effective design is the shortest line between innovation and adoption.
Are we up to it?