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.