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).