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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

5live Breakfast: Looking Ahead to the Tech of 2013

It’s the time of year where we make bold promises to ourselves, and big predictions for the future. I’m on 5live tomorrow morning talking about the big tech trends for 2012. Here are some of the predictions I’ll be making.

3D Printing: The ability to render your own designs in plastic reality should have sufficiently wide appeal for the big guys to commercialise the market in 2013. I think we’ll see the big printer manufacturers jump in, driving availability up and prices down. Expect to see 3D printers on the high street for less than £300 by the end of the year.

Gesture controls: We’re all comfortable with multi-touch now, pinching this and zooming that. And via the Wii and Kinect (and to a lesser extent the Playstation Move) many of us have now experienced motion control. The next big shift in user interfaces is gesture control: remotely commanding your computerised tech with just fingers, not whole body movements. This has many practical applications like remote controls, computer games, and in-car entertainment. Expect to see commercial applications in 2013.

Better batteries: One of the weakest bits of our current crop of gadgets is the battery, returning us to the charger each day. Nanotechnology is being used to make the chemical processes in batteries more efficient, giving more power for longer with less charging time. Expect to see charging times start to fall, and battery lives climb. The changes won’t be astounding in 2013 but in a couple of years you should be charging your phone every week instead of every night.

Divergence: As noted in a previous post, I think we have hit ‘peak convergence’. In 2013 we will begin to break out small, wireless gadgets that connect to your phone to do each job better. Headsets are the obvious existing tech, but expect to see head up displays, NFC payment units, cameras and more.

Ultra High Definition: I think the new 4K video standard will probably get wide acceptance before any of us really falls for home 3D (still a gimmick in most people’s eyes). The first TVs supporting the staggering 3840×2160 resolution are already available but out of most people’s price range at over £20k. But if, as rumoured, the next gen Playstation supports 4K, and is launched next Christmas, you will likely see a range of more wallet-friendly 4K TVs launched around the same time.

Health sensors: Many of us already use health monitors of one form or another, like the Fitbit, and Jawbone Up. These devices monitor your activity levels and will soon monitor much more. The Fitbug Air can now stream this data straight back to your PC and cloud-based personal trainer via your phone’s internet connection. And I’ve seen accessories that can monitor your heart rate and blood oxygen too. Before long we will all have a digital doctor keeping an eye on us.

Electric cars: Maybe in 2013 we’ll start to take electric cars seriously. Vauxhall’s Ampera has been well received and if you’re lucky you may get to see a Tesla Model S on the roads. The latter has five adult seats and a 300 mile range for around £35,000 — not a big premium over its petrol competitors. If you want to get a very short distance very, very quickly, Porsche’s plug-in Spyder does 0–60 in a little over three seconds but will only take you 16 miles on electricity alone.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

After Convergence Comes Divergence – Why Each of Our Gadgets Will Soon Do Fewer Things

Muggers and thieves must be getting used to rich pickings. On a daily basis I carry around at least three, if not four or five gadgets of different sorts: at least one smartphone, tablet, laptop, camera and usually a portable charger/battery pack to keep it all running. I’d worry this singles me out as a target were it not for the fact that there are so many other people loaded with the same levels of tech.

Thanks to the prevailing tech trend of the last ten years — convergence — each gadget handles multiple, usually overlapping functions. The overlap just increased further with the advent of connected cameras like the Samsung Galaxy Camera.

Convergence has made a reasonable amount of sense in the past: it’s hard to imagine buying a phone without a camera on it now. But for a number of reasons I think we’re going to start to see functions splitting out of these swiss army-knife devices and the rise of a new class of dedicated gadget.

Divergence is coming. Here’s why:

1. How many connections do you need?

Until its recent theft I maintained a 3G contract just for my iPad. This was daft on many levels. Cost is an obvious one, but at the time it was cheaper than tethering the iPad to my smartphone (I have since switched networks). Having a baseband unit (the collection of tech that talks to the mobile phone network) in the iPad also made it more expensive to purchase in the first place, and added size and weight. It also meant that the battery wouldn’t last as long.

Having just one baseband unit for all of the gadgets on our person that is designed simply to maintain and share a network connection would reduce the cost of connected devices, increase their battery life, and enable us to maintain just one personal connectivity bill.

2. Every function in every thing

What it is true for the baseband unit also applies to GPS units: my phone, tablet and camera all have a means of locating themselves using the Global Positioning System satellites — another power-hungry piece of tech. Stripping the GPS system out of most of them and putting it into a shared baseband unit may rob you of the ability to track your gadgets when they do get stolen, but as I hope to show, that will matter less. The benefit will be in getting the same level of sophistication from cheaper devices with batteries that last longer.

Once you’ve done away with the GPS, why not do the same with the screen? It is also power-hungry and expensive, and fragile, and makes massive demands on the design of the device. Speakers, microphones, cameras could all be dropped to, except in those devices where they are required. You might keep a little redundancy, but really: do we need one or two cameras in every device? What about NFC, the technology supporting cashless payments. Is the phone the right place for this or would it be more convenient in a watch or a single, wirelessly-connected card?

3. The form factor is wrong

Is a slim lump of metal, glass and plastic really the ideal form factor for every task we want to undertake. Does it make for the best camera, display, input device, router, speaker, gaming machine, payment card? No. Surely you want your audiovisual interface up around your head, and you don’t want to have to hold it there. You don’t want your screen — or for that matter your keyboard — limited by what size of solid sheet will fit in a pocket. If these functions can be attached to more ergonomic devices that can be suitably interconnected, then why not break them out?

4. Storage, storage, storage

Another feature replicated across all my devices is internal storage. The result: I carry multiple copies of the same data on each device, synced via cable or cloud. Very ineffecient.

5. We don’t need wires to connect

We have a range of options at our disposal for low-power, high bandwidth, wireless connections between devices. None of them is perfect, yet, but they are improving all the time. Why cram all the functions into one device for the sake of a wired connection, when they can be just as easily distributed.

For all these reasons I think we will start to see the belated emergence of the Personal Area Network. And it’s already happening: the Eye-Fi card adds WiFi to even simple digital cameras, enabling you to stream pictures back to your phone or tablet, and from there onto the world; most of us have some sort of bluetooth speaker or headset (even if we don’t like wearing them in public) to handle the audio functions of our phones; companies like Seagate and Buffalo now offer portable wireless storage. The network is building, it’s just that today we are connecting together devices with significant overlap rather than designing slimmed down devices to be part of the network. This step is crucial in reducing the cost of the devices (so making their theft less of an issue) and improving their battery life.

As with so many innovations it is the battery that proves the biggest barrier here: today’s technology would mean relatively short battery lives and lots of chargers. Not much fun. Once we get better batteries and wireless charging, you will be able to just pop them in a drawer or hang up your bag/coat full of kit and it will all just charge where it is, lasting for a week or so on a full charge.

In the meantime, I’ll be trying to kludge together my own little Personal Area Network using the devices I am sent to review.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Wake Up to Money: Why Maps Matter So Much To Google, Apple and Nokia

What a hoohah Apple’s switch from Google Maps created. Months later Google launches a Maps App for iOS and I get asked on to Wake Up to Moneyto talk about it.

Is mapping software really so important? Yes it is.

Aside from the noted safety concerns, and the frustration of not being able to find your destination, maps and the data behind them are hugely important. Because they represent the intersection between our online and offline lives. Maps applications don’t just tell US where THINGS are. They tell THINGS –businesses, governments, transport providers — where WE like to go.

This data has enormous value for advertisers, planners, service providers and all of the companies who want to service these organisations. Pyramid Research believes the global market for location-based services will be worth $10.3bn/£6.4bn by 2015. Based on nothing but gut instinct I’d say this is conservative if anything: being able to connect the current and past location of people to the services around them has to be worth a lot more than that for the billion smartphone users worldwide.

Combine the revenue potential with the brand issues that Apple’s maps blunder created and the rumours of an acquisition of mapping experts TomTom seem very plausible. After all this would cost Apple a fraction of its $121bn cash pile, much of which is tucked away outside the US where it would be very expensive to repatriate.

Maps matter, and the introduction of Google back to the iPhone is far from the last word in this story.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Today It’s Phone Numbers, Tomorrow: Relationships. Why Our Computers Will Know Our Friends Better Than We Do

A couple of weeks ago I was on BBC Breakfast talking about the stress that can be caused when our Facebook circles — mostly work and life — overlap. It reminded me of a paper from a recent conference I attended at Lancaster University where an academic was trying to address precisely this issue.

Overlapping online relationships is not a new problem: Google was trying to solve it with the introduction of Circles in Google Plus. If you’re not yet a user of this particular entry in the pantheon of social networks, Circles are a way of circumscribing the different segments of your life into multiple overlapping groups of contacts. You can choose which of your circles receives each status update/piece of content. Your family might see things your friends don’t, or you might have different circles of business colleague who are privileged with different levels of information.

This isn’t a bad solution but it is a little clunky. I could try to define my relationships with contacts in the rich, minute detail that truly represents every day life, but this would take a long time to set up properly, and make every post on the network painful as I tried to decide which circles ought to see everything.

Instead I — like many people — have historically maintained just three ‘Circles’, albeit using an even less sophisticated approach than Google Plus’s Circles: Facebook is for friends and family, LinkedIn is for work, Twitter is for friends and work. Anything I wanted to post in any of those networks I have mentally edited for appropriateness to the relevant network.

There are of course finer controls over access within the social networks — particularly Facebook with its own version of Google’s Circles — but the reality is that few people use them. Particularly when they are having a good time: the posts that happen late at night after a couple of shandies are likely to be the ones that cause the most issues with both your work and social lives.

So we either all need to become a lot more open, or we need a more sophisticated solution.

This is where the academic comes in. Dr Jose M. Such at the Security Lancaster research group is working on a system that can automatically determine our level of ‘intimacy’ with different contacts based on our previous interactions. And based on data from Facebook the group has already produced a software tool that can model intimacy with 90% accuracy.

This intimacy score enables a system to automatically determine the proper privacy policy between you and each other member of the network.

For example, it could decide whether I can access an item — say a photo — based on my relationship with the owner of the item. It could also take account of the intimacy scores between me and all the people tagged in the photo before it made a decision. I’d probably never see this calculation — the picture just wouldn’t appear in my timeline if the compounded intimacy scores didn’t justify it.

In the early days I think it’s unlikely we would allow such a system to make all the decisions for us. At the minimum we might want ‘Pull’ and ‘Push’ buttons alongside the ‘Like’ to adjust the intimacy level between ourselves and others. And we may need more than one dimension in the scoring: there are different levels of intimacy in the office environment that are entirely separate to those in our social lives. Apart from the occasions that the two overlap, which is where this whole conversation started in the first place…

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Joy of Tech Facebook Messenger to Take on SMS

I was on 5live’s Saturday Edition this week talking about apps: You candownload the Joy of Tech podcast based on the show here or Listen Again to the show here.

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It was the twentieth anniversary of the text message last week. But it’s unlikely to see another anniversary of the same magnitude. Alternative messaging platforms have been stalking the simple SMS and are poised to take over — in a relatively short space of time.

Cross-platform apps like WhatsApp send SMS-style messages but over the Internet rather than the backchannels of the mobile phone system. This is cheaper, more efficient, and enables richer features (real-time chat, delivery/read receipts, integrated video/images etc) at no extra cost. As a result WhatsApp now has an estimated 250 million users (according to this Guardian piece).

But Facebook already has a billion users, and it continues to grow at a healthy rate in the developing nations (source). If Facebook can convince a sufficient proportion of us to use its new Messenger application over SMS and the other Internet-based alternatives, it could rapidly take a significant chunk of the messaging market.

In 2012 the world is likely to send around 10 trillion SMS messages. But within a couple of years that number is likely to tumble as more and more of us move over to Internet-based messaging. Facebook is likely to play a big role in this but I don’t think that is the endgame.

What the success of SMS, Twitter and WhatsApp show is that there is a value in the ability to share short text-based messages. They have a number of advantages over voice in many circumstances: they can be sent and received discreetly, they can contain rich content like web links and images, and they can be shared easily with one or many people. For these reasons, though the number of messages sent via SMS is likely to go down, the total number of short messages will continue to climb.

Initially commercial, proprietary systems will drive this growth. But after a while it doesn’t make sense to us as users to be locked into single network that may not be the one our friends choose. When short messages form a large proportion of Internet traffic, surely it makes sense to have an Internet standard for short messages? The same way we all use different services and software to send, receive and manage email but all are interoperable.

Facebook is likely to leverage its short message service for short term gain but in the long term, I believe and hope that we will all be able to chat away on an open Internet standard for short messaging.

 

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

5 Trends for the Future of Business: ICAEW

Last week I spoke at a conference run by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales about five trends that will shape the way we do business in the future. I’ve posted the deck on Slideshare and turned my notes into this piece. I’ll be breaking some of these themes out in more detail at some point down the line.

1. The Personal Web

Arguably the single most important piece of technology infrastructure of the last fifty years has been the Internet. There are now more than 2 billion individuals online and every one of these has access to an incredibly sophisticated suite of creative tools. For example, the most popular content management system in the world — WordPress — powers almost 17% of the top million sites on the web (as ranked by Alexa) and 22% of all new sites. And it is free.

The world’s online citizens access these tools via incredibly cheap commoditised hardware. This weekend I saw new, dual core laptops for sale new at £160. £65 will buy you a 7in Android tablet with cameras, WiFi and everything you need to make videos, podcasts and more.

Storing all this content is cheap. In 1990 a gigabyte of storage would cost you roughly ten thousand pounds. These days it costs around ten pence.

The result is that we’re all producing content at an incredible rate. There are nearly eight billion web pages in the worldOver eight years of video content is added to YouTube every day. We don’t need to wait for the ten o’clock news anymore to tell us what’s going on. We are surrounded by reporters on everything from world events to the mundanities of everyday life.

There is simply too much content for us to navigate unassisted.

This brings me to my first trend. The personal web.

More and more we are going to need help to navigate the noise of the web, and that help is going to come in a number of forms.

Google already personalises our search results based on what it knows about us. If you and I search for the same things, we will see different results.

People are beginning to take up the challenge of navigation, curating content around their subjects of interest via Twitter and Pinterest, and there are a load of new startup companies focused on these 21st century editors.

Software is beginning to do the job of searching and summarising on our behalf. Google Alerts searches on your behalf. Summ.ly automatically summarises the news into bite sized chunks.

Websites will no longer be the same for everyone. Just like Amazon recommends products to you today, websites will try to understand what you want when you land on them and present the right things to you without you searching. This is the goal of a business called CANDDi I co-founded a few years back.

Why does this matter for your business?

Because you want the best navigation tools at the hands of your employees in order for them to find the right information efficiently. Because you need to know how your customers are going to be discovering suppliers in the near future. With a personalised web just being the biggest and shouting the loudest no longer guarantees you attention.

2. The Bionic Workforce

Talking about tools for your employees brings me to my next key trend. And a statement: Humans are rubbish.

Specifically they are rubbish employees. As people we are inherently fluffy. Soft-edged and sociable. Hard to measure and tough to direct.

I spoke to a call centre operator a couple of years ago who told me he reckons his staff are about 20% efficient. So for every hour they are in the office they actually spend 12 minutes on a call to a customer.

Now that’s shocking. But tell me: do you know how efficient your staff are? For how many minutes of the day are they doing something productive? What did each member of your team achieve yesterday. What did that activity contribute to the bottom line?

Call centre man knows the answers to these questions. Because the software systems that run his call centre track these things. As a result he can build his business around this data.

Factories have been doing this sort of thing for years. But in offices we have felt ourselves to be above such things. That such tight control was for the blue collars, not us in our suits.

This attitude can’t persist. If we in the UK are to compete with the aggressively growing knowledge economies of the BRIC nations we need to be efficient.

We need bionic employees.

I don’t mean people who can leap buildings and crush steel.

I mean employees who are augmented by software. A queue of tasks at their fingertips alongside the right information and the tools to complete those tasks with the minimum number of keystrokes.

Bionic managers, augmented with fantastically powerful management information that tells them what was done in how long, how long jobs like this ought to take in the future and hence how much they are costing the business.

The beginnings of these tools exist in many industries. Case management systems in law. CRM in marketing. But nowhere has this been more aggressively adopted than in software and technology businesses. Here you have a bunch of technology obsessives and in my experience, management theory obsessives. They have adopted the mantra that ‘what gets measured, gets done’ and are implementing the tools to deliver it.

Even the most senior staff members document their activities in a job scheduling system, with input from peers about which tasks are, and are not, strategic. Juniors get allocated tasks with a brief and time expectations attached, with approval loops and feedback built in. It is an adaptable model that could be applied to almost any office.

And, I believe, it will be.

3. The Email-less Office

One of the casualties of this practice might be email.

Email has always been an odd technology. When it first entered the workplace people used it like a letter. Formally formatted, topped and tailed. These days no-one’s sure whether it is for instant messages, shipping documents or sharing instructions. It has become a jack of all trades and a master of none.

Everybody has different rules for email. Some people treat it like a real time medium and expect an instant response. In my opinion there’s a tool for that. It’s called a phone.

Email interrupts the working day. It tethers us to the office out of hours. It increases stress and diminishes productivity.

Over the next few years I believe we will see the use of email diminish in the workplace.

As shared calendars, proper workflow tools and office-friendly social communication tools like Google Hangouts are popularised, our need for email will diminish.

Email will either return to its rightful role, as a long form written communication, useful for documented communication, or it will die a timely death.

4. The Rise of the Free Agent

While the unemployment figures look good on face value, there’s a dirty secret at their heart. 97% of the new jobs created in 2010 were part time. Millions of workers in the UK want more work than they can get (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/lmac/underemployed-workers-in-the-uk/2012/rpt-underemployed-workers.html). Business owners though all rightly nervous about committing to full time roles in an uncertain economy. So what do we do?

Technology is making it easier for people to be self-employed. Government administration is moving online, and while they haven’t done a great job of making things intuitive yet, it’s getting better. The software tools for managing your own business affairs are both cost effective and simple to use. Tools like FreeAgent make accounts simple for anyone. You can register a limited company online now for £17 , with a standard set of memorandum and articles to go with it. The same commoditised hardware that allows us to create online, enables us to manage our business affairs.

It will get easier, and cheaper. And something else will happen: there will be more and more open, online markets for work.

You can already see this in the creative industries. You can go online, post a brief for a piece of design or animation and multiple providers will bid on it. Not big companies but individuals, freelancers.

You can do the same for shipping, for plumbers or builders. Soon you will be able to do it for almost any form of work. You will qualify people like you qualify eBay sellers — by their reputation.

More and more in business we will make use of free agents and the transactions will be enabled by technology.

5. The Intimate Computer

The four trends I have talked about so far today all have one thing in common. They require an interface between us and technology. And that interface today is largely the keyboard. We can touch and we can swipe on our phones and tablets, but the fundamental method of data input remains the keyboard. A technology that goes back well over 100 years.

It’s not good enough.

For even the fastest typists a keyboard remains a narrowband interface. Communicating the nuance and richness of human interaction is reliant on the literary or coding skill of the writer. What we need is a broadband interface between us and the electronic world.

Speech has always been the dream but it’s fairly public: you probably don’t want to be dictating to your computer when you’re on a train. For me the big advances in the near future will come in gesture interfaces and thought recognition.

Today’s gesture interfaces are fairly crude. The Xbox Kinect is probably the best example but it requires you to wave your arms around to not very accurate effect. Not very practical when sat in your cubicle.

The next generation of gesture interface will be accurate to the level of fingersand eye movements. Combine these with even today’s crude thought interfaces — available as kids games for just a hundred pounds or so — and you start to compound a very rich, portable, subtle interface.

What I call the Intimate Computer will combine these subtle, human interfaces with other data about location and time, with your behavioural history to start to build up a profile of you. It will smooth your interactions with the digital world, using its deep knowledge of you to interpolate and filter and add richness and nuance to your interactions — and taking some of the more administrative functions out of your hands entirely.

Do you really need to turn lights on and off? Set and unset alarms? Connect and disconnect from different networks. These things should be handled on your behalf.

The business lesson from this trend is to keep your eyes open. What is gaming technology today could present serious competitive advantage tomorrow. Understanding how the next generation of employees is learning to interact with their technology at home will enable you to identify opportunities to engage, motivate, and differentiate when they join the workforce. And you may just see an opportunity for your own company in intimate computing.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

My Sleeves Are Too Long: Why Home Fabs Will Replace Fashion Factories

I struggle with clothes. Apart from having a limited sense of style, I also have a slightly odd body shape. My neck is thicker and my chest broader than my height would imply. Even with my newly svelte figure (I’ve shed over a stone and a half in the last few weeks — a different story), I have trouble finding clothes that fit. Most noticeably, the arms are too long in any shirt or jacket that I buy to fit around my rather chunky neck*.

I am not alone in this. By definition, most people have a body shape that is not average. Finding something as basic as a pair of jeans that fit all of our various contours is a challenge for most people.

As a solution we could all have our clothes made to measure. This is a very pleasurable experience — I have a couple of bespoke suits — but it is a rather expensive way to fill a wardrobe. And I can’t see my tailors (the estimable Long, Berry and Wild on Manchester’s Lever Street), making me a hoodie or a snowboarding jacket, so my fashion options may be a little limited.

In the future I can see that there will be a better alternative. And it starts with 3D printers — or at least their descendants.

3D printers have been one of the big tech stories of 2012, as their price has tumbled from the tens of thousands to the single thousands. It won’t be long before your local PC World, Maplin or even B&Q starts selling them for under a grand. And from there the price is likely to tumble further.

But what about fashion? It’s unlikely that the first few generations of 3D printers will be capable of dealing with the variety of materials and manufacturing methods involved in something as complex as a technical jacket. But down the line larger, more sophisticated fabricators or ‘fabs’ will almost certainly be capable of assembling clothing matched to our exact measurements.

Even these devices may have their limits: larger or more complex designs may require a trip to the shops still. In fact this is almost certainly where these devices will first appear.

It’s important to note that these will not be robot cutting and sewing machines: the process is not one of cutting out a pattern and stitching. It is a process of laying down consecutive layers of liquid material that then sets and is bonded together to form a complete whole. While energy intensive this should be much less wasteful.

And the results should be fine and intricate constructions with much less stitching between segments and layers — a process little different to how clothes were made in the middle ages — as whole garments can be constructed as single pieces.

There are, as usual, many questions to answer for this little dream to be made reality: for a start how will we deal with the various materials the machines will need to use? Will it all be synthetics or will they be able to handle cottons and other natural materials? Will the economics stack up vs mass production of clothes that roughly fit? How will the licensing of designs work?

All to be discussed and dealt with, but not insurmountable challenges. And when they can be nailed, I might finally have sleeves that don’t drape over my hands.

*Crueller friends might suggest my overdeveloped neck is required to support my rather large head.

 

Tom Cheesewright