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Meet Tomorrow’s Worker: Freelance, Flexible, Remote

Meet Tomislav. Tom is my perfect model of a future worker.

Based in Zagreb Tom works at the cutting edge of web development, maintaining expertise in the technology platforms underpinning the next generation of online applications. Few of his customers are in Zagreb, or even Croatia. They are in San Francisco, Basel and yes, Newcastle.

I met Tom when he contracted for us at CANDDi. It’s the gig that started him down the path of being an ‘elancer’, but it’s a life he has adapted to rapidly. Now he’s one of the most extreme examples I know of this new breed of knowledge worker.

Tom doesn’t stay in Zagreb: the fact that he works remotely means he can work from anywhere, not just home. When he and I met last week it was in Berlin, where he had decided to spend a month after attending a Javascript developers conference. Now he is installed at accommodation he found via AirBnB and testing out life in Berlin to see if he likes it. He had a few friends there and is making more, heading out the day we met for a local developer meet-up organised via Twitter.

Tom finds work through forums like Hacker News and dedicated matching services. Having tried the automated job boards like Elance he now prefers a human-curated matching service based in Silicon Valley called TopTal. Here he is matched with projects that suit his high-end talents, ones that are well managed and intellectually stretching. He also earns money by introducing and qualifying other developers of similar calibre and helping to match them with projects of their own. It has become a significant secondary income stream — not his only one.

Like most people operating in this fashion Tom maintains multiple sources of income, contracting, sourcing other contractors, and running his own projects.

Eventually he would like to run his own start-up but he’s pragmatic about the timing. There’s little capital in Zagreb and he’ll need some of his own funds. And he’d like to move to a city with better peer-support. Brighton’s on his short list, another city he has been able to spend time checking out.

But at the moment the rent in Zagreb is cheap, leaving him with disposable cash and the flexibility to work on the projects he enjoys. And for tomorrow’s elite elancing knowledge worker, that’s an important part of life.

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Technology, Change and Agency: Really, I’m Not a Pessimist!

Accusations of pessimism have stuck with me. They have coloured my thoughts for the last week. Listening to a recent RSA debate on the potential of technology to advance mankind, I recognised another opportunity to respond.

As is the role of any debate chair looking to stir up a response, Matthew Taylor, the RSA’s chief executive, set out a fairly binary choice for the participants: is technology transforming our world for good or not? He referenced all the good being done by groups like Khan Academy, and gave the counterpoint of continuing human conflict and poverty.

It’s worth listening to the panellists’ answers — particularly that from Tom Chatfield. But I thought I’d share mine since it fits well with some of the deeper questions from last weekend.

People change slowly. Within our lifetimes we all learn and develop. But many of our most basic behaviours are still governed by millennia-old reflexes. Epigenetics may allow traits to be passed from generation to generation, but we know little so far about how these changes affect fundamental human behaviour. At our core we have been the same animals for a very long time.

By contrast we change the environment around us relatively quickly. The changes within my own short lifetime of 35 years support the idea that the pace of change is high. A look at the last few hundred years supports the argument that the pace of change is increasing. Albeit that change is very unevenly distributed.

Beyond the nature at their core, people’s behaviour is defined by the environment around them. Most people are ‘good’. I use the word carefully because I’m not talking about some moral absolute. What I mean is that given a mostly positive environment, people don’t transgress accepted boundaries of right and wrong. Not so much because of a fear of the law (be it criminal, moral or religious) but because we have been conditioned over the millennia to co-operate rather than compete, to be participants not pariahs. There will always be criminals, psychopaths and CEOs. But most of us understand at a base level that co-operation is in our long term interests.

Technology is a catch-all term for the means by which we transform our environment. Currently when people talk about technology they are most often referring to networked computing devices, smartphones, tablets and servers, and the internet and web that connect them.

Have these things been a force for good?

You can’t ascribe agency to a collection of objects: they are not — yet — sentient. But I do believe the change that technology, and particularly the latest generation of technology, has brought is ‘a good thing’.

The reason for this belief is that the environment presented by the new technology is rich with knowledge and replete with opportunities for engagement and communication: with friends and family, politicians and academics, economists and influencers, people of every nation, race, and faith. The world’s knowledge is accessible at the press of a few virtual keys, and it’s not just in raw form: from Instructables to Wikipedia, Code Academyto Coursera, you can learn not just facts but skills from the internet on a £100 smartphone.

There are terrible uses for the internet and the devices that access it. But for me the importance and value of breaking down barriers to international communication, and commoditising knowledge are so great that any negatives, however individually terrible, are dwarfed by comparison.

Access to knowledge, skills and the means for engagement and self-expression are some of the most important factors in the transformation of any person’s environment. Transformations that throughout history have been shown to support increasing health, wealth, happiness and harmony.

The internet and mobile computing devices are the best technology we have ever created for transforming people’s environments on a global scale, potentially reducing some of the world’s great inequalities in the process. That’s why I believe technology — specifically this set of technologies — is transforming our world for good.

You see? I can be an optimist.

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Apple: A Very British Engineering Company

Top Gear: usually entertaining, often controversial. Particularly when talking about other nationalities.

Many years back, Jeremy Clarkson was reviewing some selection of cars or other. I’m guessing one of them was Japanese and one of them was British. To explain the difference he used British and Japanese hi-fis. The British one, from Arcam if I remember rightly, had a fairly simple, clean exterior interrupted by very few knobs and switches. The Japanese one bristled with technology. Jeremy’s assessment was that both sounded equally good, as long as you adjusted all the knobs and switches on the Japanese one correctly.

Jeremy determined the Japanese one was better because men like knobs. Or something like that. More technology, more features, switches, numbers and dials, are what people want. There’s some truth in this. There’s joy to be had in pushing and prodding, tweaking and tuning.

There’s a parallel truth about the technology media. It’s much easier to write about new features and functions when they have quantifiable specifications that are bigger or smaller than their competitors. People can get their heads around millimetres and megapixels, megahertz and milliamps. Competition makes news but competition needs benchmarks, winners and losers.

When it’s all about the spec sheet, geeks like me can compare and contrast. Obsessively research which gadget we want based on its on-paper capabilities, like some high-stakes game of Top Trumps. We enjoy this.

The problem comes in assessing those devices that don’t play the game.

Apple, for example. While the company may boast about new technical features like its 64-bit architecture and motion co-processor, for the most part what sells an Apple device has little to do with outright specification. It is down to experience. Apple’s new iPhones are serious competitors not because their Top Trumps datasheet says so but because the experience of using them is great.

Apple used to have a major advantage over competitors in user experience. Early Android phones felt like the user interface had been designed by a gaming-addled seven-year-old. Too flashy and whizzbang for everyday use. Blackberry was functional but ugly and dated. Symbian even more so. Don’t get me started on early Windows phones.

By contrast Apple was sleek and functional. Instantly and intuitively easy to use. I hated the first iPhone but only because the lack of 3G was so irritating: it made you want to be online all the time and back then, Wi-Fi hotspots in the UK sucked even harder than they do today.

Over time Apple’s advantage has been chipped away. The rough edges of Android have been smoothed off. UI designs have improved dramatically, particularly those from Sony and HTC. The Windows Phone OS is genuinely innovative, and for all its sales struggles, good. If people asked me until yesterday I’d say Apple remained in the lead, but only just. iOS was starting to look seriously dated. Every designer I know was moaning about the skeuomorphic elements that year-on-year meant less and less to a digitally-native audience.

In hardware too, Apple appeared to be left behind. Screen sizes are growing, cases are shrinking, everyone seems to have some cool display technology or other. And new standards and acronyms like 4K and UHD are all over competitors’ devices.

The iPhone 5S doesn’t do 4K. It doesn’t have a giant screen. It isn’t the thinnest device on the market. And yet yesterday it feels like Apple re-established its lead.

iOS7 feels fresh yet familiar. The dated elements have been swept away and replaced with interesting, original design that makes maximum use of the iPhone’s graphical capabilities. Alongside, new tweaks to the user interface have made it slicker in use: easier access to search, better multi-tasking, improvements to Safari, single-swipe access to key features. Some of these things competitors had, but here the implementation is just that bit cleaner.

On the 5S important functions like the camera have been improved, taking advantage of its monstrous processing power to allow slow-motion video, or burst shooting. The 64-bit architecture (its one, big, Top Trumps boast) should support even more ambitious app development. And the much-vaunted fingerprint scanner should genuinely smooth access while improving security (I don’t buy that the NSA would even want access to your fingerprints, let alone that they could get it).

Like the British stereo on Top Gear, there are few buttons and switches, sliders and dials. The iPhone 5S does not flaunt its technology. You just use it and it does what you want, out of the box. Unlike the British hi-fi, I think the iPhone is probably better than its nearest competitors because of this simplicity.

Let me qualify that because ‘better’ is pretty subjective. There are lots of great phones out there, and many of them will do things the iPhone doesn’t or do it better. I’m really liking the HTC One Mini that I’m testing at the moment, and am genuinely impressed with the latest devices from Sony — long my favourite maker of Android phones. I think Nokia’s newest devices are seriously compelling and that the Windows Phone operating system is a great rethinking of what we want from a mobile OS.

But if I want a phone that I can just use, easily and quickly, every time, I keep coming back to the iPhone. Even if you account for familiarity, the iPhone still wins on everyday usability. Until this week it was only just; iOS7 offers a significant improvement over what’s in my pocket.

There’s little doubting that the new iPhones will sell well. They don’t need me boosting them and that’s not my intention. It’s the philosophy behind them that I want to salute. As in my last post about ‘Colours and Chamfers’ (two words used by Jony Ive in Tuesday’s launch), these are devices designed around the customer. Built to do what customers want them to do with the minimum of fuss.

If you believe Jeremy Clarkson, that’s very British engineering. And that’s why I say Apple is a very British engineering company.

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Futurism and Pessimism

I get the impression I scared a few people on Sunday. Alongside the praise (still blushing) on Twitter there was more than a few mentions of the word ‘pessimist’. I can see how it might have come across that way, with talk of climate disaster and emigration to the stars. But I really do consider myself an optimist. Whether you agree depends on what you’re hoping for.

Let’s take climate change. It’s happening. We’re causing it. You can debate the effects, their scale, and when they will happen. But there’s little doubt about the fundamental process.

We’re not responding fast enough to avert some level of catastrophe. And I don’t think we will really respond until the first waves roll over the barricades, and the storms begin to rack up an even greater body count.

But at that stage, we’re far from done for as a race. And that’s where the optimism kicks in. We are good with our backs against a wall, even when the threat is one of our own making. We are incredibly resourceful.

I’m not sure governments will be capable of delivering the change necessary to restore some level of balance to the planet, if that is possible, or enabling us to escape this one (at least temporarily) if it is not. Instead it will be some other collective of people, be it commercial or social.

Just look at what Elon Musk has achieved with SpaceX, taking a fresh approach outside of the confines of government space programmes. He and his team have advanced rocket technology by decades in a very short space of time. Not only this, he has delivered far and away the best electric car on the market in the Tesla Model S.

In the open source community, and the global maker movement, I see the potential for a million Elon Musks, each operating on a small scale, but working collaboratively. Accessing capital as they need it from that same community via crowdfunding. These people are already tackling serious problems (as well as making the fun stuff like banana pianos). Look at what has been achieved already with the vast array of powerful, functional, free software available.

I predicted the end of religion on Sunday. If we can’t succeed in tackling the world’s problems, then as the end comes I’m sure I will be proved wrong. Religion is a great place to turn to if you have no other hope.

But I don’t think that will happen. When we’re not starved or impoverished, oppressed or marginalised, we are fundamentally decent beings who deploy our powers of reason to good effect.

I think we’ll do alright in the long run.

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iPhone 5C: A Futurist’s View

I’m on my way to Berlin for the launch of the new iPhones. Or so we assume: no one really knows what will be revealed tonight, despite this being the most leak-hit of all apple launches.

Assuming we do tonight see a ‘budget’ iPhone — and when I say ‘budget’, I mean ‘carefully priced to sell better in the developing world and disrupt the market in older models without limiting the scope for high-end core technology and a very attractive profit margin’ — what does it mean for the future of the phone? Clearly there’s nothing you can discern from a single data point but I think this is part of a pattern.

At the start of this year I predicted ‘divergence’ — the breaking out of the many functions we have been progressively cramming into phones, tablets and phablets into a personal network of dedicated, connected devices, much better for for their specific functions both technically and ergonomically.

Last week at IFA I witnessed and tested a number of pieces of evidence for this trend. JBL’s Bluetooth headset that gives great sound and by virtue of looking like any other in-ear headphones, doesn’t make you look like a dorky wannabe cyborg. Sony’s Wi-Fi connected cameras with a massive megapixel count and optical zoom, that give you great pics without compromising the form of the phone. And of course, Samsung’s Galaxy Gear smart watch, the latest device in the fast-accelerating wearables class that combines a marginally more convenient display and interface with body-sensing functions.

These are largely first-generation technologies (except for the JBLs). That means they are relatively expensive and large. But over time they will be refined to be smaller, smarter and cheaper. For me they signify the beginning of the next stage of technology evolution: away from single, densely-packed, hyper-powered devices and towards a connected network of simpler, cheaper, single-function units.

What relevance does this have for the iPhone 5C?

I think Apple is in this for the long term. And if they think like me (forgive my egotism) they recognise that in the long term, the single, super-high value device is going away. It has some longevity yet — if as nothing else than as a connection hub for the rest of our personal network — but as hardware gets progressively more capable, and cheaper, it will get harder and harder to make huge profits from this type of device.

So how do you sustain a profitable brand in the long term?

The key word is ‘brand’. Technology is increasingly like fashion: it’s cool but ultimately disposable. You might choose a brand for quality, but beyond a certain basic level of expenditure two pairs of trousers or two coats will provide fundamentally the same function. You choose between them because of style and because of what the brand you choose says about you.

This is becoming true for technology, but Apple and the other tech players have another dimension to offer/contend with. The content eco-system of apps, games, music, movies, mags and books. You can only sustain an ecosystem if you have a sufficiently large customer base to make it worthwhile for content creators to support your platform.

Apple does not have the largest installed base of customers. And if it is to maintain its profitability on hardware — the source of the vast majority of its profits today — then it cannot drop prices to secure more customers. Doing so would probably not work in any case: part of the appeal of Apple devices comes from their exclusivity.

Apple’s brand is strong, and it is the most comparable to a pure fashion brand of any of the major technology players. It competes little on specifications, and much more on brand and quality of experience. It is arguably the best-placed company to compete if my vision of a world where technology is fashion comes true.

But to get to that future, the company has to walk a fine line. It must maintain its colossal profits from the iPhone line until the format shift to divergent, distributed devices takes hold. And it must establish an even greater user base, to get them associating with its brand and to maintain the support of its content ecosystem.

For me, the iPhone 5C, is the first step down that path.

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Connected, Coloured and Chamfered: IFA Trends

The human brain has limits. IFA tests them. It is impossible to comprehend the vast array of gadgets on offer at this annual Berlin event. Walls of washing machines. Fields of phones. Truckloads of tablets. You get the idea.

I made a decent stab at seeing enough before my the surfeit of shiny overloaded my cortex. Here are a few trends I spotted.

Colours and Chamfers not Bits and Pixels

Design was the watchword. More so than even 4K/UHD and all the other acronyms that tell us a new generation of tellies is coming. Manufacturers wanted people to know about the effort they had put into making gadgets beautiful and usable, as well as functional.

This was best demonstrated by my hosts for the show, high-end audio stable Harman. You’ll know Harman’s brands: AKG, JBL, and of course Harman Kardon amongst them. What you might not know is that Harman also makes the audio and ‘infotainment’ systems for most nice cars: Mercedes, BMW, Ferrari etc

Harman was launching a load of new products at the show — the subject of future reviews — but opened up its press conference with a lecture on its design philosophy and process. And fascinating it was too.

Harman knows — as many other brands are learning (though sadly not all) — that if we are to lust after a product, and love it when we get it, it needs to be more than the thinnest, fastest, lightest or brightest. It must be a thing of beauty.

Importantly, the user experience starts with the packaging — what Harman’s design director called your ‘first date’ with the product.

Everything is Connected

This is not so much a new trend as an accelerating one. The means by which our devices — of all flavours — are connected to each other and the wider internet is undergoing another shift. First of all they weren’t connected at all, then they were connected locally, via bluetooth etc. Now they are increasingly connected directly to the Internet. As an example, Spotify announced that it will be licensing Connect technology to a wide range of electronics manufacturers, enabling direct streaming to the device. Your phone isn’t now the hub of the internet connection, it’s simply a controller.

I didn’t see as many home automation developments as I would like but that may have been lack of time rather than their lack of existence. More investigation to be done.

HD Audio

Another ‘quality’ trend, and one I expect we’ll hear a lot about in the coming year (pardon the pun), was HD Audio. It needs some branding to get over the confusion of different standards but now that so many of us seem to be spending upwards of £150 on a decent pair of headphones, it seems likely we’ll pay a little more for good quality audio files (i.e. better than nasty, compressed MP3) to make the most of them. Watch out for Sony in this space.

Tom Cheesewright