“Think Global, Act Local” or so the cliché goes. Thing is, this is about to become more possible and more accurate than ever before. What this means for us as individuals in a modern society is a classic case for "arrogance of the present", _we just don’t know_, because most of us find it hard to imagine a world of such hyper-connectivity where the world takes on a very different viewpoint where most things become available within local reach but offering global supply.
For most of us, things like Foursquare and Gowalla are amusing distractions used primarily by the authorities to help identify and track the location and movement of geeks, but in fact they (and the infrastructural elements they rely on) will ultimately become the very fabric of how we access, consume and pay for services in the very near future.
I’m OK with the fact that most people think the above is a bit of a stretch, however, I’m actually more worried about the fact that because we can’t really imagine how all this stuff will come together, I don’t think we’ve properly figured out the true potential of what a powerful, connected, _local_ view on our world means yet and as such, I think we risk being derailed (at worst) or delayed (at best) in our ability to deliver an incredibly transformative change to the way in which technology enhances our lives.
Assuming we buy the current trajectory of smartphone sales (n.b. when do we stop calling them smart? When everybody is smart, is _anybody_ smart anymore?). We know that pretty soon, there will be more smartphones than dumb ones and new sales of slates and phones will outstrip PC’s – the mobile device revolution is finally here El Presidente, so let’s move on and think about the really important stuff before Apple ships another iPhone and everyone gets distracted again.
There are three key areas we need to figure out and triangulate if we are to achieve the vision, these are:
- Location (where am I?, where are you? and what else is near?)
- Geographic Meta data (POI at a macro and micro level)
- Connectivity (people, networks and devices)
I’m not going to get everything on the table on all 3 of these in one post alone, so for now, let’s just start with a broad definition, ready for deeper exploration in the future.
There are three dimensions of location that we need to supply: Where am I? Where is the "target"? What else is nearby? And of these three it is the first that should concern us most. We currently rely on a brilliant but outdated and vulnerable service to locate ourselves which is also extremely flawed in its ability to provide accurate and timely location information to us in our localised existence or rather, should I more simply say, indoors or in the city…
Controversy aside, we desperately need _a range_ of mechanisms to identify our location and to be able to do so in a way that is fast, battery friendly and works indoors. Funnily enough, it actually doesn’t need to be that precise, it just needs to be within 5m, we can figure out the rest for ourselves. Good news is, (if you read behind the headlines) we are well on the way to solving this, externally at least, we need a much better (standard?) approach for how this might be achieved cost effectively indoors.
We need to think about location meta data (points of information etc) at both a macro and micro level. At a micro level this is about a taxonomy of stores, services, opening times and other ancillaries like street furniture (e.g. post boxes, gritting bins etc) , at a micro level this needs to be really extended down to a very near field level providing a much more granular view of the environment around you. This level of detail is crucial, for example, it’s no longer enough to know that the train station has disabled access facilities, you need to know which _exact_ door is the one that has zero lip for disabled access, or which end of the train should you stand to be nearest to the exit for your particular stop etc.
North America seems to do quite well at a macro level whereas in the UK we don’t with retailers and service providers (public and private) being rather slow (myopically so) in signing up and advertising in the established platforms. We all suck however at the micro level, and it is this information we really need to figure out how to easily acquire and on-board.
This is about remembering we live in an "occasionally disconnected" world. We may have pervasive mobile broadband but this doesn’t mean that it’s always available. As application designers however, we seem to have forgotten that. Most mobile apps these days will only function if a connection is present – this is a bad approach. I live in the most populous country in Europe and work in the most populous city in the world yet I still experience several occasions _every day_ when I am without signal. This probably adds up to about 2-3 hours _a day_ when I can’t use my smart device because the app designer has not thought about local caching (and before you start dusting off that fanboy attitude you’ve been saving, I’m packing multiple devices and they’re all the same). This is not going to change anytime soon because we lack the funds and science (we’re dealing with the laws of physics here too ya know) so we need to get over it. Design apps and mobile platforms for the "occasionally disconnected" world and we’ll be fine. (BTW – the historians among you will remember, this is what we used to do before we got fat, dumb and lazy with the promise of mobile broadband. When patchy mobile data was the best that was available, you were grateful for it and respectful of its use, 4G connection you say?, all we had was the thin end of a damp bit of string – Luxury…).
Connectivity is also about connecting individuals (When you’re walking down the street and pass a café that your best mate is sitting in, you want to know right? Or do you?) and it’s also about connecting devices, the whole peer to peer network thing, but played out on mobile. (Man if I was smart I’d be buying shares in Groove and Ray Ozzie now, no wait, been there, missed out on that.) Both of these we’ll cover in detail some other time.
So you will have figured out by now, there are no answers this week, just big questions. Great for me as it gives me more room for what I think is the most important of the 127 "big bets" we’re undoubtedly going to have for months ahead and great for you because maybe, you’re sitting out there with some of the answer, come on now, don’t be shy.