Posts Tagged ‘notes from the floor’

Accounting for a "Freemium" world

Friday, September 13th, 2013

So, we reached a key milestone in the Coplin household over the summer, my son has taken his first steps down his own path towards financial independence. Yes, much to the pain of my reluctant wallet, it is finally pocket money time.

I’ll spare you all the details of the endless wrangling around how much (£2) and what we felt he needs to do in order to earn it (make his own “contribution” to the family). The point is, we decided it was time he started to learn the consequences of being responsible for his own spending.

The thing is though, teaching financial independence in a freemium, digital world is an incredibly different proposition to anything we have previously experienced (either as kids or even as parents even just a few years ago). In a world of tangible physical products which have a price point as a point of entry, it’s easy to teach the lessons of “save for what you want and you’ll enjoy it all the more” but in the friction free freemium world, this lesson is presented with a few problems.

kidsshutterstock_115520779Like any other 8 year old, my son loves apps, and there are a few really good freemium games that he really enjoys. You know the sort, these are often brilliant and compelling games that are free to download and let you acquire points within the game to buy attributes, power ups or just plain old items to bestow on your avatars or whatever. Typically a good freemium game will let you earn these points whilst also providing you with a short cut that means you can just buy the points and it’s the proximity of this choice combined with the threshold of how much effort you need to put in to earning in order get the additional content you need that seems to be causing some cracks to start to appear in the whole freemium approach. Some freemium games providers seem to push it a bit too far, bringing the in-game upgrades consistently (and increasingly intrusively) closer while pushing the “free” part further and further out of reach.

Of course the key lesson I’m trying to impart to my son is that you have finite resources in your piggy bank and you want to buy a bunch of different items, and it’s up to you to prioritise finite resources accordingly. This is tough for any kid (bloody hell it’s still tough for me) but the freemium model lowers the friction of any purchase – in that it’s really easy to buy what I want, I don’t have to go anywhere, I don’t have to exert any effort, I just click on a button and hey presto! Instant gratification. It’s like locking the kid in a sweet shop, taking the lids of all the jars and just saying “Help yourself! Go nuts!, just remember you’ve only got a finite amount of money” I don’t know many kids that would come out of that situation with any cash left (or even without over spending), regardless of how much they wanted anything else outside the sweetshop.

It’s the combination of the proximity of the purchase and the lack of friction of the purchase that causes the problem. Kids are pretty instantaneous, occasionally impetuous and have yet to learn the long, hard boring lessons about patience and value. (And I admit that as an adult there are times when I am really jealous of that).

There’s another related issue here about the value of “effort” – I had this conversation with my son which was basically, “look Dad, why would I spend all my free time earning 1,000 points when I can just buy them for 70p? After all, I’m getting pocket money now”. 70p? I can’t even buy a bag of crisps for that, it’s a trivial amount of money but it’s the principle that is infinitely more important. Ultimately it’s an argument that I have a tough time responding to without resorting to that worst excuse of parenting “just because”.

Ultimately I can cope with the latter argument, as a parent I’m used to the fact that I have to work hard to get my messages across, and that all I’m doing is to try not recreate the same “mistakes” my parents my made, (while acknowledging in the process that I’ll be making plenty of new ones that my son will rail against with his kids) but it’s the (lack of) transparency of the freemium model that worries me most and it is something that app providers (and platform providers) really need to give some thought to.

Of course, this year, there’s been plenty of news coverage of kids racking up thousands of pounds of bills on their parent’s credit card without anyone really being aware it was happening. Our own research showed that on average kids spend around £31m a month on apps or in app purchases without asking for permission! Thankfully people and organisations are evolving in how they both deal with that situation (give you the money back) and building systems and education that help parents manage and control spending, but I think there’s another level of detail that we’ve not yet reached and it’s one of individual app accountability and transparency of reporting that will help address the issues I’ve outlined here.

Don’t mistake any of this for either a rant against the freemium model or worse, some miserable old git hankering after simpler times. I actually love the freemium model, I think it’s a really important development in the software industry, but I just think we need to help our society evolve to understand how to make best use of it.

Frankly, I really don’t care if my son wants to blow his “lavish” allowance on virtual cabbages that he can feed to his virtual pets, or on that gold laser powered jump suit that will look “A-W-E-some!” but I do want him to be able to make decisions easily. He should be able to look at his individual apps and see how much he has spent on each of them, not for me to have to trawl through credit card statements and app store emails to piece together the picture. It’s the same kind of transparency and “business intelligence” we try to create for our enterprise customers to help them make “informed, business decisions” so why the hell wouldn’t we want to do this for our consumers as well?

I get that app developers don’t make much on a free or even a 69p game, but the freemium model will break if it forces the developers to drive monetisation harder by pushing the consumer further and further towards having to spend money in order to enjoy the game and then doesn’t give them the capability to account for their spending. Ultimately, if that plays out, consumers (or their parents) will vote with their feet and just walk away and at that point, just what is the point of the freemium approach other than to obscure and, to an extent, trick the consumer around their spending?

Preparing Our Future – The Need for Critical Thinking

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

thinkThere has been much discussion in the UK recently about the importance of getting the right approach to the role of technology in schools.  Many have used this as the opportunity to reinforce the need for greater emphasis on the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) with further focus being given to the need to create a new generation of “kids who code”.  Whilst this on its own is an incredibly important initiative, it is vitally important to continue to remind ourselves that it is still just a subset of the overall duty of care we have as technologists to ensure that every single aspect of society is empowered by technology.  Yes that means having great software, and as such brilliant computer scientists, but more importantly it means ensuring that every single member of society knows how to make the best use of technology whatever their societal role – this is our modern equivalent of a “PC on every desk”.

In order to achieve this it means that we need to get beyond teaching the “tools” and start teaching the “skills” that will make all the difference for the workforce of the future. In particular it requires that our children and every other member of our society are equipped with the cognitive capability and skills that enable them to harness the incredible potential that technology brings to us. It is no longer  just a case of “feeding” them with the basic tools that will become obsolete tomorrow, but instead teaching them to “fish” in a growing digital pool.

Within our brave new digital world, one of the most important skills we must learn is “critical thinking” a concept that rather incredibly, dates back to Socrates over 2000 years ago, but after being “recently” updated in the 20th century for a modern society by many great scholars it provides an powerful framework for our internet age.

findEvery single day, we are bombarded by millions of signals of data, information and content, and every single day the quantity of information we are exposed to grows exponentially.  These days we are still looking for the needle, it’s just that now it’s in a billion haystacks.

Critical thinking is about “reflective” rather than “routine” thought, it’s the process of “active, persistent and careful consideration” of the credibility and conclusions of supposed knowledge or information.

Most of us use critical thinking every day and for most of the time, we are barely aware of it.  Every time we read a newspaper article, watch a documentary or look something up on Wikipedia we are aware of a whole range of biases, influences and emotions that may interfere with the validity, accuracy and overall conclusion of the content and, if we’re doing our job properly, we take all of that into account as we parse the information, reflect on it drawing in a range of other context and ultimately use it to draw conclusions and make decisions.

Fortunately for us, we’ve had years of practice and experimentation to get this right but in this new digital age, where children and young people have so much access to an incredible world of information but have yet to develop the skills to know how to deal with it.

From an early age, we need to ensure that children using the internet are able draw upon critical thinking skills to:

Search efficiently and effectively – depending not solely on the search engine’s view of relevancy but able to navigate and adjust the query to ensure the most appropriate results.

Distinguish kinds of sources and analyse a source’s validity and reliability – from basic differentiation of primary vs secondary sources through to deconstructing domain names and URL’s to learn more context about the source.

Make a habit of cross checking facts, even from reliable sources – we know from experience that even “authorities” can mislead and experts make mistakes so wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.

Conscientiously and properly attribute the words and ideas of others – the internet has made plagiarism a lot easier, but thankfully, easier to spot. Students need to know the basic rules about when and how to quote others’ words and how to properly attribute the ideas that are not their own.

Stay safe on the internet – these are some of the most important skills of all, from not giving out personal information through to taking care about the kind of conversations they enter into on-line, staying safe is absolutely paramount. 

Interact with others online honestly, respectfully, fairly and clearly – the anonymity, immediacy and lack of proximity presented by the internet can lead to anti-social behaviour, sometimes with devastating consequences. Learning how to speak honestly, fairly, and with respect, clarity and brevity along with understanding why this is important in a society, especially a democracy, is crucial.

(Note: More detail on each of these areas, as well as lesson ideas for different ages of students can be found in the “Critical Thinking” white paper we published in 2010)

So, as we prepare to wind down this educational year and pause over the summer to think about the role of ICT in the new school year in September, please, let’s make sure we keep a firm focus on ensuring that as well as being brilliant at coding, our future citizens (and workforce) are equipped with all the necessary skills to make the very best of all that technology will have to offer them.

Evolving Our Expectations of Privacy

Friday, May 4th, 2012

So I walk into my local pub, the landlord calls out “hey Dave! Your usual?” – I acknowledge him with a smile and nonchalantly walk up to the bar as he pours my drink; I am secretly overjoyed that I have finally achieved such status and recognition (although I barely spare a moment’s thought for the years of patronage and resulting family neglect that have afforded me such privilege.)

That kind of personalised service is something we as consumers strive to experience (come on, we all have a secret fantasy of playing Norm in your own local bar where “everyone knows your name”) and service providers have long chased the dream of creating that sense of “home”, where we know you, we know what you like and relax, you’re amongst friends here. (Don’t believe me? Watch any airline advert from the last 10 years and you’ll know exactly what I mean).

drinking manSo what if then, I walk into a different bar, in an unfamiliar town and the landlord does the same thing “hey Dave! Your usual?” do I offer him the same smile and nonchalance? Of course not, I turn around and run out of the bar, screaming in terror at the indignity of the invasion of my privacy.

But why should I be freaked out by that? After all, the landlord in the second bar has as much interest in offering me the personalised service as the landlord in the first pub. But what’s different is my _expectation_. If I had whiled away the hours on http://www.makeminemylocal.com availing landlords across the country with my photograph and drinking preferences so they can offer such a service, then I might reasonably expect such a friendly welcome, but the fact it is not expected is what freaks me out.

The lesson here for us as consumers (and for us as technology providers) is “no surprises” – if the consumer is (reasonably) surprised about the service or the usage of their data, then as a provider, you’ve probably got it wrong. You can tell me all you like that a specific bit of information about me is public information, but if it doesn’t feel like it to me then I’m going to have a hard time when somebody I wasn’t expecting uses it. It’s that expectation that’s almost as important as the permission to use the data, in the first bar, I’m OK with the data attribute “my favourite beer” being used. In the second bar, when it gets used I am unnerved not just because I never gave permission, but equally because I wasn’t expecting it.

I think this difference between the role of reasonable expectation and permission is often overlooked and will potentially catch us out as our culture (and expectations) about reasonable use evolve. We live in an increasingly personalised world, and our expectations and comfort with the mechanics of how that world is created are growing ever easier, we are freaked out initially by the “filter bubble” but then realise that actually, used properly (and transparently) it is a vital resource if we are to stand a chance of sorting the wheat from the chaff in a modern (big data) world.

I am reminded of a similar example from our recent past that shows how these evolutions can happen.  Do you remember when caller ID first appeared on our landline phones at home?  I do, mostly because I was incensed at the thought of _my_ number being displayed to whoever I called, even though I had requested to be “ex-directory”.  Fast forward a few years and you will find me refusing to answer the phone when the number is unknown or not recognised.  I no longer care about my number being displayed because my expectations have evolved to appreciate the value that the service provides.

But this is not just about always adapting or evolving to new developments and privacy boundaries.  Crucially, there needs to be some constructive tension to ensure that this evolution neither goes too far too quickly nor becomes unbalanced in terms of the value to the corporation versus the consumer. Given the complexity of the issue (and the difference context makes in the usage of the data in question) the law alone is not enough to do this, we need to ensure that a place exists where consumers, regulators, privacy advocates (like Privacy International, Big Brother Watch and others) and technology providers can come together to collectively and constructively debate the best way forward for all involved. I talked about this recently at an event on Location Privacy, and was reliably informed that there at least 5 different places (and counting) where this debate can and does happen. This is good but it needs to be better and more focused if we are to provide the best outcome for all of the stakeholders involved.

We all have a part to play in making sure this dialogue continues to happen – why don’t you join us?

The Future Workforce – Curious, Confident and Tooled up with Tech

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

I recently presented at an event at the RSA around the role of technology in jobs, the economy and the future workforce in the UK, and although this may initially feel a little counterintuitive (and for me, potentially career limiting) I’d like to bring some of the discussion to you, highlighting in particular the general irrelevance of technology in our deliberations as to what we need to do to ensure our future workforce is equipped to help maintain and extend our position (and economy) across a broad range of industries.

Over the past few weeks, there has been much in the press about the relationship between skills, technology and job prospects, especially recently with all the discussion around the role of ICT in the tool curriculum.  In all of this, overall, I grow increasingly worried that we have confused the word “skills” with the word “tools”.

Most people’s experience of technology is now more defined by their personal experience than it is by their experience at work. We no longer live in a world where people only ever see computers at a place of work or place of study and broadly speaking, technology has become a natural ingrained part of our everyday lives, just like the television, just like the 240v, 50Hz AC that comes out of the sockets in your wall.  However, even despite all this, we seem predominantly transfixed on the specifics of training people to use specific tools and technologies rather than on the broader principles that make their use important and valuable.  ICT continues to be a separate bolt on to both education and in how organisations use it rather than something that is naturally embedded into every aspect of our lives. 

(Please understand, I get that we do not live in an society where everyone has equal opportunities and access to digital resources, but we do live in a world where increasingly, like the recent government mandate, everything is becoming “digital by default”.)

scienceBy now, we are familiar with the cliché around how we are “currently training people for jobs that don’t exist yet”, but I would argue that, although the pace of change may be slightly faster these days, that particular problem has always pretty much always been true.

My own family offers me some evidence – I am but the latest in a long line of engineers bearing the Coplin surname, my grandfather grew up in the industrial heartland of this country, working for one of the many engineering firms in the midlands as a pattern maker.  My father grew up in that same environment and became an aeronautical engineer, I grew up surrounded by aeronautical and mechanical engineering insight and artefacts and became a software engineer, my son, is growing up similarly “blessed” (or cursed as his Mum may occasionally have it) and will no doubt, find his own way to re-engineer the world (although like any other six year old, his current ambition sees him working with the Police, not on the motorbikes or in the squad cars but specifically “with computers”, his own important addition to the job stereotype that makes me infinitely proud).

My grandfather went to a school without electricity, my father went to a school without calculators and I grew up in a world without personal computers and went to college in a world without the internet or the web.  My son will be similarly afflicted in relation to his children (“Tell me again Dad? You didn’t even have hoverboards?”) and so it goes on.

Although the generations of Coplin engineers grew up with incredibly different tools and concepts of education, we are united by a common set of skills; almost insatiable curiosity and a desire to re-engineer and improve the world around us.

What this says to me is that the tools are broadly irrelevant.  Don’t get pedantic on me, I’m not saying totally irrelevant, just that it’s more important to understand the principles that make them work and where to apply them, than it is to understand the specific workings of a given software package (or lathe for that matter).

This is really where our challenge lies – how to ensure our children and workforce are equipped with the broad principles and the aptitude and attitude to know when and where to apply them along with that sense of curiosity and wonder about the world about them.

Perhaps it was because I had just spent the best part of the past weekend with them, but my baseline for success is broadly defined by the incredible “Gov Camp” community we have here in the UK.  Some 250 or so individuals from all over the country, from all parts of public sector, united by a love of technology and a desire to improve public service (or as Chris Taggart so pragmatically puts it, to “make the world a little less shit”).

GovCamp 2012What makes this community special (and for my money, an early indicator of what we can look forward to across all industries and companies in the future) is that from all of these people, only a handful (certainly less than 10) would class themselves as being from “IT”.  These are individuals from the business end of government who use technology as a part of their everyday lives, and want to use it to the same extent in their professional roles.  They think of technology as an enabler not an outcome.  They are curious, they are confident, they overcome organisational boundaries and are guided by a civil purpose – they want to take the world apart and put it back together again in a way that it makes things better for those involved.  These are the hallmarks of a creative, capable and competent workforce and the principles that are behind this curious mind-set are exactly those I think we need to infuse in our children and future workforce (of all ages).  (If you want a more detailed look at what makes UK Gov Camp and the people behind it so special, you can find out what it feels like to “walk a mile in their sandals” from Steph Gray, one of the community’s incredible architects.)

For too long we have drawn a distinction between science and art, when in reality they can both be the same thing. We need to show kids (and adults alike) that, as Niko Macdonald, one of the audience members eloquently put it, “there is beauty in code” and “majesty in mathematics”. It is as much about inspiration as it is about perspiration.  Unfortunately, from the discussion it becomes clear that there is a significant gap between schools and industry in helping each other understand which skills are important and what sort of careers they could lead to. 

I think we can do more here, especially those of us who have children within the education system – we need to find a way of spending more time with schools to help demonstrate what careers and vocations the basic skills like maths, english and science can lead to (and that these subjects can be as creative as any art-related subject).  I think a re-birth of the school computer club is one key way that we can do this without getting caught up in (or in the way of) the curriculum discussion. (HT to @MadProf and the “Monmouth Manifesto” on that one).

There is no doubt that technology will play a crucial part in our future economy, and that technology skills will be fundamentally essential for individuals to have a challenging, rewarding career but I think it’s important to highlight those careers will increasingly not be in “IT” itself. I believe it far more likely that they will be spread across the existing (in some cases eternal) and the incredible new industries that our future will offer.  More importantly, the specifics of the technologies being used will vary even more significantly than over the preceding 100 years and so now, more than ever, it becomes crucial to infuse those essential principles into the mind-set of all those who are venturing into this new world of work.

Helping them understand that, as Matthew Taylor from the RSA puts it, “you don’t ‘get’ a job, you ‘create’ one” could be all it takes to get us started.

(GovCamp photo credit: David Pearson)

Consumerisation is a Fickle Beast

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

It’s been a while since we last spoke about the “consumerisation” of IT and recently I’ve seen a couple of warning signs that some organisations have missed the point of the extent of the philosophical change that consumerisation requires in order to be a strategic asset in how you empower individuals with technology.

ipadisationMany organisations clearly understand the potential of consumerisation inside their organisation, they get that it creates more engagement with their employees, especially around their use of technology. They get that it fosters innovation as people feel empowered to use technology creatively to help them solve business challenges and deliver better service. Hell, they even get that, done correctly, it can save money on top of all that.  But increasingly I’m seeing examples of organisations that try to jump to the answer without considering or implementing the principles that will make this approach successful year after year. Net result, short term gain, long term pain – worse still, that long term pain will fool people to think that consumerisation “failed” and we’ll be back where we started – expensive, constrained corporate desktops that provide a far worse experience than the one we enjoy in our personal lives.

The two warning signs of this short-termist approach are easily identified, basically, ask yourselves, or your IT department (and be honest)  – Are you chasing consumerisation based on a philosophical change in the way you think about the role of technology inside your organisation, or

1. is it the result of the demand for a specific device?  or

2. you think “consumer” equipment is cheaper? (you know the line – “you paid how much for that corporate laptop? Man, they’re half that price in PC World/on the interwebs” and so on)

Come on, I said be honest. Many I know are doing it to make it acceptable to use a specific device work on the corporate network – I even heard the phrase the “ipadisation” the other day (you know who you are Mr Weber). This my friends, is _not_ consumerisation, it is satiating the ego of you or your execs and if all you do is focus on one specific device, you’ll have to do it all again when that fickle consumer changes his or her mind and decides that this year, it’s the pink one we all like.

Others are looking at the price point difference between a shiny, consumer laptop and the ugly, expensive corporate alternative and thinking “What the hell? The spec is the same so why pay more”. Well, remember that TCO acronym that we all spent blood, sweat and tears getting established all those years ago?  It’s got the words “total cost” in it for a reason.

Many consumer devices are trinkets, they’re pretty, they work well for a time, but they won’t stand the day in, day out abuse that business machines get.  They may last a year or maybe two of that kind of toil, but ultimately you’ll end up spending more money keeping them running than you would have if you’d bought something more fit for purpose.

Please don’t mistake this post for an anti-iPad rant, it’s really not (and to be honest I’d hope you know me better than to think that).  If anything, this post is just a little catharsis for me, it’s to remind us that consumerisation is a change in how we should think about _people_ within organisations, it is about culture, not finance, politics or god forbid, technology.

Stick with that and no matter what “must-have” tech gadget is in season, we’ll all do just fine.

Voice Recognition: NUI’s Unsung Hero

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

I recently got asked to provide an opinion on “voice recognition”, in particular around our philosophy towards it and how we’ve implemented it across the stack.  If you can stomach it, you can see how it turned out (let’s put it this way, it opens with a comparison to the Hoff’s “Knight Rider”) and it kind of goes downhill from there but regardless, in doing the research, I learnt some really interesting things along the way that I thought I’d share here.

soundwave2First off, let’s start by asking how many of you know how speech recognition works these days?  Well I thought I did, but it turns out I didn’t.  Unlike the early approach, where you used to have to “train” the computer to understand you by spending hours and hours reading to your computer (which always kind of defeated the object to me), today, speech recognition works pretty much the same way they teach kids to speak/read, using phonemes, digraphs and trigraphs. The computer simply tries to recognise the shapes and patterns of the words being spoken, then using some clever logic and obviously an algorithm or two, performs some contextual analysis (makes a guess) on what is the most probable sentence or command you might be saying.

In the early days of speech recognition, the heavy lifting required was all about the listening and conversion from analogue to digital, today it’s in the algorithmic analysis on what it is most likely that you are saying.  This subtle shift has opened up probably the most significant advance in voice recognition in the last twenty years, the concept of voice recognition as a “cloud” service.

A year or so ago, I opened a CIO event for Steve Ballmer, given I was on stage first, I got a front row seat at the event and watched Ballmer up close and personal as he proceeded to tell me, and the amassed CIO’s from our 200 largest customers, that the Kinect was in fact a “cloud device”.  At the time I remember thinking, “bloody hell Steve, even for you that’s a bit of a stretch isn’t it?”.  I filed it away under “Things CEO’s say when there’s no real news” and forgot about it, until now that is when I finally realised what he meant.

Basically, because with a connected device (like Kinect), the analysis of your movements and the processing for voice recognition can now also be done in the cloud. We now have the option (with the consumer’s appropriate permission) to use those events to provide a service that continuously learns and improves.  This ultimately means that the voice recognition service you use today is actually different (and minutely inferior) to the same service that you’ll use tomorrow.   This is incredibly powerful and also shows you that the “final mile” of getting voice recognition right lies more now with the algorithm that figures out what you’re mostly likely to be saying than it does with the actual recognition of the sounds.  MSR have a number of projects underway around this (my current favourite being the MSR’s Sentence Completion Challenge), not to mention our own development around how this might apply within search.

Those of you that have been following these ramblings in the past will know I’m slightly sceptical of voice recognition, thinking that it is technology’s consistent wayward child, full of potential, yet unruly, unpredictable and relentlessly under-achieved.  I’m not saying my view has changed overnight on this, but am certainly more inclined to think it will happen, based on this single, crucial point.

Kinect too provides its own clue that we’re a lot closer than we previously thought to making voice recognition a reality, not just in the fact that it uses voice recognition as a primary mode of (natural) interaction but more in how it tries to deal with the other end of the voice recognition problem – just how do you hear _anything_ when you are sat on top of the loudest source of noise in the room (the TV) when someone 10 feet away is trying to talk to you in the middle of a movie (or the final level on Sonic Generations, sat next to a screaming 6 year old who’s entire opinion of your success as a father rests on your ability to defeat the final “boss” ).  If you have a few minutes and are interested, this is a wonderful article that talks specifically about that challenge and how we employ the use of an array of 4 microphones to try and solve the problem.  There’s still more work to be done here, but it’s a great start in what is actually an incredibly complex problem  – think about it, if I can’t even hear my wife in the middle of a game of Halo or an episode of Star Trek (original series of course) how the hell is Kinect going to hear? (Oh, I’ve just been informed by her that apparently that particular issue is actually not a technical problem… #awkward).

So these two subtle technological differences in our approach are going to make all the difference in voice recognition becoming a reality as part of a much more natural way of interacting with technology.  Once that happens, we move into the really interesting part of the problem – our expectations of what we can do with it.

expectOur kids are a great way of understanding just how much of Pandora’s box getting into voice recognition (and other more natural forms of interaction) will be and I suspect that ultimately, our greatest challenge will be living up to the expectation of what is possible across all the forms of technical interaction we have, NUI parity across devices if you like.  My son’s expectation (quite reasonably) is that if he can talk to his xBox, then he should be able to talk to any other device and furthermore, if he can ask it to play movies and navigate to games why can’t it do other things?  I was sitting doing my research with him the night before my interview on all of this, and we were playing together at getting the voice recognition to work.  He asked the xBox play his movie, he told Sonic which level to play on Kinect FreeRiders then he paused, looked at me and then back at the TV, cracked a cheeky smile and said, “Xbox, do my homework…”.

Parliament and Internet – Visions for the Internet and Social

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

This morning, I had the enviable honour of joining Facebook, Google, and RIM on a panel discussion in front of the 6th annual Parliament and Internet conference (I had my poshest frock on and everything).

Although the guys on security stopped me from bringing my soapbox into Portcullis House with me, I did get an opportunity to talk about rural broadband, the humanisation of the web, and the arrogance of the present, I also managed to squeeze a tenuous Spiderman joke in and overall I had a lot of fun. Here’s my speech in full:

“I’d like to start by trying to confuse you with a contradiction – the technology revolution is both over and just beginning. It’s over because we’ve spent a long time getting used to technology being around and becoming part of our everyday lives and it’s just beginning because, only now that technology is so engrained in how we live, are the real opportunities being presented.

Slide25We know from our own studies and anecdotal research that in general, most people go home to better technology (faster, more recent) than they are provided with at work. People generally enjoy a rich technological experience in their personal lives, shopping on-line, enjoying entertainment, playing games and communicating with friends, but unfortunately this experience is not always mirrored in the workplace with the constraints imposed by corporate budgets, security concerns and in some cases, over-zealous IT management. To call this a missed opportunity is like saying Facebook is marginally successful.

Please understand that all of this does not discount the challenge we continue to face in this country around closing the digital divide, but it is an acknowledgement that the gap is closing thanks in no small part to the continued efforts of champions like Martha Lane Fox and her team with Race Online 2012.

Slide28That being said, we know people use technology effectively for many aspects of their lives and those of you with children will see just how pervasive technology has become. From my own experience, I watch my son with great interest as he just adapts and integrates technology and the internet into his world. For him, technology (the web, the Xbox, the mobile phone) are no different to him than the TV, books or traditional toys and he integrates all of them into his everyday life with equal enthusiasm and interest. But I want to stop short with that example, because I fear it runs the risk of reinforcing one of the great myths that actually I would rather dispel than support and that is that these technologies are perceived to only be accessible or useful to younger generations and those of us who find ourselves, well, let’s just say, on the wrong side of youth are left behind or left out. But, time and time again our research shows this to be a stupid assumption to make. Stupid because the statistics show the biggest growth of the use of new tools like social networking are actually in older generations and stupid again because we know in our own anecdotal experiences these technologies have made a big difference on how we live our lives every day. My favourite example can actually be found once a week on a Thursday evening during Question Time. If you were to open up Twitter and follow the Question Time hashtag you will witness a quiet revolution of normal everyday people getting engaged in democratic discussion about how our country is run and the current affairs that affect us all. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and social networks, that experience has been transformed from a one-way “transmission” (or as it was in my house, just me shouting at the telly) to a totally collaborative experience that engages the audience and the panel in a way only dreamed of previously.

The rise of social networking and it’s fundamental importance to the future of how a modern society can benefit from technology is a topic that is not yet well understood. We probably have ourselves to blame, but let me tell you now that social networking is not about providing an endless commentary of trivial anecdotes about my life as an individual, you know the ones I mean “just had the world’s best latte! LOL” or “overslept again, don’t tell the boss” but in many ways actually represents as big a revolution to our use of the internet as the web did when it first became mainstream. This may be a revelation to many of you, but the real value of social networking lies not just in the communications themselves, but also in the connections that are made in order for the communications to flow. With social networking, we are finally able to move from a network of machines, a cold, logical place governed by the ones and zeros of binary code to a network of people, where human intent and instinct combines with the power that the digital world has to offer.

Slide-32Social networking offers us the potential to “humanise the web”, augmenting the power that the internet’s connection and collaboration provides with a human signal that provides citizens, organisations and governments with the ability to connect and effect change on a scale never before imaginable. This year the world has witnessed incredible scenes, some good, some bad of how citizens have grabbed the power that social networks have to offer in order to effect massive change in the way in which they are governed. This year we have seen how citizens can use Facebook to organise a revolution, Twitter to orchestrate it on the day and YouTube to tell the world. Detractors may point to the ugly scenes in London and across the UK from back in the summer but the truth is that social media played as big a part in the clean up as it did on the temporary disruption in our nation’s morality.

It is said, that “on the internet, no-one knows you’re a dog” – well the truth is, today on the internet, no-one knows you’re in Dolgellau – the internet is a geographic leveller, it offers incredible opportunities that transcend geographical location, enabling global companies to be borne out of local, rural locations, where the only real constraints are those of the entrepreneurs imagination and, oh yes, available bandwidth. This is both our opportunity and our curse, we have in our midst incredible rural communities rich in talent, expertise and experience, who throughout the UK, have long been the industrial heartbeat of our nation but increasingly are struggling to remain competitive or even operative in the midst of a global marketplace in recession. If we are able to correctly crack the problem of providing sufficient connectivity to these locations, there is almost nothing to stop the next global success stories coming from places like North Wales, Cumbria or deepest, darkest Dorset.

In the future I am convinced our descendants will look at our work practices with pity, failing to comprehend why we all felt compelled to travel long distances just so we could be in the same place, at the same time as our colleagues. In these days of predominantly service and knowledge industries this feels somewhat out of sync with the capabilities of technology. What if we used these technologies more and changed our work practices creating local hubs across communities throughout the country? Not only would this have a massive economic impact in terms of reclaiming lost time, it also would have significant positive upside on both the environment and more importantly the local economies of these areas enabling small and medium businesses to flourish in support of the local workforce.

Throughout the history of our civilisation it is has often been remarked that we have sufficient technology to achieve our goals and this is actually one of the most dangerous views we face. If we had heeded that advice would we have harnessed fire, the industrial revolution, electricity, the car? Possibly not. History provides us with great examples of where this “arrogance of the present” clouds our judgement “the world will only ever need 3 or 4 computers” or even our own Bill Gates claiming “no-one will need more than 640Kb of RAM” but the truth is, it is incredibly difficult to judge the future value of any given innovation when it can only be judged by a current mindset, the current norm so to speak.

The internet and social networks offer a modern society opportunities and advances far beyond the reach of simple social connections and communication, used properly, they truly offer the potential for the combination of man and machine to become greater than the sum of their parts.

But, this development will require some effective stewardship and will present our society with complex issues that we must all face and work our way through and with that, in closing, I am reminded of that famous quote from the cultural classic that is “Spiderman, the movie” – “with great power comes great responsibility” – the internet, social networks and other associated technologies offer our society incredible opportunity and advantages and both we as technology providers and you as policy makers and legislators have a duty of care to ensure that we can live up to the opportunity – the question really is – are we up to that challenge?

Exploring the Adjacent Possible

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Over the summer, a friend recommended Steve Johnson’s book “Where Good Ideas Come From – the natural history of innovation”, not only is it a great book, it contains some really important themes that I think are worth calling out for future exploration. Here’s a few that resonated with me (and why) but you can expect to hear more about these in the coming weeks. (Anyone paying attention will also note that Johnson dedicates a whole chapter in his book to “serendipity” – I have excluded it from this post not because I don’t find it relevant but because I want to focus on it much more deeply in the near future.)

1) The Adjacent Possible
This is one of those “obvious now that you mention it” kind of things where simply, when you are looking for the best ideas, or what makes ideas work, you have to find the ideas that are adjacent to existing concepts, two steps away is too far and will never happen, one step away and you’re in. This is where the natural history meme comes in, if you think about evolution, you can’t start at the big bang and immediately make humans or sunflowers or puppies or chicken tikka massala (although I’m thinking there would have been enough heat there for a pretty efficient tandoor oven so you could have had a shot at that last one), the point is you have to incrementally change all those atoms and molecules over a period of time until the evolutionary process provides you with the opportunity to move that final strand of DNA or molecule to make that complex outcome or even Graham Norton.

hovercarThis principle is exactly the same for our ideas, the reason I can’t have my hovercar is because the concept is not adjacent to our existing ideas or technological capabilities – we simply lack the building blocks to put it together (although, after hearing about that Swiss bloke practising fusion in his kitchen, you’ve got to think that somewhere out there, is a Doc Brown waiting to happen).

In the book, Johnson uses the analogy of a house with infinite rooms, all interconnected. You walk into the first room, it has 4 doors each connected to further rooms with further doors. You can’t go to any room in the house without first traversing a series of other, connected rooms. This is where some of the inherent beauty of the adjacent possible lies, it’s potential grows exponentially with every new stage of discovery.

It’s also a great tool to try and use when you’re trying to validate the strength of any given idea – does it represent the adjacent possible or the distant impossible?

2) Liquid Networks & Exaptation
Forgive me, while I get all Hybrid Organisation on your collective asses, but we’ve been talking for a couple of years now, about the importance of workplace design and its relationship to the collective innovation of a team or organisation. Johnson provides some nice analogies that help to push that story a little further. So, close your eyes, put yourself back a few years and imagine yourself back in the 5th form at school, in double Physics to be precise, just before your mock O’level. Using the concept of solids, liquids and gases, Johnson describes the inherent ability for individuals (acting like molecules) to oscillate those individuals around them (stop sniggering at the back Coplin, I said “oscillate”). If you constrain the extent to which the individuals can move, i.e. restrict their office layout with offices and cubicles, it’s like the molecules in a solid, they exist but have little effect on each other. If you go to the other extreme and remove all constraints (i.e. no office at all) you end up with chaos (the collaborative equivalent of a gaseous state) where molecules dissipate into the environment and have little effect on each other.

What you really want, he proposes, (and the Hybrid Organisation agrees) is a liquid state, where the molecules are free to move around but remain within the overall context of the organisation. Molecules can bounce around inside the liquid, resulting in an agile collective can change shape and move as needs dictate. This is essentially creating the perfect environment for collaboration, innovation and exaptation. Exaptation? That’s when an organism develops a trait for a specific use, then that trait gets hijacked for a completely different purpose. Feathers are the classic example of this, initially evolved to provide temperature regulation for birds, the birds discovered that they’re also pretty good for flying too, and then evolution takes over and you end up with streamlined aerofoils rather than fluffy, downy warmth.

Exaptation of ideas is a huge part of innovation and is also a crucial part of serendipity. Like serendipity, it also requires a free, liquid network that enables disparate ideas, individuals or concepts to come together to create innovation.

3) The Slow Hunch – Why Eureka! Takes Time
EurekaThere’s not much to this important concept, other than it dispels the myth that most of our great innovations come from single individuals who experience a “light bulb” moment and have the big idea. Although that explanation may work for Hollywood because it’s a better and easier story to tell, the reality is that many of the important discoveries, innovations and ideas of our entire history are actually the result of lifetimes of work and study often bordering onto obsession. We know this inherently, but often choose to ignore it. Our best ideas, are often the ones that we’ve left to fester at the back of our minds, nurtured and tended by, a long shower or a long walk, to help them mature to their full potential. <Assumes crap French accent> “Ideas are like fine wines, they need time to mature, percolate and infuse” .

The reality of the slow hunch is actually a cumulative factor that builds on liquid networks, exaptation and serendipity – all elements that make our view on _­discovery_ so crucial to our overall objective in search. What is key then, is to be able to feed, nurture and evolve an individual concept over a long period of time, incredibly though it seems that in order to make the breakthrough, the concept needs to be at the background of your cognitive activity not the foreground, slowly percolating away to completion.

You may not see the link in all of this, but every time I walk into the office I do. These days, I know I’m pretty lucky, I have a job that makes it easy for me to explore the adjacent possible, to “exapt” ideas by forming a liquid network of influencers and thought leaders inside and outside of Microsoft – but I also can see the constraints, especially as we get busier, we don’t always have time for the slow hunch to mature, and we find it hard to leave the safe confines of our team, office or sector. My encouragement to you is to make time, make time to cultivate new ideas, make time to speak to people outside of your team, make time to explore the adjacent possible. It won’t help you today, but I guarantee it will set the stage for your greatness tomorrow.

Local is the new Global

Monday, June 13th, 2011

“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.

batcaveI’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:

  1. Location (where am I?, where are you? and what else is near?)
  2. Geographic Meta data (POI at a macro and micro level)
  3. 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.

Location
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.

Geographic Meta-data
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.

Connectivity
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.

Moving the Hive with Social Buzz

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

The other night I was sat watching Winnie the Pooh with my son for about the 453rd time – to be fair, I had made him watch one of the great cinema classics of our time the night before (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension – obviously) and now it was his turn to choose.  Anyhow, while Pooh was thinking about honey, I was thinking about bees.  As they coalesced to create that comedy swarm formation that is the cliché of so many cartoons, I sat there wondering if bees actually did that in real life, and you know what?  They do.

Bee2aThe day after watching Pooh, Tigger et al bounce their way through the Hundred Acre Wood I came across a wonderful study about how honey bee colonies move around from year to year, finding the absolute best place for them to live for the coming season.  It’s the way that they make the decision about where’s the best place to live that’s really interesting and ultimately of most use to us when we think about what makes good social engagement work and how contrary the “hive” decision making process is to what you would expect, when you realise that the decision on where to move the colony to is not based on consensus and compromise, but is actually simply about quorum or critical mass.

Bee1aAs late spring approaches, the queen and about 10,000 of her subjects, set off to find a new home and re-establish the colony.  In order to do this, they leave the hive and form a swarm.  From there a much smaller group of scouts (a few hundred) head out and look around for suitable locations (NOTE: at no point do the bees _ever_ enlist the help of an estate agent which also says a lot about the incredible intelligence of the insect mind).  What the scouts are looking for are about twelve or more suitable locations for the new hive. One by one the scouts return and communicate with the swarm about what they’ve found.  (If you’re really interested in this, the way they do this is called a Waggle Dance – which, as I have now learned, is pretty incredible and not, as I previously thought, just an odd name for a rather splendid beer.) 

But the really interesting thing for us, is not only _how_ the decision gets made, but also _where_ it gets made.    You would think that each scout would return to the swarm, report back, have a long debate with the queen and her advisers, send out for pizza and beer and then decide (hey, it’s how it would work for me if I was a bee.)  Actually, it is the activity of the scouts while they are out on patrol that makes the decision which is accepted and acted upon without question by the rest of the colony.  It’s a question of quorum vs consensus really.  You would expect the hive mind to be all about consensus, i.e. “we all agree this is the right thing to do” whereas in reality it is simply the first potential new home to reach a quorum or critical mass (in this case 15 or more scouts present at one time), once this is reached, the decision is simply taken as made and the colony moves to its new home.

Bee3aBy now, you’re probably wondering what the point of all this is besides an interesting lesson in entomology, well, in my mind, what happens for the bees is actually what happens for us when we try to “activate” social media campaigns or engagement.  There’s been a lot written about the hive mind and the collective intelligence of the crowd and trust me, I am not jumping on that bandwagon (not now anyway).  What I am really trying to point out that your job in creating “buzz” (oh, the irony) is _not_ about the majority, or even the queens or the “leaders” of those colonies.  No, this is simply about establishing enough critical mass with the scouts. 

Internet users are relatively fickle beasts (you want evidence – just ask MySpace). As a result, I firmly believe your success in gaining “influence” or “reach” (however you decide to measure them) comes from engaging a series of smaller, more manageable niche audiences and exciting and enthusing them about you, your brand, your story etc.  I think this requires a bit more creative effort in the short term (to identify and create relevance with these individual swarms/niches) but over the longer term requires a hell of a lot less “muscle” (financial or otherwise) than would be required if you try move the hive en masse.

You don’t need to move the entire colony to get the volume, you just need to enchant individuals to build up that quorum – oh yeah, that and a pretty awesome waggle dance…