This is a column I did for the BBC World Service, broadcast this week.
There’s been a lot of talk that the big boys — by which I mean Apple and Samsung — are about to launch so-called smart watches. But how smart does a watch have to be before we start strapping them to our wrists in numbers to make a difference?
First off, a confession. I’ve strapped a few things to my wrist in my time. Back in the 80s and 90s I used to love the Casio calculator watch called the Databank, though I can’t actually recall ever doing a calculation on it or putting more than a few phone numbers in there. About a decade ago I reviewed something called the Fossil Wrist PDA, a wrist-bound personal digital assistant. It didn’t take off. In fact, no smart watch has taken off.
So if the smartwatch isn’t new, maybe the world around them is? We’ve moved a long way in the past couple of years, to the point where every device we have occupies a slightly different spot to the one it was intended for. Our phones, for example, are not phones anymore but data devices. And even that has evolved: the devices have changed direction in size, from shrinking to getting larger, as we realise we want to do more on them.
That in turn has made tablets shrink. When Apple introduced the iPad Steve Jobs famously said that was the smallest the tablet could reasonably go, but Samsung proved him wrong with the phablet, and now we have an iPad Mini. All this has has raised serious questions about the future of the laptop computer and the desktop PC.
But it shouldn’t. For a long time we thought that the perfect device would be something that does everything, but the drive to miniaturise components has actually had the opposite effect: we seem to be quite comfortable moving between devices and carrying a bunch of them around with us.
This all makes sense, given that our data is all stored in the cloud, and every device is connected to it either through WiFi, a phone connection or Bluetooth. We often don’t even know how our device is connecting — we just know it is.
So, the smartwatch optimists say, the time is ripe for a smartwatch. Firstly, we’ve demonstrated that we are able to throw out tired conventions about what a device should do. If our phone isn’t really our phone anymore then why not put our phone on our wrist? Secondly, the cloud solves the annoying problem of getting data in and out of the device.
Then there’s the issue of how we interact with it. It’s clear from the chequered history of the smartwatch that using our digits is not really going to work. We might be able to swipe or touch to silence an alarm or take a call, but we’re not going to be tapping out messages on a screen that size.
So it’s going to have to be voice. GeneratorResearch, a research company, reckons this would involve a small earpiece and decent voice-command software like Apple’s Siri. I’m not convinced we’re quite there yet, but I agree with them that it’s going to take someone of Apple’s heft to make it happen and seed the market.
In short, the smart watch might take off if it fits neatly and imaginatively into a sort of cosmos of devices we’re building around ourselves, where each one performs a few specific functions and overlaps with others on some. If it works out, the watch could act as a sort of central repository of all the things we need to know about — incoming messages, appointments, as well as things the cloud thinks we should know about, based on where we are: rain, traffic jams, delayed flights.
But more crucially it could become something that really exploits the frustratingly unrealised potential of voice: where we could more easily, and less self-consciously, talk to our devices and others without having to hold things to our ear, or be misunderstood.
In time, the smartwatch may replace the smartphone entirely.
I’m not completely convinced we’re as close as some think we are, but I’ve said that before and been proved wrong, so who knows?
A piece I wrote for Reuters.
Aug 21 (Reuters) – Malaysian entrepreneur Matt Chandran wants to revive the moribund post-mortem by replacing the scalpel with a scanner and the autopsy slab with a touchscreen computer.
He believes his so-called digital autopsy could largely displace the centuries-old traditional knife-bound one, speeding up investigations, reducing the stress on grieving families and placating religious sensibilities.
He is confident there’s money in what he calls his Autopsy as a Service, and hopes to launch the first of at least 18 digital autopsy facilities in Britain in October, working closely with local authorities.
Around 70 million people die each year, says Chandran, and around a tenth of those deaths are medico-legal cases that require an autopsy. “That’s a huge number, so we’re of the view that this is a major line of services that is shaping up around the world,” he said in an interview.
The poor common perception of autopsies has undermined their commercial appeal. “Unfortunately, because the process of the post-mortem is seen as gruesome, one tends to ignore that,” says Chandran.
Humans have been cutting each other open for at least 3,000 years to learn more about death, but the autopsy has never been widely embraced outside TV crime dramas. Surgeons in 18th century Britain, for example, robbed graves for corpses to dissect, some even commissioning murders when supplies dried up.
By the 1950s, the autopsy was at its zenith, with pathologists performing post-mortems on more than 60 percent of those who died in the United States and Europe – helping uncover more than 80 major, and perhaps thousands of minor, medical conditions.
But the number of autopsies has fallen steadily: Today, fewer than 20 percent of deaths in Britain are followed by autopsy, and most of these are ordered by coroners in cases where the cause of death is unclear or disputed.
The fall has been blamed on a growing distaste for a procedure regarded by some as crude and outdated – a feeling fanned by the public discovery in Britain in 1999 that medical institutions had been retaining organs and tissue after post-mortems for decades.
Chandran, 45, wants to change all this by simply connecting his company iGene’s 3D imaging software to any standard medical CT or MRI scanner. An expert can then inspect the virtual cadaver in 3D, removing layers of cloth, skin and bone with a mouse or by gestures on a tabletop touchscreen.
The advantages, Chandran says, are considerable.
The digital evidence remains intact and can be reviewed; experts can more easily spot and identify fracture, foreign objects such as bullets, and the tips of knife wounds; and grieving families can swiftly learn how their loved ones died and without having to cut open the body.
iGene isn’t the first to run a scanner over a corpse. Radiology has been used on skulls for 30 years, and Israel first introduced the concept of a virtual autopsy in 1994. The U.S. military started conducting CT scans of all soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2004 in addition to traditional autopsies.
The results have been encouraging. Researchers from University College London concluded that in fetuses and individuals aged 16 and younger, a minimally invasive autopsy incorporating an MRI scan identified the same cause of death as 90 percent of traditional autopsies.
But iGene is, Chandran says, the first to package the process and offer it commercially as a suite of services that stretches from the moment of death to the delivery of a post-mortem report.
His company provides a software suite that uses existing medical scanners from the likes of Siemens, General Electric, Toshiba and Philips. These form the heart of iGene’s digital autopsy facilities which the company plans to build close to UK mortuaries. The first will open in October in the northern English city of Sheffield.
A spokesperson for Sheffield City Council confirmed it was working with iGene on such a centre, but declined to give details.
Chandran says his company will spend around $77 million to build and run the facilities and will make its money from those cases where a coroner demands a post-mortem. About 200,000 deaths require autopsies each year in Britain, he said.
Next of kin will be given the option of a classical autopsy, paid for by the state, or a digital autopsy, costing about 500 pounds ($780) and paid for by the family.
Not everyone believes the digital autopsy is ready for prime time. Some question whether it can spot some diseases. And even a pioneer like Guy Rutty, chief forensic pathologist at the University of Leicester and the first to use CT images as evidence in a criminal trial, says that while demand may be growing there are limits to what a digital autopsy can do – particularly determining where and in some cases when a patient died.
“There are centres providing such services, but others have been more cautious and are still at a research stage,” he said in an email interview.
Chandran and his team are undeterred. They say the digital autopsy facility combines with other non-invasive diagnostic tools such as angiography and toxicology.
Pramod Bagali, chief operations officer of iGene’s parent company InfoValley, says the system is “a complementary method, not a complete replacement” to traditional autopsies, but could handle 70 percent of routine cases. The others could be done digitally to start with and then a decision could be made about whether to open up the body. “It’s not replacing one flawed system with another,” he says.
Crucially, iGene offers a business model that overcomes concerns that scanning corpses is expensive, says Chandran. He estimates his UK operation will be profitable within three years. But that, he says, is just the start. By then, he says, he hopes to have built at least 10 more facilities in his native Malaysia, with interest also from the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere in Asia.
“The potential for this is global,” said Mark Rozario, CEO of Agensi Inovasi Malaysia, a government body which this year bought a 20 percent stake in iGene for $21.5 million.
Chandran and his supporters see this as the beginning of his innovation, not the end of it. The digital autopsy facilities are nodes in a broader ecosystem Chandran likens to Apple Inc’s iTunes.
Michael Thali, a Swiss academic who has been promoting a “virtual autopsy” for more than a decade, said he tried and failed to get the scanner makers interested in developing such services. Now an adviser to iGene, Thali says this leaves open the field to other companies to deliver improvements in the chain of examination.
“The future will be for smaller companies who are bringing a service for this niche,” he says. “The most important thing is that you have a real chain based on IT.”
This is some way off – and may never happen.
Milos Todorovic, lead analyst at Lux Research and a specialist in medical innovation, says that while iGene’s approach is intriguing, it faces hurdles – not least the fact that the company is starting from scratch in an expensive business. “A lot of things would have to fall into place for them to be able to succeed with something like this,” he said.
That isn’t stopping Chandran from dreaming big – including the idea of scanning the living as part of any regular medical checkup.
“Just like a birth certificate starts with the birth of a baby, the end of a person’s life will end with a report in which the 3D body of a person is captured,” he said. “In that way we can archive every person born on this planet.”
I'm not convinced, based on anecdotal evidence but nothing more, by stories like these that Google+ is gaining on Facebook and overtaking twitter:
- Google Plus Becomes World's No. 2 Social Network After Facebook, Knocking Off Twitter
- Is Google+ More Popular Than Twitter? And Other Hot Topics | Constant Contact Blogs
- Is Google+ Really More Popular Than Twitter? The Data Seems To Say So, But… [STUDY] - AllTwitter
- Social sharing on Google+ to overtake Facebook by 2016 predicts new study
- Google+ continues to dominate LinkedIn & Twitter, could catch up to Facebook | VentureBeat
- Google Plus Is Outpacing Twitter - Business Insider
But how to measure it? It's not easy.
One way, I figured, was to look at the most popular pages/profiles on the three services and compare them. This wouldn't be perfect, but I thought would be as good an indicator as any at how mainstream Google+ had gotten, both in terms of followers of the main kinds of people, things and products popular on other services, but also indicative of how those brands/people felt about Google+. It might also reveal whether Google+ is attracting a different kind of person/product/brand/interest.
Of course, it also doesn't say a lot of things, Maybe the tail is a different shape on Google+. Maybe the layout of Google+ doesn't so easily lend itself to following/liking/adding to circling/+ing pages. But it kind of does: in fact, Google+ is baked into so much other Google stuff these days that it's hard not to like, as it were, pages, comments, stuff. I'd argue that it's easier to do that.
So I went ahead, selecting the top 20 pages on each according to SocialBakers. Most were celebrities, of course, and most overlapped -- meaning they featured on more than one service. If they only featured on one, I dumped them (eg 'Facebook for every phone' is massive, 274 million Likes, but not really relevant to this exercise.)
My conclusion in short: Google+ is way behind both Facebook and Twitter. No way is it getting close, at least based on this metric. (And only this metric, so far.)
My longer conclusion:
- of the 48 profiles measured, only 8 were more popular on Google+ than on Facebook.
- of the 48 profiles measured, only 9 were more popular on Google+ than on Twitter.
- These includes photographer Thomas Hawk, Google's Vic Gundotra and Larry Page, Richard Branson and, Hugh Jackson. A motley group.
- Most mainstream celebs had way more followers on Twitter than Google+:
- Britney Spears (4x)
- Bruno Mars (9x)
- Cristiano Ronaldo (7x)
- Justin Timberlake (34x)
- Most mainstream celebs had way more followers on Facebook than Google+:
- Barack Obama (12x)
- Beyonce (1,774x)
- Britney Spears (4x)
- Bruno Mars (20x)
- Cristiano Ronaldo (22)
- Kim Kardashian (7x)
- Lady Gaga (8x)
- Usher (8x)
- Quite a few celebrities don't seem to have bothered with Google+ at all, as far as I can see.
- Jennifer Lopez
- Justin Bieber
- Katy Perry
- Linkin Park
- Nicki Minaj
- Even those who score big on Google+ score bigger on other services. Here's Google+'s Top 4 :
- Lady Gaga - 8x as many fans on Facebook, 5x on Twitter
- Britney Spears - 4x on Facebook and Twitter
- David Beckham - 5x on Facebook, but negligible on Twitter (unless you count his wife)
- Snoop Dogg - 5x on Facebook, 2x on Twitter
- Facebook: 1.6 billion
- Twitter: 612 million
- Google+: 130 million
This is just a personal project, and not affiliated with my employer. I'd welcome thoughts and insights which help hone this approach, or ditch it in favour of a better one.
Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Land points out that Google Alerts Drops RSS Delivery Option, which is pretty upsetting. The message says that "Google Reader is no longer available," and says users need to switch to email alerts.
Seems that Google is either just dumping RSS wholesale or that the feed engine that ran the RSS alerts was part of the Reader infrastructure. (You can still subscribe to Google News alerts by RSS, and news search terms, it seems, so I have no idea what the link is.)
As commenters point out, this is going to break a lot more than simply Google Alerts. A lot of websites embedded feeds into their sites using Google RSS alerts:
It's an odd state of affairs for Google, which either didn't anticipate the backlash or is so intent on chasing Facebook that it doesn't care.
Another option suggested by commenters: Talkwalker Alerts - The best free alternative to Google Alerts. It even looks like Google Alerts:
Haven't tried it but seems to offer the goods.
This is a column written for the BBC World Service (here's the show.). Views are my own, and do not represent those of my employer, Thomson Reuters.
I've been wrong about a lot of things, but I've been particularly wrong about something called RSS. RSS is a simple standard, dreamed up during the halcyon days of the social web when there were enough interesting people writing blogs for it to become somewhat onerous to drop in, as it were, to see whether their website had been updated. In other words, there was a critical mass of bloggers to take blogging into the mainstream, but there was no easy way for the medium to scale from the point of view of readers. It was like everyone printing their own newsletter but asking interested readers to drop by their office every so often on the off-chance that a new edition had been published.
So RSS, short for really simple syndication, was born. Essentially it wrapped up all the blog posts into a feed, a bit like a wire service, and pumped it out to anyone who wanted to subscribe. It worked brilliantly, but contained within in the seeds of its own -- and, I would argue, social media's -- demise.
The problem was this: As RSS became more popular more blogs used it. And websites. Reuters has a dozen or so; the BBC too. Soon every website was expected to have at least one RSS feed. Software called Readers became the main way to digest and manage all these feeds, and they worked well. So well that Google got into the game, and soon dominated it. But adding feeds was still a tad awkward, but really RSS' demise was, in my view, because of something else.
As social media grew -- I'm talking the early years here, when blogging was the preferred medium of expression, and when a certain civility held sway -- it contained essential contradictions. Not everyone could be a creator, because then no one would have time to read what everyone else had written. A few kings and queens of social media emerged, and while a long thin tail remained, for the most part blogging simply grew to become like what old media was. Lots of "Talent", lots of unrecognised talent.
In its place grew a different kind of content that could be more easily commercialised -- the breadcrumbs of daily life, the links we share -- which we now think of as Facebook, Twitter, Kakaotalk and WhatsApp. Content has become shorter, and while some of those tools initially used the RSS standard to deliver it, for the most part each became a walled garden, largely fenced off from each other and driven by the value in the data that we shared, wittingly or unwittingly.
So back to RSS. RSS is still with us, though Google is canning their service soon (eds: July 1). I am a tad upset, having predicted RSS would sweep the world. I was wrong in that, failing to take into account that content, like everything else, will tend to cater to shorter attention spans and the economics of the marketplace. But I do have hope that RSS won't die off entirely. There are glitzy tablet apps for those who like their reading to come with big pictures and swooshy noises when you turn the digital page. A host of companies, including, ironically the once undisputed kings of the walled garden, AOL, are launching readers for Google refugees.
I for one still need to fix some problems with my own RSS habits -- the tendency to acquire new ones, the failure to read the ones I do subscribe to -- but at least some people somewhere thinks there's life in a daily diet of serious, lengthy reading without lots of eye candy.
An unprepossessing corner building near Bangsar station, wedged between a body shop and a long-distance bus pickup. There's usually a guy fast asleep in the doorway. There's a sticker on the door saying "Please press button marked Button" or somesuch.
Jahabar Sadiq of The Malaysian Insider
Here's a piece I did from KL on Saturday ahead of Sunday's election. It was pushed out ahead of the poll for obvious reasons but it might have a broader interest in how the battle for influence over online media has evolved in Malaysia, with relevance elsewhere.
May 4 (Reuters) - Ahead of Malaysia's elections on Sunday, independent online media say they are being targeted in Internet attacks which filter content and throttle access to websites, threatening to deprive voters of their main source of independent reporting.
Independent online news sites have emerged in recent years to challenge the dominance of mostly government-linked traditional media. The government denies any attempts to hobble access to the Internet in the run-up to a close-fought election.
"During the 2008 election we were wiped off the Internet," said Premesh Chandran, CEO of independent online news provider Malaysiakini.
"Our concern is that we'll see a repeat of that on May 5. Can we really live without independent media on election night, given that both sides might not accept the result?"
Here's a piece I wrote about the, for some somewhat obscure, Digicel and its efforts to win a slice of Myanmar's mobile pie. You can read the rest here.
SINGAPORE, April 29 | Sun Apr 28, 2013 4:54pm EDT
(Reuters) - Cellular operator Digicel Group Ltd jumped into Myanmar early and big, hiring staff, funding local sports, negotiating land deals for thousands of cell tower sites and signing up hundreds of partners for retail outlets.
The strategy helped propel it onto the shortlist for a mobile licence in one of the world's last mobile frontiers, putting an operator that ranks 65th globally in terms of customers up against giants such as Vodafone Group Plc.
Whether its strategy pays off or not, industry insiders say, Digicel, largely unknown outside the Caribbean and some Pacific islands, has shaken up a usually conservative industry.
"They have been a disruptive force," said Roger Barlow, a Hong Kong-based telecommunications consultant who has worked in Asia for more than 25 years. "Some of the big guys tend to look down their noses at them but they shouldn't because they're becoming a credible player."
Myanmar this month short-listed 12 consortia for two licences it plans to grant foreign operators in late June. The government wants to expand mobile penetration from less than 4 percent to up to 80 percent by 2015-16.
While Digicel is up against behemoths such as Vodafone, China Mobile Ltd and Telenor ASA, several other big players failed to make the list - among them South Korea's SK Telecom Co Ltd and Egypt's Orascom Telecom Holding SAE.
This is the text of a BBC piece I wrote, based on our Reuters story of a week or so ago.
The problem with smartphones is that they’re visible. We want them to be visible; we flaunt them. We put them on the table in restaurants, we fiddle with them if conversation lags; we not only need them, we need to be seen with them.
Nothing encapsulates this ostentatiousness more than Apple’s iPhone. It has become not only the most popular smartphone on the planet, but it’s become the iconic accessory. But is it losing its lustre?
At least in places like Singapore and Hong Kong, pockets where the iPhone was once king, I believe it is.
Driven by a combination of iPhone fatigue, a desire to be different and a plethora of competing devices, users are turning to other brands, notably those from Samsung.
According to one measure, a website gauges traffic collected across a network of 3 million websites, Apple’s share of mobile devices in Singapore fell from a peak of 72 percent in January last year to 50 percent last month, while Android devices rose from 20 percent to 43 percent.
This seems to be backed up by checking out commuters: Where a year ago iPhones swamped other devices on the subways of Hong Kong and Singapore they are now outnumbered by Samsung and HTC smartphones.
This is partly driven by iPhone’s success. For some, it is a matter of wanting to stand out from the iPhone-carrying crowd. Others find the higher-powered, bigger-screened Android devices better suited to their changing habits – watching video, writing Chinese characters – while the cost of switching devices is lower than they expected, given that most popular social and gaming apps are available for both platforms.
Of course this isn’t the end of Apple or the iPhone. The company could come out with a great iPhone 6 and I’m sure the fickle public would flock back. And Apple makes a lot more money from its devices than does Samsung, so don’t expect its CEO Tim Cook to be panhandling on your street corner any time soon.
But there is something at play here. For one thing, Singapore and Hong Kong tend to be bellwethers of Southeast Asia, and to some extent India and parts of China — all big and important markets.
Then there’s a longer term issue: it was usually assumed that, once converted to the iPhone, users would loyally stick with Apple. For one thing, the whole ecosystem thing — downloading apps, music, movies and syncing with other Apple devices — would lock folk in. For another, aren’t Apple users supposed to be blindly loyal to the brand?
The apparent decline in iPhone users in Singapore and Hong Kong suggest that neither of these assumptions necessarily holds true for all those who buy Apple devices. This is hardly surprising, perhaps, given how many iPhone users there are out there.
But it might also suggest that smartphone users are much more inclined to jump from one brand to another, and from one operating system to another, than we thought. If so, that has implications, not only for Apple, but for Samsung too, as it basks in its dominance of the Android-driven market.
Perhaps, just perhaps, all those hip Samsung users might soon decide the hip smartphone to show off is a device from a company we’d either written off, or one we haven’t even heard of.
This was a piece I was asked to do for a BBC World Service segment on the office of the future. It was broadcast a couple of days ago. Here’s the full broadcast: here Needless to say the piece has nothing do with my present work environment, which is charming and healthy.
The office of 2050, I’m hoping, won’t be an office at all, because by then we’ll have realised that it’s the most unproductive, unhealthy and expensive environment a business could create.
I won’t bore you with the details but think spinal diseases and, varicose veins from sitting down, allergies from the awful air, and psychological disorders caused by the stress and monotony of office work. Indeed, strip away the fancy screens and chairs and someone from a Charles Dickens book wouldn’t have much trouble navigating our office of today. Rewind to 1974 — 38 years ago, instead of 38 years hence — and the difference would just be computers replacing blotters and typewriters.
In short, technology has altered the way we work but now where we work, and for the most part, what we work on. Things have just speeded up.
So the first thing that will change is that we’ll have thrown out the idea of an office. Many of us already do that, trading our expensive allegedly ergonomic chair and desk for a rickety wooden chair and table in Starbucks. This trend will continue as jobs become more specialised and it becomes harder to persuade talent to move city, commute or even sit at a desk.
By then they’ll be using their own tools, working to their own rhythm.
What will those tools be? They’ll be very small, highly personalised and ubiquitous. If I was still around then, and had a bigger brain than I do at present, I’d be probably be replacing dry stone walls in the Peak District to keep my brain in shape, stopping occasionally to add dabs of color and code to a project which would appear on a lens grafted onto my left eye, all of it done simply by mind control. The bill for my work would be automatically generated and settled instantaneously via a downpayment on my chalet in Luang Prabang.
In short, the office won’t exist because we’ll have discovered, belatedly, that the sense of job security is a false one. Companies will rise and fall so quickly it won’t make sense to do so, and even for those behemoths that can shapeshift fast enough to remain competitive, those with smarts won’t confine themselves to one hierarchy or the deadening office politics that goes with it.
Organisations will have a CEO and a few other big shots, and then a precipitous drop to those who keep the lights on and get the boss’ tea. Everyone else will either have been replaced by robots or be outsourced. But these won’t be the disposable call center ciphers we think of today; they’ll be constantly updating their skills and offering such specialized services that it is they who will control the relationship, not the other way round.
By then, you see, organisations and those who invest in them will have woken up to the fact that the most valuable asset will be highly specialised, highly motivated, highly entrepreneurial individuals, and these individuals won’t let themselves be tied to any single location or employer.
You can see some of this already, in the way Western startups operate — often highly flexible, where employees may be in the same state but never meet. You can also see it in online outsourcing, where companies are increasingly depending on workers overseas — not for mindless grunt work, but for their tireless yearning for quality workmanship, self-improvement and job satisfaction.
The future of the office lies not in the office, but in the relentless drive away from its drab four walls.
A piece I wrote from Yangon on the state of mobile communications in Myanmar
Myanmar is on the cusp of a mobile revolution. Only it’s happening way too slowly for many locals.
Last week the government invited expressions of interest for two mobile phone licenses – a first step towards increasing mobile penetration from its current 5-10 percent to 80 percent in three years. That would lift it off the bottom of the world’s ladder of mobile use and put it on a par with neighbors like Bangladesh.
The transcript of my BBC piece which was just broadcast. The original Reuters story from which it was drawn is here: Global army of online freelancers remakes outsourcing industry
A country like the Philippines is getting big into what is called BPO — which stands for business process outsourcing. At its most basic think call centers. At its highest end think lawyers drawing up documents for someone thousands of mile away, or trained medical professionals poring over xray scans on behalf of a hospital in Birmingham.
It’s a great way to export skills without having to actually export the people doing the work. For a country like the Philippines, many of whose families are spread around the globe, this is especially poignant.
But the Philippines is some way off that high end.
Which is why what librarian Sheila Ortencio does is so interesting, and has so much potential. She works from her laptop on behalf of companies in Australia and the U.S. but her workplace is not some Dilbert style cubicle, her job is adding library data to ebooks, something that closely matches her training, and the money she earns is 10 times what she was getting at the local library. And, best of all, she is working from home, with her daughters bouncing off the walls and two Pomeranians yapping wildly in the yard,.
This is outsourcing of a different kind: some call it elancing, some call it crowdsourcing, some call it microwork. They are distinct terms, but they all fall under one basic umbrella: freelancers, working online, for clients many miles away, who are entrusting them with ever larger responsibilities and projects. All done via the web.
Sheila, for example, signs up for a service like odesk.com, lists her skills, experience and how much she charges, and then bids for contracts she thinks she could do, Companies posting the work go through the bids and choose one. The whole process is monitored online, up to the end payment. Odesk takes a cut.
This has been around for a while, of course, but it’s only in the past couple of years that it’s really taken off. The reasons for this are varied, including better, cheaper, faster Internet, more people on both sides of the business simply ‘getting’ it, and an extra layer of services atop the existing intermediaries to tweak the marketplace to make it more efficient.
Folk like Sheila find that clients like them so much they send more work their way than than they could handle, so she in turn recruits teams and monitors quality. And this is what’s intriguing about all this, and where I think this little niche economy could get big and interesting quite quickly.
Because by morphing from librarian into manager and entrepreneur, Sheila not only helps herself, she also creates a pocket of innovation in her little corner of the Philippines. She’s converted 10 of her relatives into online freelancers, and countless neighbors. A local bank teller is on oDesk; everyone wants a piece of the action. She’s happy to help, because that’s her style and because the more people who do oDesk, the more business she can bring in.
Eventually, it’s not far fetched to say these little pockets could turn into little Silicon Valleys — hubs of innovation and the ecosystem of businesses to support them, where skills and services become products and freelancers become startups.
And, unlike Sheila’s parents, husband and siblings who had to go overseas to find a decent wage, this all could happen in a person’s backyard. It’s a long ways off, but maybe not as far as we think.
Here’s a piece I wrote for the BBC which went out today. (They often air some time after I’ve recorded them.)
It’s very hard to be in the technology business these days because you don’t know when someone is going to be a cuckoo, A cuckoo, in case you are not an ornithologist, are what are called brood parasites, which means they lay their eggs in another bird’s nest — effectively outsourcing the whole brooding process.
Technology players have been playing this game for a while. The problem is that no one is quite sure who is the cuckoo, who is the sucker and what’s the nest. I call it cuckoonomics.
Take the recent spat between Apple and Google. Google was quite happy to have its Maps software on an iPhone — after all, it makes more money from an iPhone than it does from a phone running its own Android software — but it didn’t want to give away the farm. So it wouldn’t allow a feature which allowed users to navigate turn by turn. So Apple ditched the whole thing and went, somewhat disastrously, with its own version of maps.
Google in this case thought it was being a cuckoo, and the iPhone was the nest. But it didn’t want iPhone users enjoying the product so much that its own users jumped ship.
In the old days technology was about hardware. Simple. You make something, put a sticker on it, and sell it. That’s all changed. Now it’s about software, about services, about experience. I may run an expensive telecommunications network but I can’t control what goes on it. Cuckoos offering video, games, messaging etc flock onto it, parking their eggs and reaping the benefits.
It happens in more subtle ways, though the implications may be just as drastic. Microsoft is about to launch a new version of its operating system called Windows 8. It’s quite quite different from before and a major gamble; not surprising, because Microsoft’s once cushy nest is being dismantled by Macs, mobiles and tablets.
It’s a brave attempt by Microsoft, but what’s interesting to me is how they’ve aimed their sights not at Apple but at Google. Microsoft have baked search so far into their new operating system they hope it will be where we do most of our stuff. From one place we can search all our apps, the web, our contact list, our saved notes and documents.
Of course this isn’t new. You can do this on a Mac, on an iPad, on an Android phone, even on a Windows PC. But it’s not been quite as well done before.
I’ll wager if Windows 8 catches on this will be one of its biggest features, and Google as a result will take a hit. Which is ironic because it’s been Google who have used cuckoonomics against Microsoft for more than a decade, gradually building a library of services around search that have ended up taking over Microsoft’s nest. Think Gmail taking over Outlook and Hotmail; Docs taking over Office, and then eventually the Chrome browser taking over Internet Explorer.
What’s intriguing is that Microsoft is also trying to the same trick with Facebook. Windows 8 dovetails quite nicely with your Facebook stuff but at no point does it look like Facebook. I couldn’t find a Facebook app for Windows 8 but it didn’t seem to matter; instead all my Facebook friends, updates, photos and messages all appeared within Windows 8 — with rarely a Facebook logo in sight.
Which cuckoo is going to win?
Another piece I recorded for the BBC
Up until we discovered a body in a glacier in the Italian Alps more than 20 years ago, we didn’t really have a clue about our ancestors. The body belonged to a man who died 5000 years ago,. While much of the interest has focused on how he died — it took scientists 10 years to discover he was killed by an arrow whose head was still lodged in his shoulder — much more interesting to me is that we had no idea about how someone like this dressed.
Otzi, according to an excellent book by Bill Bryson, has confounded all assumptions: for one thing he had more gear than your average outdoorsy dude today , like
two birchbark canisters, sheath, axe, bowstave, quiver and arrows, small tools, some berries, a piece of ibex meat and two spherical lumps of birch fungus, each about the size of a large walnut and carefully threaded with sinew. One of the canisters had contained glowing embers wrapped in maple leaves, for starting fires.
His clothes — leggings, garters and belt, a loincloth and hat — were made from skins and furs from red deer, bear, chamois, goat and cattle, He carried a rectangle of woven grass that might have been a cape or a sleeping mat — we don’t know. he was wearing boots that looked like birds nests on soles of stiffened bear skin, which looked awful until a foot and shoe expert recreated them and walked up a mountain. Turned out their grip was better than modern rubber, without giving blisters.
Now it’s great that we now know this stuff, but it’s somewhat humbling to think how little we had imagined any of this. We were wandering around for several hundred years looking down on our ancestors thinking they dressed and were equipped like Raquel Welch in 10,000 years BC.
Turns out that we lacked the imagination to figure out what our forebears looked like. We’d have done better to have wandered down to our nearest outdoor store than listen to the experts pontificate. And yet I’ve seen no collective mea culpa about this and to reassess what we think we know by trying to imagine a little harder.
And so for something even more depressing: if we’re so bad at imagining what the past looked like, what hope do we have about the future? We’ve generally been pretty poor at this, even in the short term. Bladerunner may have been a great movie now thirty years old this year, but the world it depicts of seven years hence appears to be completely without the one thing that already dominates and defines our world: mobile devices.
Sure we are supposed to be surrounded by robots that look so much like us we’d need a lie detector machine called a Voight-Kampff to tell the difference, and we’d be floating about in flying cars, but to yack with our love interest, we’d need to find a bar with a video payphone, and if someone wanted to reach us they’d have to track us down in the permanent rain to our favorite noodle stall.
Now our mobile devices are indispensable, wrapping the Internet around us in a way that few of us predicted even ten years ago. None of us predicted social networks like Facebook. None of us thought that nearly a billion people would sign up. I dread to think what we haven’t imagined about the next ten, 20, 30 years.
My money is on us all wearing bird nest boots.
This is a piece I wrote for the BBC World Service..
So, the iPhone 5 is here, and while it will sell well, probably better than any phone before it, there’s a sense of anticlimax: this, we are told, is evolution, not revolution. None of the mind-bending sense of newness and change that the iPhone and iPad used to engender. This is a sign, we’re told, that the market is mature, that there’s not much more that can be done.
I’d like to suggest another way of looking at this. For sure, not every new product that comes out of Apple HQ can blow our minds. But that doesn’t mean the mobile device is now doomed for a stodgy and reliable plateau of incremental improvements, like cars, washing machines or TVs.
In fact, quite the opposite. The world of the mobile device has already made extraordinary changes to our world, and we’re only at the start of a much larger set of changes. Our problem is that we’re just not very good judging where we sit amidst all this upheaval.
Consider these little factlets from a survey conducted last year by Oracle. At first glance they seem contradictory, but I’ll explain why they’re not.
More than half of those surveyed thought their mobile phone would replace their iPod/MP3 player by 2015. A year later when they asked them again, a third said it already had. Oracle found more or less the same was true of people’s global positioning systems, or GPS.
Then there’s this. More than two thirds of the people surveyed said they use a smartphone, and of those people, 43% have more than one.
In other words, more and more functions that used to be a separate device are now part of our mobile phone. And yet at the same time a significant chunk of users have more than one mobile phone.
What this means, I think, is that we are integrating mobile phones into our lives in a way that even those who spend time researching this kind of thing don’t really get. In fact we’ve integrated them so much we need two.
That’s because, of course, they’re not really phones: they’re devices that connect us to all sorts of things that we hold dear, whether it’s social, work or personal.
But there’s still a long way to go. The device of the future will make everything more seamless. A company in Thailand, for example, allows you to use your smartphone to open your hotel door, tweak the room lights and air con, order food and switch TV channels.
In other words interact with your surroundings. Some via connected devices, from air conditioning units to washing machines, from street signs to earthquake sensors. Other services will sift piles and piles of big data in the cloud, and push important information to us when we need it. Google already has something called Google Now which tries to anticipate your problems and needs before you do: a traffic jam up ahead, a sudden turn in the weather, a delayed flight.
Devices will also interact with the disconnected world, measuring it for us — whether it’s our blood sugar levels or the air quality. Sense movement, odors, colors, frequencies, speed. It may even, one day, see through walls for us.
So our smart phones are just starting to get smart. We’re already smart enough to see how useful they can be. The bits that are missing are the technologies that blend this all together. This could still take some time, but don’t for a moment think the mobile world is about to get boring.
Good piece on why you should not only think before you retweet, but research what you're about to retweet. And then probably not retweet it anyway:
"Most of what you read in reputable publications is of questionable value, most of what you see shared online isn’t from reputable publications, and the things that make us want to believe something is true are not themselves signals of truth. "
The other day I found myself in a restaurant in northern Japan explaining to a South Korean acquaintance of less than a day how I divided my social networks up. LinkedIn, I said, was for people I needed to know, or who felt they need to know me. Facebook was for my friends -- people I had known for a long time, family, I keep my Facebook world for my real world friends, I said. He nodded sagely before we were interrupted by two young Japanese from across the table who had just joined the throng.
I dutifully rummaged round for my business cards for the time-honored ritual of using both hands to exchange cards and study them intently. Our new dinner companions, had no truck with that. We don't have business cards, one of them said, whipping out his iphone. But give me your name and I'll add you on Facebook. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this etiquette-wise, but turning him down was not an option. My Korean friend kindly avoided pointing out my hypocrisy as I dutifully helped my even newer friend add me to Facebook. Within the hour he had tagged me on several photos of diners other than myself, which in turn had been commented upon by at least 60 of his friends. All of course, in Japanese.
Welcome to the weird world of Facebook. Foolish people call it a nation, And if you glanced over the shoulder of anyone at an airport, in Starbucks, on a train, in the office, at the familiar blue ribboned page as they check back in to their portable community, you might be forgiven for thinking they inhabit the same country. But it's not and they don't. It's a reflection, an adaptation of the culture, or subculture, of the people who populate it, And while there's perhaps more overlap than the physical world between those cultures, there's still plenty of room for the culture shock of finding yourself in another part of the Facebook planet. Only there are no guidebooks and rules, just people trying to muddle through. Like me in that Sendai restaurant.
This is of course both good and bad. I actually quite like having some folk on my Facebook page chattering away in a language I need Microsoft or Google to make sense of. But it doesn't make us friends. And it does somewhat devalue the connection that Facebook builds to my real friends. Their updates get crowded out by the friends who aren't really my friends.
But the bigger point is this. Facebook is not homogenizing the world. In fact, it's a mirror of the cultures from which we come. And by mirror I mean mirror. Take Facebook photos, for example: Researchers have found that Americans, despite being individualistic by nature, prefer to share photos of themselves in groups on Facebook. Compare this with China, or even Namibia, two societies considered group-oriented, where users are much more likely to share photos of themselves standing alone,, smart and polished, often not even against a background which might justify posting the photo. Researchers believe this is because of the desire in such societies to project a good image of themselves to the group.
Go figure. It might help explain my Japanese friends and their business card etiquette. Perhaps for them the exchange of business cards is an intimate expression of trust, and the most obvious online equivalent of that is the Facebook friending.. I with my Western hypocrisy and shallowness make no such commitment with my business card exchange. Or maybe they're just a subset of a of subset of a subculture that thinks business cards are silly and Facebook is cool. I have no idea. Facebook it seems, is as interesting and confusing to navigate as the real world. Thank God for that.
Two interesting pieces in the past 24 hours that, almost in passing, look at a growing conundrum for Google: how to cope with the fact that Android is largely a profit center for Samsung and nobody else.
Horace Dediu at Asymco (From bad to worse and from good to great) looks mainly at how the mobile world's value is mostly going to Apple. Samsung is the only other one making any money out of the whole thing:
In absolute terms the iPhone franchise created $244 billion in value while Samsung created $83 billion. The others destroyed $37 billion.
Elsewhere Horace has looked at Android economics (The Android Income Statement among others) and concludes that "Google's benefit from the platform is modest. He concludes:
In contrast, Samsung, and Samsung alone, is benefitting greatly. It could even be said that today Samsung is the only Android profit engine.
This seems to be the case. Which prompts several questions, some of them addressed in the comments. Is Samsung likely to continue merely taking another person's operating system, free though it is, and adding a skin or two? How does Samsung feel about sharing a brand -- Nexus -- with competitors like Asus?
Jean-Louis Gassée in his weekly column for the Monday Note takes a look at this (Business Model Dances). Google, he argues, have not necessarily followed Microsoft by extending vertically with the Nexus 7, but he does believe that "the gentle folks at Samsung are not going to take this with a smile and a quick genuflection."
If they’re not cowed by Apple, they certainly aren’t going to let Google eat into their tablet business. As for phones, there’s Google’s $12.5B subsidiary, Motorola Mobility, another irritant for Samsung and other Android smartphone makers.
It's interesting to consider whether Samsung think that the Nexus 7 is a challenger. I tend to think they're more worried about what's behind it: lots of content.
As Jean-Louis says, it's going to be interesting.
My latest offering at Reuters, on Rakuten, a really interesting company that has persuaded Japan's publishers to go with ebooks. But Rakuten isn't planning on stopping there.
Japanese ecommerce giant Rakuten Inc looks set to steal a march on rival Amazon.com when it launches its Kobo e-reader and e-book service in Japan on Thursday.
For CEO Hiroshi Mikitani, it's the first salvo in a wider war that the ebullient Harvard MBA, called Mickey by everyone including his staff, hopes will transform Rakuten into a global player in digital commerce.
Mikitani founded Rakuten in 1997 and has built it into Japan's largest online retailer, employing more than 8,000 people and boasting a market capitalization of about $13 billion.
The company has a travel business, a securities company and its own bank and in the past two years has acquired or bought stakes in companies in the United States, France, Indonesia, Brazil, Germany, the UK and Canada.
Read the rest at Rakuten, Japan's Amazon, steals a march on its nemesis | Reuters:
How do we deal socially with the new technology around us? How do we come up with new norms, wrestle with the loss of privacy, deal with the way technology seems to force us to change the way we live, work and communicate,?
It's not a new question, but I feel we need a new answer. We tend to focus on the intrusiveness of new technologies, and agonise over how they're changing society, while failing to notice that the old technologies were just as intrusive. In fact, I'd argue that with each advance of communication technologies, they get less intrusive rather than more. Our problem is that we have memories the size of hamster droppings.
Imagine a device that dominates every desk, every home, is on every street corner and train platform. Where we are so conditioned to answer its call we get upset when it's left to ring. Even when we're eating, praying, watching TV, asleep. Where we are expected to identify who we are, where we are to a disembodied voice at the other end, to run off searching for someone at its behest, jot down messages on its behalf.
Yes, of course I'm talking about the telephone. An awful device that intruded upon our conversations, our reverie, our concentration, our world. What is remarkable, then, is not how much we've submitted to technology but the speed with which we've embraced a different technology that better suits our world.
As quickly as technology allowed it, we have started ditching the idea of getting each other's attention through voice. First we adopted the cellphone, but when users figured out they could use it to send messages by text or SMS instead, the telephone as a predominantly voice-driven device was doomed. It's not that we don't want to talk to people; it's just that we want to ensure that the time and place are convenient for both of us.,
The truth is that the telephone imposed its tyranny on us and dominated our lives so much that we still can't let go of the idea. We still call our mobile devices 'phones' even when that's no longer what they're primarily designed to do. (I have a mobile phone that is as big as a croissant; this was not something that the ubiquitous ads touting its glories will ever show being held up to the ear.)
Now, in 2012 most mobile phones are not used as phones primarily -- if at all. Australians, for example, are making 12.5% fewer phone calls than five years ago. People have been giving up having a landline phone: South Africa's Telkom, for example, has lost more than a quarter of its fixed line customers since 2000. We have thrown off the shackles of a 140 year tyranny remarkably quickly, realising just how intrusive the telephone was.
Yes, we've replaced it with technology that can be antisocial. We download a lot of data over our device, and much of that data is personal, for our eyes only, or gaming with others not present. We ignore those we're with, preferring the absorption of the small screen to the social complexity around us. But we'll figure this out. First, we had to deal with the tyrant. Nowadays, in this mobile spring, look around you differently: listen for the absence of ringing phones. For once we have the technology -- SMS, the instant message, the tweet, the email--to retrieve our lives.
My croissant sized phone, for example? It has a feature that, when I turn it over, mutes all incoming calls and sounds. Now that's civilized.