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Predictions 2017: A Chain Reaction

By - January 06, 2017

Nostradamus_prophecies

This is my 14th annual predictions post. And as I look back on the previous 13 and consider what to write, I’m flooded with uncertainty. That’s not like me. Writing these predictions is something I’ve always looked forward to – I don’t prepare in any demonstrable way, but I do gather crumbs over time, filing them away for the day when I sit down and free associate for however long it takes me to complete this post.

But this time, well, for the first time ever I have very little idea what’s about to come out of the keyboard. Honestly, when I consider the coming 12 months, so much feels up for grabs that I wonder whether it’s wise to prognosticate. Then I remember, it’s all of you reading these words who keep me writing in the first place – your encouragement, your wise (and sometimes cutting) commentary, and your willingness to spend a little time with me and my thoughts. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to write more – it’s always been how I make sense of the world, and this year, the world feels like it needs a lot more sense making. So I’ll be writing at least a few times a week going forward, starting with this uncertain post.

Let’s see what happens….

1. The bloom comes off the tech industry rose. Two years ago, I predicted that the tech industry would wake up to the power it had accrued and start giving a shit both about its impact on the world, and about the world’s largest problems, with climate change being the most pressing of them. That didn’t really happen, despite truly commendable philanthropic, social, and climate change work done by all of the “Big 5” tech companies (Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook). As of this writing, the technology industry is now the undisputed leader of the business world. Its power has concentrated into demonstrable oligarchy – beyond the Big 5, Uber and Airbnb are now being called to question because of their potential monopolistic, rent extracting behavior. But the industry’s philosophical outlook remains rooted in its days as a challenger brand. This can’t stand. 2017 will be the year the industry is cast as a villain – for its ravenous and largely opaque data collection practices, its closed and self-serving approach to its own platforms, and its refusal to acknowledge or address the very real externalities, particularly in employment, created by its products and services. Some of this backlash will be unfair – but that’s not my point. Society vilifies those in power who appear to be unfairly profiting from that power. And in 2017, tech will be that villain.

2. The conversation economy breaks out. This is certainly related to #1, if oddly oppositional. The Big Five will be in an all out battle to engage us through conversational interfaces this year. If you’ve been reading me for over a decade, you might remember my predictions around the “conversation economy.” I was a bit early (OK, a decade too early), but the technology and the consumer behavior/expectations are now aligned to allow for a breakout year in user experience to finally occur. This began in earnest last year with the hype around chatbots, and the ascendance of Alexa and Google Home, all of which followed on the heels of Google Voice Search and Siri. But what will really shift the experience will be the explosion of smart chatbots that actually get shit done – I’m with Kik CEO Ted Livingston, chat is the new browser. Combine smart chat with voice, and … well, we’ll start to see a new UX for the web. What’s the economic model for this new UX? Good question! But the key will be meaningful interaction between all these services, instead of attempts to create a vertically integrated, locked-down walled garden. But that will only happen if…

3. Open starts to win again. It’s dangerous to link two predictions, because if one doesn’t work out, the other is likely to fail as well. It’s even worse to link your first three… but what the hell. Tech’s hegemony is so great at this point, that the only way I can see it breaking down is through a return to the open standards which bequeathed us the Internet in the first place. 2017 will be the year that open starts to win again as a business model and an approach to creating a developer (and hence consumer) ecosystem. Google can and should be the leader here, given its core DNA, but I’m not sure that will be the case. Now, what do I mean by open? Well, interoperability, for one. It’s great that anyone can create a chatbot on Messenger, or Kik, or WhatsApp, but true innovation will come when anyone can create a chatbot that works with all of them, sharing data and user profiles across platforms. The same goes for the marketing industry – publishers and marketers alike should be able to consolidate and leverage data across all meaningful platforms, instead of cultivating different patches in every service’s walled gardens. The same goes for consumers, of course – I want to know what data is being used to mold the choices being laid out in front of me (including the ads, and yes, my f*cking newsfeed!). There will be meaningful demand from “users” to have more fluid and intuitive controls of their experience. And if my #2 holds true, then voice becomes a literal lingua franca, rendering platform lock in long-term meaningless, because jumping from service to service will be as easy as saying “Alexa, WhatsApp my pal Chris with the results of my Google search on open platforms.” This year won’t be a turning point in this battle, but it will show meaningful progress, in large part because…

4. Privacy will become a strong product category. These linked predictions are  certainly becoming a theme. But last year saw strong growth for a number of stand alone privacy products like Signal and Confide, and the inclusion of strong crypto into massive platforms like iOS (remember the FBI fracas?), WhatsApp and Google (via its new Allo and Duo products). Influencers like Fred and many others are predicting a boon in this field, and I agree. But it’s one thing to encrypt your messaging. It’s another to secure your entire online life. That kind of security is hard to do, mainly because it obviates much of the value of the data harvesting which drives convenience in the consumer tech world. But fear of cyber warfare, fraud, and over-reaching marketers and government will create huge openings for consumer friendly versions of currently opaque products like PGP, password managers, and the like. And it’ll also drive political and consumer pressure for more robust consumer control around algorithmically driven consumer experiences. Smart companies won’t resist this trend, they’ll encourage it.

5. Adtech has a ripper of a year. Wait, I just predicted consumers will pivot to caring about privacy, but I’m saying the adtech business is going to have a great year?! Well…yes. Embrace the contradictions, because adtech is ready for its second act. It’s really sucked to be a leader in the advertising technology industry – half of the media industry openly hates your guts, and the other half is convinced your days are numbered because of the Google/Facebook oligarchy. But they’re all wrong. Advertising technology is, at its simplest, the ability to apply data to a decision at scale. And the more open and free flowing that data economy becomes, the better and more valuable the companies which enable it become. If my predictions 1-4 come true, then this one will as well: Independent, high-integrity companies in ad/martech are going to have a banner (no pun intended) year, because they’ll tack into the resistance the large platform players have to the trends I’ve outlined above. Watch: Sovrn Holdings*, AppNexus, Acxiom*, Trade Desk, and OpenX.

6. Apple releases a truly bad hardware product. OK, this one isn’t really tied to the others, but I think Apple’s poised to not just have a boring year (as I predicted it would last year,) but to really lay an egg for the first time in a very long time. It may be their answer to Amazon Echo/Alexa, or Google Home/Assistant, or it may be a follow on to the watch, or perhaps something the company has had up its sleeve for a few years that it feels obliged to roll out given its essentially uninspiring last few years of product releases. But in 2017, the press and the public will find a tangible reason to turn on Apple, and the company will likely respond by reorganizing, repatriating its cash (to curry favor with the current administration), and keep buying its way into the markets where it has repeatedly failed (IE, software as a service, entertainment (NetFlix?!!), and possibly social media).

7. A Fortune 100 company will announce its intention to become a B Corp. Large companies are increasingly under pressure from employees, customers, and society to create value for more than just their shareholders. For decades, business was allowed to tax environmental, social, and societal resources in pursuit of profit. A new generation of consumers and employees are demanding that business ladder to more than simple profit, but rather, have a core purpose—one that makes the world a little (or a lot) better place. Of course, there’s already a corporate governance structure that encourages this approach to running a company—the Public Benefit Corporation, or B Corp. (I wrote about B Corps last year here). My money is on Unilever, which has already been publicly discussing such a move. Two dark horses: Walmart and GE.

8. President Trump leaves Twitter. Ever since Twitter launched, I’ve usually included a Twitter prediction. This one sounds crazy, but it strikes me there are a few ways this might plausibly happen. Perhaps Trump will come to his senses and stop trying to run the country through a series of tweets. OK, that’s not very plausible. More likely is Trump will end up in some kind of a feud with Twitter over something utterly ridiculous, claim he’s the only reason the service is viable anymore, and decamp for Facebook, Snapchat, or who knows, maybe VK (that’s the largest Russian social media network, FWIW). Or maybe someone slips a cure for narcissism into his evening flute of Trump Champagne….

9. Snap soars – then sours. I’m increasingly of the opinion that this company is going to force a total rethink of our online culture. In fact, I think most of us have no idea how over our skis we are when it comes to the power that Snapchat has aggregated. I’m not talking about typical tech power, like number of active users or advertising revenue. I mean the power of the platform to engage and exploit our pleistocene-era social brains. I’m not entirely sure Snap Inc. has fully grokked that power. But Snapchat feels like a step function beyond anything that has come before it. I watch my own children use it, and I’ve watched them fall in love with Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and countless pretenders (though I’m keeping my eye on Houseparty). Nothing compares to what happens when a group of kids connect on Snapchat. It literally becomes their social geography, and that fact will be widely recognized by the business community when Snap goes public. But almost hand in hand with that will come the Snapchat backlash, as scholars, alarmists, parents and school administrators speak out about the impact the app is having on the structure of society. Spectacles? By the end of 2017, those will seem quaint. Side note: There’ll be an amazing science fiction novel that comes out in early 2017 whose main protagonist will be compared to Snap. And yeah, that’s a fix, because I’ve already read it…

10. Human connection commands a premium in the workforce. OK, OK, this has certainly been the case for all of history, at least – ahem –  for a certain kind of connectivity. But in an age where it seems every job can be replaced by AI or a robot (or both), we’ll see a shift in how society values previously under-appreciated jobs that cannot be automated away (or if they can, the automated version fails to deliver human connection). Think about jobs that are socially valuable, require direct human contact, but are currently very poorly remunerated: Teacher, nurse/home care aide, waiter, small business owner, musician/artist come to mind. In 2017, we’ll come to realize that we’re valuing the wrong things, and start a conversation about paying people to connect with each other – because if we can automate the other stuff, why the heck wouldn’t we value each other more?! Related: The conversation around Universal Basic Income (or my preferred term, the Citizens’ Dividend) will become white hot (it’s white hot in the Valley at present, but it’ll move into broader circles in 2017).

Well that’s ten predictions, which seems like a nice round number. As I review them, I realize there’s a pretty high chance I could seriously whiff this year. What do you think?!

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Related:

Predictions 2016 

2016: How I Did

Predictions 2015

2015: How I Did

Predictions 2014

2014: How I Did

Predictions 2013

2013: How I Did

Predictions 2012

2012: How I Did

 

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Metaservices FTW!

By - March 07, 2016

Chiclets

Way back when — well, a few years back anyway— I wrote a series of posts around the idea of “metaservices.” As I mused, I engaged in a bit of derision around the current state (at that point) of the mobile ecosystem, calling it “chiclet-ized” — silos of useful data without a true Internet between them. You know, like individually wrapped cubes of shiny, colored gum that you had to chew one at a time.

I suggested that we needed a connective layer between all those chiclets, letting information flow between all those amazing services.

It’s happening. First, with deep linking, which has successfully integrated the apps, the mobile OS via notification layer, email, and the broader mobile and desktop web. And now with an emerging, multi-tasking layer of user command and control based on the simplest of interfaces: Text.

Check out Prompt, which TechCrunch aptly called “a command line for the real world.” Prompt is about two things. First, integrations with useful mobile services — the chiclets. And second, a simple, social, text-like interface that allows us to get shit done. Text Uber, get a car. Text Nest, turn your thermostat down. Text Google, get a search result. Text Facebook, post a status update. Text any smart service, get shit done.

Bots are at the center of this interface — simple, rules-based bots that take our commands, execute them, and tell us of the result. It’s not rocket science, and that’s kind of the point.

It’s great. It’s right. It’s going to work — but only if we remember the other side of the coin. Links should go both ways, after all. If Prompt and others like it want to win, they have to become a clearing house for both data going out — our commands — as well as data coming in. It’s one thing to tell our bots and services what to do. It’s another to allow them to talk to each other, and to instrument a platform that gives us control of how they might combine. Once we light that candle, the Internet will shift to another level entirely.

Should a Company Have a Soul?

By - February 14, 2016

Much of the Republican debates have been expendable theatrics, but I watched this weekend’s follies from South Carolina anyway. And one thing has struck me: The ads are starting to get better.

This season’s debates have had the highest ratings of any recent Presidential race, and they’re attracting some serious corporate sponsorship. One spot in particular caught my eye:

This ad looks like a lot of others I’ve noticed coming out of large companies these days — dramatic, driving music, compelling fast frame visuals, an overarching sense that something important and world changing is going on.

The spot has one purpose: To make us wonder if a business can be alive. Here’s the ad copy:

Can a business have a mind?
A subconscious.
A power to store every experience, and call upon it through something called intuition.
Can a company have reflexes.
A nervous system.
The ability to react, precisely and correctly, faster than the speed of thought.
Can an enterprise have a sixth sense. A knack for predicting the future.
Can a business have a spirit?
Can a business have a soul?
Can a business be…alive?
THE ANSWER IS SIMPLE. THE ANSWER IS SAP HANA

Given our cultural fascination with evil, AI-driven corporations, I have to wonder how stuff like this gets through any big company’s Fear of Looking Scary filters, right? I mean, does the agency not watch Mr. Robot?

But somehow the spot resonates — if you work in a large company, don’t you want that company to be … alive? Don’t you want it to be fast, and smart, and nimble, and … soulful? Don’t you want to be part of something powerful and vibrant?

Clearly, the ad is working for SAP, they’ve been running it for well over a year, and they (or their agency) felt it was appropriate for the 13+ million folks watching the Republican debates on Saturday night. The ad leaves a pretty clear premise for the viewer: If you want your company to be alive, install our software!

But it begs a larger question: what is the role of corporations in our society going forward, if we’ve begun to accept that they are in fact alive? (And have the rights of people, to boot!)

I’d be curious if folks out there are buying this whole narrative. What do you think?

The Waze Effect: Flocking, AI, and Private Regulatory Capture

By - February 03, 2016

Screenshot_2015-04-20-18-03-49-1_resized-738987(image)

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I were heading across the San Rafael bridge to downtown Oakland for a show at the Fox Theatre. As all Bay area drivers know, there’s a historically awful stretch of Interstate 80 along that route – a permanent traffic sh*t show. I considered taking San Pablo road, a major thoroughfare which parallels the freeway. But my wife fired up Waze instead, and we proceeded to follow an intricate set of instructions which took us onto frontage roads, side streets, and counter-intuitive detours. Despite our shared unease (unfamiliar streets through some blighted neighborhoods), we trusted the Waze algorithms – and we weren’t alone. In fact, a continuous stream of automobiles snaked along the very same improbable route – and inside the cars ahead and behind me, I saw glowing blue screens delivering similar instructions to the drivers within.

About a year or so ago I started regularly using the Waze app  – which is to say, I started using it on familiar routes: to and from work, going to the ballpark, maneuvering across San Francisco for a meeting. Prior to that I only used the navigation app as an occasional replacement for Google Maps –  when I wasn’t sure how to get from point A to point B.

Of course, Waze is a revelation for the uninitiated. It essentially turns your car into an autonomous vehicle, with you as a simple robot executing the commands of an extraordinarily sophisticated and crowd-sourced AI.

But as I’m sure you’ve noticed if you’re a regular “Wazer,” the app is driving a tangible “flocking” behavior in a significant percentage of drivers on the road. In essence, Waze has built a real time layer of data and commands over our current traffic infrastructure. This new layer is owned and operated by a for-profit company (Google, which owns Waze), its algorithms necessarily protected as intellectual property. And because it’s so much better than what we had before, nearly everyone is thrilled with the deal (there are some upset homeowners tired of those new traffic flows, for instance).

Since the rise of the automobile, we’ve managed traffic flows through a public commons – a slow moving but accountable ecosystem of local and national ordinances (speed limits, stop signs, traffic lights, etc) that were more or less consistent across all publicly owned road ways.

Information-first tech platforms like Waze, Uber, and Airbnb are delivering innovative solutions to real world problems that were simply impossible for governments to address (or even imagine). At what point will Waze or something like it integrate with the traffic grid, and start to control the lights?

I’ve written before about how we’re slowly replacing our public commons with corporate, for-profit solutions – but I sense a quickening afoot. There’s an inevitable collision between the public’s right to know, and a corporation’s need for profit (predicated on establishing competitive moats and protecting core intellectual property).  How exactly do these algorithms choose how best to guide us around? Is it fair to route traffic past people’s homes and/or away from roadside businesses? Should we just throw up our hands and “trust the tech?”

We’ve already been practicing solutions to these questions, first with the Web, then with Google search and the Facebook Newsfeed, and now with Waze. But absent a more robust dialog addressing these issues, we run a real risk of creating a new kind of regulatory capture – not in the classic sense, where corrupt public officials preference one company over another, but rather a more private kind, where a for-profit corporation literally becomes the regulatory framework itself – not through malicious intent or greed, but simply by offering a better way.

On Medium, Facebook, and the Graph Conflict

By - January 21, 2016

I double took upon arriving at Medium just now, fingers flexed to write about semi-private data and hotel rooms (trust me, it’s gonna be great).

But upon my arrival, I was greeted thusly:

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 9.13.43 PM

Now, I have no categorical beef with Facebook, I understand the value of its network as much as the next publisher. But it always struck me that Medium was forging a third way — it’s not a blogging platform, quite, at least as we used to understand them. And it’s not a social network, though it has a social feel. It’s something … of itself, and that’s a good thing.

So when I saw that prompt, my shoulders sagged a bit. And I may have let a bit more air than usual out of my nose. Then I hit the little “X” in the right hand corner of the prompt, and prepared to write. (No, really! Think about what the Internet of Things will do to hotel anthropology! The data! The renegotiation of a sacred social compact!)

But then something tugged at me. Wait, I thought. Did Medium really just ask me to connect my identity in Medium, to … Facebook?

No, I countered. More likely they are just testing it out, seeing the uptake, learning. I’d certainly do the same.

I decided to test my theory by logging on with another identity, that of NewCo, which is experimenting with the platform as a publisher. (Aside: I predicted this will be a breakout year for Medium, and I’m a unabashed fan of this place). Surely if this was a test, I wouldn’t see the same prompt as I had previously, when I logged on as “John Battelle.”

But alas, and indeed, the same Facebook prompt appeared under my NewCo identity. Unless I got extremely lucky (in terms of odds, anyway), this doesn’t appear to be a test.

When I first logged on to Medium (and most likely, when you first logged on as well), it asked me to connect to Twitter. That’s how I got my first 18K or so “followers” on Medium — they were all the people both on Twitter and on Medium — and I accepted that deal. Medium also auto-followed anyone on Medium that I also followed on Twitter. OK, cool. Gas, meet carburetor.

Now as has been discussed to the point of amnesia, Twitter employs a public follow model, and at its core is driven by a publicly declared interest graph.

Facebook, on the other hand, is driven by the perception of a private friend graph. I say “perception” because I think the newsfeed (and therefore the lion’s share of the Facebook experience) has morphed (evolved? mutated?) into something else entirely — it’s very clearly now a cross breed of true friends and family with … well, whatever the Like button has come to mean, as well as the new follower model the company has created for public figures and brands. Oh, plus about a hundred (a thousand? we don’t know) other things that are part of a rather murky (but still, well intentioned!) secret sauce.

But I digress. The point is, someone is trying to put their fish sticks in my chocolate, and I’m not sure I like it. I wonder if the sign up process now has an option to create your Medium account purely by connecting to Facebook? Hang on a minute…..(creates icognito tab…fires up medium.com…oh wait…huh…) it’s been two years, you can choose Twitter, Facebook, or Google.

 Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 9.08.55 PM

Jeez. Which means that there are neighborhoods here in Medium — those who logged in with Twitter, and those who logged in with Facebook (I bet the Google option is a still a pretty small zip code — but interesting!).

Is there a “Facebook Medium”? Who out there is reading and connected via Facebook? What’s the experience like? Anyone connected BOTH Facebook and Twitter? Or…all three?!

Please, do enlighten me. We must co-create an ethnography of the place!

And wait! If you want more folks to join this conversation, please RT this. Or Like It On Facebook. You know, hit the, um, Social Action Button. Yes, I’ve never asked that here before. But … I did in my cross post on Medium so…

Business, Meet Mission: With His Final #SOTU, Obama Reframed The Climate Debate

By - January 13, 2016

2011_State_of_the_Union

President Obama’s final State of the Union address is currently trending on Medium, which is pretty much what you might expect given Medium is where the White House decided to release it (take that, Facebook! — though a piece about building Instagram has about twice as many recommendations, but I digress…).

I watched the speech last night while at a company retreat with 18 of my colleagues from NewCo. Over and over, the President hit on trends consistent with our thesis of fundamental change in business and culture. For example, he spoke of decoupling benefits such as healthcare from employers, because in the NewCo era, people move between jobs a lot more (or are self employed, or want to leap into a startup). Obama spoke of living in a time of extraordinary technological and social change, of a deepening and troubling social inequality, of optimism and hard work and a right to thrive in “this new economy.”

But what really got my attention was when he addressed innovation and coupled it to climate change, about halfway through his speech.

“We’ve protected an open internet,” he said, “We’ve launched next-generation manufacturing hubs, and online tools that give an entrepreneur everything he or she needs to start a business in a single day.”

A very NewCo sentiment. But then he turned his focus squarely on climate change, which I believe will be the defining issue of both business and culture over the next 40 years. First, he set up those who would deny that climate change is real (pretty much the entire Republican establishment). Making a direct reference to the era of Mutually Assured Destruction — which until climate change marked the only time mankind created an existential threat to humanity — Obama ridiculed climate deniers:

“When the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there. We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon.”

Jabbing further, Obama continued:

“Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.”

And then he landed a devastating left hook (the President is left handed, after all):

“But even if the planet wasn’t at stake; even if 2014 wasn’t the warmest year on record — until 2015 turned out even hotter — why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?”

BAM! Nothing like turning the single biggest threat to humanity into a massive business opportunity with one rhetorical flourish! It was almost laughable to watch the gallery respond to that one, as the Democrats applauded thunderously, and the climate-denying right wing struggled to figure out if they just missed something important.

Because, truth is, they are missing out. If the United States doesn’t lead in the transition to a business culture that values sustainability, clean energy, and a work ethos that views people not as replaceable “human resources” but rather as invaluable creative assets, well, the rest of the world will lap us within a generation.

In my travels to NewCo festivals in Barcelona, Amsterdam, Istanbul, London, and soon Mexico City, I’ve seen the future, and it couldn’t care less about our internal debate about climate change, sustainability, and work culture. The future’s already happening. We can either lead, or get pushed out of the way. What excited me about last night is that for the first time, I heard a sitting President say exactly that. And once again, it gave me hope.

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Mobile Gets a Back Button

By - January 12, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 6.32.45 PMI just opened an email on my phone. It was from a fellow I don’t know, inviting me to an event I’d never heard of. Intrigued, I clicked on the fellow’s LinkedIn, which was part of his email signature.

That link opened the LinkedIn app on my phone. In the fellow’s LI feed was another link, this one to a tweet he had mentioned in his feed. The tweet happened to be from a person I know, so I clicked on it, and the Twitter app opened on my phone. I read the tweet, then pressed the back button and….

Wait, the WHAT? The back button? But…back buttons only exist in a Browser, on the PC Web, right?

Yes, that used to be true, but finally, after years of chicletized, silo’d apps that refuse to talk to one another, finally, the chocolate is meeting the peanut butter. The mobile operating sysem — well, Android anyway — is finally acting like a big-ass web browser, only better — with sensors, location data, and other contextual awareness.

It doesn’t happen a lot, but thanks to deep linking and the inevitable need of commerce to connect and convert, it’s happening more and more, and it represents the future of mobile. The chocolaty goodness of the linked web is merging with the peanut-buttery awesomeness of mobile devices.

It’s about time.

Dear Microsoft. I Want To Use Office 365. But…

By - January 06, 2016

Here’s what I encountered when I, as a first time ever user, was directed to a document that lived in Office 365 World:
Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 12.08.38 PM

Holy crap, Microsoft! I just wanted to read the document a colleague at another (much larger, older, and traditional) company had sent me.

When this happens with Google, well, most of us have a Google account, so the link would redirect to this:

 Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 12.12.47 PM

Pretty easy, and even if you don’t have a Google account, you see this:

 create google

Better, but still not great.

So I wondered what it’s like at, say, DropBox.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 12.10.05 PM

Ah, yes. That’s the ticket.

Microsoft, you have a lot to learn about living on the web.

Is Tech Getting Boring?

By - January 04, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 10.45.51 PMFinishing up my reading for the evening, I came across this serendipitous tweet.*

Intrigued (well done, Mr. Rosoff), I clicked the link, noting it was to Business Insider, a publication for which I have decidedly complicated feelings**. In any case, the story was great, if single sourced. A reporter wandering the halls at CES found a desultory Accenture booth, manned by one Charles Hartley, a “company representative.” A quick Google search (done by me, but I digress), tells us Mr. Hartley is a PR executive focused on analysts and global media — an appropriate resume for manning a booth at CES, to be sure.

In any case, what Mr. Hartley shared with the BI reporter was rather counterintuitive to our esteemed industry’s current view of itself, and the reporter’s subsequent writeup made no bones about it. The headline: “Consumers are bored with today’s tech and nervous about tomorrow’s.”

In short, Accenture has released the results of a comprehensive (one imagines, 28,000 respondents worldwide, after all) study of consumers’ views about the tech currently on offer — mobile phones, VR, wearables, you know, all the stuff CES is on about. And it concluded that, well, consumers kind of think mobile phones are good enough, and the new stuff — VR, wearables — are interesting, but…they seem rather creepy.

The BI article doesn’t give us a link to the actual study that is being quoted, so I put in triple-time Google duty (it took one Google search plus two clicks to find). Here it is. Did I download the full report? Yes. Have I read it? No, but I did give it a thorough skim. Nevertheless, I can sense a clever marketing campaign when I see one:

Step 1: Gather insights. In this case: The most important industry in the world is poised for …. a boring year with slow growth and no consumer excitement. That sucks!

Step 2: Pick them lemons! Issue a report noting the preponderance of bad news, garnering the attention of the Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, and VentureBeat, among others (we hope — it’s only been two hours since the first piece went up!).

Step 3: Make the lemonade! Create a landing page that promises insights that just might fix the problem.

I’m loving this in ways that would take 1,000 words to explain, but that’s orthogonal, and my original story is not finished. Almost, but not quite.

Just yesterday I wrote my predictions post. I’ve not really admitted this before, but my predictions are nearly always based on gut feelings, slow baked with conversation and whiskey over several months, then composed in one two-to-three hour sitting***. So when I wrote prediction #8: “Apple Endures a Boring Year” — I had no idea Accenture was about to release the aforementioned study.

Man, what luck! Had I tarried even one day, I’d have been branded derivative. But even more, I wish I had really taken my gut feeling to its logical extreme. It’s not that Apple’s going to have a boring year. It’s that the entire industry may well be heading into a Cycle of Boring. Not that boring is terrible — great work is done during boring times, entire industries take root and prosper. Perhaps, in fact, we’ve already been in a Boring Cycle — I mean, what really changed your life in the past few years? Slack? SnapChat? I love em both but…they ain’t the iPhone.

I guess my point is this: When the most exciting thing you can imagine happening next year is VR from Facebook, or another Apple Watch — well, that’s just kind of disappointing.

I didn’t go to CES this year, but I’ve been to about 20 or so over the past 25 years. Perhaps by not going, I’m missing something Big, something that will truly Change the Game.

I sure hope so. What do you think?

— —

  • * (serendipitous mainly because I tend to not read my Twitter stream, rather I depend on surrogate algorithms to cull it — this tweet just happened to be at the top after Chrome crashed and restored my tabs).
  • ** Admiration, fondness, nostalgia, and some others.
  • *** “one two-to-three hour” just seemed too wrong to not write.

Predictions 2016: Apple, Tesla, Google, Medium, Adtech, Microsoft, IoT, and Business on a Mission

By - January 03, 2016

Nostradamus_propheciesTwelve years of making predictions doesn’t make writing them any easier, regardless of my relatively good showing in 2015. In fact, I briefly considered taking the year off – who am I to make predictions anyway? And so much has changed in the past few years – for me personally, and certainly for the industries to which I pay the most attention. But the rigor of thinking about the year ahead is addictive – it provides a framework for my writing, and a snapshot of what I find fascinating and noteworthy. And given that more than 125,000 of you read my post summarizing how I did in 2015 (thanks Medium and LinkedIn!), it was really you who’ve encouraged me to have at it again for 2016. I hope you’ll find these thought provoking, at the very least, and worthy of comment or debate, should you be so inclined.

So let’s get to it.

1. 2016 will be the year that “business on a mission” goes mainstream. It started in the hippie era and gained ground with well meaning but outlying companies like Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia; but it took the technology startup era to prove its merits, and the climate crisis to push it to the fore. Businesses driven by more than profit are businesses that attract the best talent, create the most value, and ultimately provide the most benefit to society. Extractive, profit-first businesses are already on the way out, but 2016 will be seen as the year their dominance peaks. This trend will evince itself in many forms: We’ll see massive older companies shift their marketing focus to purpose-based messaging – both to insure top talent considers them as a career choice, and to maintain relevance to a new generation of purpose-based consumers. We’ll see mainstream media outlets start to cover the social and environmental impact of companies in more than just annual “Doing Well By Doing Good” roundups. In fact, the mainstream press will tire of ogling shiny tech startups and idolizing their newly-rich founders. We’ll see the launch of well-funded initiatives attempting to track the “true cost” of consumer goods and services, and rising support for triple-bottom line and B corps. And of course we’ll see politicians pick up the meme – particularly in Europe – appealing to voters by demanding businesses become true citizens of our society. Oh, and our little startup, NewCo, will play a small but I hope important role in all this happening!

2. Mobile will finally mean more than apps. Last year I predicted that a new mobile startup will force a “new approach to mobile user interfaces.” I graded myself as half right – I think last year we laid the groundwork for that new approach, but no single mobile startup was responsible for what ultimately is an ecosystem shift. That shift will accelerate in 2016, and by year’s end, we’ll find ourselves interacting with our technology in new and far more “web like” ways – bouncing from link to link, service to service, much as we did on the original web, but with the power, context, and sensor-laden enablement of mobile apps and devices. This will be aided by the widespread adoption of deep links and services like Google’s App Streaming.

3. Twitter makes a comeback. Ouch, 2015 was not kind to Twitter, especially if you were a stockholder. But in 2016, Twitter will find a way back to mainstream relevance (and stock appreciation). How? Well, I’m threatening my own chances at getting this prediction right by being too specific, but here goes: Twitter will take Moments, which was not exactly a hit with the Twitterati (IE, folks like me), and begin to evolve it to a far more granular level. At present, Moments are very lowest common denominator – NFL highlights, reality TV roundups, you know, standard Yahoo home page crap. But if Twitter can take each of our interest graphs and create automated “Moments” that deliver true value, well, that’s something everyone would appreciate. The first version of Moments was built for those who don’t really use Twitter. The next rev will be for those that do – and that could change everything. Extra credit prediction: Twitter will tap crowd-sourced curators to create Moments, and that will create a new ecosystem of value for both the company and its constituents.

4. Adtech and the Internet of Things begins to merge. OK, this is utterly speculative, but it just makes sense to me. The Internet of Things requires several things to really take off: First, use cases where connecting the physical to the digital adds true value. We’ve now seen enough of these to believe that “every physical item will have a chip embedded in it.” Examples include sensors in jet engines (and just about everything else of industrial significance), exercise and health wearables, and home automation, to name but a few. But as I wrote earlier this year, we must not forget the Internet when we remember the things. And the Internet wants to connect all those things, and allow them to message to each other, run auctions where value is determined and exchanged, and then transact and account for it all based on a nearly impossible to comprehend amount of data and parameters.  Our current adtech system is perfectly engineered to do do that job. Sure, it currently slings trillions of ads around the Internet on a daily basis. And I’m not predicting that we’ll see ads on your Nest thermostat anytime soon. Instead, I’m suggesting that the underlying technology powering adtech is perfectly suited to execute the highly complicated and highly performant rules-based decisioning required for the Internet of Things to touch our lives on a regular basis. The groundwork for this combination will be laid in 2016. Related: We will most likely see a blockchain-based entrant in adtech in 2016, if we haven’t already (I couldn’t find one, but I may have missed it….).

5. Tesla’s Model 3 will garner more than 100,000 pre-orders, but Tesla will have a rough year of news. I’m as excited as anyone about a $35,000 all electric car that has a range of 200 miles and a total cost of ownership well below your average mid-market sedan. And I’m guessing when Tesla opens pre-orders in March of 2016, more than 100,000 folks will get in line to reserve one. That’d be four times the pre orders for the Model X, but that car is priced four times as high. These pre-orders will drive Tesla’s stock to untold heights, but it’s not easy being Tesla, and the reality of building both the Model 3 and its gigafactory will force setbacks and delays, and the company will most likely have a volatile year of headlines.

6. Publishers and platforms come to terms. I like Fred’s prediction that there’ll be a reckoning between large publishers and social platforms, and that it will end badly for one or more publishers. But I’m more bullish on how publishers will leverage platforms, and in 2016, Medium, LinkedIn, and Facebook will all make strides in helping all publishers succeed – especially mid-sized ones. Twitter may as well, if the details in prediction #3 bears out.

7. Search has a dominant year, thanks in large part to voice and AI. In the past few years, search has fallen out of favor, as industry watchers focused on the shinier new social and mobile platforms, and pointed out that search is, at its core, the product of the PC-focused web. But I think we’re very close to an era of ambient intelligence, where the world becomes query-able. It’s now quite common to ask Siri, Google, Amazon’s Alexa, and Cortana just about anything and expect a decent response (my experience is that Google runs circles around Siri, but then again, I’ve never used Alexa or Cortana). And increasingly, search happens without a query – anticipating your needs before you even make them. If you count voice and contextual queries along with more traditional “type in” traffic, search volume will be way, way up in 2016. The only question is – can revenue models shift as quickly as use cases have?

8. Apple endures a boring year. Yes, those of you who know me well may think this is projected schadenfreude, but in fact, I think it has more to do with the laws of corporate gravity. Apple is the most highly valued company in the world, and therefore has almost unmanageable expectations to meet. With the Watch and Apple Pay already in market, most folks expect a slew of incrementalism from the company in 2016 – updated models and software versions, but short of yet another iPhone folks feel obliged to purchase, there’ll be nothing spectacular. I don’t think folks will be calling for Tim Cook’s head, but many will wonder if Apple is meandering its way toward a boring, profit-milking middle age.

9. Microsoft and Google get serious about hardware. Microsoft has already committed to its well-regarded Surface line, and Google has been dabbling with hardware with what have essentially been limited-run, high-end products in the Chromebook Pixel and Nexus line of smart phones. But the benefits of tightly integrated hardware and software experiences will prove too tempting to both companies, and I expect them to expand their offerings in 2016.

10. Medium has a breakout year. I’ve been watching the Medium platform closely ever since it launched, and I think 2016 will be the year Medium breaks into the world’s consciousness in a big way. Key to this happening: A native revenue model that allows publishers to really leverage the platform, and a tightly integrated loop of product development that makes reading Medium feel like reading your own, intelligently curated but still serendipitous personal magazine. Expect a slew of notable publication launches on Medium, as well as a growing number of “traditional” publishers who commit resources to the platform.

11. China goes shopping. It didn’t really happen this year, did it? We all expected Alibaba et al to start snapping up US-based companies, but perhaps valuations were simply too high. But in 2016, highly capitalized consumer and enterprise companies with large customer bases will start to look for exits, and Chinese companies eager for a foothold in the US will start to open their wallets.

12. Sports unbundle. The one thing keeping me from abandoning cable altogether is watching broadcasts of my beloved Giant’s home games. That’s pretty much it. I know it, Comcast knows it, the Giants and the MLB know it…and finally, I’ll be able to buy home games digitally. Most likely they’ll be offered a la carte, at a ridiculous markup, but from that toehold will come the eventual demise of the cable bundle altogether. Fear not for Comcast’s margins, however, because by 2017, Comcast will have become a major streaming competitor in its own right. But that’s a prediction for another year.

Well, that’s a dozen, and while I could go on, I probably shouldn’t. And yes, I didn’t talk about VR (everyone else has already said it’s overhyped), or AI (it’ll be the talk of the year to be sure), and I held back from predicting any major Facebook news. Time will tell if I missed the boat there, but in the meantime, let me know what you think, and point me to your favorite predictions for the new year as well. Have a great 2016, everyone!

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Related:

Predictions 2015

2015: How I Did

Predictions 2014

2014: How I Did

Predictions 2013

2013: How I Did

Predictions 2012

2012: How I Did