Most product opportunities are ephemeral, rising off the whims and fads of the social world. Likewise, most products and services cater to temporary needs, momentary desires, and passing fads. There are certainly a bounty of successful business models that capitalize on such trends (remember Beanie Babies?) and there will be plenty more, but in the long run all are doomed to pass after a few years at best, downcycling more resources and adding yet more volume to the world’s landfills. Ultimately, product solutions that don’t speak to the more fundamental motivations of the human animal will rise and fall on the endocrine tides of psychology.
The technologies that are really transformative and sticky are those that help people adapt better to their world (duct tape being a contemporary classic, environmental concerns aside for the moment). They make it easier to be an effective human. The technologies and solutions that make the biggest mark on the landscape are those that reinforce biological imperatives. The ability to harness fire established several millenia of product iterations designed to deliver heat to the needs of humanity. Agriculture, metal alloys, the printing press, immunizations, the car, the telephone, the computer, and Google all created enduring markets by providing adaptive advantages to the user.
Now in the hyper-connected, hyper-accelerated world of the Digital Age it seems as if we’re caught up in constant revolutions in technology, each Big Thing laying the foundation for The Next Big Thing. The marketplace is driven to spot the upstart that will unseat the previous generation in innovative cycles that are increasingly impacted and shortening. And when they find one, the antibodies flare up to test its mettle. Is it really that innovative? Is it useful? Will it make any money?
Twitter is a prime example of this condition. In 2 short years it’s gone from nothing, to something cute & fun, to presenting a viable challenge to the world’s largest information house, Google. Hitting the hype crescendo lately, everyone is trying to figure out why Twitter is useful and why anybody would use it in the enterprise and how & when they’ll start drawing revenues. The answer to these questions seem plainly obvious when we acknowledge that the fundamental needs of the human animal will always trump all other market factors.
So, how can you spot deep innovation that addresses the core requirements of the human animal? You have to ask these questions:
1) Does it enable you to more effectively address a fundamental biological need? Eat, drink, sleep, mate, procreate, move, establish dominion…
2) Does it enable you to more effectively address a fundamental social need? Communicate, collaborate, contact, support, share, trade…
3) Is it presented in simple & clear terms? Easy to learn, obvious functional use, immediate advantage…
4) Can it easily be integrated as an entrained extension of the user? Simple to use, second-hand adoption, action without thinking…
5) Does it provide the user with a selective advantage in the competitive landscape? Finding and obtaining resources, getting work and pay, making friends and collaborators, finding potential mates…
A truly profound illustration of these principles is the mobile phone. This seemingly simple technology addresses and enables almost every one of the above needs. Data on cellphone uptake shows the sharpest arc of adoption of any device ever. In every case the technology enables humans to be more successful at being humans, particularly in the ability to easily coordinate group efforts towards socioeconomic and biological ends. Clay Shirkey explores this phenomenon in depth in his seminal work Here Comes Everybody.
To turn this eye towards Twitter, we ask “Why does it work?”. Two things are immediately clear: It’s simple to use and it enables much greater communication & coordination. Specifically, it allows one person to quickly communicate with large groups of people while simultaneously drawing information about the landscape from the larger herd. With mobile integration each user becomes a sensor communicating to the tribe, and when in need the user can appeal to the tribe for immediate assistance. In this context, it’s obvious how Twitter would be of value within a secured enterprise, enabling ostensibly coordinated individuals to see more into the operations & needs of their collaborators & their company, while providing the channel to reach out for information and assistance in accomplishing the goals of the business.
Of critical importance, and why Twitter succeeds in ways that other social networks don’t, is that It forces communication to be succinct and to the point. The 140 character limit forces communications into small, digestible chunks, limiting the overhead of use and managing the potential for overload in signal. Passing a link, a question, or a simple plea, “ARRESTED”, brings the core of the communication up front & center rather than buried within paragraphs of narrative padding. Granted, all datastreams require management as the volume of input rises, but the word limit fundamentally rewrites the game of communication – and even language itself – in ways we don’t yet fully realize.
There will obviously be many more successful business models that don’t cater to the evolutionary, socioeconomic, & political needs of the human species, just as there will be many more billions of dollars spent on using energy and creating waste to capitalize on the current desires of the marketplace. I submit that the truly compelling and enduring innovations – the innovations that build long-lasting behavioral & business opportunities – are those that design for the fundamental needs hardwired into every human user on the planet; that design for the immediacy of an interconnected planetary ecology; and that reflect Tim O’Reilly’s call to work on stuff that matters.
Markets are abstractions that merely arise off the imperatives of survival, adaptation, and success, and are often far too volatile & obtuse to be really reliable, much less enable us to be more effective members of a planetary ecology. Designing for deeper principles is imperative not only for salvaging a faltering economy, but for creating sustainable models of innovation and evolutionary adaption that bring our species into a greater degree of harmony and cooperation with the world in which we are intimately embedded. The arc of our times is quickly becoming the necessary realization of these imperatives.
These are a handful of Tweets I’ve made recently that bear repeating here:
extremely important to acknowledge that Mozilla gets almost 90% of it’s revenue from Google search support. This power dynamic effectively hands control of Mozilla over gives a lot of leverage to Google and positions Firefox as a potential Google proxy. I can’t help but think that Chrome may be little more than a dev sandbox and a foil to distract attention from the concerted effort between both parties to rewrite the web in their favor.
Perhaps more importantly to Adobe, the assumed competition between Chrome & Firefox obfuscates the very real & present strategy to get web video out of Flash and to further de-legitimize Flash and all “closed” 3rd party plugins against the rising value of HTML5. Both Google and Mozilla (Googlezilla!) are working to build canvas support into all browsers and to enhance the HTML5 spec to support rich media rendering. Likewise, the communications and positioning coming from both continue to stress the value of the “open web”, “interoperability”, and the danger of closed, 3rd-party plugins (ie Flash). Adobe will still claim a reasonable chunk of the rich web but if HTML5 (or whatever subset implementation Googlezilla gets into Firefox, IE, & Safari) allows easy rendering of HD video to any screen, they can say goodbye to Flash as a video solution.
Meanwhile, Google itself may find unexpected competition from an unlikely challenger. Erick Shonfeld at TechCrunch has posted a brilliant insight into the deep value of Twitter… and what it may mean for Google. It’s kinda mind-blowing to think that a hot-topic upstart like Twitter could pose a threat to the Googleplex, but Shonfeld nails it with his article, Mining the Thought Stream:
What if you could peer into the thoughts of millions of people..? And what if all of these thoughts were immediately available in a database that could be mined easily to tell you what people both individually and in aggregate are thinking right now..? Well, then you’d have a different kind of search engine altogether. A real-time search engine.
…In fact, the crude beginnings of this “now” search engine already exists. It is called Twitter…
He continues to note that search engines like Google capture people’s intent (what they are looking for), while Twitter captures their thoughts, and feelings, and what they’re doing. This is a new type of search model more closely joined to the real-time global mind. It’s much closer to people than Google search can get. Twitter is clearly already tremendously disruptive, even without any revenues. Imagine building search and analytics on top of it….
And yeah, everybody wants to know what Twitter’s business model is. Keep in mind that Twitter’s #1, Evan Williams, sold his earlier company, Blogger, to Google so he’s already got that channel open. If the model is to sell to Google and turn the world’s most successful web search engine into the world’s most powerful human thought & behavior probe, then yeah, you wanna keep that under wraps. Twitter will stay the same but Google search will suddenly get *a lot* smarter. If, on the other hand, Twitter seeks to challenge Google in search and analytics, then, oh damn you wanna play those cards as close to your chest as you can possibly keep them.
[This is the first of what I hope to be regular notes and analysis on some of the current prevailing trends in technology and, uh... culture.]
1. Video telepresence & “presence-based telecommunication services”
Instant messaging, Twittering, and the explosive rise and symbiosis of online video and consumer mobile capture are creating a seismic shift in communication, reporting, and collaboration across the globe. From 3rd world African fisherman using mobile IM to coordinate catch-and-sell markets for the best returns, to CNN partnering with Facebook to bring participatory democracy to new vistas during the 2009 inaugural ceremonies for President Obama
Who to watch: Cisco & Adobe, mano a mano. Cisco is pushing the future of its online meeting service, TelePresence, in ads showing civic installations of 2-way video walls connecting towns across the world. Adobe continues to market it’s Flash-based teleconferencing solution, Adobe Connect, as a desktop and hosted service, via Acrobat.com. Of course, anything that drives more bandwidth through those increasingly clogged arterial Intertubes makes Cisco very happy. Video is huge and hosting more and more of it will require companies to budget for bigger & better routers to handle the throughput. Any win for Adobe & Flash is a win for Cisco. Any loss for Adobe is also a win for Cisco. Also, watch for anyone gaining traction in securing IM channels or building Twitter-like solutions for internal enterprise deployment.
Related: Video. Cisco & Adobe again heading into the same territory with internet TV’s, telepresence, and the might of Adobe Flash. But with 1080p & h.264 support, combined with their hardware wizardry, Cisco is well-positioned to capitalize on bringing Netflix & the web straight to your TV. Cisco is the new gorilla in the corner that people should be paying attention to. But don’t take your eyes off Google cause they certainly want a piece of the video ad pie.
2. Business Intelligence, Personal Intelligence
The term “business intelligence” has been around for a while but it’s showing up more and more across the tech world as traditional business practices begin to leverage emergent technologies to better manage their enterprise. Businesses can now track vast amounts of data in great detail across numerous channels, both internally and in the marketplace. As they face growing piles of valuable information, the enterprise is beginning to realize the powerful advantage of proactively managing both its acquisition & management through rich client dashboards. Such dynamic dashboards are allowing precise interrogation of vast stores of transactional data rendered in elegant and easily-digestible visualizations. Have a look at the Nasdaq Adobe AIR dashboard as an example of modern data management. New tools are evolving to better serve the same goal: help business know itself and its customers better.
Naturally, people are also finding ways to use these technologies to manage and optimize their behaviors, hence the emerging filed of Personal Intelligence. Tools and services make it simple for users to collect and analyze data on energy consumption, caloric intake, weight loss, menstrual/fertility cycles, family budgets, and innumerable other niches including the extremely compelling world of the Awakened Consumer. Some offer web services or desktop apps but the mobile web platform that many humans now have with them at all times is becoming the ideal place for capturing behavioral metrics, crunching the numbers, and displaying trends in pretty graphs and animations. Often these apps include access to relevant social networks where users can share tips & results and find the camaraderie & encouragement that’s so helpful to effectively changing habits. Again, the goal is the same as in business intel: help people know themselves better and manage their own behaviors successfully.
Who to watch: In BI, SAP, Oracle, Salesforce, and Adobe PDF. All of these players should be radically re-evaluating their klunky, out-dated UI and static approaches to data structuring. They should be building semantics directly into their database and wiring up elegant and flexible dynamic front-ends that allow customers to get more out of their data. These application should make the user more effective at their job, not force them to interface with an overweight bureaucratic intermediary. (And don’t even get me started on forms…) Not only should these folks be rebuilding their software but they should very intelligently consider what data, forms, and formatting really mean in the mobile landscape. It’s not as easy as porting PDF to mobile or reconfiguring the SAP front-end to fit in a phone window. Mobile solutions for enterprise data must be appropriate to human use, first and foremost, and should ditch any allegiance to the existing desktop solution.
In PI, honestly the most interesting stuff is happening on the iPhone. Personal management apps like Carbon Tracker, LoseIt!, BrainHack, iPeriod, BP Buddy Blood Pressure Helper, & GoodGuide enable people to better engineer their habits towards their goals and empower them to make better decisions about their actions as consumers.
Related: The Semantic Web. Also called Web 3.0, the notion is that the present web exists as a uniquely human endeavor, consisting mostly of text and images from which we humans are readily capable of extracting meaning & relationships. However, software is not so adept at making inferential connections and understanding context. Semantic architects seek to standardize the approaches for building a relational context that can be understood and used by agents. They look at descriptive frameworks like XML, RDF, approaches like Sparql, & OWL, as well HTML-based microformats to build both bottom-up semantics and top-down context and taxonomies. Services like Amazon Also Recommends leverage contextual relationships to make product recommendations based on key text in your current selection. For both BI & PI, the result is much greater efficiency and relevance for intelligent agents tasked with the Herculean tasks of sifting through ridiculous amounts of data to fish out the key bits most important to you.
The most active and visible players in the semantic game are Reuters/Calais, AdaptiveBlue, Powerset, and Expert System, but be sure that Google is heavily invested in this initiative. While the W3C is sorting out the plan we may all suddenly turn around and realize Google just built the semantic web. When heavyweights get behind a particular solution it tends to become a standard.
3. Crowd Content & Citizen Journalism
For the inauguration of Barack Obama, CNN partnered with Facebook to bring to the presidency what CurrentTV & Twitter brought to the election: direct broadcast user participation. CurrentTV mashed up tagged Twitter messages with the live streams of the presidential debates. Next to its inauguration stream, CNN included a live feed from Facebook users commenting on the swearing-in ceremonies. Suddenly, the audience became part of the broadcast. With Adobe, Cisco, Microsoft et al chomping at the bit, you can expect this kind of participatory content to be on your TV screen soon. Those crazy news ticker overlays crowding around Greta Van Sustren or whatever talking head will include tweets from Jim Bob in Philly. We are the new empowered crowd. Of course, industry & enterprise beware: the empowered crowd can rebel and turn into a mob.
Combining location-aware telepresence & instant communication with cameras & publishing tools, smartphone mobile devices are empowering users with the ability to capture and broadcast local events with unfiltered and immediate reporting. When a police confrontation occurred on a rail platform in Oakland, Ca. bystanders immediately pulled out their mobiles and started recording. The resulting public videos of deadly force exercised by an officer drew major media attention and impacted the ability of courts to manage the evidence. When US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River last week the first reports were issued from passengers and nearby boat crews via mobile SMS to Twitter, then quickly broadcast out across social networks. Increasingly, some of the most significant global events of the past year – the Chengdu earthquake, the Mumbai terror attacks – have arrived to the masses first via Twitter. Mobile devices and broadcast services like Twitter are wiring people to the global cloud as ground-level sensors. We are the broadcast nodes.
Who to watch: Facebook & Twitter, of course. CNN, CurrentTV. And watch the major print & broadcast networks as they scramble to get with the times or perish. Also, city municipalities who will (eventually) leverage these tools to generate business intelligence for managing their communities. Expect increasing challenges to notions of privacy and surveillance, as well as a surge in mobile and web applications that build reporting tools & broadcast functions into social networks.
And one final aside: Autodesk. Building energy analysis directly into their BIM and CAD applications, designing advanced multitouch HIC solutions, and even opening their own Soma tech gallery to show off their magic, Autodesk has been kicking serious ass and is a model for how to evolve the enterprise to meet the times.
The folks over at Twitchboard.net have the right idea. From their site:
TwitchBoard listens to your twitter account, and forwards messages on to other internet services based on what it hears. Our first service will automatically save any links you tweet to the del.icio.us bookmarking service. We’re working on connections to many other services — stay tuned!
This simple tool is a software agent built on the web platform. It lives on a server as a script watching your personal datastream – Twitter, in this case. The initial service notices when you have put an url in your tweet, grabs it, and passes it along to your del.icio.us account as a bookmark. It effectively concatenates two web services together to optimize your workflow and eliminate the need to double post. It extends the function of Twitter to include the function of Del.icio.us
recapitulating the phylogenetic imperative evolving from unicellular function to multicellular. Twitterl.icio.us!
Twitchboard represents the emerging class of cloud agents that will help us sort and search the massive volumes of data we interact with regularly. Our connections are getting too dense and the data we’re working with is growing far too big for us humans to handle manually. We need subroutines customized to our interests, affiliations, businesses, and collaborations that can do the heavy data lifting for us while we focus on the meaningful expressions these agents will create for us from the noise.
Increasingly we’ll have swarms of such agents running across our digital lives doing our bidding and the bidding of numerous marketing and security agencies as well. These tools will have particular value across the enterprise where they will monitor workflows & financial movements, gather market data from clouds, and sift through productivity metrics to formulate valuable business intel. Agents will tell us about our lives and our health delivering colorful abstracts with pretty animated datasets showing how much we drove this week, how many miles we walked, tasks completed vs. outstanding, and much more feedback based on an array of scripts & sensors.
Twitchboard is using the fertile comm grounds of Twitter and it’s API to watch the datastream for keywords that can drive additional services. You can bet they’re also deriving all sorts of interesting meta-patterns from the Twitter feed that will be plugged into further modular mashups and visualizations. Through it’s popularity and the openness of it’s API Twitter is lighting a roadmap towards the semantic web. Groups like Twitchboard are building the services reading the machine web and helping us better manage the mountains of data piling up, meanwhile giving rise to a class of autonomous agents moving across devices, sensors, cameras, and clouds.
[Kudos to Sarah Perez of ReadWriteWeb for mentioning me & this post in her column!]