UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

The Future As Today, But More So

Posted by Brian Kelly on 20 Sep 2007

My Background

When I was young we didn’t have a TV and it wasn’t until I was 7 or so that my family caught up, and I discovered why my school friends were so excited about Doctor Who. And at that time we didn’t have a telephone, so when my parents wanted to ring their friends, it involved a trip to the public telephone kiosk opposite our house, until we got a phone installed (which, of course, was initially was on a shared party line). But we never had a family car.

In more recent years I can recall being dismissive of yuppies and business men and their very large mobile phones.

Nowadays, of course, the TV, the landline, the car and the mobile phone are mainstream consumer products, and households without them are in a minority.

And I find myself in a position in which I’m no longer behind the times, but am an early adopter of various examples of the current generation of technological innovations. I was an early adopter of digital TV (when Freeview was known as OnDigital) and I now have an iPod and a Nokia N95 mobile phone, which can be use as a digital camera, a video camera, a sound recorder, a music player, a GPS device, a radio, a TV, and, last but not least, a telephone. Truly, it seems, Star Trek technology has arrived as a consumer product (well, the Star Trek communicator at least).

So just as, as a child, I eventually caught up with my peers with their 405 line black and white TV, I think we’ll see the devices I am currently using becoming ubiquitous in a few years time, as the prices come down, features become even richer, interfaces simpler and, hopefully, battery life improved.

Envisaging the Future

Envisaging the future as the same as today, with the general population catching up with the early adopters, what might we predict?  Let’s look at some of the things that I can do today and extrapolate their use (and the implication of such usage patterns) in a wider context: perhaps at school, at college and by the general public.

The first point to make is that capturing content is easy, at least for sound and video. I’ve heard that recording/videoing lectures in Universities in the US is common (or at least in prestigious Universities in California).  So rather than “can I borrow your notes for this morning’s lecture; I slept in” the updated version may be “beam me this morning’s lecture“.

But we should remember that the old slogan that “content is king” is no longer necessarily true. Rather it could be argued that “communications, not content, is king“.  Many of us, myself included, were surprised by the takeup of SMS text messaging, which, despite the poor user interface, has become incredibly popular, in the UK at least, and this takeup is reflected in the popularity of instant messenger applications such as MSN Messenger.

Applying this approach within the content of more sophisticated mobile devices, we might see a growth in micro-blogging (as exemplified by Twitter) and podcasting / videocasting from one’s mobile phone. Indeed we can envisage how a voice message left while using a phone could easily be syndicated and accessed via a variety of platforms, in a manner similar to podcasting, without needing to be encumbered with the microphones and PC equipment which is normally associated with the creation of podcasts.

And anything you can do with sound can also be applied to video, with the mobile phone acting as the camcorder. But rather than paying expensive rates using 3G technologies, a WiFi network with enable videocasting / videoblogging to be affordable – and even free in environments in which the user has access to an organisational WiFi network, such as is the case in many universities.

So the content creation side of things is getting easier – and the services for accessing such resources is not longer restricted to the desktop, with, for example, Twitter, Jaiku and Facebook all providing access from mobile devices to their services.

The popularity of Facebook will also lead to changing expectations regarding use of applications.  We are finding with Facebook that users are treating applications as disposable: they are easy to install  and, if you don’t find them of use, you thow away, like an unwanted toy.  And this click-to-install, click-to-remove approach to applications is becoming the norm for mobile applications too.

We seem to be rapidly moving towards both a blended environment (content can be both captured and viewed on a variety of platforms – and I’m conscious that I haven’t mentioned games machines) and a disposable environment, in which the application is no longer the important aspect.  In this environment, we will find that the technology vanishes – with many users having little interest in the technological features for applications used on a daily basis; rather many people will make their purchasing decisions based on other factors, such as how cool it looks (and maybe David Beckham is still the style guru).

And we shouldn’t be concerned at such developments.  After all, we no longer regard the television or telephone as ‘technology’ and, for many, interest in purchasing hifi separates has disappeared, with the choice between buying a Sony or Philip HiFi system at Dixons being based on marketing and aesthetic considerations.  Rather software developers should pat themselves on the back and say “job done” (except in niche areas and in the necessary back office functions which, like keeping the London sewerage system flowing, will still be needed but will be largely invisible).

Will This Happen?

Will the future pan out like this?  Probably not! Indeed, when I speculated a few years ago (July 2004) that the Netgem iPlayer (a digital TV box I use at home) will be a forerunner of Internet access via the TV, I was clearly wrong (or at least very premature in such speculations!)

And the notion that software development will not continue to grow in importance will clearly be regarded as heresy by many readers of this blog (and has been predicted on many occassions previously, not least when The Last One application was released for the Commodore Pet in the early 1980s, if my memory is correct).

And the notion that the future will be a simple extrapolation of currents trends has also been shown to be false (the streets of London are not covered in horse shit as was predicted in the nineteenth century).

But, on the other hand, the blacksmith and related occupations have (almost) disappeared once the new technology of the internal combustion engine became popular.

And, since I first started writing this post I have come across an update to the Nokia 95 article in Wikipedia which describes the Nokia N95 8GB device (increased memory and longer battery life) and read Apple’s announcement about the iPod Touch device which has WiFi support.

So maybe the future is closer to realisation that I’m expecting. Although I’m sure that the future won’t be a linear progression based on what we have today.

Note: The image of a Star Trek Communicator, taken from WIkipedia, has been removed following the deletion of the image from the Wikipedia Web site. Brian Kelly, 10 Nov 2008.

12 Responses to “The Future As Today, But More So”

  1. AJ Cann said

    “we might see a growth in micro-blogging (as exemplified by Twitter) and podcasting / videocasting from one’s mobile phone”

    Growth, yes. Mass-market? No. There’s just too mush effort involved. To expend the effort, content producers (because that’s what they are) need a motive. What is the motive? We’re already seeing the fade on people who are no longer updating their Facebook status, or not as frequently – why should they spend the time when there are better things to do, like … talking on mobile phones (just like Captain Kirk)?

  2. “We’re already seeing the fade on people who are no longer updating their Facebook status, or not as frequently ”

    I’d be tempted to challenge that. I’d say Facebook *is* mass-market micro-blogging.

    Also, there are already a number of phone-blogging solutions. In fact in the US there used to be one built into Blogger itself (can’t remember if it’s still there). Phone a number, leave your message and it gets converted to an mp3 and posted to your blog. IIRC this is where Odeo came from.

  3. AJ Cann said

    Nope, not mass market Phil.
    IM technology is on the cusp of mass market. Email used to be mass market but is rapidly declining. Downloading music/video is mass market, subscribing to podcasts are not. You’re talking about a tiny fraction of the UK population engaged in this activity, with very skewed demographics.
    Go into any branch of Tesco and ask everyone in the store (shoppers and staff) who has microblogged on Facebook during the last month. Not mass market.

  4. Peter Cliff said

    “Go into any branch of Tesco and ask everyone in the store (shoppers and staff) who has microblogged on Facebook during the last month. Not mass market.”

    While at a BCS workshop that bought together a number of information professionals, hardly anyone had heard of Twitter, and when it was explained, they laughed – incredulously it seemed to me – so I guess that’d support the “not mass market” argument.

  5. Hi Pete
    I’d suggest that updating your status regularly in Facebook is an example of micro-blogging which is embedded within an application.
    Using Twitter is for a niche markets (primarily us geeks); Facebook provides an example for the masses.

  6. Brian, I agree, but I also smell something fishy here.

    What are the magic criteria for geeks assessing “mass market” penetration? Some anecdotal evidence of going into a shop one day? Someone’s granny doing it?

    For my own criteria I’m happy to accept hundreds of people who I know who effectively never use computers and whose professions are not IT-related all using Facebook and regularly updating their status as “mass market micro-blogging”.

  7. AJ Cann said

    You guys are geeks (maybe I am too) and your sampling is distorted. “Hundreds of people who I know” is not a valid sampling protocol. You should get out more ;-)
    Next time you’re in the supermarket, ask everyone you meet the last time they used Facebook. You won’t get to 10%. You may not get to 1%. I don’t know what mass market is, probably not a majority of the target population (UK), but not a tiny minority either. Now if you want to start talking about sub-populations, that’s different, but then the term mass market gets pretty misleading.

  8. Hi AJ
    I’d agree that extrapolating mass trends from personal experiences is flawed: back in the 1980s, for example, I wouldn’t have been aware that Thatcherism was a mainstream social / political movement as many of the people I knew had badges disclaiming any responsibility :-)
    More closely related to the content of this blog, though, are the ideological differences between those involved in IT/Web development activities and the (much) wider user community. I was guilty of extrapolating my views a while ago, when I implied that the inherent superiority of FireFox would lead to it become that market leader: Mark Sammons and Phil Wilson described how such wishful thinking did not reflect reality.

  9. AJ Cann said

    There was something of a sub-theme (un-theme?) at ALT-C this year that the concept of digital natives had been overplayed … ahem … possibly by people with a vested interest!

  10. […] on September 26th, 2007. Brian Kelly’s post “The Future As Today, But More So” started me wondering whether today’s university students, who audio/video record their […]

  11. I agree with the problem about getting data from anecdotal evidence! (hence “for my own criteria”) – I think you have a problem about defining market penetration though. I don’t really see how successful predictions can be made without it. In fact, going from the logical conclusions above, mass-market support for a particular product is hugely fleeting and ultimately meaningless – but what about, as Brian begins to suggest, when the technology becomes part of the infrastructure?

    For example, how many people own radios (think cars, hi-fis, support in mp3 players) vs. reguarly listen to the radio?

    Going back to the article – I also do not think that software development will not grow in importance. I do see a greater future interest in hobbies like fabbing where the cheapness and availability of materials allows people to effectively do their own hardware hacking, customising what they own or creating new items – see things like http://www.hackszine.com/ and http://www.makezine.com/ – I can’t imagine these would ever reach any huge percentage of penetration but think of the extrapolation from the existing digital toys – http://www.thinkgeek.com/geektoys/plush/7b24/ and the digital Barbie stuff is just the tip of the iceberg.

  12. newmobilephones said

    What are geeks?
    Todays young teens and early twenties would all have been classed as geek just a couple of years ago.
    Myspace, Facebook and oterh social networking sites have brought to the masses a new medium of self promotion.
    Rather than going to the supermarket to conduct your questioning, pop into a local youth club or MacDonalds, I bet you will be looking at closer 60% and higher.

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