Device death and human-centred technology

DevicesWhy do we sometimes occasionally see articles on “the death of”, referring to tablets or PCs? If you look at the data from the KPCB Internet Trends slides about sales of devices, sales of laptops and PCs aren’t doing well, and tablet ownership is still low compared to smartphones. But why do some people think such articles should be written?

A story in TechCentral about PCs noted that modern users:

switch seamlessly between work mode on a laptop, to social mode on a smartphone, without ever slowing to adapt to a different device or operating system between tasks.
Life has more than one mode and technology should, too.

What we are now starting to do is use different devices for different purposes and in different contexts. That is what the “death of” writers seem to miss; just because a device isn’t growing significantly does not mean it is dying.

Unless all you do is read documents, no one would suggest it is easier to write and edit a document, or code a program, on a tablet compared to a PC. PCs are just better suited to some activities, especially for work.

It seems we are in a period of changing form factors and usage models. No one wants an old-fashioned PC in their home, or think that it should control and monitor their home. But people are quite prepared to have a specialized device to do that – as long as it’s connected to their smartphone, of course.

In 1999 a book forecasted that computers would move from being technology-centred to human-centred. One reason that tablets and smartphones have become popular is that they are usable by the average person – you are not expected to be tech savvy to use them. In the old PC days, it was a sign of proficiency that you could use a PC.

The book points out that tech companies tried to make the PC generic, and thus it became not specific for anything. When Microsoft wanted to to turn the PC into the home entertainment controller, the Windows Media Centre, it failed because it was trying to make the ‘reluctant masses’ adopt the attitudes of engineers and early adopters.

What Steve Jobs realized, and the engineering brains at Microsoft didn’t, was that for a technology device to be adopted by the majority of society, you have to understand two things, as a review of the book discusses:

  1. The user needs to educate or inform the design process from the beginning.
  2. The designers must ensure that the technology is not part of the difficulty.

Essentially, a technology device needs to become an appliance before general society will use it. That means the task, and learning to use it, have to be the same. As an appliance is designed for one thing, expect to see more devices as specialization increases.

Currently, Google, and recently Microsoft, are investing in different technologies for different applications, not trying to shoehorn one technology into a variety of roles.

I wonder what next device will have it’s death written about?

Windows Phone rant

Just a quick rant about Microsoft’s Windows Phone.

phoneI have a Nokia (now Microsoft) Lumia smartphone running Windows Phone 8.1. There is a function called Internet Sharing, which allows you to use your phone as a Wifi hotspot for other devices, and it has been working fine for me – that is until I came back from the USA (see previous post).

Now, when I switch on Internet Sharing to allow my Windows laptop to have Internet access, the browser shows that it can’t connect to the DNS server.
When I checked the site for queries on Internet Sharing,  it seems that Windows Phone caches DNS settings, so somehow I reckon my phone has US DNS data still on it.

Here’s the rant – you cannot reset or clear the DNS cache on Windows Phone. The only way to do it is to reset the entire phone! Microsoft, really, that’s your solution?

Why the US is different to other countries

I have just spent 10 days in the USA, split between a week just south of Los Angeles in Costa Mesa, and several days in Lawrence, Kansas. Although I have been to the US several times before, this time it was different, for reasons I explain below. But also because I may have figured out the essence of what makes the US different to other countries when it comes to business and technology.

My previous visits were either as a pure tourist, or as an overseas employee of a US company coming to get an update on future plans and directions. For those work-related visits, I was a passive recipient. This time it was different. I went to the US to attend a sales conference organized by my employer in South Africa. This time I was one of the people helping to set future plans and directions. This time I had to actively engage – mainly, though not exclusively, with people who work in our North American offices about their concerns and issues.

One of the ongoing issues is that we, i.e. South Africans, don’t understand the US. In the past, I have always supported the view that while the US may start earlier with certain things, there’s not that much difference when it comes to business. But at the end of the sales conference, I had a strong feeling that things were much more different than I had been able to understand.

On my previous working visits, I received direction from US head office people, and used to consider them rather ignorant of the world outside the USA. Now the roles were somewhat reversed: I was the head office person, and they were saying people like me were ignorant of their world.

It took a few days after the intensity of the sales conference, staying with family in Lawrence, and talkininside Dillonsg with my South African brother-in-law who works at the University of Kansas, to distill what I think is the essence of the difference. It was after a visit to a local supermarket, Dillons, that it occurred to me.

It’s what is considered basic.

For each product category, e.g. bread, the range at Dillons was two or three times more than I have seen in South African, or UK, supermarkets. Moreover, the products in Dillons exploited every single consumer niche you could imagine, no matter how specialized the niche. In others words, the choice and competition was greater than I had experienced. I surmise that this makes US consumers more demanding than consumers elsewhere, and makes what they would consider basic different.

When hearing the North American sales people talk about their market and competition, the same kind of impression arose:
product category range + exploitation of niches = high degree of expectation from business

Perhaps it’s because the US economy is so highly competitive that the basics are different – in supermarkets, in business, in IT (and if you watch any reality TV, in relationships).basic differences

It’s something for both sides to consider. If you enter the US market to do business, be aware of how the needs and requirements will differ and be at a higher level. On the other hand, for US companies operating internationally, don’t expect the same issues to be of concern, and don’t assume US concepts are universal.

When it comes to business software, the requirements of a US business are likely to be greater or more detailed than business in other countries because what is considered basic fo US business is different. The same duopoly then applies – overseas software companies must get really immersed in the US to learn what is needed, US software companies may not find the same functional requirements from businesses in other countries.

Contemplation is important

contemplateIn an increasingly fast-moving world, some people are beginning to realize that slowing down and having time to think is important.

Back in 2010, smartphones seemed to herald a new always-on, rapidly moving world. An article in Forbes seemed to sum up how people thought mobility would improve the world:

… coordination replaces planning … we are seeing more work processes move to approaches that favor just-in-time coordination over advanced planning. It is more efficient and more flexible … As we find ourselves tied to mobile devices, coordination will increasingly become the organizing principle that defines how we get work done; we will become a network of spontaneous gathering, loosely coordinated agents in constant contact.

Spontaneity and speed seemed to be the rallying cry of the new world. In the business world, we were told how connectedness and speed will improve factory operations and process efficiency in warehouses. It looked like we were moving into a world where continuous activity and 24/7 real-time response would be required.

However, some dissenting voices were being raised. One of the major proponents of a ‘slower world’, Tony Schwartz, wrote an article in 2012 saying that:

Speed is the enemy of depth, nuance, subtlety, attention to detail, reflection, learning, and rich relationships — the enemy of much, in short, that makes life worth living.

… Speed is a source of stimulation and fleeting pleasure

… The faster we move, the less we feel, which may be a primary reason we move so fast. Most of us are more worried, uncertain, and insecure than we care to acknowledge, even to ourselves. Moving fast keeps those discomfiting feelings at bay.

Around the same time, the founder of an African startup believed that smartphones and 24/7 response capability might be making us less productive and

jeopardizing long-term productivity by eliminating predictable time off that ensures balance in our lives.

John Wegner, the Director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Research at Angelo State University, wrote about a former time:

… where boredom reigned and no one cared.

He noted recent research showing that:

… boredom is good for the brain. Evidently, boredom switches our brain’s little buttons and the synapses and neurons start firing on more cylinders, pushing us to creativity and intellectual growth.

Adding to the argument, an article in the New York Times on The Joy of Quiet quoted some famous authors:

Henry David Thoreau reminded us that “the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages.” Even half a century ago, Marshall McLuhan, who came closer than most to seeing what was coming, warned, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself.” Thomas Merton struck a chord with millions, by not just noting that “Man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest,”

That article also also quotes from Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows, about tests that found:

after spending time in quiet rural settings, subjects “exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper.” More than that, empathy, as well as deep thought, depends (as neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have found) on neural processes that are “inherently slow.” The very ones our high-speed lives have little time for.

The need to switch off and slow down is even being recognized by world leaders. On Tony Schwartz’s Energy Project site, there’s an article about the need for contemplation and reflection:

It’s not possible to move from one activity to the next at blinding speed and be reflective at the same time. The more complex and demanding the work we do, the wider, deeper and longer the perspective we require to do it well.

[an] observation by President Obama caught on an open mike during a stroll with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain in 2008:
“The most important thing you need to do [in this job] is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking.”

… good judgment grows out of reflection, and reflection requires the sort of quiet time that gets crowded out by the next demand.

… Regular reflection also provides the space in which to decide what not to do … Time to reflect is what makes it possible to prioritize.

There was even a conference, Wisdom 2.0, which addressed the issue of “the insidious costs of moving so relentlessly and at such high speeds”, where senior business leaders discussed the importance of time to contemplate and meditate.

My view on the Forbes comment about coordination replacing planning is that it omits the fact that to coordinate also needs time. We need to start challenging the current views about pace and activity. It would be nice if companies started instituting practices, such as Google’s chill rooms, to encourage more contemplation time.

Need an antidote for speed? In his 2012 article, Tony Schwartz suggested the following to help you slow down:

  • Designate one meal when you will take the time to notice the aroma, flavor, and texture of what you’re eating.
  • Curl up in a favorite chair after work and spend at least a half-hour reading a book purely for pleasure.
  • Take the time to really listen to someone you love, without interruption, for as long as it takes.
  • Choose a place that interests you and spend a couple of hours just exploring it without any specific end in mind.
  • Reflect before you go to bed and write in a journal what you are grateful for that day, and what went right.
  • Above all, slowly build more strolling, dawdling, moseying, meandering, musing, lingering, relishing, and savoring into your life.

Other companies becoming like IBM

technologyA number of years ago I wrote a blog post about the possibility of Microsoft turning into the ‘old’ IBM. Now it seems there are other similarities, but another company looks to be doing the same thing. Looking back at what I wrote in 2007, a few points now seem strangely familiar.

  • reliance on a monopoly cash-cow; IBM with mainframe hardware and operating systems, Microsoft with Windows and Office
  • branching out into all sorts of different systems and applications; being good in some areas and terrible in others, but still continued in the terrible areas
  • being a symbol of conventionality; Microsoft is now even old-fashioned to the millennial crowd
  • thinking that they might take over the world; in their heyday there were concerns that they might get too much influence, how quickly that fear can change

Nearly eight years later I think the points I made above confirm Microsoft has become like IBM, even as far as experiencing a downturn in business as new competitors and business models emerge.

Something else though has appeared that makes them similar to my mind – a knight in shining armour coming to the rescue. In the IBM story it was Lou Gerstner who saved IBM from a serious predicament. For Microsoft, it’s new CEO Satya Nadella’s change of business model. Nadella has introduced a number of initiatives which indicate a significant change in attitude, a recent one being the acquisition of email app Accompli; who would have thought that Microsoft would support other email platforms.

There’s another vendor whose business model has changed from what it set out originally, Oracle. Starting out purely in the enterprise software arena, in the last few years the number of acquisitions and the broadening of focus make it look like another IBM. But in this case, it’s because Oracle wants to own the whole stack. In comparing Digital Equipment Corp and Oracle, I commented in 2009:

There was a belief about Digital that it became too difficult to manage so many different technologies, and that contributed to the company’s demise. So I can’t help wondering how Oracle will manage.

Oracle seems to be doing OK. So far. Although Larry Ellison stepped down as CEO earlier this year, I bet he is still in control. The test will come when he leaves the company completely.

So perhaps it will have to wait another seven years before I can write again about how tech companies become like IBM.

Update: Gartner’s Merv Adrian published a quadrant-style picture that shows where Microsoft products are on the Gartner Magic Quadrant. Look at the range of products, and those that are not in the leader quadrant.

Change, technology adoption, and resistance

technology-adoptionWe are all aware that new technology often meets with resistance, the most recent and well-publicised case is that of the tax app Uber. The problem is some people seem to think that resisting change is unnatural. It isn’t.

As I’ve got older I realise that you get into patterns in life, and it can be hard to break those patterns. You also develop skills and technological changes may affect those skills. Consequently, the more you do something, and so the older you get, you harder it is to change.

A recent article on Kevin Benedict’s blog reckons resisting technology is like resisting aging. If like me you are over 40 (well over), that may sound a little crazy. But if also like me you have children, you know that you have to change your attitudes about many things as your children grow up.

One of the current themes on technology is how it may reduce the rate of job increase – or put another way, how technology reduces jobs. For example, this is a main concern of Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson. But as the Benedict blog post points out, there can be other more positive aspects. The introduction of photography had a devastating effect on artists in the portraiture industry, making many jobless. However, this led to the development of the Impressionist movement.

An industry that has been affected by technology is the printed newspaper. It is well-known that print media has been in decline as the Internet has grown. There is an interesting story in LinkedIn of how two different media companies reacted to technology changes. The New York Times and South African media group Naspers both faced the same issues around the beginning of the 21st century. The difference is that

The management of Naspers decided to ride, rather than fight, the technology tide while the management of the New York Times chose otherwise.

The result is that the New York Times’ revenue and profits in 2013 were less than 50 percent of what they were in 2000, whereas Naspers is now the largest Internet company outside the US and China.

Going back to the Uber case, an issue that frustrates me is how (mainly) US pundits seems to believe that their attitudes and approaches apply to other countries. Why are these pundits surprised about Uber being banned in Germany? It’s because technology adoption is spikey, not flat – being significantly affected by geography and national culture.

The ‘flat world’ view was most famously stated in Thomas Friedman’s book which stated that globalisation is effectively complete. Others however contest this view, and bring convincing data to show that the world is only 10 to 25 percent globalised.

In some ordinary activities, differences in the way urban areas have developed make shopping very different in the UK as opposed to the US.

Even when it comes to mobile technology, adoption is different. The USA is far more of an ‘Apple’ culture than the rest of the world, where Android has taken over.

We need to be mindful therefore about how technology impacts people. New technologies like the steam engine, photography, the motor car, and electricity did just take over from older technology, but mainly it was not a sudden change and societies had time (several years) to adapt. Companies like Uber need to remember that technology change and culture change often have to go hand-in-hand, and changing culture takes some time.