A subscriber’s life

A few years back, the idea of having all your music in your pocket was revolutionary. This was the game-changing thought behind the iPod, of course. But at the time, it was not a zero sum game. You’d also have everything on CD, and possibly vinyl. Maybe tape. For a few weeks in 1995, you might also have it on mini disc, DAT or god knows what.

The record labels loved the idea of selling you the same music over and over again, remastered, remixed, repackaged with a couple of dodgy extra tracks, and perhaps – as Morrissey had it – a tacky badge.

And for music fans back then there was more to the physical item than the means of playing the track. In this CNET piece, Eric Carson says you can rip his CD collection from his cold, dead hands. But even reading the article inspires a sort of mild sorrow for whoever has to share Mr Carson’s house.

Last week, I shipped the last of my – once extensive – CD collection to the highest (not very high) eBay bidder. Earlier in the week, I took the copious remainder of the collection of CDs and DVDs that just wouldn’t sell down to a charity shop on Walworth Road. It wasn’t a difficult decision, they’d been in my attic for a decade already. A friend from a nicer part of town tells me his charity shops won’t even take shiny discs any more. No one wants them.

I have to tell you, it didn’t make me feel sad. Not at all. It made feel liberated. Shedding physical possessions, reducing the amount you’d have to load into the transit van if you ever moved again, just feels good. A bit like acquiring them did in the first place, when building a collection was not a curse.

A few photos, some old letters, a phone, some junk in a box, clothes, furniture and a car. Now, everything else can be uploaded to One Drive. But in truth most doesn’t have to be, because it’s on YouTube, or iTunes or music match or some other service.

Our children will never know of the magic madness of jewel cases, gatefolds, CD cleaning spray, scratches, reeling the tape back into a C-90. And in some ways they’re a little poorer for it. But the freedom of not having to cart all this stuff around, that’s a decent swap.

Carson tells us that 51m Americans subscribe to a music streaming service. That’s 1 in 6.

In the same week, Microsoft announced the end of their ebook service. As the BBC points out, when the service closes, any books you bought there vanish. This is a bit like the argument against putting your money in the bank – much better to store it under your mattress – in case the banks go bust. Or in this case, have everything printed on paper and use it to line the walls of your house, in case one of the world’s largest companies bites the dust.

If Amazon goes under, I will loose 100s of books on Kindle. But I’ll just buy them again from someone else if I ever need them. The same with the music and the films. A subscriber’s life may feel more expensive, less secure but when you know every piece of content is a few clicks away, who cares who owns it?

Flourish

One of the very few good things to come from Brexit is this very interesting piece by David Mitchell on the essentially self-sustaining nature of organisations. Mitchell is a marvelous pedant and a great dis-respecter of institutions. He starts with the Eton motto Floreat Etona; Esto perpetua (Latin for “May Eton flourish and may it last forever”) and goes on to prove that the Tory party and in fact all party politics is a dysfunctional mess. Unfortunately a lesson many don’t need right now.

Isn’t it true though that, for all the branding efforts, launches and relaunches we so often see, the motto of many companies should really be “Let xyz corp flourish” or “We’d rather we still existed next week”. 

Google may have hired some clever johnnies to tell them they were all about “organizing the world’s information” (and, ahem, “do no evil”), but what they appear to mainly be about now is being about. Facebook started out as an attempt for one young man to meet some girls, then became about connecting humanity, and now appears to be about being so mindbogglingly ingratiating that regulators can’t bear to shut them down.

Of course, evolution has always been about survival. The fight for life in species is very visible, very easy to understand. But how and why do companies have this need to self-sustain? And why is that not enough? Why do we feel the need for more, for more meaning. We’re not just here to be here and to make sure that we don’t for any reason stop being here…. We’re here to put a computer on every desk in America. Although now of course we’ve done that, we ‘re here to… um… um. Anyone? Bueller?

That’s right Microsoft’s motto now is: “Be what’s next” (“Microsoft Flourish”)

Panasonic: “A better life, a better world” (and this eye watering explanation of why). They genuinely say this on their website:

 

Use of “A” in “A Better Life, A Better World”

The inclusion of two A’s in the slogan reminds us that we need to thoroughly consider individual customers. This means that in order to achieve our aim of a truly better life and world, we need to constantly evolve by changing with the times and with the needs of individual customers.

(Lose 2 points for the apostrophe in a plural on the first line).

Trump: “Make America Great Again” (America Flourish)

Reagan (1990): “Let’s make America great again” (America Flourish)

So I’ll update my strap line later from “Observations on strategy, trends and all that” to “Usable interfaces, long may it survive”.

In search of a purpose

I’m an early adopter for these sorts of things. I have mis-spent many hours tinkering and tweaking the early incarnations of this software and that hardware. I own stuff from this brand. And yet I’m still left dumbfounded when I see advertising like this:

What on earth were they thinking?

I’ve been on holiday a few times. I’m sure we all have. When is the last time you thought – whilst sat by a beach or a pool, or scaling the Empire State Building or shopping on 5th Avenue – “I wish I could switch those lights on at home”? From a product perspective this is a ‘problem’ that precisely no one has.

‘Ah’, I hear you thinking. Turning the lights on and off can deter intruders, as if before the Internet of Things, we were all constantly fretting about this need. Get a burglar alarm and some beware the dog stickers first. Perhaps a better lock.

A visit to the Apple store finds a vast array of such pointlessness. A cup that can tell you the heat of its contents. A device to tell you if you’re stood up straight. I’m not joking. No one has figured it out.

There is a minor frisson when a button on the phone turns on the telly and turns down the lights. But I don’t think technology has invented this luxury – they used to have that sort of thing in the Bond movies – just made it a bit cheaper and, frankly, crankier.

Of course I’ll keep fiddling with IoT because I like messing around with new stuff but we are still a long way off a mass market application.

10 years

Over lunch at Dots, Antony and I were reminicising about how we first met. 

Back then, I was the MD of a small digital agency and Antony was something senior in PR. We both worked for the same holding company. We were asked to form a group, along with various others, to figure out what impact the Internet would have on the holding group.

Antony joked yesterday that we were in the group because we knew what a website was. This wasn’t far from the truth. The whole industry was really struggling to adapt to digital. 

But going on from the themes of the conference yesterday: difficulty of change, how we move towards the future and so on, here’s the interesting thought… If we could have told the group back then exactly what was about to happen: from social media to Uber, to hacktivism, to Egyptian revolutions, to how young people are interacting, would we even have been believed?  And would the companies involved managed to cease the opportunity?

Why’s this interesting (to me at least)? Because it underlines that thinking about what is going to happen is not always the problem. Often, it’s reacting to those ideas that is.

One day, at a time

Ciara Judge - big screen at Dots

Yesterday was the Dots conference, part of the Brighton Digital Festival. I was there to do a little bit on Unthinkable but mostly just to sit and enjoy the conferences with the 200 or so other attendees.

In terms of content, this was the conference’s difficult second album, after a blinding debut last year including Russell Davies, Mark Earls, John Wilshire and many others.

Antony and the team at Brilliant Noise ensured a low-pomposity affair at the Duke’s cinema. Light-hearted but packed full of short, impactful presentations (oh, and very nice food).

My key take-aways:

Adam Morgan, inventor of the phrase ‘challenger brands’ opened (obvious headliner!) with an interesting piece on how constraints drive creativity. Some of the examples may suffer a little bit from the ‘selection bias’ of picking winners out of history that fit a particular thesis. However, the concept that an entrepreneur is someone who doesn’t assume that the available resources are only those which are under their direct control would prove to be a theme that ran throughout the rest of the day, and forces us to look quite differently at many of the challenges we face.

Continuing his naming flair, Morgan came up with the “Uber Generation” to describe our currently emerging ‘unreasonable’ consumer who expects more for less and presented in a prettier box. Whether we like generation Uber or not is left to the reader. However, they are presented as the target market for the Next Big Thing.

Next up was Tess MacLeod Smith from Net a Porter. She’s behind the brand’s Porter magazine (a bi-monthly global fashion magazine to rival vogue but with built-in shopping off the page) and various other apps and social media components.

For me, the most interesting thing was to see the huge change that an ostensibly traditional media person (MacLeod Smith) had experienced in leaving Hearst and Harper’s Bazaar to go to a tech startup which was basically doing the same thing. Perhaps it’s equally interesting that once she had learned the new ways (agile and all that), that she had little intention of going back.

The idea of starting a magazine today is also so counter to traditional wisdom that is causes us to look once again at all of those “x is dead” statements.

Last before the break was a wonderfully irreverent insider look at the transformation of FT.com from its CIO Christina Scott. Unlike the standard case study (and it should be said, Net a Porter), Christina offered a peak at the real challenges faced when trying to get innovation and transformation away inside a big firm. If I had to pick one thing, it would undoubtedly be the rule that execs at FT (including Scott herself) are no longer allowed to attend governance meetings because of the impact they have on projects. Sound familiar?

I remain convinced that real life stories such as Scott’s are the most valuable inspirations for all of us trying to affect some kind of change (which is probably most of us), even if they are not shiny, simplistic or have the best outcomes.

Next up was Antony himself with a great talk about organisations, leadership, transformation and possible futures, a topic he had unapologetically half-inched from Nick Price, a late addition to the afternoon line up.

Again a theme which would be echoed several times over the day, Antony talked about businesses as organisms not mechanisms. Good line. And about the concepts of ‘possible futures’. For example, will we end up with centralised or ‘stacked’ web that Facebook, Google, Amazon and others are pushing us towards, or the radical decentralisation which blockchain promises and has historically been the hallmark of the web?

Either way, we should think of the future not as a 10-tonne truck which is hurtling towards us, but a range of possible outcomes over which we have influence and where there is tremendous opportunity.

Contrary to earlier promises, however, Antony did hold a metaphorical large melon (in the style of TED):

Antony-Mayfield

Before lunch we had the treat of Steve Chapman. Steve made a compelling case that we spend most of our lives deliberately avoiding the creative zone and presenting lots of ideas for getting out of our comfort zones, including some toe-curling conference experiments. Plus great, hand-drawn, pseudo science charts making good points:

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 08.46.45

A panel discussion after lunch covered how companies are working with start-ups. Although it quickly became obvious that the answer lies somewhere between ‘they aren’t’ and ‘unsuccessfully’, although we hope in the future things might improve.

Nick Price followed, standing in for Eva Applebaum, and talking about future thinking. I’ve personally never come across this before, beyond the somewhat pointless ‘futureology’ of generic trends forecasting. It was a great introduction to the art form, and reassuring to hear that Neal Stephenson (who has incredible form in predicting the future) is part of the US chapter of the several organisations trying to turn future thinking into a discipline. Simplistic take. Don’t start with the end in mind. Start with the possible ends in mind.

After that it was me. Slightly too sardonic as usual and I think the only person to actually be profane but people were very nice about it and luckily only one person knew who Steve Sasson was.

I’m very glad the lady following me wasn’t on before instead as I think she probably captured the conference’s imagination most. Ciara Judge (pic at top) is the winner of the Google Science Fair, an entrepreneur, and a very compelling speaker. She talked about the fact that people chose to focus instead on the fact that she is 17 and a girl. She made the case that social constraints and expectations are largely imagined restrictions, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing her on a TED stage very soon. Whether she’s young or not, I think a lot of us were humbled that she’s done more in 17 years than we have done in twice as many.

She didn’t mention One Direction. Not even once.

Actually, however, I think Ciara was upstaged. The next presenter was Stuart Turner. Stuart joined by Skype, not least because he is a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. He told an extremely inspirational story of more or less dragging himself out of his ‘prison’ of disability using modern technology: first wheelchairs and assistive devices, and then robots and drones which allow him to travel, run and experience more of the world once again. Even doing the presentation was clearly highly tiring for him, again humbling us with the ‘constraints’ we feel in our lives.

Steven Ramage introduced What three words – a new approach to mapping based on the idea that combinations of three words (out of the 40,000 available), creates enough variants to uniquely identify any 3x3m square on earth. It’s a tantalising promise of creating addresses for millions worldwide who do not currently have them.

Wrapping up the day was Sam Conniff, Co-founder of Livity, a fascinating social enterprise. Facing statistical obsolesce as Livity approaches its 15th birthday, Conniff took a philosophical and wide-ranging look at characteristics of businesses which last 100s, not 10s of years, concluding that we need to replace today’s profit-focussed and self-centred business leaders (under which he invoked Kim Kardashian and – phrase of the day – ‘Jack Welsh’s disgraceful face’ ) with leaders who care about society and sustainability – modelled on the Rowntrees and Rockerfellers  of the past.

To do this Conniff has appointed himself the world’s first Chief Purpose Officer.

In a twenty-minute presentation that covered about 40 topics, Conniff was an energising end to a brilliant conference.

For those of us exhausted with traditional conference formats, speakers and, frankly, pricing, Dots has now twice proven to be the perfect pick-me-up.

Picture perfect

Selfie - Beatle

We all spend a lot of time in brainstorms, imagining the future. Often the excessively audacious ideas are shelved. Sometimes they’re kept but labelled “vision”.

And then, every so often, one of those weird or audacious ideas will materialize.

Whether that’s because you did it yourself, or someone else did it, it’s a very strange feeling. Like the storybook dragon coming to life.

There’s been a few for me. The hard-drive based mp3 player which can store every compilation tape you’ve ever made (aka the iPod – not the first but the first true incarnation), synchronized “last watched” positions in movies across devices (hats off to Netflix  – again not the first, but the best), and “from here you could get home in 43 minutes” (currently best done by Google Now).

These are all a sort of reverse-Eureka moment, where not the idea but the reality, is the reason for jumping out of the bath.

Possibly the most audacious problem I’ve ever worked on is the challenge of managing digital photography.

For a short period, when our ideas were only constrained by Post-It glue, we had devised the perfect solution, only to find that it would be almost impossible to achieve.

The problems were clear. The volume of digital photography most people collect is enormous. The information held in photos is hard for machines to decode or file. Once lost, photos cannot be recreated. Whilst most photos are rejects, it’s almost impossible to spot which ones aren’t without (or even with) human interaction. Duplicates and close-duplicates are hard to pick out, and fit into multiple different use cases  – sometimes it’s “take four so at least one of them is good”, sometimes its burst shooting on purpose, sometimes its burst shooting by mistake and on and on.

At the heart of it, the apparent freedom to point and click, click, click with little cost attached translates into a deferred cost of managing, storing and ultimately deleting which few care to deal with, and even fewer have a good strategy for.

These are all the consumer problems. What is the business problem?

We put it like this: knowing that consumers are trigger happy, and few have had the incentive required to take the management problem seriously (i.e. few have lost the wedding pictures and now think about it properly), no business in their right mind would get into the free-storage for photos business because:

  • Unlike music/video lockers, there is no room for de-duplication
  • Storage must be incredibly robust as must be any plan to delete user pictures (e.g. for inactive accounts) since the PR risk of deleting family photos is high

Yet, consumers themselves are highly unlikely to pay for such a metered service, as this would require them to act responsibly, which they don’t want to do, or sign up for an essentially open-ended cost.

Enter Google Photos. The search giant has woken from its social network madness, releasing photos from the inadvertent sharing risk which Plus imposed. And the chocolate factory has provided the user with several types of magic:

  • Unlimited storage – no need to act responsibly
  • Free up storage – Keep you photos easily accessible but off your storage-strapped device
  • Auto-magic organisation (a technical term from the project team) – Turning photos into collections, finding duplicates, organising bursts, using information in pictures to categorize them (most notably landmarks), using meta data cleverly (e.g. if picture A is in London and 10 seconds before picture B, then it is likely also in London).
  • Assistant – which creates fun and interesting slideshows and similar from your images and plays them back to you.

From the playbook we dreamt up five years ago, virtually everything is in there. It is interesting to see that facial detection is played down and social network ingestion is not currently present. But this will surely come, and with it, a whole new level of utility (especially if Google can crack the challenge of metadata removed by networks such as Facebook).

So the consumer problem is – for the most part – solved, including the ingestion problem with apps for various devices doing the heavy lifting.

But what of the business question?

How on earth can they afford it?

Considering the likely take up of this service, can we imagine them taking it down any time soon? Deleting users “memories”? Haven’t they saddled themselves for an indefinite period with an enormous storage challenge for images that even the photographer themselves may not care about keeping?

Here is where conspiracy theory comes in of course. The photographer. The hapless chronicler of first birthdays. Surely they must be the product. But how?

I can imagine only two potential business models. In pure storage terms, especially with video included, we could conclude that users will cost Google at least £30+ per year at commercial AWS/Azure rates (which presumably are above Google’s internal costs). They must be expecting to make this back in some way.

Option 1 – Driving Google Drive revenue. This is the straight-forward upsell path to store larger images and  potentially other documents.

Option 2 – Monetisation based on data. To achieve this, we would have to suggest that the images will tell Google enough about their customer to increase the cost it charges for advertising in some of its many channels.

Given that Google already knows what you’re interested in, where you’ve been, who you know, what you buy and so on, what do photos give them? Perhaps device ownership or usage (through EXIF data). Perhaps putting faces to names (beware the conspiracy theorists!). Perhaps inferred data, like children’s ages is of such value that a case can be made but it seems pretty thin.

Of course, we may never find out exactly how they’re paying for it. But it is an amazing accomplishment and hopefully one which will quickly influence other ecosystems to finally take the pain out of one of the last issues that exist with personal data management.

Evil

Google-dont-be-evil

If I were to set up a company whose whole brand promise was ‘no snack foods’ and then I released a range of delicious healthy biscuits, you would think I would have some branding issues. I’d certainly have to reconsider that ‘no snacks’ banner on my corporate headquarters, and perhaps I would have to rethink those 30 second TV ads talking about my anti-snacking commitment.

Well, what’s up with Google then? This company has long traded off the idea that their founding principle is ‘Do no evil’, yet it has recently been found  guilty again on appeal of illegal wiretapping in the US and Europe. For a business that is basically about communication, it’s hard to think of a more pertinent type of evil than stealing person data from customers. And this is far from being the first time they’ve been found guilty in this way.

Think that’s bad? That’s nothing compared to what they’ve done which is ostensibly legal. Even before we think about their relationship with Chinese authorities or the NSA. In particular, look a their attitude to the rights of others over information. I’m not talking about Rupert Murdoch’s information – which he is reasonably peeved that Google has profited so highly from. No, Murdoch is hard to frame as a victim. Think instead of all the millions of photographers who try to eek out a living from their craft. Or just those of use would rather keep ownership of the pictures we’ve taken of our kids.

So convinced, Google is, of the right to access other users’ data for free that they have been lobbying politicians at the highest level to try and push through the orphaned works legislation.

Andrew Orlwoski seems to be the one journalist covering this issue with any clear idea of the implications. Google is, in essence, lobbying that any image on the internet which has lost its meta data (even if it’s really obvious who owns it), is fair game for them or anyone else to commercialise.

And, of course, images which have ‘lost metadata’ includes every image on Facebook and Instragram (also Facebook), the largest photo sharing sites on the web, as well as many others.

Given the out cry that every Facebook Privacy Policy change attracts, why are people not more concerned that Google is directly influencing the highest level of our governments in order to get their hands on our content?