Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Well, I never. It looks like we may well be becoming an "Internet company" after all...

I've just returned from what what should have by rights been a tedious day, holed up in a subterranean convention bunker on the outskirts of a blizzard ensconced Helsinki, participating in a strategy meeting of our HR group. This kind of stuff, I thought to myself through gritted teeth, was what I get paid to do. Fair 'nuff.

However, after a 13 hour day brimming with powerpoints I've returned bounding with renewed energy for my job, and belief in this very Finnish, very unique company. The day was dominated by discussions around the transformation that our CEO has, with his characteristic bluntness put as "we're a mobility company, now we're also going to become an Internet company". (As to what this means exactly, for our purposes it is closely tied up with the shift to services, and in general, like porn, you know it when you see it.) The fact that Internet issues pervaded our discussions is no great surprise - what gave me the shot in the arm was the universally positive attitude in the room of appx. 100 people - almost by definition not the early technology adopters in the company - that major change was inevitable, we were going to deal with it like we had dealt with other major issues in the past, and we were going to do it damn well.

Letting go of control, embracing uncertainty, welcoming failure, sharing not hoarding, external openness, beta-level iteration, understanding and innovating together with end-users: these were all alien concepts to this company when I joined 3 years ago, and I felt out of place in an environment of highly skilled, disciplined, telecom enginneers, who designed complex solutions to complex problems. Before this gig, I had been coordinating trade policy networks in Brussels where the only way to get things done was informal collaboration, and I knew nothing of telco technologies (and, as a edge-ist didn't want to learn). Now, even in the 12 months that I've been working on these 2.0 and innovation related issues I've seen a major change of approach, both at the top and increasingly in the all-important middle layer. And today I felt on the same wavelength as most of the HR management, who have their tentacles in every nook of the company, and hold the levers to change that all important 'mindset'.

So, will it work? Who knows. It's certainly going to be a long journey as we start to roll out our consumer internet services and explore new business models and partnerships. However, the real sense I've got from today is that we're reached the crest of an uphill struggle for hearts and minds to focus on this issue, and the long winding road of Internet transformation is now looking that bit less daunting. Am looking forward to sharing more specifics as they emerge.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Future competitive advantage: Provenance?

Brad Burnham discusses the shift from hardware and services to data:

Later, it shifted to systems software, then applications software, and then networks. As more software functionality was delivered to a browser over the internet, the basis of competition shifted from features to service level metrics like reliability, accessibility and security. I believe that today, at least in the area of consumer web services, we have already moved on to a new focus of competitive differentiation based on data.

And then suggests that's not the end of the story, but the next elements "in the stack" could be governance, values and ethics. I like this approach, and would add one of my favourites to this pantheon: provenance. Provenance is about the place where things come from and the history and values associated with it. In answer to Brad's question, perhaps provenance is really the end of the line, since a company's history is pretty much impossible to commodify. How it uses its history as an asset is therefore up to them.

Oddly enough, on my first day at Nokia in November 2003 we had a brainstorming about future competitive advantages, and one of my suggestions was that in an era of commodification, the unique provenance of Finnishness could be an asset for Nokia. There is something unique about Finland's highly educated, disciplined workforce, the remarkable integrity and decency of its people, the bias to openness and transparency (if you see a car in the street you can find out the owner, address and how much tax they paid last year for the cost of a phone call), and the charming, empty, clean, open countryside. In a hectic world which in which the ultimate luxury is conversational currency and the ability to switch off, this could be rich seam. And in a world in which every technical innovation is replicated in the blink of an eye, this seems fairly defendable.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Backup: who pays whom for data storage?

From the mobile monday email list comes a new service: Mobyko. From their site, the immediate offering is free backup. This makes sense for the mainstream users, who have had to cope with the pain and frustration of lost numbers on top of their lost or replaced phones, and is a service that our industry has been amazingly remiss at making work better (not having any phone numbers makes it hard to spend money calling and texting people, let alone the more prosaic data charging possibilities for over the air backup). So operators are cottoning on and There are others in this space too, such as Fusion, Sharpcast, 02 reportedly rolling it out as an automatic feature, and Shozu adding it to their photo backup offering as a freebie.

I guess my two questions for this kind of service is: why you little startup and not the big, trusted brands with their existing networks, and what will be your business model if you're not going to take the data and sell it to 3rd parties?

Not long ago, people would have paid for this service (in fact people still are), in the same way that some people are still hiring a phone off AT&T with a monthly charge (something like $5). Now it's been offered for free by startups. Next step? Customers being able to auction off their data? I imagine this is something that the Root founders would have in mind. It's not just that the data could be used to target you for spam / targeted ads, it's the insight about people in general that can be gleaned from the information contained, such as the number and type of companies in the book. This is a tricky issue, and I'd be surprised to see a service thrive that does not either big brand recognition, or allow the user to control and benefit from their data in an innovative way. Will be watching with interest...

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Imity: through a looking glass darkly

Are you the same person online as you are in real life? I'm not talking about the 43 year old geek guy pretending to be a 15 year old girl, but the more subtle question about whether you use the web to support or substititute for real life. This post won't be relevant for the latter category. And in fact, it might give you pause for thought: soon, everyone will know you're a dog.

Nokia's Sensor app is/was a rather cute bluetooth-only social networking solution. People liked it but commented how much better it would be with an online component too. Well, thanks to a chat with Nikolaj at DLD, it seems that the team at imity (as in proximity) have done pretty much that: take the sensor concept to the next level, and allow you to interact with people whether they are in the real world, or your online world.

So, what does it do? It combines blueetooth scanning with online social networking, so it can tell you if there's someone in the same room as you who reads your blog or other online site. Or you can see if there's someone visiting your blog who you were with in that bar last night. Here's a deck from last year's Reboot when they were still closed beta. The new site's only be open to registrations for a week or two.

It's interesting that the digital traces we leave as we meander around the web (e.g. MyBlogLog) are becoming real world. So, think twice before you write that rude blog comment; you might find yourself on the sharp end of a non-virtual fist.

I imagine before long they will extend the model to the other dimension: to allow you to trace the shadows of your Second Life pesona and their respective interactions with others. In fact, they ask for a SL name on sign up, so this is probably already underway if it's not out yet. I hope they allow you to automate the meta-matching, so that as you / your avatar / your online surfer passes others, you can tell whether they share your taste in music / movies / books / locations etc. with federated output data of lastFM / Netflix / Amazon / Plazes etc.

As a rather boring 'supplementer' I find the collision of these worlds very exciting. In its current format, it probably won't be that attractive to those who want to maintain the shroud of alternate reality. I'm looking forward to a S60 3.0 version, a critical mass of local users to make the bluetooth scanning work, and the surfacing of many really interesting questions and services that we've not even begun to think of yet.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Have an N73 or E60? Work for us. For free!

***Updated: oops, my typo - should have been E61 not E60 as previously put. I will leave the title as it is else the links won't work. But it's E61s that we're after***

I'm helping out some colleagues of mine at Nokia who are looking for some informal pre-release testing on one of our forthcoming consumer internet services. Criteria would be:
i) London based (easier for me, but not that important)
ii) you already have an N73 or E61
iii) willing to provide feedback in return for, say, a beer?

We don't need real mobile or tech experts, but a sense of humour would be good, especialy regarding the foibles of alpha/beta level stuff. If we get enough people, we could do a meetup for drinks and feedback on the company tab. Testing period wil just be a few weeks. If interested, leave your details in the comments, or email me at stephen dot johnston at nokia dot com.

Monday, January 22, 2007

DLD social networking panel to mobiles: Sorry, you're not invited

One of the ironies of today's social networking services is that the device that can deliver these services directly to the users wherever they are, and has access to the kind of information that could be Royal Jelly to the providers, is shunned and relegated to a poor relation. Not to my surprise, today's high-profile panel on social networking had little to say on the subject, but contained some interesting tidbits nonetheless. The panel was moderated by Jamba-founder and one of Germany's entrepreneur-wizz kid brothers Oliver Samwer, and consisted of Matt Cohler, Strategy VP at Facebook, Lars Hinnrich, founder of Xing (formerly OpenBC), Erik Wachtmeister, founder of aSmallWorld (aSW), and an old-world-business model legend, Arend Oetker.

Mobile industry: need not apply
The only reference to mobile was made mid-way through by the eminent Dr. Oetker, who seemed to say that 'handys' were obviously not compatible with these kinds of service, because emotion was so important and emotion was clearly impossible on the small screen. Cue my rant from yesterday about not even needing screens, although to be fair Dr O. was the self-styled non-technologist on the panel. The deafening silence on the subject of mobile throughout the rest of the session was a telling indictement of our industry's ability to reach out and enable these services in a more meaningful way than basic WAP links. The lack of a great mobile client for aSW seems particularly problematic for the users (given their openness for real-world interactions), and something like an updated version of the bluetooth-optimized Sensor could make a whole lot of sense for them. Time ran out before I was able to ask the question about 'what is stopping you from having great mobile experiences of your services', but I'm sure the answer would have been the same as when I asked it during the social networking panel in last year's Next Web Conference. The answer then was high and non-transparent charges, which I expect is still gripe #1.

No new business models
There weren't many breakthrough insights re business models (nor were we expecting any). Business models were generally advertising subscription fees or commissions on ecommerce (aSW has 265 yachts on sale, together with thousands of job listings, though no detail was given of the amount of fees charged). Admittedly, Xing noted that they had revenues from day 1, and have recently been floated (valued at $160m). At this stage, Dr. Oetker's baby-food-and-things-you-can-touch business model is looking the healthiest.

aSmallWorld: real world exclusivity brings real value to members
It was interesting to listen to Erik W. in person - he's clearly a bit of a legend for the 100,000 aSWers whose glitzy lives he has helped make glitzier. As a proud member (though not one of the glitzy ones) I can attest to the value of the site - it provided the chance to meet some fascinating and friendly locals during recent trips to Morocco and Miami, providing a much richer experience for the itinerant traveller. That kind of welcome wouldn't have been likely by trying to connect with MySpace members (yikes), and is testimony to its focus on real-world, trusted social relationships. aSW is unique among these services in terms of its rather paternalistic approach - 6 webmasters moderate the community, and can ban misbehaving members (sending them to aBigWorld) for such crimes as trying to 'conect' with cute Swedish women you don't actually know (this is dubbed the 'Italian syndrome'). Erik's presence here seems indicative of a new activities brewing: he announced they may bring in subscription charging soon and will be bringing out a new version of the software to allow groups.

Helping people make the web more manageable, and real.
One interesting idea was Erik's response to the 'next big thing' question. He said there will be lots of opportunities for helping people bring order to the chaotic nature of the web (one of his major USPs for aSW). This theme is echoed in a piece in yesterday's NYT:

Get ready for a lot of opportunities to join all kinds of networks — and, one hopes, some appropriately Webby new way to politely say, “No, thank you.”

This alludes to the Danah-esque annoyance with these clumsy social structures - the inability to bring the same nuance to online social networks that we can use in real life (for example, feigning that you've forgotten your business card / have an important telephone call or are stricken with a tremendously debilating and infectious disease).

Faithful to their customers or their community / market segment?
Esther Dyson asked the best question (as she generally does) to Facebook: Are you going to mature your service offering as your customers grow, e.g. graduate from college and become young professionals. The answer was a bit vague, but this is a fascinating issue. What proportion of sites are designed to facilitate better interaction of predefined communities (e.g. golf club, company networking tools) rather than individuals (with aSW and MySpace being clear examples)? And what attributes should a community-focused network have compared to an individual-focused network?

From real-world communities to online, rather than vice versa
Although not really dicussed in this session, I'd suggest that the natural evolution of things seems to be taking us down the Long Tail - more niche communities created to align with existing real world communities. And I'd doubt whether any of the existing mass networks are the place to start for this. For example, I'd love to have a more powerful online community component to my sailing club, but it's unlikely that any one of these networks will have critical mass in these real world communities to be feasibe (MySpace is not big in Suffolk). The real-world community itself will determine the technology connectedness of its members, and 99% of real world communities have no internet presence. So, presumably there's a viable business opportunity for a multi-platform community-service provider offering community services to these communities. If I was a betting man, I'd suggest that enabling these communities will be the next disruption to the bloated mass market social networks that are already showing signs of churn.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The web's next trick: to disappear?

Am in Munich at the DLD Conference and will try to do some posts from what is shaping up to be an interesting - and heavily oversubscribed - event. One of the comments in the opening future-orientated session (by Caterina Fake) alluded to the concept that I've been mulling over a while. She said we're going to see the end of the web as we know it - in short (my summary of her comment) a shift away from the traditional PC experience, and portals in particular, towards more modular web-services broken up and delivered to the user in whatever way is convenient to them, whether it's on the mobile, the TV or wherever. Conversation then moved on, but this idea of a disappearing web seems worth exploring. In a nutshell, I guess it refers to mobilization of the access layer with 'deportalization' at the services layer. This stuff is bread and butter for most Mobile2.0 advocates, and visionaries such as Rajesh Jain, but I'd interested to hear about how others have structured this, and whether these elements hang together.

This is a story about enabling innovation at the services level, rather than the display level. It would suggest that AJAX, gorgeous multi-touch UIs and the browser itself are less important than figuring out how to get semantic, federated data working on any internet accessible device. And, while it's an impressive technological feat that we have a fully featured, best in class web browser on our devices, this line of thought would make that mute. Of course we need to offer the best experience of browsing today's old 2-dimensional web pages, but this would be just 'hygiene'; context rather than core. The disappearing web is a fragmented, modular, data-centric place, in which RSS and widgets rules supreme. Btw this post from the ever-sharp software abstractions blog has more about RSS aggregation and filtering, deportalization and semantic web as top disruptive technologies for 2007.

I would like to think that we could do away with the browser alltogether and the need to navigate portals on either the mobile or PC, because it is a fairly clumsy analogy of a reference library. Please technologists, don't ask me to dive into a strange other dimension that you call the web but looks to me like just links. I want the web to wrap itself around me, a warm blanket of comforting connectivity. And like all good blankets, I want it to be seamless, easy to understand, effective at simply delivering what it promises, and no sharp, bulky edges.

Hence my frustration with people who ask me how on earth a mobile device with a small screen can possibly be an effective Internet device. Gosh darnit, if the next version of the web was any good, you wouldn't even need a screen. I don't want the distractions and infinite choices presented to me by services that abdicate their ability to serve, constantly nagging at me for my input to dumb questions that it really should have the answers to already. I want answers to problems that I either have or am about to have, delivered as pure signal, no noise. I want my phone to buzz silently when I'm in a meeting to indicate that the London flat I've been looking for comes on the market at the right price. I want it to send a painful electric shock when I'm about to eat that sticky donut that, according to my health-care provider who knows my medical and consumption history, will prove fatal with 99% probability given my current heart condition. I want a very subtle glowing icon to indicate that one of my trusted contacts is driving past my house on the way to the airport, meaning I could save a £50 taxi fare by hitching a ride. None of these involve big screens; just smart signals delivered in a multi-sensory way that makes sense to the particular context. All of these require interoperability at the data layer (the semantic stuff), but it's the business and social interoperability (getting companies to open their processes, and for consumers to trust them) that's the harder task. These require a realization that human experiences and the applications and services that serve them live in three dimensions. And the data from these three dimensions deliver vastly more opportunities for service innovation, rendering many of today's 2-dimensional portal-based web experiences outdated, if not redundant.

What this blog is all about

I love the Internet, but am more interested in how it can help you live a better real life, rather than a different one. Via Boingboing.

And in a similar vein...
Wife of Second Life

Friday, January 19, 2007

iPhone - come on in the water's lovely

Been in Miami all week at conferences so light posting, and glimpsing the sun outside the conference window (arguably worse than no sun at all). Now in the BA lounge on my way back to grimey London, rife with its religous tension (both in Big Brother and on the street), worst storms for 17 years, and constantly shoddy transport system. Anyway, I digress. I was going to address the question made by my regular (only?) reader from Nigeria, pumba, who asked what i thought about the iPhone. Well, even though this is just a personal blog, and I'm anyway not a spokesman about such things for Nokia, my views are fairly inline with the company's view, which is that it validates our 'worldview' of mobile multimedia internet enabled devices: the most important computers going forward will not need to be permanently plugged into the wall.

The unprecedented levels of exposure for this launch have planted the seeds in millions of people's minds (especially in the key US market) that computing and the internet needn't be about PCs. Until people believe this and start using mobile devices as full members of the Internet, and web developers know this, the promise of an Internet that is dramatically more usable and relevant for people will not be realized. It's as if we've been building cars for a while, but the Americans haven't found a compelling reason to make the leap from horse-drawn carriages. To the exent that Apple - and its slick marketing machine - is joining in and validating the market for cars rather than horses, I'm grateful. The idea of the next Web is going to be the topic of the next post that I've been meaning to write for a while, and if my middle seat in cattle class actually allows me to use the keyboard, maybe I'll get to it on the flight.

Before I leave the topic, would only add that in many respects this is not really a phone such as we understand the category, but a cellular-enabled PDA, that doesn't look like it'll be operated with one-hand, and doesn't have GPS (unlike e.g. N95). So, even if Apple succeeds in validating the market for such a category that hasn't existed until now, it doesn't mean that other manufacturers will be able to repeat the trick.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Democratizing the hardware

Given that we have so many smart people, and worse, smart networks all trying to add value in this business, it's surprising how many simple opportunities to improve the customer experience seem to be overlooked as people rush to emulate the Next Big Thing. The ever-original Martin Geddes is a source of endless creativity:

Here’s another product I want, but nobody wants to sell me. I hardly dare call
home when away because my kids are erratic sleepers at best, and it’s far too
easy to get the timing wrong. I could text her mobile, BUT that makes a
pointless beeping at inappropriate moments. [..] I want a big LED
display I can put on the wall, and send text messages to.
And a row of
buttons to acknowledge receipt and return an pre-canned SMS. “Yes”, “No”,
“Maybe”, “Yes, I still love you.”, “If you’re not home by 5.30 I’m going to
murder them all by myself.” And that’s it. [...]Not everyone spends their day
tethered to a PC screen, or is big enough to even reach the keyboard.

I think his solution would cost about $3 to make in Taiwan and could retail for $100. Clearly this kind of solution would work in an IP-world. So what's stopping this? Maybe it's not that easy for a no-name OEM to interface with the SMS infrastructure?

Service lessons from a jumbo prawn

Despite being the land that invented service culture, I'm finding that Americans seem to be losing their edge. I just had lunch in the hotel overlooking the beach - cue surf sounds, and when I asked about the size of the 'jumbo prawns' I was told you get 4 wopping prawns that are each about 10 times bigger than standard prawns. Salivating at the prospect of these gastro-crustaceo delights that I guessed were wriggling with freshness, I duly ordered them.

But lo! When the plate arrived (carried by a different waitress) there were just three podgy pink prawns smiling up at me. When I queried my original waitress about The Missing Prawn (accounting for a quarter of my dish) she apologized and came back in a few mins with a solitary prawn delivered in a bowl. No attempt to compensate for mental anguish, such as giving me a couple more for good measure. (I guess there's still a fat margin on the hefty $14 cost.)
A second learning for me was Not To Blame Someone Else. The waitress passed the buck onto the hapless kitchen staff, saying that their "apprentice" didn't know the drill. This hardly made me the customer feel better; merely conjured up the image that they have a scruffy youth on work experience slopping dishes together with dirty fingernails.

Well, a trivial point, but I've noticed the correlation of declining service standards with the shift of the tip on the bills from "optional" (in theory at least) to it being automatically added (17% in this case). The even cheekier bit is the a line asking for "Additional gratuity". Another couple of prawns might have even bounced that tip into overdrive, and made me a convert.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Sometimes you just got to stop innovating

I had the most beautiful ergonomic, rounded, shiny silver presenter gadget made by Targus (Google images only finds the new ugly version), which I lost. It had a specially satisfying feature whereby the USB key would slide right into the handle when not in use. Obvious really. Tried to get a new one today in Office Depot, and was confronted with a barrage of overspecified pointers. The one I unwillingly got in end was by Microsoft and it is just a classic example of that Apple vs. Microsoft design philosophy video doing the rounds last year.

This ugly ducklying is bigger and heavier than necessary, has a raft of features which I had to consult the instruction booklet for advice on how to use (dual mode between mouse pointer and clicker, mouse controls, on/off switch, buzz-alert timer...) and most annoyingly of all (don't people do competitor research before launching stuff?) it has a separate USB dongle that does not fit together with the clicker, but gets its own pocket in the natty little leatherette case that comes with it. Of course I'll now lose just one element, and the remaining twin will taunt me.

One final thought, I'm disappointed they didn't put a little belt loop on the cover, so that corporate flunkies such as me could strut around with this gadget on our hip, nestling next to our phone pods, like an emasculated Rob0Cop put on parking duty.

OK, this is just procrastination. I really should be reviewing my notes for the presentation I'm giving tomorrow on Social Networks. Right, off to work...

Innovation goes west: Benin the new Nigeria?

It seems that Benin, a West African country that I was not particularly acquainted with before, is in fact a hot bed of 2.0 social networking innovation. Just got a friend request on the real-world bookmarking site Flagr from a polite sounding gentleman who is urgently waiting my contact details for profitable business. I wonder if friend requests are a new communications medium of choice? So many questions. Is there a higher takeup rate as people assume we're all 'inside the beltway'. And why Flagr? Surely MySpace and YouTube would provide richer pickings than its savvy geeks...

"Dr. Mark James, the newly appointed Director for Foreign Operations at
Financial Bank of Benin (FBB.). I am urgently waiting for your message, I have
very good and profitable business for you just email me with your full address
and phone number ok."

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Trouble with Flow

The always readable and delightfully colourful Creating Passionate Users blog wonders what comes after usability. To that question I'd say, nothing. When you have it, that's it. You've won. Collect the prize and go home. However, I think that the end state of usability -- 'flow' as depicted in her graphic here -- is getting harder to achieve.
What strikes me as we go up the stack from red to blue that the focus moves away from the product and towards the service layer, and then above that, to the uniqueness of every individual's own data. Can a product in itself deliver flow? A BMW M5 perhaps, or a well sharpened axe. Presumably it's easier to create flow with a service, such as an opera. But what if the user doesn't like opera? It's harder than ever to get into flow, when niches themselves are fragmenting, and, in the spirit of HSBC's brilliant campaign, one user's Bach is another's Beastie Boys.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The SIMply frustrating reality of the lost phone

Foolishly, and most irritatingly, I forgot my phone on a flight on Friday. I can picture exactly where I left it (the seat pocket) and went straight to the BA desk (picking my way carefully through the 100,000 pieces of luggage and mewling babies and parents) in the luggage claim area. After waiting best part of an hour and checking with them a few times, they told me that they had finally sent someone out to check the plane, and couldn't find it. Having recently spent 2.5 years living in Helsinki where wallets full of cash left on the street are returned, this came as a shock. But as someone said to me yesterday, this ain't Kansas, Toto.

Anyway, this little exercise has brought home to me the utter frustration caused by the most useful component of my identity being the subject of the twin tyrants of i) a physical form factor (the plastic sim card) and ii) intermediaries who control "my" identity. I had to report its loss via an internal corporate service desk, fill in a replacement SIM card form, and then hope that at some stage that intermediary connects to the Vodafone intermediary, so somebody somewhere can flick a switch somewhere that will rekindle my life.

The last couple of days have been a complete social wasteland for me (the extent to which the phone's loss is responsible is however debatable), my travel plans have been skewered and I have no insight into when I'll be back in the land of the living, or what the process is. How much easier would it be if i) I controlled my communication identity and could change it at will ii) i could access it at from any web connected device, grabbing a physical device as needed, and otherwise just using my Skype as an OK approximation of my cellphone, able to send and receive messages and calls. Hmm, will take a while I guess, and meanwhile, idiots such as me will continue making work for paper and plastic pushers the world over.