Part 1 of this series, first published on informIT, examined the explosion of mobile and embedded devices that characterize our future, explored the challenges posed by these changes, and considered a methodology for reliable innovation in this environment and the technology enablers required to support that approach. In part 2, we look at what types of strategies are likely to be effective in this new world.
Once you have a reliable methodology in place for fostering innovation and engaging the market, supported by the technology enablers mentioned in part 1, you are finally ready to start growing and developing visionary strategies to help you capitalize on the emerging world of ambient computing.
The big question becomes, "What should our vision and strategy be?" Unfortunately, there's no stock answer I can prescribe (though I'll be happy to help you figure it out), but I do have some pointers toward directions you should be considering.
The growing ubiquity of computing and omnipresent interfaces points to opportunities such as "any customer, anywhere," and the explosion of profiling data opens up services based on the idea that "we know what you're about to think." The key is not what your exact vision is, but how you validate it and course-correct based on that feedback. This in itself is the strategy of rapid product evolution for which part 1 of this article attempted to lay out the foundations.
One good avenue to explore is how to embrace the shattered future of many sensors and screens. An important insight: Your product or service need no longer reside in a single device or on a single platform. Even if you haven't embraced this possibility yet, be assured that your customers will be expecting it. A few clear examples are happening already:
- Media consumption: People are using multiple screens at the same time. This fact opens options for parallel services that supplement existing consumption or interaction.
- Retail: Your product or service needs omni-channel presence. A typical customer experience may well include researching online, trying the product in a store, doing instant price comparison by smartphone and buying from a competitor's website, exchanging a purchase in a physical store, and then reporting the whole experience via social media. New arrivals in this space include using near field communication (NFC) to give deeper product details on your tablet as you walk past products.
- Travel: The situation here is similar to that in retail; people string together interaction flows that traverse online (booking), social networks (itinerary sharing), SMS (flight delays), kiosk (check-in), mobile (boarding pass and directions), in-flight (entertainment and commerce), and then the ubiquitous social media for discussing the highs and lows.
- Banking: Parallel trajectory here, with photo check depositing, NFC for payments, and SMS for receiving and responding to low-balance and other alerts.
The clear theme here is that customers' interactions with services are increasingly happening across a plethora of channels—and those customers dictate when and how they want to interact. If you are just imagining your product as a single smartphone app or desktop website, you should strongly consider whether this strategy is adequate. Some valid product-plays do operate in a single narrow channel, but the individual products mentioned earlier are likely to be caught by reduction in longevity. Understanding which services to expose via which channels is important both to meet your users' needs and to reduce the amount of development work you have to undertake. This reality points strongly toward a context-aware, user-centric design approach. Likewise, understanding that the lifespan of your product may be heavily curtailed points toward an iterative and adaptive strategy for steering your product roadmap.
What's interesting to me in these multi-channel journeys is that some of the most useful interactions don't involve cutting-edge technologies. The delayed flight alert and the ability to respond to an overdraft situation are mediated via SMS. Although building rich apps for shiny new tablets and smartphones is very enticing, other channels may be more effective for meeting users' immediate needs. Obviously, this is a situation of and rather than or, but it's easy to forget these apparently more limited transport mechanisms, particularly in the developing world, where mobile penetration is massive (greater than electricity or clean water in many places), but smartphones are largely absent.
This fact opens the conversation around frugal innovation and how to provide compelling services over very limited channels. Kenya's M-Pesa system for moving money is a great example, as is some of the work Thoughtworks has done using SMS; for instance, to help healthcare workers in rural sub-Saharan Africa. As Yahoo! CEO Marissa Ann Mayer points out, "Creativity loves constraints." Embracing the design constraints imposed by more limited technologies or environments can open doors to radical new avenues.
Not Just a Good Strategy, But a Strategy for Good
Now we are ready to address the most important question: How do you move beyond just creating a good vision, to creating a vision for good?
Current social networks feel like a playground or training mat where, as a civilization, we are practicing how to become a more connected whole. The big question is what to do with this new connected reality once we move beyond this formative training phase. Surely it's not just about generating accurate consumption recommendations. The "Arab Spring" (with all its controversy) hints at the possibilities of a mobilized populace supported by modern communication technologies.
Some services already give consumers near-real-time information on the sustainability and ethical practices of organizations, as well as the supply chains behind products they purchase. This reality opens opportunities for organizations that are willing to embrace transparency. There is massive movement in smart grid technology and tools for tracking and reducing energy consumption. Social media connections have made the world smaller, but there is also a movement back to "hyper-local"; the same tools can be used to unify a local community in a peer-to-peer manner based on sharing cars, rooms, services—even excess harvest from the fruit trees in your backyard. When life gives you lemons, share them online!
Healthcare is set to be transformed as full genome sequencing becomes commoditized, and the data starts mingling with that tracked through the Quantified Self movement. What opportunities exist for proactive or preventive services that use this data (along with the power of social influence) to reduce how often you need to visit a doctor? A similar data glut is emerging from other areas of science, such as particle accelerators and the Square Kilometer Array astronomy projects. How might we harness the growing waves of "micro-work" and "gamification" to sort through and make use of this data?
It's Not All Good
We should be careful not to get too caught up in a blinkered vision of techno-euphoria. These technologies are taking us to places with some concerning aspects.
When looking at mobile devices, it's easy to underestimate the energy required to power this new technology. Super-low-power consumption, right? Don't be fooled—the mobile device is just the tip of the iceberg. The massive datacenters and communications infrastructure required to power the services piped to your low-power device take enormous quantities of energy to run and stay cool. Imagine a future in which energy costs are spiraling and ad revenues (the main funding source for the cloud) are falling…oh, wait, that's the present! What happens when these trends draw to their natural conclusion? Might we see a "run" on the cloud, in the same way we've seen runs on physical banks? Might this lead to a new "dark ages" in which all the digital artifacts of our cultural production over the last decades are lost?
There are also questions about the ownership and openness of the infrastructure for this ambient computing future. Jonathan Zittrain writes powerfully about the dangers of the more closed, vertically integrated, walled gardens that typify our current wave. He has ideas about how to leverage open source and related philosophies to create a more "generative" and innovation-friendly ecosystem.
There are similar concerns about a new technology imperialism, as the West Coast giants (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Twitter, and Microsoft) colonize the developing world. Big challenges surround how to empower emerging countries to contribute to and own the innovations that are shaping their world. How might we use the technologies and connectedness of the future to overcome historical discrimination and segregation, rather than reinforcing it?
Many people also suffer from "digital overload" and other related symptoms as they become disconnected from the physical world, over-connected in the virtual universe, and immersed in the firehouse of omnipresent information. Since the beginning of time, people have used the wilderness to escape, recharge, and envision the future. What does the wilderness of the future look like? Could it be a zone of "WiFi-lessness," where we can unplug from the "Borg"?
Hope for the Future
I mention these doom-and-gloom scenarios because, as we plan the products and services of the future, we need a mature and realistic view of the texture of the landscape ahead of us. Looking at some of the trends of how transparency, connectivity, and technology are working well can give us inspiration for effective change and innovation. Openness of data is recasting relationships between individuals and their governments as well as the commercial organizations with which they interact. Education is opening up to many more people, and traditional relationships between teacher and student are being inverted. Fascinating offline ecosystems are growing around new technology, and we are gaining insight into how to weave the physical and virtual worlds together in an unexpected manner.
As we survey all these threads, a picture begins to emerge:
- A key question the future of ambient computing poses is how to stitch together flows of interactions that dance seamlessly between a myriad of physical and virtual touchpoints. Picture Michael Jackson dancing across paving stones that light up when he touches them, and you get the idea of how responsive embedded and ambient interfaces should be. A user-centric design approach that gives you insights into users' context and goals as they interact with your services in different scenarios, coupled with a deep understanding of the enabling technologies, is a great approach for answering this question.
- A parallel challenge is how to stay afloat in the rapid and relentless wave of technology and social change we are witnessing. Here the key is to embed iterative, feedback-driven, adaptive practices into your design and delivery methodology. Tailoring your technology and development strategy to support fast cycle time and lower the cost of change is a vital underpinning.
- To really thrive in this future, consider how to be a positive contributor across various dimensions. Committing to open data and open source is a good strategy for getting products to market quickly, but it also has the added benefit of engendering community goodwill. Likewise, a focus on energy efficiency and low-impact products can be both a cost-saver and a positive marketing message. The thinking emerging from frugal innovation initiatives can help here.
- Finally, an appreciation for how these multifaceted interactions of the future mesh with real-world human interactions and communities will make your creations more usable, encourage a vibrant and extended ecosystem of adoption, and lead to a future in which technology and humanity might just coexist in symbiotic harmony.
I am hopeful that this survey of the world coming into view in front of us, coupled with adopting these methodologies for reliable innovation, will put us in good stead as we create a future we want to inhabit.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.