Category Archives: marketing

The future of ‘authenticity’

I recently watched an interesting documentary on the evolution of the British coffee shop market. I then had an idea for a new chain that is so sharp it would scratch your display if I wrote it here, so I’ll keep that secret. The documentary left me with another thought: what’s so special about authentic?

I’ll blog as I think and see where I get to, if anywhere.

Starbucks and Costa sell coffee (for my American readers, Costa is a British version of Starbucks that sells better coffee but seems to agree they should pay tax just like the rest of us - yes I know Starbucks has since reformed a bit, but Costa didn’t have to). Cafe Nero (or is it just Nero?) sells coffee with the ‘Authentic Italian’ experience. I never knew that until I watched the documentary. Such things fly way over my head. If Nero is closest when I want a coffee, I’ll go in, and I know the coffee is nice, just like Costa is nice, but authentic Italian? Why the hell would I care about my coffee being authentic Italian? I don’t go anywhere to get an authentic Danish pastry or an authentic Australian beer, or an authentic Swiss cheese, or an authentic Coke. What has coffee got to do with Italy anyway? It’s a drink. I don’t care how they treat it in any particular country, even if they used to make it nicer there. The basic recipes and techniques for making a decent coffee were spread worldwide decades ago, and it’s the coffee I want. Anyway, we use a Swiss coffee machine with Swiss coffee at home, not Italian, because the Swiss learned from their Italian sub-population and then added their usual high precision materials and engineering and science, they didn’t just take it as gospel that Mama somehow knew best. And because my wife is Swiss. My razor sharp idea isn’t a Swiss coffee chain by the way.

I therefore wonder how many other people who go into Cafe Nero care tuppence whether they are getting an authentic Italian experience, or whether like me they just want a decent coffee and it seems a nice enough place. I can understand the need to get the best atmosphere, ambiance, feel, whatever you want to call it. I can certainly understand that people might want a cake or snack to go with their coffee. I just don’t understand the desire to associate with another country. Italy is fine for a visit; I have nothing against Italians, but neither do I aspire in any way to be or behave Italian.

Let’s think it through a bit. An overall experience is made up of a large number of components: quality and taste of the coffee and snacks, natural or synthetic, healthy or naughty, the staff and the nature of the service, exterior and interior decor and color scheme, mixture of aromas, range of foods, size of cake portion, ages groups and tribal ranges of other customers, comfort of furnishings, lighting levels, wireless LAN access….. There are hundreds of factors. The potential range of combinations  is massive. People can’t handle all that information when they want a coffee, so they need an easy way to decide quickly. ‘Italian’ is really just a brand, reducing the choice stress and Cafe Nero is just adopting a set of typical brand values evolved by an entire nation over centuries. I guess that makes some sense.

But not all that much sense. The Italian bit is a nice shortcut, but once it’s taken out of Italy, whatever it might be, it isn’t in Italy any more. The customers are not expected to order in Italian apart beyond a few silly words to describe the size of the coffee. The customers mostly aren’t Italian, don’t look Italian, don’t chat in Italian and don’t behave Italian. The weather isn’t Italian. The views outside aren’t Italian. The architecture isn’t Italian. So only a few bits of the overall experience can be Italian, the overall experience just isn’t. If only a few bits are authentic, why bother? Why not just extract some insights of what things about ‘Italian’ customers find desirable and then adapt them to the local market? Perhaps what they have done, so if they just drop the pretense, everything would be fine. They can’t honestly say they offer an authentic Italian experience, just a few components of such. I never noticed their supposed Italianness anyway but I hate pretentiousness so now that I understand their offering, it adds up to a slight negative for me. Now that I know they are pretending to be Italian, I will think twice before using them again, but still will if it’s more than a few metres further to another coffee shop. Really, I just want a coffee and possibly a slice of cake, in a reasonably warm and welcoming coffee shop.

Given that it is impossible to provide an ‘authentic Italian experience’ outside of Italy without also simulating every aspect of being in Italy, how authentic could they be in the future? What is the future of authenticity? Could Cafe Nero offer a genuinely Italian experience if that’s what they really wanted? Bring on VR, AR, direct brain links, sensory recording and replay. Total Recall.  Yes they could, sort of. With a full sensory full immersion system, you could deliver an experience that is real and authentic in every sense except that it isn’t real. In 2050, you could sell a seemingly genuinely authentic Italian coffee and cake in a genuinely Italian atmosphere, anywhere. But when they do that, I’ll download that onto my home coffee machine or my digital jewelry. Come to think about it, I could just drink water and eat bread and do all the rest virtually. Full authenticity, zero cost.

This Total Recall style virtual holiday or virtual coffee is fine as far as it goes, but a key problem is knowing that it isn’t real. If you disable that by hypnosis or drugs or surgery or implants or Zombie tech, then your Matrix style world will have some other issues to worry about that are more important. If you don’t, and I’m pretty sure we won’t, then knowing the difference between real and virtual will be all-important. If you know it isn’t real, it pushes a different set of buttons in your brain.

In parallel, as AI gets more and more powerful, a lot of things will be taken over by machines. That adds to the total work pool of man + machine so the economy expands and we’re all better off, if we do it right. We can even restore and improve the environment at the same time. In that world, some roles will still be occupied by humans. People will focus more on human skills, human interaction, crafts, experiences, care, arts and entertainment, sports, and especially offering love and attention. I call it the Care Economy. If you take two absolutely identical items, one provided by a machine and one by another person, the one offered by the person will be more valued, and therefore more valuable – apart from a tiny geek market that specifically wants machines. Don’t believe me? Think of the high price glassware you keep for special occasions and dinner parties. Cut by hand by an expert with years of training. Each glass is slightly different from every other. In one sense it is shoddy workmanship compared to the mass-produced glass, precision made, all identical, that costs 1% as much. The human involvement is absolutely critical. The key human involvement is that you know you couldn’t possibly do it, that it took a highly skilled craftsman. You aren’t buying just the glass, but the skills and attention and dedication and time of the craftsman. In just the same way, you will happily pay a bigger proportion of your bigger future income for other people’s time. Virtual is fine and cheap, but you’ll happily pay far more for the real thing. That will greatly offset the forces pushing towards a totally virtual experience.

This won’t happen overnight, and that brings us to another force that plays out over the same time. When we use a phrase like ‘authentic Italian’, we don’t normally put a date on it. Do we mean contemporary Italy, 1960 Italy, or what? If 1960, then we’d have to use a lot of virtual tech to simulate it. If we mean contemporary, then that includes all the virtual stuff that goes on in Italy too, which is likely pretty much what happens virtually elsewhere. A large proportion of our everyday will be virtual. How can you have authentic virtual? When half of what everyone sees every day isn’t real, you could no more have an authentic Italian coffee bar than an authentic hobbit hole in Middle Earth.

Authenticity is a term that can already only be applied to a subset of properties of a particular component. A food item or a drink could be authentic in terms of its recipe and taste, origin and means of production of the ingredients, perhaps even served by an Italian, but the authenticity of the surrounding context is doomed to be more and more limited. Does it matter though? I don’t think so.

The more I think about it, the less I care if it is in any way authentic. I want a pleasing product served by pleasant human staff in a pleasant atmosphere. I care about the various properties and attributes in an absolute sense, and I also care whether they are provided by human or machine, but the degree to which they mimic some particular tradition really doesn’t add any value for me. I am very happy to set culture free to explore the infinite potential of imagination and make an experience as enjoyable as possible.  Authenticity is just a labelled cage, and we’re better if it is unlocked. I want real pleasure, not pretend pleasure, but authenticity is increasingly becoming a pretense.

Oh, my razor sharp idea? As I said, it’s secret.



Pull marketing and new product launches

My recent post about marketing futures

resulted in a request for more detail on pull marketing’s use in the context of new product launches. How can a customer find out about new products if they aren’t being pushed?

Firstly, I don’t think push will become extinct, just be substituted by pull a lot, so there could still be limited use of traditional techniques. Substitution rarely reaches 100%. A regular customer might be happy to be told about new products if a company is very careful not to bombard them with too much junk mail. But that doesn’t duck the question. New products can come from a new company. How does that work with pull?

A long time ago I used to work in computing, doing systems performance analysis, round about the time object oriented programming was becoming fashionable. One of the ideas already well established was the remote procedure call, RPC. A device somewhere, anywhere, could offer a service. Any program running anywhere could call on it using an RPC. The device new the service was available because it was noted in a directory of services. The service didn’t advertise itself, it was just listed on the directory. Programs needing it would check the directory for the type of service they wanted, essentially pull marketing. Phone directories (remember them) used to work the same way. Open source databases of products could simply mimic that. There is no need to pay for ads that way, and no need for an intermediary other than the database itself.

Directories are useful and are a big part of pull. You only see stuff when you are looking for something in the same genre. We are used to search, but using something like Google only works if you can manage to wade through a million intermediaries clogging up all the pages before you get to the provider you want. Lifestyle directories work far better, being provided by magazines or organisations or people you trust.

But perhaps the best form of pull directories for new products are shops, very familiar indeed. A shop has what you want to buy, and while you are buying it, you might see many other things you never knew even existed, some of which you then can’t resist. It is serendipity that makes the shop profitable, and that makes the outlet for new products.

So there is no new magic needed to use pull techniques to launch new products, it is just relying more on the well established channels we already have. And the best thing is that most people enjoy the shopping process when it presents new and interesting products alongside what they went out for.

I do feel that web shops like Amazon could do a great deal better in showing you other things you might be interested in. The ‘other people who bought this also looked at this’ is useful, but it isn’t very serendipitous. The filed of variation needs to be bigger. When we first considered internet shopping even before the web was here, we imagined virtual shopping malls. The graphics didn’t allow that for many years but now that the graphics is there, the shops and the malls still aren’t. OK, they are in virtual worlds, but not properly for the real world. It would be a prefect way of doing it on games consoles where pseudo 3d environments are the norm.

The internet of things will soon be history

I’ve been a full time futurologist since 1991, and an engineer working on far future R&D stuff since I left uni in 1981. It is great seeing a lot of the 1980s dreams about connecting everything together finally starting to become real, although as I’ve blogged a bit recently, some of the grander claims we’re seeing for future home automation are rather unlikely. Yes you can, but you probably won’t, though some people will certainly adopt some stuff. Now that most people are starting to get the idea that you can connect things and add intelligence to them, we’re seeing a lot of overshoot too on the importance of the internet of things, which is the generalised form of the same thing.

It’s my job as a futurologist not only to understand that trend (and I’ve been yacking about putting chips in everything for decades) but then to look past it to see what is coming next. Or if it is here to stay, then that would also be an important conclusion too, but you know what, it just isn’t. The internet of things will be about as long lived as most other generations of technology, such as the mobile phone. Do you still have one? I don’t, well I do but they are all in a box in the garage somewhere. I have a general purpose mobile computer that happens to do be a phone as well as dozens of other things. So do you probably. The only reason you might still call it a smartphone or an iPhone is because it has to be called something and nobody in the IT marketing industry has any imagination. PDA was a rubbish name and that was the choice.

You can stick chips in everything, and you can connect them all together via the net. But that capability will disappear quickly into the background and the IT zeitgeist will move on. It really won’t be very long before a lot of the things we interact with are virtual, imaginary. To all intents and purposes they will be there, and will do wonderful things, but they won’t physically exist. So they won’t have chips in them. You can’t put a chip into a figment of imagination, even though you can make it appear in front of your eyes and interact with it. A good topical example of this is the smart watch, all set to make an imminent grand entrance. Smart watches are struggling to solve battery problems, they’ll be expensive too. They don’t need batteries if they are just images and a fully interactive image of a hugely sophisticated smart watch could also be made free, as one of a million things done by a free app. The smart watch’s demise is already inevitable. The energy it takes to produce an image on the retina is a great deal less than the energy needed to power a smart watch on your wrist and the cost of a few seconds of your time to explain to an AI how you’d like your wrist to be accessorised is a few seconds of your time, rather fewer seconds than you’d have spent on choosing something that costs a lot. In fact, the energy needed for direct retinal projection and associated comms is far less than can be harvested easily from your body or the environment, so there is no battery problem to solve.

If you can do that with a smart watch, making it just an imaginary item, you can do it to any kind of IT interface. You only need to see the interface, the rest can be put anywhere, on your belt, in your bag or in the IT ether that will evolve from today’s cloud. My pad, smartphone, TV and watch can all be recycled.

I can also do loads of things with imagination that I can’t do for real. I can have an imaginary wand. I can point it at you and turn you into a frog. Then in my eyes, the images of you change to those of a frog. Sure, it’s not real, you aren’t really a frog, but you are to me. I can wave it again and make the building walls vanish, so I can see the stuff on sale inside. A few of those images could be very real and come from cameras all over the place, the chips-in-everything stuff, but actually, I don’t have much interest in most of what the shop actually has, I am not interested in most of the local physical reality of a shop; what I am far more interested in is what I can buy, and I’ll be shown those things, in ways that appeal to me, whether they’re physically there or on Amazon Virtual. So 1% is chips-in-everything, 99% is imaginary, virtual, some sort of visual manifestation of my profile, Amazon Virtual’s AI systems, how my own AI knows I like to see things, and a fair bit of other people’s imagination to design the virtual decor, the nice presentation options, the virtual fauna and flora making it more fun, and countless other intermediaries and extramediaries, or whatever you call all those others that add value and fun to an experience without actually getting in the way. All just images directly projected onto my retinas. Not so much chips-in-everything as no chips at all except a few sensors, comms and an infinitesimal timeshare of a processor and storage somewhere.

A lot of people dismiss augmented reality as irrelevant passing fad. They say video visors and active contact lenses won’t catch on because of privacy concerns (and I’d agree that is a big issue that needs to be discussed and sorted, but it will be discussed and sorted). But when you realise that what we’re going to get isn’t just an internet of things, but a total convergence of physical and virtual, a coming together of real and imaginary, an explosion of human creativity,  a new renaissance, a realisation of yours and everyone else’s wildest dreams as part of your everyday reality; when you realise that, then the internet of things suddenly starts to look more than just a little bit boring, part of the old days when we actually had to make stuff and you had to have the same as everyone else and it all cost a fortune and needed charged up all the time.

The internet of things is only starting to arrive. But it won’t stay for long before it hides in the cupboard and disappears from memory. A far, far more exciting future is coming up close behind. The world of creativity and imagination. Bring it on!

Will marketing evolve from fiend to friend?

Let’s start with a possibly over-critical view of marketing today, to emphasise the problem that I think needs solved.

Marketing helps to make us aware of new products and services we might want to buy, and provides some well paid jobs. That’s the good side. But marketing saps a lot of money out of the system, skimming off money as it helps move it around – like banking, or car parking fees for shoppers, without giving much back to GDP. It helps companies sell things, but adds costs to the customer that could have been spent on other products and services. We basically pay companies to tell us to buy their products. Of that money, marketers spend far too high a proportion on advertising, which is basically the lazy marketing option. They waste our time as we watch TV, cold call us, send nuisance texts and automated calls, fill our data quotas with video ads, delay downloads, force installation of applications to block them, which all requires extra computer power and maintenance. In short, we pay them to waste a significant proportion of our precious lifetime as well as our money. In fact the financial cost added to every product is dwarfed by the costs of the extra time consumed. All the extra energy used to broadcast ads on TV or the net or the extra paper and bleach and ink to put them in magazines has an enormous environmental impact too. Advertising consumes a huge amount of resources but on a per-advert basis is very ineffective at making us buy. Google makes a fortune from UK companies for its adverts but by diverting the ad sales through Ireland, manages to avoid paying UK tax, therefore pulling off an excellent vampire impression, dressing stylish and looking cool while sucking the lifeblood from industry. By using up so much air time and online bandwidth advertising directly impedes productive uses. On current form, because of excessive reliance on the lazy option, marketers are more fiend than friend.

Marketing has almost become a one-tool profession, too willing to annoy a lot of people to get a few sales. Other components of marketing such as launch events and trade shows are effective and very effectively target those who are likely to be interested, but advertising dwarfs them. Surely there has to be a better way. How do we get marketing to go from fiend to friend?

There is. Pull marketing (if done properly) gives people what they ask for, in the right form, on the right platform, when they ask for it, not what they don’t want, in their faces, all the time. Marketing will evolve from push to pull. However much the marketing industry and advertisers don’t want it to go that way, the potential value for a given spend via pull marketing is so much higher that it is inevitable. Think about it. Only an idiot would employ someone to stand in a doorway blocking the entrance, jumping up and down screaming messages at customers that are actually trying to squeeze past into the store to spend money. That is the difference between push and pull. Unfortunately for marketers, pull needs different skills, so if they don’t have them, they need to retrain or they will eventually be made redundant. They can hide and massage performance figures for a while to hide the ineffectiveness of throwing money down the drain on advertising, but not forever.

People want to know what is available that might be of interest to them. They also want clues to help filter the vast number of potential products down to a manageable choice. They don’t want silence from suppliers, but appropriate and timely information. Branding is aimed at this of course. So is PR. Marketing should be better integrated into ongoing background brand management and public relations, with excellent web sites to provide information when people want it. In that way, people will think of them when they want something, and be able to find the most appropriate product easily.

The task of providing a good website is often allocated to other groups in the company. This is a mistake. The website needs to be extremely well integrated with marketing, PR and brand. In many companies, only the brand people get a strong influence. A potential customer coming to the site from any angle of approach should be faced with extremely easy navigation, immersed in the values and styles they already associate with that brand and assisted as far as possible in what they are trying to do. They should not be bombarded with waves of ads, popups and guano that prevents them from finding what they want. Even if a customer wants to cancel a service, it should be very easy to do so. They are far more likely to come back than if they had to spend ages finding their way through a maze and over barriers to do so.

One way of keeping customers aware without ramming branding message down their throats every day is to integrate into target communities as useful members rather than just seeing them as potential sales. People will always favour their friends, so actually being a friend is a good idea. That shouldn’t be any great revelation. Big companies recognise their relative inability to engage with local communities across their range and harness an army of resellers who can better achieve this local involvement. Social networking provides a good alternative channel to local resellers, but not by using the wasteful and annoying blanket broadcasting that we usually see. It needs to be focused. A reseller wouldn’t waste time cold calling every resident in an area just in case. They focus efforts on targets that are likely to buy. They do the customer’s work for them, identifying those for whom a product is suited and then making contact. Being friends also means giving genuine discounts or exclusive deals to regular customers. It doesn’t mean using them to palm off products that you can’t shift through normal channels.

Lifestyle is an easy route too. Everyone lives differently, but many people reveal their lifestyles via magazines or newspapers that they buy, the places they visit, the things they do, and indeed the products and services they buy. These are obviously high value marketing hooks. People like their existing opinions and attitudes to be reaffirmed. Letting them know they have made a good decision buying your product makes them feel better about the spend. It takes skill to package such affirming in a way that it doesn’t come across like the lazy ‘congratulations on buying this’. Providing favourable reviews, news links and ongoing support would soon become spam if used too much, but sparingly and with appropriate products, it can be useful.

Handled properly, excluding employees with deep staff discounts, the most likely person to buy is someone who has bought from you before, then in second place, someone who has bought equivalent products from a competitor, then someone who has a strong proven interest in that field. Much further away is someone with a casual unspecified interest in the area who just happens to have chosen a particular keyword in a search for any reason whatsoever, and in the very far distance, a total stranger. Yet those last two are where most advertising revenue is spent.

Magazines are an excellent platform to reach targeted groups, but they still need the right approach. An advert in a magazine is more likely to be read than one in a newspaper, but is still likely to be ignored. An article by a trusted writer will be read, and if it mentions your product favourably, the trust in the writer transfers to your product. If they already have it, it builds the feel-good factor. Strongly themed magazines form an important part of the self-selected lifestyle choice, especially since people can only buy a few each month, and this trust and identification with its writers can go far beyond the magazine itself, into their social media and blogs, and soon, into their augmented reality as they wander around. As social media continues to expand into the high street with location-based services, that relationship will grow and winning the favour and approval of writers will become a more important part of marketing. Care is needed of course. Writers will not want to appear partial since that would compromise their trust and their following, but providing exclusive information to them and being honest about defects wins support without threatening impartiality.

As we move into the era of augmented reality, companies are already discovering how to use precise location. Today, location doesn’t just rely on GPS or mobile signal strengths. Image recognition can identify a customer and also exactly where they are, what gestures they are making, even the expression on their face. From those and various other contributing factors is evolving the huge technology field called context. Context is very important in knowing whether to give marketing information at all and if so, how and what. It helps make sure that efforts are spent to make customers want to buy rather then to make them avoid you. A family might be interested in meal vouchers when lunchtime is creeping up. If they’ve just eaten (and paid), the same vouchers may be very unwelcome. If I have just bought a car, the last thing I want is proof that I could have got it or a better one cheaper or had some extras thrown in!

As context technology develops in parallel with positioning, image recognition and augmented reality technology, we will see the air around us essentially digitised, context-sensitive messages pinned to every cubic millimetre of the air. Digital air, or virtual air, will be a major new marketing platform that will offer hugely more potential and value than advertising, with far less cost and customer annoyance. It also offers the potential to bombard customers with unwelcome blanket ads too, so it will be easy for the industry to shoot itself in the foot. Not just easy, but probably inevitable in an industry with some players who think it is smart to deliberately offend people. If that happens, spam filters will block such ads and the potential will be damaged irreparably for everyone.

Word of mouth is one of the best forms of marketing. It is free and natural and goes to companies who provide good products or services. In its simplest form, it is like ebay’s  reputation score on Facebook’s ‘like’ button. At a higher detail level, companies such as Trip Advisor make good income by harnessing the desire people have to tell others about their experiences, good or bad. People will often take guidance from strangers when there is no better alternative, and even though everyone knows some reviews are by friends, competitors or by people who have never even had any experience of the supplier, if there are a lot of strangers giving reviews, the assumed probability is that most will be telling the truth and any bias will be reduced.

Even so, these sites don’t reach the same level of trust that people have in their friends and colleagues. We should expect that to be harnessed far more in the next few years. Innovative Amazon is among the leaders as always, trying to harness this with its ‘I just bought’ social network button. However, I’m not at all interested what my friends have bought. I am far more interested in whether it turned out to be a good or a bad buy, and then only if I am looking for something similar. I certainly don’t want spam every time anyone I know buys anything. A service that lets people review stuff and then allows people to see the reviews, sorted according to social proximity of the reviewer would be far better. If such a site already exists, as it may well do, I am not yet exposed to it, so it has its own marketing to do. So what is needed would be a site like Trip Advisor, but with a social proximity selector that strips away reviews from friends and competitors, restricts to those who have actually purchased, and then sorted according to social proximity with the reader. By linking to your other social network sites, and identifying your friends and colleagues, it would be able to show you any reviews from that group.

Unfortunately, we already see a rising barrier to this kind of development. Too often, companies want access to our social networks to do push marketing to a broader community of relevance, to make personalized ads, and essentially to use our contacts to abuse us even more efficiently. That is an industry destroying its own future prospects. By misusing the potential to do its push marketing today, it is destroying the potential to do far more effective pull marketing tomorrow. It gets a tiny benefit today at the expense of a huge one tomorrow. Most of us have already become wary of allowing access to our contacts lists because we already assume for good reason that they will be abused. Spam filters quickly remove any short-term benefit they may have won, and prevent future mutual benefit.

Most of these areas of future potential share the same threat of destruction by the very industry that can benefit most. Marketing will move from push to pull whether marketers want it to or not. By trying to force the worst practices from the push era onto the areas that offer the best potential in the pull era, they will only ensure that marketing will remain an underachiever. Sadly, a few players today can and probably will ruin it for many tomorrow. The result is that marketers will marginalize themselves, making themselves relatively powerless in a world where they could have been powerful.

People will find what they want, and what their friends think of things, but they will do so via sites and intermediary companies who respect them, respect their privacy, and give them what they want, not what they try hard to avoid getting, not via push marketers. Pull marketing done well will go to new players who have no time for the old practices and values, to people who want to improve the lives of others by helping them make the right purchasing decisions, not trying to make them buy the wrong ones.  The likely mechanism for this is use of social networking sites that have a different business model than selling adverts – perhaps even ones with the primary purpose of helping the community and improving quality of life rather than making money.

Marketing will evolve from fiend to friend. Hopefully it will be by the fiends reforming, rather than simply dying.

Home automation. A reality check.

Home automation is much in the news at the moment now that companies are making the chips-with-everything kit and the various apps.

Like 3D, home automation comes and goes. Superficially it is attractive, but the novelty wears thin quickly. It has been possible since the 1950s to automate a home. Bill Gates notably built a hugely expensive automated home 20 years ago. There are rarely any new ideas in the field, just a lot of recycling and minor tweaking.  Way back in 2000, I wrote what was even then just a recycling summary blog-type piece for my website bringing together a lot of already well-worn ideas. And yet it could easily have come from this years papers. Here it is, go to the end of the italicised text for my updating commentary:

Chips everywhere

 August 2000

 The chips-with-everything lifestyle is almost inevitable. Almost everything can be improved by adding some intelligence to it, and since the intelligence will be cheap to make, we will take advantage of this potential. In fact, smart ways of doing things are often cheaper than dumb ways, a smart door lock may be much cheaper than a complex key based lock. A chip is often cheaper than dumb electronics or electromechanics. However, electronics no longer has a monopoly of chip technology. Some new chips incorporate tiny electromechanical or electrochemical devices to do jobs that used to be done by more expensive electronics. Chips now have the ability to analyse chemicals, biological matter or information. They are at home processing both atoms and bits.

 These new families of chips have many possible uses, but since they are relatively new, most are probably still beyond our imagination. We already have seen the massive impact of chips that can do information processing. We have much less intuition regarding the impact in the physical world.

 Some have components that act as tiny pumps to allow drugs to be dispensed at exactly the right rate. Others have tiny mirrors that can control laser beams to make video displays. Gene chips have now been built that can identify the presence of many different genes, allowing applications from rapid identification to estimation of life expectancy for insurance reasons. (They are primarily being use to tell whether people have a genetic disorder so that their treatment can be determined correctly).

 It is easy to predict some of the uses such future chips might have around the home and office, especially when they become disposably cheap. Chips on fruit that respond to various gases may warn when the fruit is at its best and when it should be disposed of. Other foods might have electronic use-by dates that sound an alarm each time the cupboard or fridge is opened close to the end of their life. Other chips may detect the presence of moulds or harmful bacteria. Packaging chips may have embedded cooking instructions that communicate directly with the microwave, or may contain real-time recipes that appear on the kitchen terminal and tell the chef exactly what to do, and when. They might know what other foodstuffs are available in the kitchen, or whether they are in stock locally and at what price. Of course, these chips could also contain pricing and other information for use by the shops themselves, replacing bar codes and the like and allowing the customer just to put all the products in a smart trolley and walk out, debiting their account automatically. Chips on foods might react when the foods are in close proximity, warning the owner that there may be odour contamination, or that these two could be combined well to make a particularly pleasant dish. Cooking by numbers. In short, the kitchen could be a techno-utopia or nightmare depending on taste.

 Mechanical switches can already be replaced by simple sensors that switch on the lights when a hand is waved nearby, or when someone enters a room. In future, switches of all kinds may be rather more emotional, glowing, changing colour or shape, trying to escape, or making a noise when a hand gets near to make them easier or more fun to use. They may respond to gestures or voice commands, or eventually infer what they are to do from something they pick up in conversation. Intelligent emotional objects may become very commonplace. Many devices will act differently according to the person making the transaction. A security device will allow one person entry, while phoning the police when someone else calls if they are a known burglar. Others may receive a welcome message or be put in videophone contact with a resident, either in the house or away.

 It will be possible to burglar proof devices by registering them in a home. They could continue to work while they are near various other fixed devices, maybe in the walls, but won’t work when removed. Moving home would still be possible by broadcasting a digitally signed message to the chips. Air quality may be continuously analysed by chips, which would alert to dangers such as carbon monoxide, or excessive radiation, and these may also monitor for the presence of bacteria or viruses or just pollen. They may be integrated into a home health system which monitors our wellbeing on a variety of fronts, watching for stress, diseases, checking our blood pressure, fitness and so on. These can all be unobtrusively monitored. The ultimate nightmare might be that our fridge would refuse to let us have any chocolate until the chips in our trainers have confirmed that we have done our exercise for the day.

 Some chips in our home would be mobile, in robots, and would have a wide range of jobs from cleaning and tidying to looking after the plants. Sensors in the soil in a plant pot could tell the robot exactly how much water and food the plant needs. The plant may even be monitored by sensors on the stem or leaves. 

The global positioning system allows chips to know almost exactly where they are outside, and in-building positioning systems could allow positioning down to millimetres. Position dependent behaviour will therefore be commonplace. Similarly, events can be timed to the precision of atomic clock broadcasts. Response can be super-intelligent, adjusting appropriately for time, place, person, social circumstances, environmental conditions, anything that can be observed by any sort of sensor or predicted by any sort of algorithm. 

With this enormous versatility, it is very hard to think of anything where some sort of chip could not make an improvement. The ubiquity of the chip will depend on how fast costs fall and how valuable a task is, but we will eventually have chips with everything.

So that was what was pretty everyday thinking in the IT industry in 2000. The articles I’ve read recently mostly aren’t all that different.

What has changed since is that companies trying to progress it are adding new layers of value-skimming. In my view some at least are big steps backwards. Let’s look at a couple.

Networking the home is fine, but doing so so that you can remotely adjust the temperature across the network or run a bath from the office is utterly pointless. It adds the extra inconvenience of having to remember access details to an account, regularly updating security details, and having to recover when the company running it loses all your data to a hacker, all for virtually no benefit.

Monitoring what the user does and sending the data back to the supplier company so that they can use it for targeted ads is another huge step backwards. Advertising is already at the top of the list of things we already have quite enough. We need more resources, more food supply, more energy, more of a lot of stuff. More advertising we can do without. It adds costs to everything and wastes our time, without giving anything back.

If a company sells home automation stuff and wants to collect the data on how I use it, and sell that on to others directly or via advertising services, it will sit on their shelf. I will not buy it, and neither will most other people. Collecting the data may be very useful, but I want to keep it, and I don’t want others to have access to it. I want to pay once, and then own it outright with full and exclusive control and data access. I do not want to have to create any online accounts, not have to worry about network security or privacy, not have to download frequent software updates, not have any company nosing into my household and absolutely definitely no adverts.

Another is to migrate interfaces for things onto our smartphones or tablets. I have no objection to having that as an optional feature, but I want to retain a full physical switch or control. For several years in BT, I lived in an office with a light that was controlled by a remote control, with no other switch. The remote control had dozens of buttons, yet all it did was turn the light on or off. I don’t want to have to look for a remote control or my phone or tablet in order to turn on a light or adjust temperature. I would much prefer a traditional light switch and thermostat. If they communicate by radio, I don’t care, but they do need to be physically present in the same place all the time.

Automated lights that go on and off as people enter or leave a room are also a step backwards. I have fallen victim once to one in a work toilet. If you sit still for a couple of minutes, they switch the lights off. That really is not welcome in an internal toilet with no windows.

The traditional way of running a house is not so demanding that we need a lot of assistance anyway. It really isn’t. I only spend a few seconds every day turning lights on and off or adjusting temperature. It would take longer than that on average to maintain apps to do it automatically. As for saving energy by turning heating on and off all the time, I think that is over-valued as a feature too. The air in a house doesn’t take much heat and if the building cools down, it takes a lot to get it back up again. That actually makes more strain on a boiler than running at a relatively constant low output. If the boiler and pumps have to work harder more often, they are likely to last less time, and savings would be eradicated.

So, all in all, while I can certainly see merits in adding chips to all sorts of stuff, I think their merits in home automation is being grossly overstated in the current media enthusiasm, and the downside being far too much ignored. Yes you can, but most people won’t want to and those who do probably won’t want to do nearly as much as is being suggested, and even those won’t want all the pain of doing so via service providers adding unnecessary layers or misusing their data.

Drone Delivery: Technical feasibility does not guarantee market success

One of my first ever futurology articles explained why Digital Compact Cassette wouldn’t succeed in the marketplace and I was proved right. It should have been obvious from the outset that it wouldn’t fly well, but it was still designed, manufactured and shipped to a few customers.

Decades on, I had a good laugh yesterday reading about the Amazon drone delivery service. Yes, you can buy drones; yes, they can carry packages, and yes, you can make them gently place a package on someone’s doorstep. No, it won’t work in the marketplace. I was asked by the BBC Radio 4 to explain on air, but the BBC is far more worried about audio quality than content quality and I could only do the interview from home, so they decided not to use me after all (not entirely fair – I didn’t check who they actually used and it might have been someone far better).

Anyway, here’s what I would have said:

The benefits are obvious. Many of the dangers are also obvious, and Amazon isn’t a company I normally associate with stupidity, so they can’t really be planning to go all the way. Therefore, this must be a simple PR stunt, and the media shouldn’t be such easy prey for free advertising.

Very many packages are delivered to homes and offices every day. If even a small percentage were drone-delivered, the skies will be full of drones. Amazon would only control some of them. There would be mid-air collisions between drones, between drones and kites and balloons, with new wind turbines, model aeroplanes and helicopters, even with real emergency helicopters. Drones with spinning blades would be dropping out of the sky frequently, injuring people, damaging houses and gardens, onto roads, causing accidents. People would die.

Drones are not silent. A lot of drones would make a lot of extra ambient noise in an environment where noise pollution is already too high. They are also visible, creating another nuisance visual disturbance.

Kids are mischievous. Some adults are mischievous, some criminal, some nosey, some terrorists. I can’t help wonder what the life expectancy of a drone would be if it is delivering to a housing estate full of kids like the one I was. If I was still a kid, I’d be donning a mask (don’t want Amazon giving my photo to the police) and catching them, making nets to bring them down and stringing wires between buildings on their normal routes, throwing stones at them, shooting them with bows and arrows, Nerf guns, water pistols, flying other toy drones into their paths. I’d be tying all sorts of other things onto them for their ongoing journey. I’d be having a lot of fun on the black market with all the intercepted goods too.

If I were a terrorist, and if drones were becoming common delivery tools, I’d buy some and put Amazon labels on them, or if I’m short of cash, I’d hijack a few, pay kids pocket money to capture them, and after suitable mods, start using them to deliver very nasty packages precisely onto doorsteps or spray lethal concoctions into the air above specific locations.

If I were just criminal, I’d make use of the abundance of drones to make my own less conspicuous, so that I could case homes for burglaries, spy on businesses with cameras and intercept their wireless signals, check that an area is free of police, or get interesting videos for my voyeur websites. Maybe I’d add a blinding laser into them to attack any police coming into the scene of my crime, giving valuable extra time without giving my location away.

There are also social implications: jobs in Amazon, delivery and logistics companies would trade against drone manufacturing and management. Neighbours might fall out if a house frequently gets noisy deliveries from a drone while people are entering and leaving an adjacent door or relaxing in the garden, or their kids are playing innocently in the front garden as a drone lands very close by. Drone delivery would be especially problematic when doorways are close together, as they often are in cities.

Drones are good fun as toys and for hobbies, in low numbers. They are also useful for some utility and emergency service tasks, under supervision. They are really not a good solution for home delivery, even if technically it can be done. Amazon knows that as well as I do, and this whole thing can only be a publicity stunt. And if it is, well, I don’t mind, I had a lot of fun with it anyway.

Fake sales: death by marketing

The papers are full of stories alerting customers that massive discounts in the sales are meaningless because the original prices were highly inflated and only a few items were sold at that price to a few people who got badly ripped off. Even after a 70% discount, the sale price can often still mean an actual 45% mark-up for the retailer (to save you the mental arithmetic, that means some shoppers have actually paid almost 5 times the original price paid by the shop).

A few thoughts:

1) Why is this practice still happening? It is supposed to have been banned. Are the authorities all on holiday?

2) The banks have had several fines now and had to repay billions due to bad selling campaigns, such as in credit card insurance or mortgage protection. How long can it be before a class action against the big retailers using fake discount practices is launched on behalf of the sacrificial customers who paid far too much for something so that many others could get a fair price later under the marketing pretense of a deep discount?

3) How long after that will it be before some of the claimed discounts are enforced on a sensible original price as a punishment?

4) How long will it be before one of the big retailers seizes the obviously vacant moral high ground of playing fair and uses the advantage to blast competitors and seize huge market share. With a struggling economy, the advantage of being first mover could be huge.

5) How long will customers who have been ripped off in this way remember the companies who did it and tend to buy from their competitors instead? Has nobody in their marketing departments ever heard the expression ‘once bitten, twice shy’?

6) Has anyone in these companies done any proper agent-based modelling to study the effect of people delaying or even abandoning purchases because they don’t want to be the sacrificial customer? Many people are struggling financially, and will have huge problems buying their loved ones Christmas gifts. If they have also to worry about the exact timing of purchase to make sure they don’t get ripped off, they will struggle even more. In a recession that cause so many people so much misery already, this practice borders on inhuman.

7) Has nobody taken account of the system-wide effects of concentrating  too large a proportion of shopping into a short period such as Black Friday? It cannot possibly be optimal from a logistics point of view. It must also cause severe stress for any employees that have to work extremely hard for short periods and then be unemployed on zero hours for the other days. Again, the system-wide effects can’t be overall beneficial.

9 Why try to rip customers off as much as you can get away with? Why not instead treat customers with respect and offer relatively constant prices with a fair markup and watch your profits go up?

10) Many companies have died because of accountants thinking they were being cleverer than reality shows when their company eventually dies. Will the biggest cause of corporate demise be death by accountant or death by marketer?

I want my TV to be a TV, not a security and privacy threat

Our TV just died. It was great, may it rest in peace in TV heaven. It was a good TV and it lasted longer than I hoped, but I finally got an excuse to buy a new one. Sadly, it was very difficult finding one and I had to compromise. Every TV I found appears to be a government spy, a major home security threat or a chaperone device making sure I only watch wholesome programming. My old one wasn’t and I’d much rather have a new TV that still isn’t, but I had no choice in the matter. All of today’s big TV’s are ruined by the addition of features and equipment that I would much rather not have.

Firstly, I didn’t want any built in cameras or microphones: I do not want some hacker watching or listening to my wife and I on our sofa and I do not trust any company in the world on security, so if a TV has a microphone or camera, I assume that it can be hacked. Any TV that has any features offering voice recognition or gesture recognition or video comms is a security risk. All the good TVs have voice control, even though that needs a nice clear newsreader style voice, and won’t work for me, so I will get no benefit from it but I had no choice about having the microphone and will have to suffer the downside. I am hoping the mic can only be used for voice control and not for networking apps, and therefore might not be network accessible.

I drew the line at having a camera in my living room so had to avoid buying the more expensive smart TVs . If there weren’t cameras in all the top TVs, I would happily have spent 70% more. 

I also don’t want any TV that makes a record of what I watch on it for later investigation and data mining by Big Brother, the NSA, GCHQ, Suffolk County Council or ad agencies. I don’t want it even remembering anything of what is watched on it for viewing history or recommendation services.

That requirement eliminated my entire shortlist. Every decent quality large TV has been wrecked by the addition of  ‘features’ that I don’t only not want, but would much rather not have. That is not progress, it is going backwards. Samsung have made loads of really good TVs and then ruined them all. I blogged a long time ago that upgrades are wrecking our future. TV is now a major casualty.

I am rather annoyed at Samsung now – that’s who I eventually bought from. I like the TV bits, but I certainly do not and never will want a TV that ‘learns my viewing habits and offers recommendations based on what I like to watch’.

Firstly, it will be so extremely ill-informed as to make any such feature utterly useless. I am a channel hopper so 99% of things that get switched to momentarily are things or genres I never want to see again. Quite often, the only reason I stopped on that channel was to watch the new Meerkat ad.

Secondly, our TV is often on with nobody in the room. Just because a programme was on screen does not mean I or indeed anyone actually looked at it, still less that anyone enjoyed it.

Thirdly, why would any man under 95 want their TV to make notes of what they watch when they are alone, and then make that viewing history available to everyone or use it as any part of an algorithm to do so?

Fourthly, I really wanted a smart TV but couldn’t because of the implied security risks. I have to assume that if the designers think they should record and analyse my broadcast TV viewing, then the same monitoring and analysis would be extended to web browsing and any online viewing. But a smart TV isn’t only going to be accessed by others in the same building. It will be networked. Worse still, it will be networked to the web via a wireless LAN that doesn’t have a Google street view van detector built in, so it’s a fair bet that any data it stores may be snaffled without warning or authorisation some time.

Since the TV industry apparently takes the view that nasty hacker types won’t ever bother with smart TVs, they will leave easily accessible and probably very badly secured data and access logs all over the place. So I have to assume that all the data and metadata gathered by my smart TV with its unwanted and totally useless viewing recommendations will effectively be shared with everyone on the web, every advertising executive, every government snoop and local busybody, as well as all my visitors and other household members.

But it still gets worse. Smart TV’s don’t stop there. They want to help you to share stuff too. They want ‘to make it easy to share your photos and your other media from your PC, laptop, tablet, and smartphone’. Stuff that! So, if I was mad enough to buy one, any hacker worthy of the name could probably use my smart TV to access all my files on any of my gadgets. I saw no mention in the TV descriptions of regular operating system updates or virus protection or firewall software for the TVs.

So, in order to get extremely badly informed viewing recommendations that have no basis in reality, I’d have to trade all our privacy and household IT security and open the doors to unlimited and badly targeted advertising, knowing that all my viewing and web access may be recorded for ever on government databases. Why the hell would anyone think that make a TV more attractive?  When I buy a TV, I want to switch it on, hit an auto-tune button and then use it to watch TV. I don’t really want to spend hours going through a manual to do some elaborate set-up where I disable a whole string of  privacy and security risks one by one.

In the end, I abandoned my smart TV requirement, because it came with too many implied security risks. The TV I bought has a microphone to allow a visitor with a clearer voice to use voice control, which I will disable if I can, and features artificial-stupidity-based viewing recommendations which I don’t want either. These cost extra for Samsung to develop and put in my new TV. I would happily have paid extra to have them removed.

Afternote: I am an idiot, 1st class. I thought I wasn’t buying a smart TV but it is. My curioisty got the better of me and I activated the network stuff for a while to check it out, and on my awful broadband, mostly it doesn’t work, so with no significant benefits, I just won’t give it network access, it isn’t worth the risk. I can’t disable the microphone or the viewing history, but I can at least clear it if I want.

I love change and I love progress, but it’s the other direction. You’re going the wrong way!

And another new book: You Tomorrow, 2nd Edition

I wrote You Tomorrow two years ago. It was my first ebook, and pulled together a lot of material I’d written on the general future of life, with some gaps then filled in. I was quite happy with it as a book, but I could see I’d allowed quite a few typos to get into the final work, and a few other errors too.

However, two years is a long time, and I’ve thought about a lot of new areas in that time. So I decided a few months ago to do a second edition. I deleted a bit, rearranged it, and then added quite a lot. I also wrote the partner book, Total Sustainability. It includes a lot of my ideas on future business and capitalism, politics and society that don’t really belong in You Tomorrow.

So, now it’s out on sale on Amazon in paper, at £9.00 and in ebook form at £3.81 (guessing the right price to get a round number after VAT is added is beyond me. Did you know that paper books don’t have VAT added but ebooks do?)

And here’s a pretty picture:


Font size is becoming too small

Warning: rant, no futures insights enclosed.

Last night, we went for a very pleasant meal with friends. The restaurant was in a lovely location, the service was excellent, the food was excellent. The only irritating thing was a pesky fly. However, for some reason, the menu was written on nice paper in 6 point text with about 15mm line spacing. Each line went about 2/3 of the way across the page. I hadn’t brought my reading glasses so was forced to read small text at arm’s length where it was still blurred.

My poor vision is not the restaurant’s fault. But I do have to ask why there is such a desire across seemingly every organisation now to print everything possible with the tiniest font they can manage? Even when there is lots of space available, fonts are typically tiny. Serial numbers are the worst culprits. My desktop PC is normal tower size and has its serial number printed on a tiny label in 1mm font. Why? Even my hated dishwasher uses a 2mm font size and that stretches my vision to its limits.

Yes, I am ageing, but that isn’t a crime. When I was a school-kid, I took great pride in irritating my teachers by writing with the finest tipped ball-pen I could get (Bic extra-fine) in the smallest writing I could manage. I rarely submitted a homework without getting some comment back on my writing size. But then I grew up.

It makes me wonder whether increased printer capability is a problem rather than an asset. Yes, you can now print at 2000 dpi or more, and a character only needs a small grid  so you can print small enough that a magnifying glass is needed for anyone to be able to read the text. But being physically able to print that small doesn’t actually make it compulsory. So why does it make it irresistible to many people?

When I do conference presentations, if I use text at all, I make sure it is at least 16pt, preferably bigger. If it won’t fit, I re-do the wording until it does. Some conferences that employ ‘designers’ come up with slide designs that contain a massive conference logo, bars on the side and bottom, title half way down the page, and any actual material has to be shrunk to fit in a small region of the slide with eye-straining font sizes on any key data. I generally refuse to comply when a conference employs such an idiot, but they are breeding fast. If someone can’t easily read text from the back row, it is too small. It isn’t actually the pinnacle of cool design to make it illegible.

Mobiles have small displays and small type is sometimes unavoidable, but even so, why design a wireless access login page with a minuscule login box that takes up a tiny fraction of the page? If there is nothing else on the page of any consequence apart from that login details box, why not fill the display with it? Why make it a millimetre high, and have loads of empty space and some branding crap, so that a user has to spend ages stretching it to make it the important bit usable? What is the point?

To me, good design isn’t about making something that is pretty, that can eventually be used after a great deal of effort. It is about making something that does the job perfectly and simply and is pretty. A good designer can achieve form, simplicity of use and function. Only poor designers have to pick one and ignore the others.

The current trend to make text smaller and smaller is pointless and counter-productive. It will cause eye problems for younger people later in their lives. It certainly discriminates against a large proportion of the population that needs glasses. Worse, it does so without no clear benefit. Reading tiny text isn’t especially pleasurable compared to larger text. It reduces quality of life for many without increasing it for anyone else.

It is time to end this stupid trend and send designers back to school if they are somehow convinced that illegibility is some sort of artistic goal.

The primary purpose of text is to communicate. If people can’t easily read the text on your design, the communication is impeded, and your design is therefore crap. If you think you know better, and that tiny text is more attractive and that is what really counts, you should go back to school. Or find a better school and go to that one.