The Best Ideas

February 5, 2005

I expect to see this sort of thing on New Year’s Day but I guess everybody is a bit behind these days.

InnFig2a

Red Herring has published its list of the top ten technology trends to watch for 2005:

  1. Moore’s Law yields to innovation: The long history of processor speed doubling every 18 months without changing price looks to be coming to an end, not because it can’t be sustained, but because other innovations, like dual cores, can accomplish the same ends without having to deal with the growing problem of overheating that fast processors must contend with.
  2. VoIP makes distance irrelevant and increases the functionality of telephony: Although carrying sound over the Internet is most famous for killing phone companies that charge outrageous long-distance rates, and making all telephony flat-rate, it’s also increasing the traditional PBX phone system’s functionality, allowing people to dial others by clicking on their name instead of having to look up numbers, and providing ‘presence awareness’ (telling you before you ‘dial’ whether the person is available for your ‘call’).
  3. Explosion of authentication and automatic identification systems: Increased need for security and the cost of maintaining password lists is driving this change, but authentication and identification systems, if they can walk the line between convenience and breech of privacy, could also simplify and streamline the process by which we get permissioned for almost everything, allowing us to access both physical and intellectual property without jumping through hoops.
  4. Commercial gene therapy breakthroughs: RNA-interference therapies could soon be used to suppress messenger genes that cause diseases from AIDS to diabetes. But while the technical problems in making such therapies seem to be solved, the anti-innovation US patent laws remain a huge stumbling block, and patients may have to wait while greedy corporations sue each other to death or patent law reform enters the 21st century before the therapies can be brought to market.
  5. Micro fuel cells’ last change to prove themselves real: Small fuel cells that recharge or even power small portable electronic devices off-the-grid have been promised for years, but technical and performance problems have delayed their coming to market. Next year may see the first few commercial releases, though they will be unfriendly to the environment (another ‘disposable’, and in need of constant refilling), and initially very expensive (as much as a dollar per hour’s worth of fuel).
  6. Desktop search and desktop management heats up: Software vendors are finally realizing that the up-to-30% of people’s work-time spent ‘looking for information’ is often spent looking on users’ own hard drives, not on the Internet and Intranets. Google Desktop arrived with a splash this year, and many more desktop search tools are coming. But will vendors realize that search is just the tip of the Personal Content Management iceberg?
  7. Medical equipment comes ‘of age’: Baby boomers are fueling the demand for new medical equipment that offers therapy for patients without the use of drugs (expensive, invasive, prone to side-effects, and slow-to-market) or hands-on treatment (even more expensive, and temporary). But while self-administered treatment is exploding, baby boomers are even more enthused with self-diagnosis, doing their own on-line research and using new diagnostic kits to avoid the doctor’s office entirely.
  8. Web services allow small companies to grow up fast: New web service companies are providing, in small, affordable packages, the capabilities that big corporations developed in-house or bought from hugely expensive systems integrators and ERP vendors.
  9. Asia and Europe extend their wireless lead over North America: Where 3G technologies dominate in Asian and European markets, North Americans still use their phones for voice calls and go online using cables or phone lines. Only 28% of Americans own laptops or cell phones with wireless data capability, and only a little over half of them have used that capability. The digital divide grows, on many fronts.
  10. PC/TV convergence and the battle for the living-room: The much-ballyhooed convergence of the PC and the TV, and promised ubiquity of ‘smart’ digital appliances everywhere hasn’t really happened. Why? Because for most of us, it doesn’t meet a need. Too many tech vendors are overly infatuated with their own technologies, and have no appreciation of the average consumer whose main consumer electronics purchases remain the traditional ‘dumb’ TV and telephone. ‘Smart’ devices will only succeed when the companies that make them smarten up and understand the mainstream customer and his/her needs and low tolerance for complexity.

From Dave Pollard
10 Most Important Ideas of 2004: Business & the Economy:

Drucker GTD

  1. The Wisdom of Crowds: The idea: The best answers to business problems are found by canvassing groups (the larger the better) of reasonably informed, unbiased, engaged people; the group’s answer is almost invariably much better than any individual expert’s answer, better than the answer of the experts as the group, even better than consultants’ or management’s experienced judgement. The evidence is in James Surowiecki’s book of the same name. I’ve written about this a lot in the last year.
  2. Personal Productivity Improvement: The idea: The best way to improve business productivity today is bottom-up, by analyzing one-on-one your front-line employees’ technology, information, learning and workflow management impediments to productivity, and coaching them to overcome them. Almost everyone wants to work more effectively, but top-down training, centralized databases and complicated, unintuitive tools aren’t working. Personalized help with managing information overload, solving the “I can’t find it” problems, and organizing and prioritizing workload to Get Things Done, is what is needed. Four years ago Peter Drucker said this would be the greatest business challenge of the century, and we’re only just starting to realize he was right.
  3. The Recognition of Corporatism’s Excesses: The idea: The corporation is the very foundation of our modern economy, and the overwhelmingly preferred form of business, but there is a growing public backlash against the corporation’s amorality and single-minded pursuit of short-term profit at any cost. Books like The Corporation, The People’s Business and People Before Profit prescribe solutions that would dramatically affect the behaviour of corporate managers, boards and shareholders, but these solutions may be essential to save the reputation of business as a whole and restore the integrity of our increasingly entangled and dysfunctional economic and political systems.
  4. The Importance of Courage: The idea: We live in a time of risk-aversion, brought on by the consequences of spectacular corporate failures and embarrassing scandals and swindles, and this mentality will continue to paralyze innovation and progress until business leaders and individual workers start to exhibit some much-needed courage. Fear of failure, of inefficiency, has brought about a kind of corporate anorexia that manifests itself in outsourcing and offshoring, in massive serial layoffs, in making decisions that are long-term dysfunctional out of cowardice to tell investors to be patient. Courage is not about making decisions that are foolhardy, it’s about taking calculated risks, about daring to experiment, and about learning quickly and inexpensively from failure as well as success. Without such courage a business is lame, inflexible, vulnerable.
  5. The Search for Elegant Simplicity: The idea: Technology has given us the ability to build enormous functionality into almost everything we build, but the very best designs are simple, do one thing very well, and are almost austere. Like nature’s finest creations, the products of Apple and Google search pages conceal their astonishing complexity where the user can’t see it, and the result are things of great beauty and utility. By contrast, today’s cellphones now have user manuals twice the size and weight of their products — monsters of over-engineering. In a world of too much unnecessary complexity, consumers and employees are beginning to make it clear in many ways that less is more, smaller is better, and as Einstein said of scientific theories, business products “should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
  6. An Economy Dependent on Living Beyond Our Means: The idea: Consumption by the end-consumer underlies the entire now-ubiquitous capitalist economic system, but increasingly consumption, by individuals, corporations and governments is fueled by spiraling and unsustainable levels of debt, and the taking from the Earth of vastly more than it can replenish. The result is a deficit economy that is staggeringly fragile, dependent on everyone’s willingness to incur more and more debt, to fund others’ ever-shakier debt loads, and to demand very modest interest rates in return. It’s a Ponzi scheme, and eventually those of us who are wise will get out before the crash, and leave the naive and foolish holding the bag, and bankrupt. It’s an extremely unhealthy way to try to make an unsustainable economy carry on, quarter by quarter, devoid of fundamental support, with everyone wondering who’s going to blink first.
  7. Role Models Instead of Leaders: The idea: In an age when almost everyone’s job is unique, and each of us uniquely know what needs to be done in our job and how to do it, we don’t need or want business leaders who tell us what to do, or tell us what our values should be, but rather leaders who show us how to get things done — models of productivity, of courage, of responsibility. Leaders are role models whether they want to be or not, and their success depends increasingly on what they show, not what they say. Drucker’s eight recommended principles for role model leadership are shown in the chart above.
  8. The Co-opting of the Counter-Culture: The idea: Not only are counter-cultural movements, from rap music to eating organic and botanic foods not disruptive or effective at ‘sticking it to the man’, much of the modern economy depends on business’ substantial competence at co-opting such counter-cultural movements, which obsolesce old products and create huge demand for ‘what’s cool’ far more effectively than old ‘planned obsolescence’ schemes ever did. For marketers, this means that viral marketing (one of the top ten ideas on my list last year) can do much of their job for them. For those that want to undermine the old economy with a counter-cultural one, better think again.
  9. Marketing: Two Kinds of Free Stuff: The ideas: (a) More and more businesses are finding the most successful model for new market penetration is to give a basic product or service away free, and to charge for extras that ‘improve the user experience’; (b) Useful, insightful small ideas that solve a problem that’s peripheral to what your product is all about can dramatically differentiate, add value to, and get people talking about your product, and generate additional revenues with almost no incremental cost to the company. Two-tier pricing isn’t new, but when the lower tier price is zero (which is what file-sharing has led to) it can be alarming to the owner of the property. The answer isn’t to sue the customers, or otherwise try to get blood out of a stone, but rather to use the free first-tier products to generate buzz for the second-tier products, so that not only do they cover the losses from the first tier, they attract a huge price margin. But you can’t cheat: ‘Limited time’ freebies and those that don’t even do the basic job will rightfully be seen as coercive and devious, and can backfire. The second kind of ‘free’ stuff is free to the producer, not the consumer. Seth Godin’s new book Free Prize Inside explains how to do it, and he’s even developed a tool, Edgecraft, to exploit it.
  10. The End of Oil: The idea: Yes, I know we’ve all heard it before, but we’re running out of oil. Deny it all you want, call it scare-mongering, the facts are that at current rates of consumption there will be no oil left to extract, even at an absurd price, by the latter part of the century. Many experts in economics and in new energy technologies agree that the huge existing oil-dependent infrastructure simply cannot migrate to new energy sources fast enough, and those new energy sources cannot be made commercial even for the very rich, in time avoid a catastrophic ‘adjustment’ (depression). Think about what a sudden quadrupling of the cost of all the materials used to make your product, and of the cost of living of all your employees, would do to your business. And consider that the only thing between today’s $45/barrel oil and $160/barrel oil is a tenuous agreement between OPEC not to charge much more for its increasingly scarce resource, and the world’s only superpower not to invade the rest of the OPEC countries as long as they keep the price low.

Dave Pollard on Blogs and the Internet

InfoFlows

1. The Blog is a Journal, and Online Journalism is Our Game: ‘Journal’ is a very inclusive term, and broadly means ‘daily writings’, and journalists are therefore those who write (or photograph) daily. A diary is a journal, and so is a distinguished medical publication (though the latter is often a monthly, and hence more accurately an anthology or review). So everyone from the author of minutiae of a teenager’s life written for a handful of friends, to a prolific daily poster of articles read by thousands, is an online journalist. That’s what blogging is, and to attempt to categorize it or restrict it or define it more narrowly is to miss the point. Our tradition goes back centuries, from the writers of regular letters to the poets who wrote from the bunkers of wars to the pamphleteers whose work was critical to the emergence of democracy around the world, we are all journalists, pure and simple daily writers. The fact that our writing is online makes it more accessible but that is all. It is no new phenomenon or quantum leap, merely the rediscovery by many of the joy of composing paragraphs of fact and fiction and sharing them with others.

2. We Are Our Own Content Providers, and
3. Content Has Value Only in Use: The Mainstream Media (which some writers are now calling the ‘legacy media‘ have this arrogant view (reinforced in a recent Atlantic Magazine article, ironically available only to print subscribers) that they are the font of all news, and that the blogosphere would ‘have nothing to talk about’ if it weren’t for them. Such a luddite perception of the entire online community (not just bloggers) explains why these media are losing audience, making ‘Rather’ unnecessary mistakes, and failing to partner with online journalists and researchers. My diagram above illustrates their strange POV. In reality, legacy and online journalists both use a combination of information sourced outside and their own primary and secondary research and analysis, both write stories based on those content sources, and both use a mechanism to add value to the content called ‘journalism’ of varying degrees of quality. And online journalists go two better: Unlike the legacy media, they can use The Power of Many to quickly add to, clarify, and when necessary correct mistakes (Britt Blaser calls this recursive journalism). And unlike the legacy media, online journalists have the numbers and front-line perspective to provide a much more personal context than more remote reporters. That’s important because news only has value if it’s useful, not just merely entertaining. News and other ‘information’ that is unactionable, which has no impact on what we do with our lives, is merely distraction. Bloggers are just beginning to learn that by providing unique local content (facts and perspectives) they can help the citizen-reader answer the question that the legacy media can’t, or won’t: What do we do about this?

4. The Content Management Challenge: For all of us on this side of the digital divide, organizing and finding information on our own hard drives and on our blogs is a growing and momentous challenge. For the hard drive, Google Desktop and its imitators are a new, first step. For many bloggers, their posts are ephemeral, and neither they nor their readers really care whether they’re lost in the ether, or whether they’re even available once they drop into the archives. But an increasing number of bloggers are adding original content or perspective with enduring value, and both they and their readers want it to stick around and be easy to find. Google searches are hit-and-miss. Tagging, assigning your own keywords to content using your own taxonomy, may be an improvement. But ultimately bloggers will face the same challenge as mainstream journalists, librarians, archivists, and anyone with a filing cabinet or a MyDocuments folder: How do I index, sort, organize and present all this stuff in a way in which I, and others I trust, can both browse it and search it? Even non-bloggers, who have taken to using shareable ‘social bookmarking’ tools like del.icio.us are now facing this content management problem.

5. It’s All About What The Big Media Aren’t Talking About: All information has spin. The 2004 elections in the US and elsewhere made it clear that the mainstream media, and bloggers, all have a bias in what they present, and, more importantly, what they don’t present. It is no coincidence that when citizens are asked what the most important issues of the time are, they mostly parrot what the mainstream media are reporting on. For those on the other side of the digital divide, they don’t really have a choice — other than person-to-person conversations, they have no way to get information on the things that are important to them personally that the mainstream media don’t cover. In fact they often don’t even think about these as political issues. When Gallup gives people the ten choices of issues to pick the ‘most important’ from, citizens tend to pick the one on the list that they relate to most personally — with unemployment, health care and education usually topping the list. But even in the very rare cases when issues like the environment, peace and civil liberties are raised in these surveys, they are described using these abstract and impersonal terms, rather than terms like ‘clean air, water and food’, ‘resolving conflicts peacefully’, ‘workplace safety’, ‘safe, affordable quality schools’ and ‘protecting privacy & other personal freedoms’. So because these hard-to-capture-on-video issues aren’t mentioned in surveys of the masses, the mainstream media are vindicated for continuing to ignore them, and the vicious cycle of ignorance is complete. This, of course, is where bloggers come in, to fill the void. Maybe that’s why the mainstream media are trying to pre-discredit us as ‘a million guys in pajamas‘.

6. Blogs’ as Echo Chambers, or Not: The failure of the left side of the blogosphere to see that Dean would lose the primary, and that Kerry would lose the election, led many to see the blogosphere as an echo chamber, where like minds (falsely) reassured like minds. But guys like Dave Weinberger disagree, and point out that compared to the mainstream media, or the cloister that filters news for the US Presnit, blogs are pretty open-minded. Does the blogosphere open up people to new ideas or solidify what they already believe and close them off from other points of view? I’ve argued that people tend to make up their minds once on each issue, and then look for reassurance and only change their initial opinion when they directly experience first-hand conflicting evidence. So blogs can be helpful in allowing people to make up their minds in the first place, and, as long as they are critical thinkers, giving them reassurance that supports those views. Nothing wrong with that. And just because blogs aren’t likely to change many minds (written material rarely does by itself) and may allow non-critical thinkers to go on believing foolish things (kinda like Fox News), doesn’t invalidate their benefits.

7. Bloggers’ Need to Get Out and Investigate More: The most important kind of journalism, the kind that brings real change, is investigative journalism. Blogging is perfectly suited to this challenge, because it requires people out in the community to invest significant personal time and energy in things they care about (since it incurs risks, and pays poorly). The mainstream media have curtained investigative journalism for that reason (libel suits and expensive research budgets don’t impress media conglomerates’ shareholders). There are some fledgling groups trying to organize bloggers as investigative journalists. They are not cowed by the harrowing experiences of the courageous journalists in Into the Buzzsaw. But in order to provide this value, bloggers need to get away from their comfortable computers and do some things that, to many, will be very uncomfortable: Getting first-hand accounts and taking photos of unpleasant things in unpleasant places, writing up exposes that will incite the wrath of the rich and powerful (and their lawyers), doggedly pursuing the truth in the face of lies, evasion, and bureaucracy. It’s a lot harder than sitting and writing about things second-hand, but if we are to be credible, it’s vital.

8. Information Is Still Trying to be Free, and Keeping Journalists Poor: Marshall McLuhan’s deliberately ambiguous statement “Information is always trying to be free” is great news for the consumers of content, but bad news for those who try to make a living from it. Freelance journalists have been starving for generations, and blogging has created thousands of online journalists with a secret desire to make a living from writing. It’s a classical case of a business with low entrance barriers and not even Shirky’s Power Law, which would suggest A-list bloggers with a wildly disproportionate share of readers should be able to make a buck from writing, has made it easier. Several recent articles have suggested that blogging is poised to make a breakthrough to profitability, but I’m skeptical — with so much information available for free, why would anyone in their right mind pay for it? And the argument that advertising will make the difference, that companies will pay for eyeballs, especially if they’re in their ‘target demographic’ are equally uncompelling, because ‘broadcast’ advertising is anathema to the whole idea of the Internet where everything is customized and one-to-one. If bloggers really want to make money, they’re going to have to do it face-to-face with people who are impressed with their writing, and follow the advice of successful consultants: Give content (ideas, surveys, stories) away free, and charge for the add-ons, for effectively implementing them for the customer. As Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell can tell you, that’s where the value is.

9. The Silence of the Web as Negative Assurance: Dave Weinberger explains why, in the absence of much positive evidence, he’s inclined to believe that Bush was wired for the first debate with Kerry because despite everyone talking about the story on the blogosphere there were no plausible other explanations for the bulge. It’s the same logic that led intelligent people to ‘know’ the unknowable — that there were no WMD in Iraq. In professional auditing circles it’s called ‘negative assurance’, and it means that sometimes you believe what you do in the absence of any compelling evidence to the contrary, if a lot of people have had the opportunity to proffer such contrary evidence. Auditors send out letters of ‘negative confirmation’ of account balances to their clients’ customers with the request that they be returned with corrections only if they’re incorrect. This is not as comforting as ‘positive confirmations’ where a written, signed response is required of each customer, but it’s much better than nothing, and usually very effective. So the vast blogosphere provides negative assurance of facts and declarations made by politicians and other vested interests, in the absence of any compelling contrary evidence from bloggers who would be positively disposed to tabling such information if it existed. Further evidence of the Wisdom of Crowds, and comforting in places where the media tend to treat press conferences and press releases as ‘facts’ needing no corroboration, question or inquiry.

10. The Ultimate Utility of Blogging: Last, but certainly not least, is this remarkable statement from blogger Rob Paterson on the utility of blogging: “The utility of blogging to me is that it is recreating the lost world of a humanity that is connected to itself and hence to everything.” Rob and I and a group of bloggers have been working on a compendium of our best and most important work, and we’ve been exchanging ideas on a theme or shared vision for the book. I suggested that, if it’s going to sell, the book needs to have utility to the reader, especially the reader who barely knows what a blog (or online journalism) is. Rob identified three ‘values’ of blogging to him personally: Finding one’s voice; Noticing what gives and what drains one’s energy; Redefining the meaning of work as a function of community and fellowship instead of wage slavery. So he’s saying, and I agree with him, that blogging (the participation in the conversation as both a journal reader and writer) re-centres you, frees you from being like, and seeing the world like, everyone else, and allows you to see the world and yourself differently, more profoundly (for better and for worse), and hence to liberate yourself and take charge of your own life. Self-awareness, self-reliance, and the personal liberation that comes from deep knowledge. Could there possibly be a higher utility for anything?

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