Ten aspects of tech that I am excited about

SSDs – Solid State Drives (SSDs) are where data is held on semiconductor memory rather than the magnetic platters of hard drives. Generally they are faster than hard drives, the challenge is that they are also expensive. That’s the reason why you still have an iPod classic. Like most technology the cost may come down with demand.

With devices from digital cameras to smartphones and tablet computers increasing the demand for memory chips this may take a while. However has memory manufacturers start building fabrication lines designed to deal with new devices demands I hope that SSDs will also benefit. If one looks at the MacBook Air as a design study in terms of where Apple thinks the laptop PC is going we shouldn’t have to wait too long.

Age of ‘Boomer productivity on the iPad – a close friend of mine who is an architect has an iPad and has useful software for her business on it, but all she did with it was play games and check her email (admittedly well-designed addictive games). So I was skeptical, in some ways it reminded me of Windows 3.0 and the impact that Solitaire had on workplace productivity. Two things changed my mind; first of which was the OmniGroup releasing all their software on the iPad. This makes lots of sense for them as their software uses a mouse a lot so there is something to be gained from the touch interface. This is probably true of many creative and planning applications so long as they don’t require raw processing power like PhotoShop.

A second aspect of this was that previously though she had owned an iPhone, she never had her email on a mobile device. The iPad is some sort of Dom Jolly-esque parody of the iPhone from a messaging and communications point of view. I was curious about this and the response was that it was easier to read. Which was also the reason why I was thinking about one for my parents. The iPad is actually a classic piece of inclusive product design and that may be a big part of its secret.

The Qwerty keyboard – Talking of the iPad nothing says a form of digital input is dead, like lots of third-party suppliers providing alternatives instead. Many iPad cases feature a built in wireless keyboard. One of which caught my eye, the ZAGGmate case and keyboard provides an elegant solution to the road-warrior chic conference folder-type cases.

For many people the iPad is a more elegant version of the Alphasmart | Neo series of portable writing devices. One of the reasons why I think that the MacBook Air will do well is that it is similar to the iPad in dimensions but doesn’t need Bluetooth for keyboard operation, so making it air travel friendly for the worker bees.  Qwerty just works as an efficient method of data input and there are more and more people out there who can touch-type meaning that Qwerty will be around for a long time yet.

New forms of web ID management – One of the most interesting things about the recent hack at Gawker was the way that the compromised database immediately spurred sites like LinkedIn into action to encourage users to change their passwords. What that told me was that identity on the web is built on a house of cards.

Despite all the sage advice about having different passwords and making sure that they are not real words the security of the public web is only as strong as its weakest database. So there is a market there if anyone can provide a trusted, easy to use way of managing a persons web ID. There are no shortage of contenders, but they have either failed; or proved to be too inconvenient for your average consumer. It is a market there for the taking.

Online curation – The ironic thing about Yahoo! sunsetting Delicious is that it probably woke a lot of people up to the benefit of online curation. It also pointed out the challenges in relying on online services. Curation is starting to heat up as an area of interest from Tumblr to Evernote and Pinboard.in people will start to focus on searching for something that they already know. This could further disrupt the Google model in a similar way to what Jeff Weiner, Bradley Horowitz and Eckart Walther envisaged six years ago at… Yahoo!.

There is a lot innovation currently out there, just a couple of examples: 1R7 was hacked together immensely fast in order to provide an alternative to Delicious whilst Scoop.it is an interesting take on ideas that have run through the likes of Delicious, Squidoo and Tumblr.

PayPal – Ok I am not excited by PayPal per se but by some of the ideas that PayPal personifies. I tried online banking for the umpteenth time just before Christmas and found the user experience excruciating. This is partly down to banks having clunky infrastructure, poor user-experience design expertise and perceive online as a cost-cutting measure rather than customer-delighting one.

When I spoke to real people on the phone they were then very helpful. But that’s the point, in reality online banking should be as easy-an-experience as using an ATM (automatic teller machine). Which is why I usually give up my online banking experience and usually rely on my cheque book still. And yes I know it ironic that I use a cheque book rather than online banking, but I think its a damning indictment of the service.

This caused me to reevaluate my relationship with PayPal because from a consumer process point-of-view, once you are signed up PayPal does a lot of things right. It’s really easy for people to include the payment mechanism and the invoice together. I have even paid for eBay items from my iPhone; its that easy. PayPal still has three challenges:

  • Its association with online car boot sale eBay, it lowers the tone of the PayPal brand and has outlived its usefulness in allowing PayPal to build an online user base. The brand could be elevated to be a Mastercard or American Express
  • Transaction costs are too high for many merchants to accept it
  • You still need to run it through a bank current account or credit card account. Why doesn’t PayPal become the bank?

Near-field communications – I think has a chance for its day in the sun. In theory the idea of near-field communications is great, if you are a Londoner then you use it every day with your Oystercard. Urbanites across the world enjoy a similar service. I have an Octopus card for Hong Kong which also allows me to buy groceries, coffee and cinema tickets – in my case a complete life solution (^_^). Integrating payment and access into a mobile phone makes sense. You are more likely to leave the house with your mobile phone than your wallet nowadays, your mobile handset is probably the most personal piece of technology that you have. I know for me only my watch goes more places (the shower and in my bed) than my mobile phone.

However one of the things that has made me skeptical is that many of the experiments to integrate NFC with mobile devices and accounts has been on specific devices. So what happens if you don’t like the same Nokia phone as everyone else? Are you locked in because of the bank you use, the coffee bar you drink at or the way you travel to work? One thing turned my view around. Softbank recently released NFC covers for the iPhone.

Rather than having to do device integration with the payment system to display recent transactions or current balance you could provide this as an application accessing the data via a secure online connection. Let’s face it banks do it already. Whilst Nokia is big on integrating NFC into its handsets, the dumb card maybe the path of lesser resistance for consumer adoption.

Location services – One of the big stories of 2010 was location with Foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places battling out for the hearts-and-minds of geeks everywhere. However they have faced a number of uphill challenges: location poses a number of privacy issues for consumers:

  • It is considered oversharing and real-time updates spam friends and acquaintances
  • They may not want people to know who they are with, or want to avoid social events and not cause embarrassment
  • Concerned about personal security: for instance thieves using Facebook | Foursquare | Gowalla as sources of information on properties to hit

One of the most annoying things is remembering to check-in at the time as well. What about if the service logged your trip (in the same way that a dive computer  or running devices do) and then at a time of your choosing you can declare where you have been selecting only the venues and the times that are of convenient? It would still allow location-based advertising to be done but provide a more nuanced control over your location data for you?

Knowledge search – On December 27, my email box started to receive a lot of traffic from people I knew following me on Quora. Quora is a nicely designed question-and-answer service that I had been keeping an eye on for a while. It’s like a thinking mans version of Yahoo! Answers. The idea of capturing knowledge that might be subjective (and consequently not on Wikipedia, for instance), like what is the best Sichuan-style restaurant, what is the best social media monitoring tool or whether Manchester United is the world’s best football team and why?

In reality these services have already matured in some Asian markets; in particular Naver in Korea and even Baidu offers one alongside its algorithmic search offering. The key problem with western societies so far has been one of community management rather than technological knowhow. The Confusian base of Asian societies means that you tend to have less spam and frivolous replies to questions. Looking at Yahoo! Answers shows you the best and the worst of what can happen in the west. Particular domain services like Qype or Yelp do well mainly because they are sufficiently targeted which destroys the context of ‘spamming for pleasure‘.

BYO – (Bring Your Own) before the PC became commonplace in an office environment computers were a very centralised function: you sent information away, it was converted into a format that the mainframe computer used by the company would understand and once the calculations were complete the result was returned to you. Things changed a bit when an entry input and output device in the form of terminals and printers were taken out of the computer room and put on office desks. However to run major tasks time on the computer would have to be negotiated with the computing department. By the mid-1970s personal computers and spreadsheet software became available and business managers smuggled them into the office under the noses of computing staff and paid for them out of expenses.

Move forwards over 30 years and the computing staff are now predominantly playing gatekeepers to knowledge workers who do their own computing tasks. Computing has moved beyond processing numbers to be part of every facet of a business. But for the past number of years the continued gains from IT have diminished (which inspired Nicholas Carr to talk about the end of IT), this means that business focus on IT has changed in many respect to one of managing costs. Add to this changing aspects of business like:

  • Teleworking
  • Road-warriors suffering back injuries
  • The rise of Software as a Service (SaaS)
  • The blurring of the work day as part of the ongoing striving for work | life balance versus increasing 24-hour business demands
  • Reducing expenditure, particularly capital expenditure

We’ve already seen it with the mobile phone where people may be called as much on their personal cellphone. The iPhone has changed the way many companies do mobile email. Instead of having to pay for BlackBerry handsets, their employees are paying for their hardware and adding their work account alongside their home email account. Employees often do work on their home computers anyway, in the future we could see employees having their own laptops at work. This will change the power relationship wtih the IT team, changing skills and bringing new challenges.
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