The street finds its own use for things, but sometimes it needs a hand

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William Gibson wrote ‘The street finds its own use for things…’ and I started thinking about that as the office that I work in is mired in mobile. Half the colleagues that sit in my area have gone to Barcelona this week to work on the Mobile World Congress. What used to be an conference that helped mobile carriers come together and set the agenda for their industry has become a curious jamboree that mixes areas of interest to consumers, policy wonks and a bit of telecoms industry stuff thrown in. Others have fretted about the usefulness of the show, I recommend that you have a quick read of my friend Ian Wood’s show analysis.

I have been writing a summary of themes that we have been seeing coming out of the coverage day-by-day. I have linked to them at the end of this article. From a consumer perspective online discussion, if not media chatter was dominated by the launch of new smartphones across the Android eco-system and Microsoft launched some new Lumia smartphones running its Windows operating system.

When I pulled the data down on the discussion using Sysomos, I found discussions on smartphones seemed to be based around hardware ‘speeds and feeds’. Rather like the PC industry, and like the PC industry many of those manufacturers are hurting as new competitors come in and innovate through protest to create cheaper handsets without compromising on industrial design.

There is a strong incentive for handset manufacturers to own some kind of eco-system. Canon may or may not own the OS that runs their digital SLR cameras, but you don’t just buy a camera from them you buy a system that includes lens, possibly a flash and other miscellaneous accessories. Google rolled out a software layer to cover a vast array of platforms which could interact with smartphones, from wearables to the internet-of-things and even the television set.

This means that there is a strong incentive for phone makers to move their product portfolios in new direction. Chinese brand Xiaomi expanded from smartphones to make: smart televisions, an IP-based set-top box, a Nike Fuelband-type device, a smartphone-controlled air purifier and a GoPro-type camera.

For many other manufacturers this means smart watches or fitness bands as their counterpart of Canon’s EF-series lenses.

Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch

Like many technology ideas smartphones have gone through a number of iterations. In the 1980s Seiko tried to bring personal computing to the digital watch and by 1984, Casio had launched the Data Bank – a kind of rather poor digital address book on a phone. By 1994, Timex used a light sensor and blinking monitor pixels to send information from Microsoft Schedule+ to their watch, as a way of making data input easier than the Casio Databank. Schedule+ was the predecessor of the calendaring function in modern versions of Outlook.

Some twenty years later both battery and microprocessor technology had improved. Microsoft launched a radio network based service in the US called MSN Direct which provided the kind of information web users got from a portal like horoscopes, sports results, news or stock prices to non-Internet connected devices. Depending on the device you could even receive short messages from Windows Live Messenger (SMS wasn’t as popular in the US in comparison to Europe at the time). In order to take advantage of MSN Direct services Microsoft launched Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT) which allowed MSN Direct data to be incorporated into everyday consumer electronics like satellite navigation systems, coffee machines and watches.

A good set of comparative technologies for SPOT and MSN Direct would be RDS information on the FM band of car stereos or a very cut down version of the teletext experiences from analogue TV, if it only delivered nuggets of information. The underlying network technology to transmit the information allowed for a higher data bandwidth than RDS.

Around the same time as SPOT, Fossil licensed a read-only version of PalmOS and tried to squeeze it into a watch. This was most noticeable for putting a higher end LCD screen into a watch than had been done before. The case was also curiously similar in design to later watches from LG and Samsung.

Back in 2008, devices were launched that looked suspiciously like the latest smart watches. These were pioneered by LG with their Watch Phone.

LG Watch Phone
In the same way that Star Trek’s communicator was the obvious popular culture analogue for flip phones; cartoon detective Dick Tracy’s watch radio was to the LG Watch Phone. The challenge has been that whilst the Dick Tracy analogue emphasise the impressive engineering feats that rendered the watch possible it doesn’t show a particularly impressive use case.

Lets first of all dwell on the engineering chops that went into these devices. It is insanely impressive. Thanks to marketing and Steve Jobs we blithely expect technology companies to work miracles as a matter of routine, but when you take a step back and think about the hardware engineering it is very impressive. Moore’s Law has meant that a tremendous amount of computing power can now sit on your wrist without burning a hole in it. Nuclear deterrent systems and space exploration programmes around the world have previously relied on less computing power.

However the Dick Tracy use case of holding your wrist to your head looks plain uncomfortable. By comparison, we could see James T. Kirk and the rest of the Star Trek crew use the communicator in a natural way day-in, and day-out.

A second challenge is presenting a reason for using a smart watch. If one looks back at early Apple iPhone advertisements, they at pains to emphasise everything that can be done on an iPhone.

For those device makers that have abdicated their software responsibility to Google, they are largely in the hands of Google’s developer evangelist and marketing teams. From what I have seen of Apple’s marketing, there seems to be a focus on the watch as a fashion icon, in an eerily reminiscent move of Google Glass’ assocation with Diane von Fürstenberg and thats a bit of a concern if you are looking at the current generation of wearables from a consumer perspective.

There are some businesses that have been built on high-performing but impractical products. Lamborghini’s iconic Miura was developed by a team of three core engineers on the down low, keeping the innovative design hidden from company owner Ferruccio Lamborghini. Mr Lamborghini was more interested in a grand tourer than this race car for the road, but he saw the potential for the design to be a marketing tool for the car brand at best.

The Miura incorporated a number of innovative features that together provided the blueprint for the modern supercar. It had an engine in the middle of the car to improve the weight balance. A similar layout had been used in an Austrian car maker called Rumpler back in the 1920s and over the next 20 years started to appear in a number of race cars. Shortening the car by mounting the engine in a transverse (side-to-side) layout that had been pioneered in small road cars like the Saab 92 and Mini.

The design started winning interest from potential customers without even a body because of its unique layout. Bertone provided the body work and the car went on sale. Over the next eight years or so Lamborghini struggled to deal with the failings in the cars design. It had too powerful an engine, a chassis that flexed under the power and brakes that weren’t up to the job of stopping the car. Whilst the Miura was successful in terms of the impact that it had on the world Ferruccio sold the majority share in his name sake company by the early 1970s. The company suffered from financial problems that meant it had to stop production for a year before it could bring out the Contach.

The moral of this automotive story for gadget manufacturers is that innovation can spark interest with a certain number of consumers but it is consumer use that will drive continued sustainable adoption. There has to be a use in order to get the devices into the hands of the tinkerers and hackers who find unexpected uses implied in William Gibson’s oft quoted line from the short story Burning Chrome – ‘the street finds its own uses for things’.

More information

On MWC as an event
GSMA Mobile World Congress 2015 | Digital Evangelist

MSN Direct / SPOT
What Microsoft got right about the smart watch nearly a decade ago (more than you think) – GigaOM

Samsung Galaxy Gear
Samsung Gear S Review: But I Don’t Wanna Be Dick Tracy | Gizmodo

My posts for the Racepoint blog
MWC from the sidelines: day one
MWC from the sidelines: day zero