Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mass Customization: From "There is a plug-in for that" To "There is an app for that"

In a much anticipated mystic event Apple announced a tablet today called an iPad. Steve Job's hypnotizing presentation convinced people that iPad is a magic. I was not there in person to see Jobs unveiling an iPad and somehow escaped the magic. That gave me time to think about the implications of a trend that an iPad endorses - mass customization. Firefox's success in part can be attributed to its approach to allow the developers to write and publish extensions. There is a Firefox plug-in for pretty much anything. Then came the iPhone and we had an app for pretty much anything. Now we have an iPad and the trend continues.

Mass customization trend is about micro-chunking the software that we run on our devices ranging from cell phones to laptops. The emergent architecture and delivery model have empowered the consumers to buy only the chunks of software that they actually need. The cloud computing and SaaS have further enabled the consumers not to run any software other than a web browser for many daily tasks that they need to accomplish. Micro-chunking and webOS have grave implications on the large shrink-wrapped software packages that occupies the most space on consumers' hard-drive, hogs memory, and provides a little value. I won't go to the extent of calling this gold rush for the app developers but I do agree that the independent developers now have a level playing field to compete with the ISVs.

I certainly welcome this trend. I not only want to be in charge of the devices that I own but I also want to experiment and micro manage the applications that I run on my devices. If I can get a tall non-fat extra hot double shot latte at Starbucks why shouldn't I expect a device that runs the exact software that I need - no less, no more.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Silicon Valley Is An Innovation Dagger

It was a routine trip back home from work one of these days. As soon as I boarded the bus the driver asked me: "So, what do you think about Google's announcement regarding China? Will Yahoo follow the suit?". The same bus driver had asked me about my views on NexusOne on the day it was announced. He even has a strong point of view on net neutrality. The other day the librarian showed me a Firefox plug-in that hides your identity from Google. Everyday it's a constant reminder of the demographics that we live in the Silicon Valley. It's an innovation dagger. One edge keeps people to stay on top of cutting edge technology and the other keeps them away from the vast majority of the users that don't live in the valley.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of being surrounded by the smartest of the smart people in the valley. However for entrepreneurs it is equally important to stay grounded in the reality. As cool as iPod was and iPhone is and iPad/iSlate will be it takes years for the products to cross the chasm and many products simply vanish. If you are designing a product in the valley please do me a favor - find your users outside the valley. They are the real people, the mass, that you should be designing for. It took Facebook 5 years to go from 5M users to 350M users and Foursquare is just the beginning of what's more to come. If you are in the valley building the next big thing, be real. Hangout with all the cool kids on the block but don't forget that you will have to cross the chasm and it won't be easy.

Tomorrow Apple is going to announce the tablet. When I take the bus tomorrow I will face the question from the driver: "So, what do you think of the tablet?". While I prepare my answer, check out this hilarious "In The Valley" performance that resonates well with what we see and how we think.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What Can Enterprise Software Learn From CES? - Embrace Ubiquitous Convergence

One of the biggest revelations to me from my trip to CES is that the ubiquitous computing, once an academic concept, has finally arrived. The data, voice, device, and display convergence is evident from the products that I saw. There has been wide coverage of CES by many bloggers who track consumer technology. However, as a strategist and an enterprise software blogger, I have keen interest in assessing the impact of this ubiquitous convergence in consumer technology on enterprise software.

I believe that the consumers will soon start expecting the ubiquitous experience in everything that they touch and interact with ranging from their coffee cups to the cars and everything in between. This effect is going to be even more pronounced amongst millennial who grew up digitally and are entering into the workforce with an expectation of instant gratification. The mobile phone revolution was consumer-driven at large and Apple made the Smartphone category popular and appealing to non-enterprise consumers. These consumers slowly started expecting similar experience in enterprise software, because of which, many enterprise software vendors are now scrambling for making mobile a priority. I suggest that they learn a lesson from this and stay ahead of the curve when this ubiquitous convergence picks up momentum.

So what exactly does this mean to the enterprise ISVs?

Any surface can be an interface and a display:

I saw a range of new interface and display technology including pico projector, multi-touch screen by 3M, a screen with haptic feedback, and 3D gestural interfaces. A combination of a cheap projector and a camera could turn any surface into a display or an interface. The consumers will interact with software in unanticipated and unimaginable ways. This will put ISVs under pressure to support these alternate displays and interfaces. I see this as an opportunity for ISVs to differentiate their offering by leveraging instead of succumbing to this technology trend. Imagine a production floor that has the cameras and projectors mounted on all the walls. A maintenance technician could walk in and the maintenance information is projected on the machine itself which also doubles as a touch interface. The best interface is no interface. We all use software because we have to.

Location-based applications and geotagging will be a killer combination:

Google's Favorite Places and Nokia's Point and Find (that I saw at CES) are attempts to organize, and importantly, to own the information about places and objects using QR codes. The QR codes are fairly easy to generate and has flexible and extensible structure to hold useful information. The QR code readers are the devices that most of us already own - a camera phone with a working data connection. Combine geotagging with Augmented Reality that is already fueling the innovation in location-based applications, you have got a killer combination that could lead to some breakthrough innovation. This trend can easily be extended to the enterprise software to geotag objects and the associated processes from cradle-to-grave that provide contextual information to people when they interact with the software and the objects. This could lead to efficient manufacturing, smarter supply chain, and sustainable product life cycle management.

3D will go from "cool" to "useful" sooner than you think:

Yes, you and I will be wearing those 3D glasses in our living rooms and may be in our offices as well. Prada and Gucci might make them. What seems like beginning of 3D with movies, video games, and game consoles this area is going to explode with the opportunities. What is being designed as "cool" will suddenly be "useful". With the exception of a few niche solutions ISVs will likely brush off 3D as not relevant in the beginning until someone unlocks the pot of gold and everyone else will follow. Simply replicating 3D analog in a digital world will not make software better. Adding third dimension as an eye candy could actually introduce noise for the users that can look at the data in 2D more effectively. The ISV will have to hunt for the scenarios that amplify cognition and help users understand the data around certain business processes that are beyond their capacity to process in 2D. The 3D technology will be more effective when it is used in conjunction with complementing technology such as multi-touch interface to provide 3D affordances and with location-based and mapping technology to manage objects in 3D analog world.

The rendering technology will outpace non-graphics computation technology:

The investment into rendering hardware such as Toshiba's TV with the cell processors and graphic cards from ATI and nVidia complement the innovation in display elements technology e.g. LED, OLED, energy-efficient plasma etc. The combination of faster processor and sophisticated software is delivering hi-quality graphics at all form factors. The enterprise software ISV have so far focused on algorithmic computation of large volume of data to design various solutions. The rendering computation technology always lagged non-graphics data computation technology. Finally the rendering computation has not only caught up but it will outpace non-graphics data computation in some areas very soon. This opens up opportunities to design software that not only can crunch large volume of data but can leverage high-quality graphics without any perceived lag that delivers stunning user experience and realtime analysis and analytics.

Consumers will have "Personal Cloud" to complement the public cloud:

Okay, this is a stretch, but let me make an attempt to put all the pieces together. The consumers now have access to ridiculously powerful processors and plenty of storage in their set-top boxes, computers, appliances etc. These devices can be networked using wired and wireless devices that support wireless HDMI and USB 3.0. This configuration starts to smell like a mini "Personal Cloud" even though it does not have all the cloud properties. The public cloud, as we all know today, will mature and grow beyond utility computing and SaaS. The public cloud, the hardware that leverages IP6 and multicasting, and sophisticated CDN will see plenty of innovation ranging from streaming movies to calibrating carbon footprint of consumers against their neighbors. The public cloud and the personal cloud will complement each other in providing seamless ubiquitous user experience across all the devices. The ISV who will leverage the cloud and the channels to these consumers' devices have great potential to grow their portfolio of solutions that extends well beyond enterprise software and has a lot more productive and delighted users.

I don't want to predict what is a fad and what is the future but the convergence is clear and present. It is upto the ISVs to be innovative and find the golden nuggets and tune out the noise to deliver better business value to their customers.

On a side note, I really badly want this iPhone controlled AR.Drone - the coolest toy that I saw at CES!