Posts Tagged‘innovation’

OSX El Capitan: Countdown to Mac iOS.

When you think of Apple what kind of company do you think they are? Many will answer that they’re a technology company, some a computing company, but there are precious few who recognise them as a hardware company. Whilst they may run large non-hardware enterprises like the App Store and iTunes these all began their lives as loss-leaders for their respective hardware platforms (the iPhone and the iPod). OSX didn’t start out its life in that way, indeed it was long seen as the only competitor to Windows with any significant market share, however it has been fast approaching the same status as its iCompanions for some time now and the recently announced El Capitan version solidifies its future.

OSX El Capitan

I haven’t covered an OSX version in any detail since I mentioned OSX Lion in passing some 4 years ago now and for good reason: there’s simply nothing to write about. The Wikipedia entry on OSX versions sum up the differences in just a few lines and for the most part the improvements with each version come down to new iOS apps being ported and the vague “under-the-hood” improvements that come with every version. The rhetoric from Apple surrounding the El Capitan release even speaks to this lack of major changes directly, stating things like “Refinements to the Mac Experience” and “Improvements to System Performance” as their key focus. Whilst those kinds of improvements are welcome in any OS release the fact that the last 6 years haven’t seen much in the way of innovation in the OSX product line is telling of where it’s heading.

The Mountain Lion release of OSX was the first indication that OSX was likely heading towards an iLine style of product with many iOS features making their way into the operating system. Mavericks continued this with the addition of another 2 previously iOS exclusives and Yosemite bringing Handoff to bridge between other iOS devices. El Capitan doesn’t make any specific moves forward in this regard however it is telling that Apple’s latest flagship compute product, the revamped and razor thin Macbook, is much more comparable to an upscale tablet than it is to an actual laptop. In true Apple fashion it doesn’t really compare with either, attempting to define a new market segment in which they can be the dominant player.

If it wasn’t obvious what I’m getting at here is that OSX is fast approaching two things: becoming another product in the iOS line and, in terms of being a desktop OS, irrelevance. Apple has done well with their converged ecosystem, achieving a level of unification that every other ecosystem envies, however that strategy is most certainly focused on the iOS line above all else. This is most easily seen in the fact that the innovation happens on iOS and then ported back to OSX. This is not something that I feel Apple would want to continue doing long into the future. Thus it would seem inevitable that OSX would eventually pass the torch to iOS running on a laptop form factor, it’s just a matter of when.

This is not to say it would be a bad thing for the platform, far from it. In terms of general OS level tasks OSX performs more than adequately and has done so for the better part of a decade. What it does mean however is that the core adherents which powered Apple’s return from the doldrums all those years ago are becoming a smaller part of Apple’s overall strategy and will thus recieve much less love in the future. For Apple this isn’t much of a concern, the margins on PCs (even their premium models), have always been slim when compared to their consumer tech line. However for those who have a love for all things OSX they might want to start looking at making the transition if an iOS based future isn’t right for them.

Building Australia’s Silicon Valley (or The NBN Gambit).

It may come as a surprise to you to find out that Australia is a predominately service base industry. Whilst it’s hard to argue that we’ve enjoyed the benefits of the current mining boom Australia’s GDP is still predominately derived from our service industry, to the tune of 69% (pg. 134). Still the current prosperity and insulation from global economic crises that Australia has received from the growing mining sector won’t last forever and now is the time for us to start looking towards the future so we can ensure future economic prosperity. I strongly believe that we’ve already undertaken the first steps towards achieving this with the implementation of the National Broadband Network.

Australia as it stands today suffers from an incredible amount of skill drain to other countries. Well over half of the Australian residents who leave Australia for over a year or permanently were skilled workers and whilst the trend has gone down in recent times (thanks wholly to Australia’s isolation from the global economic turmoil) that hasn’t stemmed the flow of talent leaving our shores. For the high technology sectors at least there is the potential to recreate the hot bed of innovation that led to the creation of Silicon Valley on the back of the NBN. This would not only stem the brain drain overseas but would produce large and sustainable gains to the Australian economy.

Right now the public view of the NBN varies wildly. Businesses by and large have no idea what benefits it can bring them, public opinion is mixed (although Senator Conroy says differently) and even the federal government seems at a loss to what it could mean for Australia’s future, doling out cash to local governments in the hope they’ll be able to sell it for them. To combat this the government should instead provide incentives and seed capital to high-tech start ups who are looking to leverage Australia’s upcoming ubiquitous high speed Internet infrastructure, in essence building an Australian Silicon Valley.

Doing this requires co-ordination with entrepreneurial communities, venture capitalists and the willing hand of the government. They could easily make investment in these kinds of companies more desirable by extending tax breaks that are currently enjoyed by other asset classes to investment in NBN based high-tech start ups. This would also make Australian based startups incredibly attractive for overseas investors, pumping even more money into the Australian economy. As the sector grows there would also be an increasing amount of ancillary jobs available, ones that accompany any form of corporation.

Australia would then become a very desirable location for both established and aspiring businesses looking to expand into the Asia-Pacific region. It also works in the reverse, giving Asia-Pacific businesses (and nations) a more local launch pad into the western business world. Establishing Australia as a high tech hub between our strong local ties and western allies abroad would provide a massive economic boost to Australia, one to rival that of the current mining boom.

Of course it’s not like this hasn’t been tried before in Australia, indeed many have tried to recreate the success of the valley with little results. Indeed I believe this is due to a lack of co-operation between the key players, namely the government, entrepreneurs and investors. The NBN represents a great opportunity for the government to leverage the industry not only to ensure Australia’s future economic prosperity but also to establish Australia as a leader in technology. I believe that the government should be the ones to take the first steps towards fostering such an environment in Australia as once the industry knows they have the support they’ll be far more willing to invest their time in creating it.

Not leveraging the NBN in such a way would leave the NBN as a simple infrastructure service, woefully underutilised given the capabilities that it could unlock. Make no mistake the NBN puts Australia almost at the top in terms of ubiquitous, high speed Internet access and that makes a lot of services that are currently infeasible to develop attractive targets for investigation. Indeed since the same level of broadband access is almost guaranteed throughout the country it is highly likely that benefits will stretch far past the borders of the CBD, even as far as regional centres.

As someone who’s group up on and made his career in technology it’s my fervent hope that the Australian government recognizes the potential the NBN has and uses that for the betterment of Australia. As a nation we’re well positioned to leverage our investment in infrastructure to provide economic benefits that will far exceed its initial cost. Creating a Silicon Valley of the Asia-Pacific region would elevate Australia’s tech industry to rival those throughout the rest of the world and would have massive benefits far beyond Australia’s borders.

Innovations That Should Be Everywhere.

William Gibson, the author of the seminal cyberpunk book Neuromancer, is quoted as saying that “the future is already here  it’s just not evenly distributed”. I think that’s quite apt as many technological innovations that should be everywhere never seem to get to the places that they need to be. Indeed even when the technology is available some people will simply refuse to use it, instead preferring to do things the way that they’ve always done them because, simply, that that’s the way it’s always been done. As a child of the Y generation I have no qualms upsetting the status quo should it net me some tangible benefit.

I got thinking about this late yesterday afternoon during my usual weekly clean up of the house before the working week. There’s always been this one little innovation that I’ve admired and always wondered why it wasn’t more widespread. It’s simply the bottom of a cheap coffee mug from Ikea:

Now looking at it you could just write that off as simple artistic flair on an otherwise standard coffee cup, but you’d be dead wrong. You see those grooves on the bottom are actually designed to drain water away from the bottom of the cup when it’s upside down, I.E. when it’s in the dish washer. Of all the cups in my household this is the only one that doesn’t have a little pool of water on top of it once the dishwasher has finished. It might seem like a relatively small thing but those little grooves mean that it can dry completely on its own without having a bunch of leftover dish washing scum on top of it. It’s ingenious in its simplicity.

Everyone’s had these sort of ah-ha moments where you find something that makes you question how you’d lived without it before hand. It’s interesting because we, as a species, are highly adaptable and yet conversely we’re also quite resistant to change, at least from my anecdotal point of view. That does seem to be changing with the younger generations picking up new innovations quicker than their predecessors (like social networking and new media) so it’s quite possible that the resistance to change is one that could be overcome in time. History does have an awful habit of repeating itself however and the rapid adoption we witness now might just be an artefact of them growing up in a technological world. Only time will tell for that, however.

 

Resistance is Futile, Integration is Inevitable.

Enabling your users to interact with your application through the use of open APIs has been a staple of the open web since its inception over a decade ago. Before that as well the notion of letting people modify your product helped to create vast communities of people dedicated to either improving the user experience or creating features that the original creators overlooked. I can remember my first experience with this vividly, creating vast levels in the Duke Nukem 3D level creator and showing them off to my friends. Some of these community developed products can even become the killer feature of the original application itself and whilst this is a boon for the application itself it pose some issues to the developer.

Probably the earliest example I can think of this would have to be World of Warcraft. The client has a pretty comprehensive API available that enabled people to create modifications to do all sorts of wonderful things, from the more mundane inventory managers to boss timer mods that helped keep a raid coordinated.  After a while many mods became must haves for any regular player and for anyone who wanted to join in the 40 persons raids they became critical to achieving success. Over the years many of these staple mods got replaced by Blizzard’s very own implementations of them ensuring that anyone that was able to play the game was guaranteed to have them. Whilst most of the creators weren’t enthused that all their hard work was now being usurped by their corporate overlords many took it as a challenge to create even more interesting and useful mods, ensuring their user base stayed loyal.

More recently this issue has come to light with Twitter who are arguably popular due to the countless hours of work done by third parties. Their incredibly open API has meant that anything they were able to do others could do to, even to the point of them doing it better than them. In fact it’s at the point where only a quarter of their traffic is actually on their main site, the other three quarters is from their API. This shows that whilst they’ve built an incredibly useful and desirable service they’re far from the best providers of it, with their large ecosystem of applications filling in the areas where it falls down. More recently however Twitter has begun incorporating features into its product that used to be provided by third parties and the developer community hasn’t been too happy about it.

The two most recent bits of technology that Twitter has integrated have been the new Tweet button (previously provided by TweetMeme) and their new link shortening service t.co which was handled by dozens of others.  The latter wasn’t unique to Twitter at all and whilst many of the new comers to the link shortening space made their name on Twitter’s platform many of them report that it’s no longer their primary source of traffic. The t.co shortener is then really about Twitter taking control of the platform that they developed and possibly using the extra data they can gather from it as leverage in brokering advertising and partnership deals. The Tweet button however is a little bit more interesting.

Way back when news aggregator sites were all the rage. From Digg to Del.icio.us to Reddit there were all manner of different sites designed around the central idea of sharing online content with others. Whilst the methods of story aggregation differed from service to service most of them ended up implementing some kind of “Add this story to X” button that could be put on your website. This served two purposes: it helped readers show a little love to the article by giving it some attention on another site and secondly it gave content to the other site to link to, with little involvement from the user. The TweetMeme button then represented a way to drive Twitter adoption further and at the same time get even more data on their users than they previously had before. Twitter, for what it’s worth, said they licensed some of the technology from TweetMeme for their button however they have still in essence killed off one of their popular services and that’s begun to draw the ire of some developers.

The issue many developers take with Twitter building these services into their main product is because it puts a chilling effect on products based on Twitter’s ecosystem. Previously if you had built something that augmented their service chances were you could build yourself quite the web property. Unlike other companies which would acquire these innovator’s companies in order to integrate their technology Twitter has instead taken to developing the same products themselves, in direction competition with those innovators. The reasons behind this are simple, Twitter simply doesn’t have the cash available to do acquisitions like the big guys do. They’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place as whilst they need to encourage innovation using their platform they can’t let it go on forever, lest they become irrelevant past delivering an underlying service. Realistically the best option for them is to start generating some cash in order to start acquiring innovator’s technology rather than out competing them but they’re still too cash poor for them to this to be viable.

In the end if you build your product around someone else’s service you’re really putting yourself at their mercy. The chill that Twitter is putting on their developers probably won’t hurt them in the long run should they not continue to copy other’s solutions to their problems however their fledgling advertising based business model is at odds with all the value add developers. Twitter is quite capable of doing some impressive innovation on their own (see #newtwitter) but their in house development is nothing compared to the hordes of third parties who’ve been doing their part to improve their ecosystem. I’m interested to see what direction they go with this, especially so since I’m working on what could be classed as a competing service.

Although I’m hoping people don’t see it that way 😛

Maybe You Just Need to Innovate.

There’s been many times when I’ve caught myself with some kind of random idea for a product, service or whatever that I’ve quickly thrown on an ever growing pile of ideas. It doesn’t seem to take long for that one idea that I’ve had to turn from something I thought that I only thought of to someone else’s business venture upon which time I curse myself for not following through on it. Granted many of these ideas have been kicking around in my head for years without them coming to fruition and my recent attempts to develop one of them has been quite the eye opener, showing me that ideas are great and all but implementations are still king.

This is one of the biggest challenges that anyone will come up against when trying to develop a product or service: someone has already done it before. In this world that thrives on innovation being the first to market with a new widget is a powerful force and almost guarantees you the lion’s share of the early adopter market. The problem here is though that being first to market with something means one of two things: either you’re creating a market that didn’t exist before (see Apple and Nintendo as good examples of this) or you’ve seen an established market and noticed something sorely lacking, which pits you against established players in this space. In both these cases if you’re just starting out at being an entrepreneur your friends, family and potential business partners will more than likely shoot a skeptical eye your way telling you that there’s no way it could work.

For the most part they’re right, in a traditional business world starting from scratch is a pretty risky business and whilst the jury is still out on how you can judge failure rates of new companies it’s no secret that you’re more likely to fail than succeed. To an investor a business plan that builds on proven methods will look a lot more attractive as there’s a much better chance that they’ll get a return on their money even if it would be smaller than something that could be perceived as a higher risk. Consequently this has the effect of stifling innovation for certain high risk ventures, although that trend is starting to change.

In the tech industry at least this can be attributed to investors gaining back the confidence they lost in the tech industry back in the dot com bust. After the crash many investors sought more stable investments (and look how that turned out!) and shied away from funding what looked like high risk ventures. As a consequence many hungry start up founders started to make do with a lot less and this drove a phenomenal amount of innovation. Primarily this was to attract their once bitten investors back into the fray and the last couple years has seen the resurgence of the high tech start up craze that we lived through only a decade ago.

For those looking to lash out into the world of tech start ups this means that for any idea that you might have you’re going to be compared to those who’ve come before you. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re destined to fail, it just means that you’ve got your work cut out for you if you’re looking to make an impression in the tech world. Innovation in this fast paced tech world is the name of the game and whilst any market you may care to get into (hats off to you if you manage to create one) may appear to be completely saturated that doesn’t mean you can’t succeed in that space. It all comes down to how you differentiate yourself from the pack.

Maybe this blog post is more for my benefit than anyone else’s as I’m currently staring right down the barrel of trying to attempt such a feat myself. The location space is heating up like crazy and all the large players in other spaces are already integrating location based services into their current offerings. Initially this was a boon for me but I’ve come to realize it first as a hindrance to me progressing my core functionality (Oh another information feed with co-ordinates in it, better integrate that one too!) and secondly as another blow against a product I’m looking to deliver. Realistically though I know what I want to do is different enough from every one else to warrant at least an attempt to make it successful and should it fail I’ll be that much wiser about the whole process, ready to try over again with yet another idea.

Realistically I’d need a team of 100 people to try all the ideas I have, so I could be in this cycle for quite some time 😉

Could Australia pioneer new space technologies?

If there’s one thing about Australia that would appeal to a Space program it would be the large amount of unused space, partially due to its inhability. However, dry conditions with a distinct lack of variable weather do make for great launch sites and technology test beds (See the success of Mojave Air and Space Port). So the question remains, why don’t we see more aeronautical innovation coming out of Australia? Well the answer is two fold but I still believe that there is an untapped opportunity for a certain technology to make its name in Australia.

Although Australia is a resource rich country we lack the capital needed to get a space program off the ground. There’s no discounting the fact that space travel is damned expensive and holding onto the talented people required is difficult even for Australia’s current industries. This means that even though we may have the resources and the talent to do it, Australia just can’t really pony up the few billion a year to support what amounts to a glorified science mission. If Australia’s GDP does get up past a certain level, one where the space program was 1% of GDP or so, we might start to see the government looking seriously at such an initiative, but for now it’s too expensive.

Additionally there’s not enough base infrastructure in place for investors and innovators to take the risk of establishing a aeronautical research company anywhere on Australian shores. Typically, whilst Australian airlines are big purchasers of new technology we aren’t active in research and development. Again I’d put this down to our size since we really don’t have enough people to make development of such technology viable.

However, we do have a massive amount of unused and uninhabitable land right at our doorsteps. Now you may be wondering why this would be useful for testing space technology. Well there’s one kind of tech that requires this much space to be tested safely, the Project Orion. Here’s a video of the idea in action (using normal explosives):

The basic idea behind this kind of rocket is to use nuclear warheads to propel the space craft forward. We all know the devastating power that such devices hold and utilizing them as propulsion is not without its risks. However, even the smallest projected rocket from this technology already passes NASA’s Ares V rocket, and the largest is enough to transport an entire, pre-built city into orbit. Whilst I’m cautious about quoting figures like that it is hard to ignore the lower end of the scale, which would increase our space capability dramatically.

Since we have so much unusable space in the middle of Australia I believe that setting up a base to test this technology on the small scale could be of huge benefit. The risks to people are extremely low, and if we pick the right site the risks to the local flora and fauna could be greatly reduced. It is also a great way to rid ourselves of the nuclear arsenel that has been accumulated over the years.

So, with the resources at hand and a large space to test in, why shouldn’t we give this idea a go?