Future trends

Technology as narcissism?

As the gadgets to capture audio and video get smaller and lighter, and as the tools to edit that content and then distribute it via the Internet become easier to use, I think there is a danger of narcissism, or what I call the "look at me" phenomenon.

Lately I've been getting more email that goes something like this: "Look what I just did! It's great! Stop by my Web site and watch the video (or listen to the audio)."

The subtext is "Whatever I just did is way more important than anything you happen to be doing, so stop what you are doing and look at what I am doing."

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Is a computer a computer?

We are just at the dawn of the computer age. I know that because we are finally seeing computers that are not just, well, computers. The $99 iPod shuffle, barely larger than a stick of gum, is thousands of times more powerful computationally than my first hand-built personal computer from 1977. And we don't think of an iPod as a computer at all, but it is. Cellphones are handheld computers that have been programmed to behave like phones (and cameras, and calendars, etc.).

I started thinking about this when I read about Asterisk, which is an Open Source software project that makes a cheap Linux or Macintosh computer behave like a PBX. PBX is an old phone company acronym for Private Branch Exchange, or a small telephone switch normally owned only by medium and large companies because they have been very expensive.

But now any small business can afford a PBX simply by downloading this free software and installing it. It works with most popular Voice over IP protocols, and interoperates with other common telephone equipment. It's an incredible piece of work that is the result of probably hundreds of people working collaboratively for the common good.

And it must scare the pants off companies like Lucent, Alcatel, and others that still make a lot of money selling telephone switches. The world we knew is crumbling around us, and dazzling new opportunities are emerging.

I've been reading a lot of historical fiction and nonfiction recently. I've slowly been ploughing through Neal Stephenson's three book opus on the late 1600s and early 1700s. I'm just finishing up book two, ,The Confusion. It's a fictional account of those turbulent times when the first global economy began to emerge and innovations like paper money changed the rules of nations and commerce simultaneously. Stephenson is a genius of a writer, rooting his story firmly in the real history of the time, including figures like Isaac Newton and Leibniz, both of whom had a profound effect on that era.

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Podcasting explodes

Podcasting started a few months ago among a small group of geeks who cobbled together some software that makes it easy to download sound files from the Web and squirt them right into an iPod or other portable music player.

The best description I've seen for it is in this article, which calls it "Tivo for radio." Podcasting allows you to download audio content and listen to it whenever you like, as opposed to listening to radio live.

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Is the Internet good or bad for us?

The New York Times (reg. required) has an article summarizing a new study on the impact of the Internet on our lives. As past studies have found, TV is the big loser, with Internet users watching about 17% less television. That's probably not bad news.

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Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

I'll be posting irregularly over the next week and a half. Thanks for all your support over the past year. Traffic and readership on the site has quadrupled since this time last year, and I am deeply grateful that so many of you find this site of value.

All my best,
Andrew Cohill

Technology News:

Return of the phone booth

Ellen Goodman, in her syndicated column, writes that some restaurants are installing phone booths so that customers who want to talk on a cellphone have a place to go and do so without disturbing everyone else. A nice idea, and a neat compromise between those who feel they can't even get through a meal without answering the phone and those that feel they can.

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Cellphones appear to damage DNA

According to European scientists who have concluded a four year long study of cellphone radiation (the same gigahertz level frequencies used in microwave ovens, by the way), cellphone radiation appears to cause damage at the DNA level in cells, and not all of it was repairable by the cell. This means you end up with mutated cells in your body, which is one suspected cause of some cancers. Scientists agree more study is needed. The cellphone industry has no response.

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Birth of the Diamond Age

Neal Stephenson, some years ago, wrote a prescient novel called "The Diamond Age," about a time in the near future when diamonds are, literally, cheap as dirt. Stephenson, who is arguably the best novelist of the past fifty years with respect to taking emerging technology trends and crafting intriguing storylines around them, imagined a world where even the most common of objects could be made from diamonds--kitchen knives, as an example, that are much sharper than razors but never need to be sharpened because of the, well, diamond-hard edge.

Technology News:

IBM gives up

IBM has sold their PC business to a Chinese firm. There has been much news coverage about this. They sold it for just over $1 billion, which is a paltry sum, considering the global market.

Most of the news coverage has been about whether or not it is a "good deal" for IBM. The conventional wisdom has been saying it makes sense for IBM to get out of a cutthroatl, commodity market with razor-thin margins.

But I see something different in the sale. What I see is a company that, like much of the rest of the IT industry, is intellectually bankrupt. It's almost beyond belief that IBM, with some of the brightest people in the industry on its staff, could not come with anything new, different, or interesting to differentiate IBM pcs from a cheap clone.

PCs are horrible devices. They work poorly, are virus-prone, are hard to fix and hard to maintain, and make simple things bizarrely complex much of the time. IBM could not come with a single thing that would make the PC better? This does not bode well for the American IT industry, for it IBM couldn't do it, with the resources the company has, who else will? Gateway can't. Dell won't--Dell makes it money selling stuff cheaper than everyone else, so it won't spend a nickel on research and development.

Microsoft is still two years away from the mythical Longhorn software upgrade to Windows. Longhorn has been in development for so many years now, it's almost a joke.

The only hardware innovation is coming from Apple. Apple has been delivering a major software upgrade every year for years, and issues minor upgrades almost every other month. Apple's hardware, year after year, wins design awards for it's good looks and functionality. Apple constantly strives to make its equipment simpler to use--the new G5 iMac requires, in one configuration, just one cable--the power cable--to be fully functional. That's right, you take it out of the box, plug it in the wall, and the machine is ready for use. And Apple's hardware is now cheaper, on a feature by feature basis, than Wintel pcs.

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The coffeehouse as office space

Glenn Reynolds, better know as Instapundit, has an article on Tech Central Station about the emerging trend of using public WiFi hotspots as business meeting places.

I wrote about this a while back, but Reynolds makes some interesting points, including this one about the effect on the real estate market:

Ukraine and the Internet

It's not being covered much in the news, but you can be sure that the demonstrations against the stolen election in Ukraine is being organized in large part via the Internet.

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Carbon nanotube yarns

Researchers have made what is being called a major breakthrough--a new process that allows the production of yarns made from carbon nanotubes.

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Big Brother will be watching while you drive

In a deeply disturbing ruling, the National Transportation Safety Board has ruled that car manufacturers must put black box data recorders in new cars and trucks. The boxes will record speed, acceleration, braking, direction, and other data that could be used to reconstruct accidents, among other things.

More on videoconferncing

I wrote yesterday about Apple's excellent and free videoconferencing software. Last night, I saw a Microsoft ad touting the advantages of their LiveMeeting product. It's interesting to look at the two very different approaches to the same market space.

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Kitty Hawk and Mojave, California: SpaceShipOne wins the X Prize

Bert Rutan's SpaceShipOne won the $10 million X Prize by sending a ship into suborbital space twice in two weeks. The second of two successful flights took place today, and Mojave, California will likely become a historical milestone alongside Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Who do you know?

Following up on the new Book of the Month (The Hidden Power of Social Networks), here are some of the conclusions from the book, and they may surprise you.

  • It costs an organization or business money to foster collaboration and to support it over the long term. Too many organizations pay lip service to the notion of collaboration but don't do what it takes to support it or make the changes needed to encourage it.
  • Technology and personal expertise does not distinguish high performers. In other words, having a lot of technology stuff and being good at using it does not, in and of itself, make a person more effective. The authors caution that workers do need the appropriate technology to do their jobs, but a lot of toys do not make someone smarter or better.
  • One of the best predictors of high performance workers is how diversified their personal network is--the more diversified it is, the more likely they are ranked above average. In other words, who you know is what is important, more so that what you know, because the authors indicate that "relationships are critical for obtaining information, solving problems, and learning how to do your work."

I've been collaborating with Rick Smyre of Communities of the Future on capacity-building needs for organizations and communities, and one of the key concepts we have identified is "learning webs."

A learning web is a small group of people who have a strong trust relationship and who are committed to helping each other learn about and stay current with new ideas, concepts, and information that may be important to individuals in the group.

Do you have a learning web? What about your personal relationship network? Do you have a small group of people with whom you are comfortable asking for help? What about your community? One of the things you can do to help your community get connected with the Knowledge Economy is to help form learning webs centered around economic development, civic affairs, and local governance.

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We're not reading...

An article from the July 19th issue of Newsweek talks about recent studies that indicate young adults (between 18 and 34) are now reading less than any other group. Even worse, this used to be the group that read the most.

Even worse, instead of reading, this group has become largely "passive consumers of electronic entertainment." Video games, entertainment Web sites, and TV are taking the place of exercising our brains.

The iPod goes to school

In a widely reported story, Apple's iPod will be given to all Duke University freshman this fall.

The handheld computers will be loaded with course materials, lecture notes, and other university-related materials. While at Virginia Tech, I was involved with freshman orientation (providing information on university computers and networks), and I can tell you the incoming students get an enormous stack of paper, most of which is probably never read.

Budget Suites is opening a space hotel

The owner of Budget Suites of America, Bob Bigleow, has had a secret operation at work for the past several years in Nevada, building a space hotel. Not surprisingly, one of his closest associates is Burt Rutan, owner and designer of SpaceShipOne, which flew into space just a couple of weeks ago.

Bigelow and Rutan together are creating synergy. Rutan's spaceships will attract a lot more paying customers if he has somewhere to take them, and Bigelow's space hotel needs an inexpensive (i.e. non-government controlled) spaceship to get folks to and from orbit.

Sound crazy? No, it's the global Knowledge Economy at work. The article is long, but well worth reading to the end, where Bigelow describes how he has cut costs ($200 million versus the $50 billion Nasa has spent) by shopping globally. Bigelow cited one example of a subsystem he needed; an American aerospace company wanted $100 million to design and build it. Instead, he bought it in Europe for $1.3 million.

Like it or not, we're at the dawn of a new age. No, it's not the Information Age; that was over 2 years ago. In the Knowledge Economy, as Bigelow is demonstrating, who you know is more important than what you know. Bigelow has been able to reach out globally, forge business relationships with firms in other countries, and design and build better and faster than NASA. NASA is stuck trying to make "old" relationships work; the government agency has had numerous failures and despite all the money it has spent, has not been able to advance its program.

What about your region? Are you still stuck trying to make "old," Manufacturing Economy relationships work? Are you helping your existing businesses learn to shop globally for the parts, products, and services they need to be competitive in a world market? Are you throwing away the rulebook and starting with a fresh sheet of paper to create your economic development strategy?

A good use for RFID tags

Delta Airlines has announced plans to use RFIDs (Radio Frequency ID) to track and manage luggage. Finally--a great use for RFIDs that has no privacy problems (unlike proposals to embed them in clothing so that we can be tracked 24 hours a day by the Gap). An RFID on a luggage tag will allow the airline to be able to tell where a piece of luggage is virtually in real time.


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