It’s not just a smart move, it is a brilliant move. Facebook brings back the glory of making software. While many large IT companies rushes to control both the software and the hardware as a way to dominate the market, Facebook is attempting to succeed by just being best at designing great software. In a way this is similar to what Microsoft has done through their partnership with Nokia, only at a grander scale. Google must be secretly brooding now. For a moment Google seemed to have it all, software and hardware together set in motion in a big wave overwhelming their long time foe, Apple. But here it is, the nightmare called Facebook is back on the front page. All that money poured into Android and Motorola hasn’t yet given any assurance that it will lead to world domination as planned.
The beauty of Facebook Home, as a concept as we don’t know how successful this is going to be, is its simplicity. Facebook created a social software layer on top of an entire ecosystem: Android operating system, hardware manufacturers, telecommunication networks and application developers. They have a phone, without having a phone. If there is someone else affected almost as much as Google is that must be Samsung. They have tried hard to build a services shop on their phone for some time, but with not much success. The media still calls the Samsung branded software applications ‘bloat ware’. And here it is, Facebook just comes along and in one swoop they capture the attention of all those eyeballs. At least what they hope they will do.
The move is brilliant, but it doesn’t guarantee success. Facebook desktop attraction started to lose some of its lustre and consumers have cooled off a bit. It will be interesting to see how the consumer will feel when Facebook is in their face all the time. Mark Zuckerberg describe Facebook Home as “highest quality experience you can have on Android“. If this is true, then the chances of broad adoption are greatly enhanced, but if not, the brand might suffer. The highest risk for Facebook is that although this move is brilliant, it may be too brilliant for their own good. Users may feel Facebook is too much into their lives. Success could irritate because by occupying the space in a dominant way it causes resentment. We have to wait and see.
It Facebook is successful, this may lead to the demise of good old phone number system. Instead of calling your friends using the telephone system, you just talk to your friends using the Facebook voice or video chat. Your Facebook ID could well be your next phone number.
A smartphone today has more computational power than Apollo 13. The computerised devices around us are increasingly smarter and they multiply at high speed changing the ecosystem in which we live. Some of us may feel suffocated by this change and with all the software code we use every day it seems human emotion is valued less and less.
One of the changes becoming more visible by the passing of each day is the invasion of data in the way we think. The digital replaces the analogue. Every move is broken down into small components and expressed into a binary form. Time is digital, distance is digital, the images are digital and the sounds are digital. The last two frontiers resisting to conversion are the tactile and the smell sense, but it is just a matter of time before they capitulate.
Has the technology made us less human?
It all started with “let’s improve our lives”. The cars have better controls, the phones are more convenient and helpful and the digital cameras are so good in capturing personal memories. At a personal level, this is a welcome upgrade. We like that.
But then, gradually, as these devices kept crunching numbers and generating more data than ever, a new development has grown out of the science labs into the daily life of the average person. This new wave of change is incessant and unforgiving. We were comfortable with the introduction of computing units at the beginning because the adoption process was so familiar: it was industrial, it was large and remote. The Univac, the IBM mainframes and the likes fit our industrial model of the world. There was a kind of order we were used to and we liked: punching cards required scheduling and approval from authority; the computer rooms had managers who made decisions after careful and lengthy considerations. In the old James Bond movies the computer labs are static, inflexible and secretive.
Digital change comes in waves
The first wave was about the macro-economy. Large data bits helped the modelling (through accidental and implicit development or by design) national economies and world trade in new ways leading to globalisation. The abundance of data changes the way nations trade among themselves, how populations live and how big infrastructure projects are built. One example in which this change had an impact on the human expression is tourism. Kevin Kelly (in “Pre-Globalization”) remarked how we lost in one swoop access to great historical and human treasures hidden in distant corners of the world. “Now every village gets visitors every now and then. Just as you get electricity, you get visitors. Multiplied by millions every year, the exchange produces a subtle leavening, a quiet education; a silent bridging that may in the end be as powerful as electricity and roads”.
The second wave brought change at home, at school, at work at individual level. You could call this the BYOD wave. It’s all about personal stuff. Maybe this started in the 90s when the PC started slowly to make its way into our lives with CD-ROMs, games and word processors. It is still happening at much accelerated pace: smartphones, tablets, heart monitors, digital cameras, etc.
The third wave, which started about 10 years ago, is about big data. Amazon was probably the first to recognise the value of customer data and monetise it successfully. Large networks received bits of information generated by our interaction with the electronic medium and make sense of what happens by reading behavioural patterns. All these innocent and cute devices that we love to have are in fact little Trojan horses opening the doors to a scary guy called Big Data. This guy is demanding now that we do things differently, forget about our old ‘human’ ways and learn new rational tricks.
Take this as an example: Progressive Insurance offers an insurance plan 30% less expensive if you agree to install a black box called Snapshot on your car. This device counts how often your slam you breaks, how many miles you drive and how often you drive between midnight and 4am. This a classic behavioural learning scheme based on stimuli and response. We are like lab rats.
Skills from out-of-body experience
The most unsettling aspect of the way big data influences our lives is that it diminished the value of knowledge accumulated through direct personal experience. As an individual we need to get good skills at learning about global knowledge and understand the large patterns. Intuition and emotion are very important, but it is essential to get better at bypassing emotional impulses based on individual experience in favour of “emotional” data patterns based on the experience of large groups. We need to develop antennas that capture large social digital signals.
So, are we less human?
In the grand scheme of things, the answer is no. We will be just different. If you take a hard look at our past, we were not that human as we want us to believe. Let’s not forget that there was a time when we thought children are little monsters and their evil needed to be eliminated through pain. Beating was OK. Jonathan Swift even proposed poor parents eat their children to reduce their burden and for the benefit of the public.
To survive, the human race needed to adopt behaviours that while cruel from a modern perspective it made sense at the time. We are readier to understand this when we observe other species. We watch on TV how lions kill the cubs bestowed with the ‘wrong’ DNA and we listen thoughtfully the voice of the narrator that explains that this is just natural selection. If we were an alien sitting on a distant couch and watch us changing family values, adopt new social norms and promotion systems would we be surprised at all about our new adopted behaviours? Not likely.
They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
Now that the dust settled and everyone forgot about Nokia’s decision to partner with Microsoft, I can write quietly about why I think this is a good deal for both Nokia and Microsoft.
If you have a look around in the news world you will see that all the rage is about Apple versus Google, iPhone against Android iPad fighting the Honeycomb wave. Microsoft and Nokia are off the radar, as if they don’t exist. December 2010 saw Google activating 300,000 phones per day. This is a nightmare for Microsoft and Nokia is not doing much better on the much publicised “burning platform”.
But maybe in the long run, the evolution will not follow this trend in a linear fashion. We are wired to extrapolate past and present events and “predict” the future based on educated expectations. The expectation is that Android will keep growing at this pace and dominate the market copiously. I challenge this expectation.
The fact that so many manufacturers are crowding the Android space is because the mobile computing is really hot and growing fast. Google is the cheapest way for these manufacturers to have a piece of action with zero investment in the operating system. Consumers cannot get enough of it. Apple opened the floodgates with the launch of the iPhone. In one stroke Steve Jobs changed the telecomm space and moved the centre of gravity from network services providers to computing ecosystem makers.
If you browse the media chatter about mobile phones, the talk is still focused on handsets. The reviews analyse new models based on a few hardware design considerations; the operating system is never a differentiator within the Android camp. This is where things are going to be interesting in the next couple of years. A true complete design is not solely about the handset, but about integration in an ecosystem that is useful, practical, innovative, secure and aesthetically pleasing in the same time.
When it comes to the ecosystem, Apple has an edge against Google. One example is that all models in the Android space are compared with either iPhone or iPad. This is free advertising for Apple all the way. For individual manufacturers of handsets in the Android space the innovation process is limited to hardware details and there isn’t much room for playing outside the boundaries set by Google. Each one of them wants to gain market share not only against Apple but against the other Android players. For now the market accommodates all participants and it rewards them handsomely. But the day of reckoning is coming fast because the market has a limited size. Someone will loose badly.
This is why I believe Nokia made a good decision, provided Microsoft will do its part. Microsoft and Nokia can combine their research capabilities and resources to create an ecosystem rivalling Apple’s in a way that Google and the Android manufacturers cannot accomplish because there is too much inconsistency and strategic conflict among all the participants. In the long run Samsung, HTC and Motorola will compete among themselves at hardware level with little scope for value add.
Microsoft and Nokia have a chance to do something different and start a really interesting race with Apple. Nokia has outstanding customer service and it can exploit this partnership best by focusing on innovating this product category in a way the Android partners cannot dream of. Because of the critical strategic overlap between Microsoft and Nokia, it is possible that Nokia will be able to influence the direction of future design. One space in which these two partners can innovate is in shopping experience, such as for instance purchasing using the mobile phone and instant access to product information (Microsoft is a leader in the advanced product tagging). The Windows ecosystem can be developed to create a better market place experience. That is IF Microsoft will be able to support the partnership in a more creative way. Until now it hasn’t shown much and sometimes their effort in this space reminds me of the days when IBM was trying desperately to revive OS/2 when they failed because they could not get rid of the habit of behaving like a massive rigid corporation and compete with a much nimbler Microsoft.
Recently, according to TechCrunch a small online recruitment operation, called Pursuit was acquired by Facebook. What interest has Facebook in this company? If this is what I think it is, this transaction may signal that the online recruitment business is starting to heat-up, mutating into something else and getting a new face and a new hair style.
LinkedIn is ramping up their service offerings by adding more features designed for job seekers and prospective employers. Almost by stealth, LinkedIn increased the tempo in their attempt to become the central station for their members when it comes to career building opportunities. LinkedIn has an excellent database and it is attractive to professionals with its clean aspect and business focus. The next natural step is to use its large database to create new services for individual members to help them liaise with prospective employers. This starts to look like recruitment services. The move should make the established players such as Monster and Seek very nervous because while the latter have a good brand name in recruitment industry they are focused on advertising and their data is centred around job ad placement as opposed to professional profiling and career management. LinkedIn has rich data which appeals also to the end business users who want to bypass the recruitment agencies.
Recently online recruitment agencies started to offer an extension of their traditional services to the job seeking members encouraging them to place their CV online. Seek.com.au offers self-promotion to their members which looks a bit like LinkedIn user profile. I tend to think it is too late. LinkedIn has a winning position and it will go from strength to strength threatening to make the traditional ad placement players irrelevant. However, Facebook’s move will make things more interesting now. As a consolation prize for job ad placement business crowd, the online recruiters that are a side business for large online newspapers will have a tough time and I believe they will become a cost centre difficult to justify in the long run.