Monday, February 16, 2009

Video Phones, Blackberrys, Dentists, Carbon Fibre, Chris Paul and Windows '98

Just 3-4 years ago the Video Call was proclaimed the future. In Australia it was championed by 3. A few years earlier NTT DoCoMo and Jphone were also viaing for dominance in the next technological turning point.

The technology trap has always been of interest to me, I remember watching Jack Trout and the other guy on their 'Positioning' video still the most relevant marketing instructional video of all time ripping 'E' the vitamin deoderant to shreds.

I will never work in Telco's unless I am specifically not working on the Tell-co side of the business because I do not have the mental capacity to understand the business of mobile phones.

I think we all know now that at least in 2005, Video Calls were not the future of telecommunications. The ads struggled to make the leap between feature and benefit. And everyone who has had remotely formal sales training knows benifits sell, not features.

For one the ad where the dad gets to read his kid a bead time story had about as much appeal to the general populace as safe injecting houses. Whilst on the surface a reasonable 'harm minimisation' strategy, the fact of business travel and the tendancy for work to dominate a man's family life and crush the dreams of working mother is a horrible reality that hopefully nobody likes.

Further more there's the intrinsic contradiction, why would you need to business travel away from your family if you can make a video call to a customer? Obviously face to face is considered far superior, hence you need to fly across the country to see a customer and video call your daughter to read a bedtime story.

I can't remember any other adds, apart from the weird brand building ones where things that normally didn't come in 3's suddenly did.

But in Japan they had the office lackey making a video call to his boss so his boss could see and select lunch. Arguably then this other harsh reality benefit was not perfected until smell-o-cam was incorparated into their phones, and furthermore was the benefit 'deny your employees even more autonomy'

Suffice to say, the retrospectively predictable failure of video calls might have seemed obvious when looking at the history of profits in mobile phones.

The rampant competition to dominate mobile phones in Australia rsulted in early substantial losses and almost no profits. It wasn't until they introduced SMS or text messages that the business really took off. For some reason consumers thought that an information exchange, an especially inefficient one restricted to 150 characters and so fourth was better than 2-way communication in real time.

At the very least it must have proved an efficient way to dump people, rivaled only by MSN.

So really Video phones were adding more dimensions to communication, instead of the less that consumers demanded. Suddenly you could see peoples facial expressions and what not, and consumers didn't want it.

Who would of thought that the innovation customers craved where actually craving was the Blackberry, making text more efficient, enabling email and later 'surfing the net'. The addition of a keyboard to a larger phone?

Of course in hindsight it seems predictable, but what then of the increasing popularity of webcams in laptops and desktop computers? The rise of skype? People don't want to email on computers, they want to make phone calls, and they don't want to make phone calls on phones, they want to email???

wtf? This is why I would never base a company on technilogical innovation. I have no idea why one thing is a hit and another thing is a flop.

What to for from useless features consumers don't like, what is more confusing are useless features and technological advances that consumers love...

Pro-cyclists really should be obliged to get their teeth checked by a dentist every month. And not because they hit a wheel they've been sitting on in a peloton and convert their momentum into a flawless face plant on the asphalt that often, but because if it weren't for dentists buying Pinarello, Colnago, De Rosa, Specialised, Scott, Trek, Bianchi and GMT carbon monocoque framed road bikes and time trial bikes, there would be no companies to provide the pros with their elite $12,000 cycles.

There would be no Colnago Carbon Deraillers for example, a completely useless addition to any roadbike, with a weight saving of less than 100g and a price tag of $400 more than the next lightest aluminium derailer.

Carbon rims, drink bottle holders and seat posts are more likely suspects admittedly, but the fact remains that these expense technological advances in road cycling gear contribute little to performance and prevent very few portly 50 year olds on their Sunday ride from being overtaken by me on my $1,400 flatbar roadbike by Shogun (a relative piece of shit compared to what most Baby Boomers are riding).

And I'm pretty hefty, having managed to cram 80kg's onto my sub 5'9" frame mostly of fat.

But all that said I understand the primal desire to just own some elaborately fancy piece of property that I can love if not actually get performance out of.

I dream of one day owning a Pinarello Prince, customised in a Red, Black, Yellow and Green Africa paint job and renamed the 'Pinarello Prince Paul' done in a custom De La Soul font. I'd tear it up on that thing, even if I never saw a return on the pro circuit, and more likely never even entered a pro-event.

I kind of understand it, but also kind of don't. I mean surely having a Video phone is just like having a carbon derailer, you never use the feature it was designed for, but it's good to know it's there. You own it. Yet I get the feeling that walking around with a Video Phone would be a badge of shame that could only compare with a guy who gets a tramp stamp tattoo done above their arse crack. (Infact I would applaud a guy that get's a tramp stamp, that would be hilarious and take serious balls).

Perhaps though, the extreme example of useless technology to become part of everyday lexicon and readily adopted, came to us in '98. Windows '98 to be precise. I'm sure Mac devotees will point out Mac had it before, just as they had the Graphical Interface long before Windows 2.1 or whatever, but back in the day Microsoft made things popular and standardised and were thus, unquantifiably better than Mac's who still feel one mouse clicker is all the user needs.

Anyway, I remember the simple and effective ads that was benefits over features epitomised. They had the Windows logo, with it's red, green, blue and yellow quadrants and a mouse cursor clicked on each in succession and they all started doing different things.

The feature was 'multi-tasking' which was so readily adopted it came to describe activities in the office previously known as 'time-wasting' or 'achieving nothingness' as 'multi-tasking' without even needing to incorporate the microsoft feature.

And it was no fault of Microsoft that the feature was useless, Windows is capable of multitasking. The one feature it lacked though was a button you could click to make the human brain capable of multitasking.

The extent of human capacity to multitask is to pat your head while rubbing your belly, and it actually requires such intense concentration that it becomes a singular activity perhaps unworthy of the term 'multi-tasking'

But I alas cannot write a blog post and a crime fiction thriller at the same time, even though I'm sure Windows is capable of handling it. I cannot watch a movie and listen attentively to my mother's 'what happened today' stories.

If you think I'm just some kind of retard, why not try multi-tasking yourself. Simply agree with a friend that when you converse you will 'multi-task' by listening and speaking at the same time instead of breaking it into two seperate activities.

In theory this multitasking should make conversation doubly efficient as you can talk continuously for your half of the conversation without having to stop as you listen to the other half of the conversation without them having to stop talking. What it actually produces is indecipherable noise.

Drucker says that the only person in history that was capable of working on two things (n his case compositions) simultaneously was Mozart, and we only have hearsay to prove that, everyone else in documented human history has done one thing at one time.

But for me, my parochial motto is 'if it doesn't exist in basketball, it doesn't exist in business'

And in basketball multitasking does not exist.

Take a multi-talented player like Chris Paul, who brushed against the league's second ever Quadruple Double earlier this year (double figures in 4 statistical categories). Chris Paul can Score AND Pass (assists) AND Rebound AND Steal proficiently. But he cannot do them simultaneously.

Although it may seem in real time like Chris Paul is doing many things at once, he actually as far as I can testify only needs to do one thing at one time. Start with the rebound, he is on defence and the ball hits a hard rim and is presumably thrown clear of the low post where the games regular rebounders grab boards, Chris Paul puts himself in position and grabs the ball. He simply has to watch the ball, estimate its trajectory and position himself in three seperate singular activities, not multi tasking even though he might do the calculations and make the motions extremely quickly.

He then has to bring the ball up, either on a fast break or a more down tempo half-court transition.

As he brings the ball up here he decides on the offensive play, he may even call one out at the top of the key. It is in this moment he is doing one thing - deciding. Namely he is deciding whether to run the offensive option himself or pass the ball (to another player with preferentially an 'open look' that then shoots the ball registering an assist). He doesn't simultaneously Score and Assist, in what could be called multi-tasking. He simply decides on the best offensive opening, whether that be a no-look pass to an outside shooter near the base line, a pass to an alley-oop, charging the lane for a layup or dunk, faking left/right for an inside shot or doing a fadeaway jumper for a three from downtown.

These are decisions that form one calculation, possibly not all conscious decisions either but cumulative experience, if he decides to charge the lane and finds Battier or Kobe Bryant standing in his path, he will then switch to a secondary decision mode which is the contingency offense, who he can pass to - for an assist or just to retain possession, or do you turf it into Kobe's shoe and hope for a foot violation or out of bounds? Or do you just keep on charging and hope for the offensive foul?

At any rate he makes that decision in one split second and ends up scoring, which he then switches into steal mode, which is looking for an opportunity to knock the ball out of the rival point guards hands and recover it for a fast break. Which Paul is also very good at but still doesn't require multi-tasking.

So all in all, if Chris Paul in this day and age doesn't need to multi-task in basketball then nobody in basketball multi-tasks. And if nobody in basketball multi-tasks then nobody in business multi-tasks.

Multi-tasking is a useless concept but extremely popular. Many confuse it for the ability to switch easily between different applications, but it's a different thing and still of questionable benefit.

If you have 10 Transfer Pricing Spreadsheets open in excel and 10 photoshop documents open in Adobe, 3d sculpture for rendering in Maya and a DIVx movie open in Windows Media Player, your computers memory will suffer from it and performance will follow.

Just as in real life, if you have someone designated as responsible for Customer Service and The Budget, it will be less effective than two people with one priority, guarunteed. Some talent, makes some diversity more managable, but ambition in this case exceeds our grasp just as having a pro-circuit road bike exceeds our ability to ride at 30kph for more than 30 seconds.

So why does one inherently useless feature like Video Phones flop? Whilst other inherantly useless features like Carbon Derailers and multi-tasking software succeed?

Maybe with intense concentration I could figure out some tidy theory about aspirational wants vs. consumer adoption patterns and so fourth, but that would only answer a few specific cases with much intense effort.

If I had to sit back and predict what will be the breakthrough in telecommunications in the next 5 years, I would try and focus on the sitting back phase for around 5 years and then would still probably guess 'morse code?'

Don't base your business on technology in other words.


mr_john said...

I was actually playing guitar while I read your post, and now I'm talking to my brother on skype while I write this.

I like multi-tasking...

ohminous_t said...

maybe you have exceptional interrupt cycles. I would dare say though that you wrote that comment while not listening to your brother talk on skype. Did you try talking and listening simultaneously?

Admittedly I haven't experimented extensively with an MRI, so I don't know if muscle memory (as employed with things like playing guitar, typing or shooting bball) can overcome my broad definition of multi-tasking.

point taken.

mr_john said...

You're certainly right that each becomes less efficient. i.e. effectiveness of uninterrupted X > effectiveness of simultaneous X, but I'm not convinced that productivity of simultaneous actions X and Y per unit time > productivity of sequential actions X and Y per unit time.

Of course, this works best when your secondary task is something relatively mindless, like playing scales or typing a short comment that you'd already thought of previously.

I find holding a conversation while playing easy guitar pretty simple, but my sentences become punctuated with rather long gaps when I'm playing something involved (as Shelley can attest when she tries to talk to me while I'm playing). I understand and know how I want to respond, my brain just gets overloaded.

You know, there are certain examples I can think of where multitasking makes you more effective. e.g. running while listening to music. Hmm, most of the examples I can come up with involve listening to music while you're doing something but maybe that has to do more with the fact that we only have enough appendages to do one involved thing at a time. If we had three hands maybe we could knit and pick our nose at the same time.

So, in summation, I think that there is some value in multi-tasking and that you can gain efficiencies from it, but (like most things in the world) taking it too far is a recipe for failure. The challenge is finding the sweet spot.