There are a lot of arguments to be made that we are currently living in the future. We carry in our pockets computers that are incredibly fast with screens that are higher resolution than our capacity to discern. We’ve got voice activated personal assistants, video chat, and 3d maps that are right out of science fiction. We even have e-books and tablets! All the elements are in place for a tech-utopia.
But it doesn’t feel very future-ish, does it? Why?
What we’re lacking today is a unifying force. Something that brings all of our tech magic into a cohesive whole. It isn’t an operating system, or an app. This force is equal parts software, marketing, business, and licensing. There’s an absurd fortune to be made by whoever can sort it out. Of course, I think I’ve done that.
A Day In My Modern Future
Let me walk you through my vision of a day with current tech all operating in the grasp of this force. Nothing in this scenario is outside the scope of currently available technology. Everything I’m talking about is already out or will be by the end of 2013, and if you want to learn more I’ve linked out to a lot of the relevant tech.
First things first, your phone wakes you up. It doesn’t do this at a specific time, it does it at the last possible second taking into account when you need to be at work, how long you take to get ready, your morning coffee-stop, the weather, and the current, real-time traffic conditions.
You ask aloud for what your day is going to be like and get a quick briefing on any new e-mails, your day’s meetings, and even the weather.
You get dressed and you’re off into the world with just your phone. You don’t bring keys or a wallet, because you won’t need them.
As you leave the AC in your house automatically stops running, the lights turn off, and the front door locks behind you. When you get to your car the door unlocks as you approach, and starts with the press of a button.
A map comes up on your car’s screen with directions to work. A voice asks if you’ll be stopping for coffee, and answer “yes” and the map updates with directions to the coffee shop. You speak your coffee order aloud in the car and drive away.
When you get to the coffee shop you discover your drink has just finished being prepared. You scan your fingerprint on your phone to unlock it, tap your phone to a pad by the register, take your order and go.
En-route to work your map guides you around a stoppage on the freeway. (If this were a few years further down the road your probably wouldn’t even be driving, your car would take care of that. For now we’re talking about things that are already possible.) You get to work and the file you tweaked last night is on your computer waiting for you.
You slog through your day and you’re on your way home. When you get there and step out of the car it locks behind you just as the house unlocks in front of you. When open the door you find the house is already cooled to your perfect temp and the lights are on.
Since this is the future you just ask the entertainment center to come on and it obeys; no need to turn on a bunch of devices and set inputs, that all just happens. You ask for the news and there it is on your big screen so you sit down and get caught up on what’s going on in the world.
A few minutes later a chime indicates your mother wants to video-chat. The TV pauses and her lovely face appears. You chat a bit then go back to TV.
You ask aloud to have a pizza delivered, your usual order, on your usual credit card. 20 minutes later there it is.
You Can Do It All Now
Some of you might think this is a far-flung future. However, if you’re one of those people that stay current on tech trends your first reaction to this scenario might actually be one of familiarity.
Various apps do the dynamic wake-up alarm. Apple’s Siri will brief you on your day. The Nest Learning Thermostat will make sure you wake up to a cozy house and that you come home to one too. Belkin’s WeMo devices control lights and appliances from a smart app.
In a few weeks Kwikset’s Kevo will come out and allow you to get into and out of your house with just your phone.
Several brands of car already work with phones. The Starbucks app and many like it let you pay for services with your phone and the accelerating adoption of NFC chips means you can do so with a simple tap of your device.
This morning Apple announced the new iPhone will have a fingerprint scanner so all this amazing functionality can be hidden behind a super secure and convenient form of bio-metric security.
There are a ton of mapping apps that do real-time traffic re-routing, Waze being probably the best of them. Dropbox and its ilk mean you don’t have to lug around your files anymore. The XBox one will allow you to control all of your entertainment center devices with your voice making your remote control a relic.
Video chatting is so common thanks to Skype and Face Time it’s not even considered a big deal anymore and last but not least ordering a pizza can be done with an app that will store your favorite order and your payment info then use the GPS on your phone to sort out where to deliver it.
Why Is This So Hard?
All of this tech is out or will be soon. And not “will be” like the Jetson’s doo-dads that have been coming soon for decades, but “will be” like you can go to Amazon and pre-order them now.
The scenario I laid out is here today, what’s not to love? What am I complaining about?
Here’s the problem. As you go through this hypothetical day in your mind’s eye you’ll see that you’re doing a lot of work. Sure the Nest, KeVo, and self-unlocking car all operate more or less invisibly, but just about everything else requires you to find an app on your phone, launch it, navigate its unique interface, and provide information that the device already knows.
Want to ask Siri about your day? Dig out your phone and hold the button down for three seconds. Want to tweak the temp on the Nest from bed? Find the app, fire it up, and tweak from there.
I can ask Siri to “Launch Pizza Hut app”, and she’ll do it, then I have to tap my way through the app. Why can’t I just ask her to order me a pizza from Pizza hut? Why should I have to interact with their app?
When I want to change the temperature in my house, why do I need to use the Nest app? Why not just ask aloud for the temperature to change.
Did you see that? That right there. That last sentence is the problem that is holding everything up. If I want to change the temp on the AC, I have to find the Nest app. I have to be exposed to Nest’s branding. I have to interact with that company. If I could just say “Set the temp to 74” and it happened, I wouldn’t have interacted in any way with the branding of the Nest company. After time I could very easily forget that it’s a Nest thermostat that controls my house.
Quick, name the brand of your hot water heater? Can’t do it, can you? Nest doesn’t want to end up like the people that make your water heater. If a voice activated assistant could directly interface with Nest without you having to say the word ‘Nest’ they would fall out of your consciousness and be doomed to irrelevance.
Same thing goes for that video call from mom. If video calls were like phone calls, where any call from any device can go to any other device, you’d quickly stop saying words like ‘Skype’ and ‘Face Time’. If you’re not saying those words, those companies lose the power to hype their products as having those features.
What’s the fix?
What Can Be Done?
One fix would be standards. All video calls connect together of standard ABC123, all voice assistants interact with apps through standard XYZ456, etc. That’s just not going to happen though, there’s too much money at stake.
The second way is a walled garden approach like Apple uses for its app store. One company provides all the services and makes sure they all play nice. Only Apple, Google, and Microsoft are in any position to pull this off and they are all making various moves to do so.
Microsoft is poised to have all the hardware in place; a living room device in the form of the XBox One with always on voice control, mobile devices in the form of Windows Phones, and computers like the Surface running Windows 8. They’ve got the hardware, but they’re hurting for app support; almost none of the devices I mentioned play in their eco-system yet and these devices have yet to gel into any kind of eco-system.
Apple has the app support, but no legit living room device despite a few generations of Apple TVs. They’ve also failed to do anything remotely impressive with Siri. That their voice assistant doesn’t have an API for hooking apps into is absurd. If Apple really opened up Siri, put an always-on mic and an HDMI pass through on the Apple TV, and then allowed apps to run on the Apple TV in perfect sync with iDevices of all sorts, they could create the force I’ve been speaking about.
Google is pushing hard to create the environment for this force. They’ve got Android so the mobile front is looking good, they’re web based so they’ve got a presence on every computer and even on their competitors’ devices, and they keep making stabs at getting that living room device with their various Google TV efforts. But while Google may be closest to creating the conditions for this force to emerge, their open-source-like approach to things means it would have to emerge dynamically.
But short of any one of these companies buying every promising company outright it’s hard to imagine a worlds where Nest, for example, lets its branding vanish into another companies interface. So even a walled garden approach doesn’t fix it.
Then how does this future of mine ever happen?
Here’s my suggestion; use a cable TV paradigm. Apple, Google, Microsoft and whoever wants to do so (Amazon?) each create their a hardware ecosystem; mobile device, computers, tv, etc. Using cable TV as a metaphor, they’re offering the set-top box.
These ecosystems each come with basic services like e-mail, web, apps, the things we’re used to. Think basic-cable stuff.
But then we get into the premium channels. Things like KeVo, Nest, WeMo and the like are offered as subscriptions that include the hardware for a few bucks a month. You don’t pay these companies, you just add them on as services to your provider of choice. That money then gets divided out to the sub-providers and the user never knows the difference. And since they’re getting renewable revenue streams, and they’re being using in advertising (“Sign up for Google World and get 6 months of Nest free!”) they won’t need to force your interaction with them.
In this system you can then obfuscate the sub-services behind any number of interfaces and suddenly “Siri, order me a pizza, turn the temp down to 72, lock the doors, and turn on the lights” becomes a very real situation.
Then market pressures start to encourage interoperability as the best sub-services become more in demand. The easiest system to use gets more customers and others have to improve their entire ecosystem to compete. The days of “our new phone has this many giga-whats-its and that many wi-fis” becomes “Our system now integrates with perfectly with your favorite sport! Ask for game updates, schedule a whole season recording just by asking! Only $2 a month.”
Or imagine a “Medical Package”. It includes a digitally connected scale and heart-rate monitor that seamlessly connects to your healthcare provider’s record system. This package also consolidates all of your medical records in one place, will remind you to take your pills as needed, alerts you to drug interactions, and can even interface on your behalf with your pharmacy to have your medications delivered to your door. $10 a month sounds great right? Much better than managing that all yourself and using five different apps from as many different companies.
Our hardware is reaching a tipping point where it isn’t going to do anything new, it’s just going to do what it did before better. What needs to layer atop that hardware now is a service model that brings out the potential of that hardware in a way that doesn’t require everyone to become tech-wizards.
I have high hopes this new paradigm is on its way. I hope to see it soon.