Apple’s real innovation: a gesture made with two fingers

Douglas Rushkoff nails my unease at the patenting of gestures, a critical front in the commercial war being waged through intellectual property. At stake is how far governments should grant monopoly rights over something that belongs to all of us: our shared language of words and gestures.

US Patent #7,812,826, though limited and not at stake in the latest Samsung judgement, grants Apple rights over pinch-to-zoom.

What if they had Patented the Alphabet? Rushkoff demands to know. I’d take it further. Patents on gestures take us into the same territory as those on human genes, and on flora and fauna. These are our shared commons; natural attributes that may be discovered and used, but never invented nor enclosed. Opposable thumbs! They’re part of what it means to be human.

And yet, I can’t help thinking that all the focus on Apple’s patents obscures the true reasons for the company’s runaway success in mobile. The mythology around Steve Jobs paints him as heir to Edison, a wizard presiding over a school of invention and creativity. True innovation is not like that and never has been; it’s about much more that just building a better mousetrap.

My favourite definition of innovation is not the usual pat phrase about “making new stuff”, or even “making new stuff useful”. Those focus too much on the outcome at the expense of the process. Instead consider this throwaway line in Bruno Latour’s Aramis:

“a project is considered innovative if the number of actors is not known from the outset.”

That is to say, innovation is the act of cajoling diverse, contradictory and competing interests – eternal human needs, new technologies and entrenched commercial structures. And that is where, in the congealed mobile value chain of the mid-Noughties, Apple deserves some credit.

Mobile had – and still has today – a complex web of interdependent business models. Crouched at the centre were network operators which had risked billions of other people’s money on radio spectrum and infrastructure. They aimed to recoup this investment by distributing heavily-subsidised devices tied to lengthy airtime contracts.

In such a situation, end users could easily become peripheral. Device manufacturers came to see operators, not consumers, as their customers. They became adept at pandering to the operators’ many and varied whims:

  • Multimedia messaging which few people used
  • Front-facing cameras in the hope of a video-calling bonanza
  • Operator-specified applications designed to wring a little more revenue out of their users.

Consumers were baffled by the terminology, sceptical of the benefits and fearful of unpredictable extra charges. And yet the manufacturers and operators remained locked in an arms race to give people more of the wrong things.

Apple, fresh from playing a similar game with the music industry, used its muscle in the market to bulldoze past all that, to appeal over the heads of entrenched interests to end users themselves.

With a high-end device as under-specified as that first iPhone, any other brand would have struggled to get onto operators’ ranges at all. But for Apple? No 3G? No multimedia messaging? No apps (they only came later, remember)? No problem, and throw in a special unlimited data bundle for good measure.

The best thing about the first iPhone was not the satisfying gravitational bounce when you scrolled to the bottom of a screen – there must surely be prior art for that somewhere. What was amazing was the product development process that prioritised that bounce over implementing MMS.

By sticking to its guns, Apple transformed mobile for ever. But that kind of innovation is impossible to patent because it’s about what you have the guts to leave out, much more than what you’re able to squeeze in.

A message from your mobile

From Ignite Leeds, five minutes of speculation about what our phones are really thinking. Thanks to Imran Ali and Craig Smith for making it happen. Transcript here.

Week 790: Leaving Orange

On Valentine’s Day 1997, I left my job as a newspaper journalist to work with the small, smart team who were building a pioneering news service for the web in a squat, Leeds-look, edge-of-centre office block. “You can always come back,” said my editor, “if this Internet thing doesn’t work out.”

For a long time I was genuinely grateful to know that. It was not that newspapers had got any less interesting, just that the world outside seemed to hold such potential.

The news service morphed from PA NewsCentre to Ananova. We were bought, as a team, by Hans Snook’s Orange. The very next week we moved a little further out of town and up in the world to the top floor of Marshall’s Mill where we surfed the amazing surge of mobile, from the “Matrix slider” to the ubiquitous smartphones. (By chance this also planted the historian in me among the ruins of the Industrial Revolution, the time when our city was part of  true northern renaissance.)

It has been a brilliant ride – several times up, over and round the hype cycle with text-to-speech, the mobile web, mobile apps and most recently near-field communication and mobile payments.

At every turn, Orange has granted me and my colleagues a privileged vantage point as millions of people have their first encounters with the amazing worlds of web and mobile media. Thank you to everyone who has given me those opportunities.

If you clicked this link looking for a bitter expose of life inside big telco, this is not that post. Please make a back gesture on your device now, or try Paul Ford’s brilliant “Why I Am Leaving the People of the Red Valley“.

It is not that operators have got any less interesting, just that the world outside seems to hold such potential.

Simon Wardley draws a business lifecycle from innovation to custom built to productisation, and finally to commoditisation. From his chart I draw two highly relevant conclusions:

  1. Lots of the stuff with which I have been privileged to play over the last decade and a half is approaching, or has already reached, the point of commoditisation.
  2. This is exciting, because it’s in the transition from product to commodity that services are born.

Together those two conclusions point to a Cambrian explosion of useful and engaging new services and business models.

Since handing in my notice at Orange I’ve had conversations with a wide range of people about what those services and business models might be. (Thank you, all of you. You know who you are :) I’ve also become even more convinced that human-centred service design and innovation techniques are the right tools for the job.

Next week I start my first freelance engagement with an amazing agency that is doing great stuff in this space. Longer term I’ll be looking for other clients and partners who are as excited as I am by all these opportunities. Want to know more? I’m at http://mattedgar.com

Digger!

As a parent of a toddler you see the world differently. Everything that’s become everyday on the long slog into grown-up-dom is suddenly fresh again when seen for the first time through a new pair of eyes.

With a small child at your side everything exists to be classified and clarified. Cat, dog, big, red, dangerous, dirty, fragile.

Digger! Look, a digger!

It’s matters not that before becoming a parent, you paid no attention to diggers. The act of pointing-out signals to the child that you are interested in their interests, and that they may be interested in the pointed-out thing. This becomes a cycle of positive reinforcement.

At times in my children’s upbringing this work as life’s tour guide has become so all-consuming that I’ve caught myself pointing things out when unaccompanied by an actual child. To work colleagues and complete strangers: “Look! A digg… err, nothing…”

And then, as quickly as it arrived, that phase of a child’s life is gone. Language assimilated, stabilisers off, the child is equipped to drink in a fill of the world and filter the risks and opportunities for herself, at least in a moment-to-moment way. The work of parenting shifts up a level, to instilling higher-order knowledge and shared values.

Right now, owning a smartphone feels a bit like parenting through those precious first years. Small and bright eyed, it has all these amazing, pure senses and capabilities, and so much world still to discover.

When I see a QR code I feel a parental urge to show it to my phone, like pointing out a digger to a toddler.

It’s not so much that the content at the end of the codeblock will interest me,  just that I have a chance to see something mundane through the device’s eyes. Together we are experiencing the world anew.

I’m fascinated by work on computer vision like Greg Borenstein‘s forthcoming O’Reilly book about Microsoft Kinect, and Berg’s inquiry into the robot readable world. It feels so much like the start of something.

Of course mobile is already climbing out of the basic, high-contrast cot-toy stage. Google Goggles seems to have a reading age roughly equivalent to that of my youngest, five-year-old, son.

That’s also the age at which we begin to think more critically about the values we’re instilling for the future. Perhaps our task now is to raise a generation of well-balanced smartphones that can make sense of the world in all its wonder, not grumpy, materialistic tweens only interested in mass media and shopping.

Mobile experience in use and ornament

Thanks to @MrAlanCooper for highlighting Rahul Sen’s beautifully-written piece on the relevance of the Bauhaus movement to modern-day interaction design. The world would be a better place if more designers could cultivate such a deep appreciation of the history. I tried to  comment on the Johnny Holland blog but was foiled by the pernicious Recaptcha, so this post is by way of a response. Please read Rahul first.

He writes…

The Bauhaus Movement (1918-1933) was based on a German revival of a purer, honest design representation in architecture, art, typography and product design. Its philosophy celebrated an austere functionalism with little or no ornamentation. It advocated a use of industrial materials and inter-disciplinary methods and techniques. The  Bauhaus aesthetic and beliefs were influenced by and derived from techniques and materials employed especially in industrial fabrication and manufacture. Artists included Paul Klee, Wassilli Kandinsky, and Feininger. Architects and designers included Mies Van der Rohe, Phillip Johnson, Walter Gropius, Lazlso Moholy-Nagy and several others.

Rahul detects the emergence of a new Bauhaus trend in interaction design, typified by the innovative new Windows Phone 7 user interface. But in concluding he asks exactly the right question by pointing to the failings as well as the early promise of the Bauhaus brand of reductionism.

If the Bauhaus movement in the early part of last century failed to resonate with users… can we as designers prepare ourselves to meet the challenges ahead?

If you can bear the profuse ornamentation, I think it’s worth looking a couple of generations further back, to the roots of the movement against which Bauhaus was reacting.

John Ruskin hated classical strictures and mass production. He loved the changefulness that comes when anonymous workers are set free to express themselves through their craft. I think his Nature of Gothic makes a good model for the amazing variety of mobile, web-enabled media, savageness, redundance and all. You can have your IxD Bauhaus, but I’ll keep my Mobile Gothic.

“The bit where the screen went black and you said ‘look up’”: on the irresistible pull of a story in the place where it happened

This is my youngest son, Pascal, when he was two years old. He’s looking sheepish because he’s just picked an apple. It’s an apple from the orchard at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, the orchard where Isaac Newton first conceived of gravity.

We were drawn to this beautiful, remote farmhouse for a tea break on a long journey, and ended up learning some science. A master storyteller can make the laws of gravity come alive anywhere, even in a lift, but to experience them at Woolsthorpe adds an extra weight. The National Trust which now owns the house has turned a barn into a small discovery centre where you too can see the forces of nature anew, right where Newton did more than 300 years ago.

In his famous Proposition 75 Theorem 35, Newton wrote:

“If to the several points of a given sphere there tend equal centripetal forces decreasing in a duplicate ratio of the distances from the points; I say, that another similar sphere will be attracted by it with a force reciprocally proportional to the square of the distance of the centres.”

That “reciprocally proportional square of the distance” bit means the attraction gets stronger, much stronger, as things get closer together.

So it is with stories.

Sheffield and Leeds are 34 miles apart. When I told the story of Leeds steam engine pioneer Matthew Murray in the Cutlers’ Hall, Sheffield, the Interesting North audience gave me polite applause. (Granted, it was 10:30am on a Saturday when many had got up early to be there.) When I told the same story in Temple Works, Leeds, just across the road from the site of Murray’s Round Foundry the audience gave much more. I could have raised a mob there and then to tear down James Watt’s statue in City Square.

  • A story in the same county is quite interesting.
  • A story in the same city is more compelling.
  • A story in the place where it happened is extra powerful.

It’s more than just playing to a home crowd. Actually being there increases exponentially the return on just a small leap of imagination. We can picture the protagonists standing beside us, under the same sun, breathing the same air. It’s why the microcontent of blue plaques is so powerful.

It’s why it was so much fun to talk last week about the Corn Exchange in the Corn Exchange. Several people have remarked on the same moment in the talk, something that brought this thing home to me.

Bettakultcha follows a lightning talk format of 20 slides in five minutes. When I reached the part about the amazing domed roof, there seemed little point showing people a Powerpoint slide of the inside of the Corn Exchange in the Corn Exchange. Cuthbert Brodrick’s masterpiece speaks for itself. So I blanked the screen and asked people to look up.

They looked up at the Spartan, modern-before-its-time structure above our heads. It turns out this was the point of maximum attraction, the moment people were as one with place, the point most remarked on in my conversations ever since.

Similar connections to place cropped up in some other Bettakultcha talks too:

All of which must not be taken to mean that local stories are static, parochial stories. As I argued at TEDxLeeds and hinted in my Corn Exchange talk, our city owes its dynamism to outsiders and their connections with other great cities around the world. Without Egypt, we would have no Temple Works; without France, no Louis Le Prince.

These unexpected links with other places, these wormholes, only open up when we open our imaginations to the things that happened in the past, in the places where we now find ourselves.

An oft-remarked characteristic of the internet is that it erases distance and difference, that it allows a script kiddy in Kazakhstan to cripple a business in California. In this account it seems local differences will be erased by the swelling ranks of the Republic of Facebook.

But this emerging medium must surely also power a resurgence in situated storytelling. The location-aware dimension of the mobile internet is uniquely well placed to bring stories to people where they need to know them most. The hyperlinked web dimension makes it possible to leap through wormholes from one situated story to its entangled quantum twin.

I wonder where they will take us next?

And te tide and te time þat tu iboren were, schal beon iblescet

The depths of winter, two weeks off to take stock of where we are and where we’re going, a chance to catch up with family and friends. We travelled through blizzards, cooked and ate good food, lit fires, drank wine, fiddled with MP3 play-lists, time-shifted TV, and made one (thankfully minor) visit to Accident and Emergency. We – friends, family, all – talked about our lives in early Twenteenage Britain: public sector insecurity, the choice of good schools, distant relatives, our new phones and other devices. The confection that follows is made from the left-overs.

Our current preoccupations seem to boil down to two resources, both of which are unequally distributed within families, communities, our nation and world at large. To understand these resources is to see where opportunities and conflicts lie, to look for unlikely allies and unexpected lines of agreement.

The first of the two resources is disposable time – the uncommitted minutes and hours in which we make our own choices.

The clichéd “cash rich, time poor” professional classes are not alone in their want of this resource. The pressure on the “squeezed middle” is as much a temporal crunch as a financial one. As Ed Miliband said: “If you are holding down two jobs, working fourteen hour days, worrying about childcare, anxious about elderly relatives, how can you find the time for anything else? … Until we address the conditions that mean that people’s lives are dominated by long hours, then the big society will always remain a fiction.”

Time wealth ebbs and flows as we move through life-stages, and is at least partially subjective – there are huge variations in people’s estimations of their own and others’ busy-ness. But, whether acknowledged or not, the debate over fairness and equality – over social security, pensions and the division of unpaid labour within families – must be as much about time and energy as it is about money.

The second resource, sometimes a skill, but as often a learned attitude, is tech mastery, a belief that computers, the internet and mobile phones exist to help us achieve our goals, not to enslave or bewilder us.

Tech mastery is the toolkit to take control in the modern world, to “program or be programmed.” Good technology products and services increase the mastery of their users; poor ones sap it. That tech mastery tends to rise and fall with age, and to be more concentrated among men than women, says more about the biases of tech implementation than about the innate abilities or preferences of those demographic groups.

I believe 2011 will be a year when people get angry about bad usability and the failure of the new media to meet the needs of all but a narrow section of society. As the web becomes more mobile and more, genuinely, worldwide, it has to do better at empowering all its users, young and old, rich and poor, not all of whom have the latest device designed in California.

The interactions between disposable time and tech mastery reveal (via sweeping generalisations, I know) some interesting gulfs in understanding to be overcome…

When free tech culture meets the law it’s more than a matter of understanding the “what.” There’s also the “why”.

One person’s innocent checking of their mobile phone is another’s gross intrusion into quality time.

We also find some opportunities…

What services could bridge the gaps between the generations and social groups by drawing on what they have in common?

How could two groups of people make the most of their complementary resources?

To square this circle, we need to pay attention to the different characteristics demanded at each point, and find ways to spread the wealth more equally. Something like…

Right now, at the start of 2011, I have many more questions than answers about disposable time and tech mastery inequalities. But I reckon we’ll see a lot more of these themes before the year is out.