Instrumented Interconnecteds Intelligent

By Paul Brody, Global Industry Leader, Electronics at IBM

Even as one business model for consumer electronics dominates, the next one is always taking shape, usually right under our noses.  When the Blackberry arrived in 1999, my boss at the time, the CEO of a start-up, received one, tested it, and gave up using it, wondering why anyone would want constant access to email.  He gave it to me and I loved it.  It had a kind of gee-whiz factor that delighted and surprised users.

I will never forget an email I got once that said “Just swung by your cube…where are you?” from an astonished colleague who I’d been emailing from a taxi.  We take it for granted now, but it was really novel then: anytime anywhere email.

Recently, I’ve found the same experiences with a new breed of cloud-based mobile applications.  These applications and services are all, to a large degree, quite separate, but they share some common components that result in the same kind of gee-whiz wonder that the first Blackberry produced.

One of these applications is Flock, a social picture sharing service from the people who developed Bump.  Flock lets people who attend the same events share their photos.  No action on your part is required. Once you have flock, it’s all done automatically and you’re notified if there are photos to share.

Another of these applications is Pay with Square.  It’s quite amazing to walk into a restaurant, buy lunch, and walk out without opening your wallet or phone.   No surprise that Starbucks is rolling out that functionality nationwide.

And finally, we have the online service IFTTT (if this then that) which enables consumers to integrate their own processes.  Thanks to an iPhone app and a combination of IFTTT, when I take new pictures and upload them (and most of them are of the kids), my dad gets an email.  He loves seeing the up to the minute pictures.

What do all these things have in common?  They are largely invisible, set-it-and-forget services.  No user interface, no on-going usage.  They just work.  Things just happen.  Collectively, they represent the four principles that I believe will be the centerpiece of the future consumer electronics experience: integrated, automated, social and invisible.

Integrated

Future offerings will be easily and deeply integrated with each other.  Services like IFTTT, Zapier, and others allow consumers to link many disparate services together.   Take a picture and it’s uploaded, shared and backed up.

Automated

Future services won’t just be integrated, they’ll be intelligently automated.  When you walk through your door at home, your phone will recognize your home Wi-Fi network and choose that time to download your podcasts and upload your photos with a lowest cost routing.

Social

Ten years from now, I’m not sure I’ll go to my Facebook page every day.  Maybe I’ll go from time to time instead, but my social network – my web of friends and colleagues – will be a constant companion.   I’ll know when they’re around, I’ll see a continuous stream of data from them, and my own systems will know what and when to share with whom – and it will just happen.

Invisible

It has been famously said that a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  May I now coin the idea or phrase that a sufficiently advanced user experience doesn’t feel like a user experience at all.  The future of the user interface is that there isn’t one.  Or, at best, it’s the push-notification window on your phone.

How many apps do you have on your phone?  I count over 60 on mine and that’s a tiny fraction of the ones I’ve bought and downloaded over the years.  I have apps that remember the movies I like.  I have apps for tracking my diet.  I have apps for tracking my car mileage.  I don’t use any of them, because in the moment, I can’t remember where they are or be bothered to find them.

In the future, I won’t go searching for a diet app.  I’m going to tell my phone what kind of diet I’m on (get fat slowly) and when I go into a restaurant I’m automatically going to be given a recommendation.  My phone will “ding” and there in the push notification area will be a suggestion based on my diet preferences (no sugars / lower calorie) and dishes at the same restaurant that my friends have liked in the past.

The future is already here.  You can try it out now.

In every big wave of product innovation, the components of that transformation have existed independently in the market for some period of time before they became mainstream technologies.  Extreme users were surprising their friends with gee-whiz functionality but overall, it remained more trouble than it was worth for average users to take up these solutions.

Most of things I described are already available, in one form or another.  They are still in many cases a bit of trouble to use and not well integrated with each other.  We are still waiting for the right company to pull all these pieces together and make them shockingly simple, but I am starting to feel, with the same passionate certainty I did about the Blackberry, that the next big thing is just about here.

Feel free to connect with me on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.

This blog post originally appeared in the IBM Electronics blog. Check out the IBM Electronics blog for forward thinking blogs on Electronics Industry.

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