Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Activate 2010 - summary thoughts

I went to the Guardian Activate conference on July 1 and below is the summary of my thoughts on what I heard there.

The line-up of speakers was really brilliant – from Clay Shirky, writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies, Internet pioneers from the South representing Global Voices and Ushahidi to Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google.

The main take-away, which transpired from speakers from both North and South, is that the next big thing are mobile devices.

Eric Schmidt’s speech and subsequent interview by Guardian’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger summarised the day well.

“When you plan, start with the Internet and mobile. … Clever developers build mobile devices first, it used to be…..for Mac and PC platforms…. Mobile web is growing 8 times faster than the PC web”

According to Mr Schmidt, mobile devices will introduce new revenue generation models both for advertising and subscription: the world of downloadable content (like newspapers) opens up a whole new world of advertising.

The news will become more personal, i.e. served up based on your previous behaviour. So you won’t be served up information that you already know – just what you showed interest in over time. Is there a risk of making our world-view too narrow? Very possible, when I think about Clay Shirky’s figures on billions of hours humanity spends slumped in front of the telly in comparison to tiny amount we spend in creative process - i.e. using our brains.

The new technology is about “nowness” – this isn’t only about the rapid response and spread of information, but also about the technology – so called cloud computing – which enables different bits of software to talk to each other in real time. The example Mr Schmidt gave is what Google wants to make happen on mobile phones: Two people talking to each other in two different languages real-time using voice2text2translation algorithm. This is a mix of Google Voice (transfers voice to text messages, not available in the UK yet), Google Translate (one of the best online translation systems I’ve seen) and Google Wave (collaboration system which was one of the biggest disappointments after a major hype around its launch). Google Wave struggled mostly because it needs a lot of computers to work and the system was painfully slow. But adding computer power is no big feat and is plausible that this technology will actually be used widely in the near future.

So mobile devices are the stars of the future.

For the South smartphones and mobile devices mean being able to buy a computer and access the internet and other downloadable information. Iphones and Ipads are the current fad in developed countries, but they are too proprietary to become massive in the emerging markets where open standards allow for the development of applications which are accessible through any mobile device. Simple easy to use technology is what really helps the poor – to quote one of the speakers – The poor are too poor to tolerate bad design.

The other examples of use of technologies overseas were what we already know. However, it is good to see that this area of technologies for development is still going strong and growing.

The presentation from the founder of – the online community shop where people sell their crafts - was really interesting and had some inspirational ideas. For example, their basket cross-sell is not based on “people who bought this also bought” but on “your friends liked/would like this”.

One of the scariest presentations was from Sharon Biggar, COO & co-founder, Path Intelligence. They tried to enable offline retailers to know as much about shoppers as online retailers do. So while online you can now pretty much everything about how people interact with your shop, when they drop-off, etc, offline this is all based on surveys and interviews which isn’t as reliable as people under or over-claim and there it doesn’t contain as much data. So Path Intelligence collects data of human behavior in real-life shops (via infra-red I assume), which is then crunched to get the results and then they decide how to design shops. I suppose the never heard of Mary Portas ☺