The silent war for the noisy market of ubiquitous computing
Why it is vital to know which companies will corner the “everyware” industry, the ultimate business that will change all of our personal, professional, and commercial interactions
There are some books that belong to a rarely recognized, yet very popular, category called “the books that everyone loves to quote but very few have actually read.” The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997), by Clayton Christensen, would easily secure a lifelong place on the Top 10 if this was an actual list. For starters, The Economist called it one of the six (?) most important business books ever written, which means people felt compelled to read it — or, at least, to pretend they did. Secondly, and don’t tell anyone I said that, although it’s truly interesting, the book is a little boring. Sorry, it is, nothing I can do about it. And, finally, Christensen’s publisher kind of cyberpunked the book’s cases with that oversold subtitle (“When new technologies cause great firms to fail”), an artifice that rarely ends well, whether in 1997 or in 2077.
But the real reason why The Innovator’s Dilemma is better to quote than to read is much simpler. The book is packed with finely crafted quotable sentences like this one: “It is simply impossible to predict with any useful degree of precision how disruptive products will be used or how large their markets will be.” It is not necessarily true, but no one seems to care — especially if it fits that academic paper or product presentation of yours.
It sounds bulletproof, I admit, but it’s a phrase that doesn’t hold for long. Sometimes — a lot of times — you do can predict the potential size of a “disruptive industry,” and, depending on the context, it may be an effortless prediction to make. Best contemporary example: the ubiquitous computing market.
For those unfamiliar with the nutty habit of talking to speakers around the house — as in “Alexa, can you access Clubhouse?” — ubiquitous computing is the desktop computing where everything is the “desktop.” It’s an interaction with an omnipresent operating system that can be accessed from any device (even when you don’t realize there’s one), across multiple interfaces (even when you don’t notice you’re doing it).
If mobile computing made us blur the boundaries between online and offline, ubiquitous computing will make us forget that there was an offline world in the first place.
As unthinkable as it might sound now, we won’t be umbilically attached to our phones and laptops: we’ll have other screens, other speakers, other interfaces. Prepare to execute an action using your refrigerator and enrich this same action on your sunglasses or in your bathroom mirror. In no time you’ll be minority-reporting everything, everywhere — more voice-y and less handsy though, but you got the point.
Besides being easy to predict, the “size of this market” will provoke an interesting dispute to see who will control the “everyware” industry.
Most of the time, consumers don’t get the chance to witness these battles that will define society’s behavior as they are fought. The impact of disruptive hydraulics technology, for example, was huge after World War II — I told you I read Christensen’s book — but none of us have any idea which companies made the right bet and which ones missed the (hydraulic) boat.
When it comes to mainstream tech made for everyday use, though, end users are regularly informed about the behind-the-scenes of the dispute: Betamax vs. VHS, Google vs. Yahoo, iPod vs. Zune (just kidding, nobody bought a Zune). Steve Ballmer will never get rid of “there is no chance of the iPhone ever gaining significant market share” (2007), in the same way that Ken Olsen will always be remembered for “there is no reason an individual would ever want a computer” (1977). My advice: avoid starting a tech prediction with “there is no” and you’ll be fine.
For those looking to transcend Tech Predictions 101, I recommend Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable — Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, (here’s a book that should be on those most-important lists that The Economist loves). Kelly draws a detailed portrait of the future of everyday tech and underlines how conversational ubiquitous computing will be the protagonist of those “technological forces:” “The web will more and more resemble a presence that you relate to rather than a place that you journey to. It will be a constant presence like electricity (…). By 2050 we’ll come to think of the web as an ever-present type of conversation.”
A Conversational User Interface (friends call it CUI) is a software interface that enables users to interact by writing or speaking in natural language. Theoretically (which means “in the near future”), it will have zero learning curve since it intends to follow the principles of human conversation. Author of Talk to Me (2019), James Vlahos presents a playful comparison to depict how he sees this “near future:” “Voice is ushering in what’s known as ‘ambient computing,’ which will ultimately make the rectangular slabs of today’s smartphones look as clunky as old VCRs.”
But how long will it take until all this futuristic chatter becomes a day-to-day reality? Or, in other words, how long before my $1,299 iPhone Pro turns into a VCR?
Taking into account the latest technological revolution — mobile computing and the app industry — it won't take too long, actually. The technological progress from the first PalmPilot to the first iPhone took only 11 years. If we consider the current smartphone models — an impressive device with 12 gigs of RAM, 1TB of internal storage and 8K video —, less than 25 years.
The ubiquitous computing of 2021 is in better shape than the PalmPilot was when it launched in 1996, using the same mobile computing parallel. If the “everyware” industry follows a similar pace, in 10 years we’ll have the equivalent of the first iPhone, and in 20, the equivalent of the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Think JARVIS meets Samantha. Or how Vlahos described in his book: “Relationships long prophesied by science fiction — ones in which personified AIs become our helpers, watchdogs, oracles, and friends.”
The tech companies that are ahead in this race to be the face (voice and ears) of this “long prophesied science fiction” are the ones that have been leading the pack for the voice-enabled devices market in recent years: Amazon (Alexa), Google (Google Assistant) and Apple (Siri). However, that dispute alone is tricky by itself, which means that we’re prospecting a market that is still in its nascence and no one’s position is certain. In 10 years, today’s Alexa could become tomorrow’s Cortana. In 20, it can become Shoebox.
But besides these three favorites, who else can pull a conversational and ubiquitous rabbit out of the hat?
In April 2019, Facebook confirmed it has been developing an artificial intelligence-based voice assistant called ‘M’ to work across its AR/VR products. In principle, ‘M’ does not intend to be a rival to Alexa or Siri but a feature of the Facebook multiverse, however if there’s one thing we’ve all learned over the years, it’s that our friend Mark has a fixation on buying everything his team is not able to successfully develop, so Facebook can’t be counted out.
The same goes for Bixby, Samsung’s voice-assistant. The company has money and ambition enough to fuel the AI assistant technology, and it bears a powerful distribution machine: more than 2 billion Galaxy devices over the past decade and 300 million new smartphones every year. But it turns out that Bixby is an embarrassing fiasco, and for reasons passing comprehension Samsung doesn’t seem even close to a solution to fix it.
And then there are some niche competitors, those who are not in the ubiquitous computing market (yet) but have been investing in this technology for some time. Tesla, for example, which in 2019 acquired DeepScale to boost its autonomous driving tech, intends to give their cars a smart home treatment. Being able to manage your smart home is probably the most popular feature of digital assistants today — both Alexa and Google let you control an array of devices using your voice. Tesla wants that, but in their cars. The company’s ambition is fairly simple: most of his car’s operations will be fully automated, and those that are not — like opening the trunk or lowering the air-conditioning — will be voice-controlled.
Spotify, on the other hand, has a different approach. Its CEO Daniel Ek already said that the company “will begin competing more broadly for time against all forms of entertainment and informational services, and not just music.” Today, “not just music” means podcasts and audiobooks, but the possibilities are vast and encompass live streaming, news broadcasting, software, games, audio blogs and much more. Given the Spotify’s track record, it’s an unlikely move, but the upshot will depend on Ek’s appetite and the company’s financial health for years to come.
Can all these hypotheses about the “everyware” industry be sucked into the black hole of the imponderable? Of course they can. “Because markets for disruptive technologies are unpredictable, companies’ initial strategies for entering these markets will generally be wrong,” says Christensen’s another super quotable excerpt from The Innovator’s Dilemma.
Moreover, Steve Ballmer, Ken Olsen and all the others who had coined an infamous “there is no” tech prediction weren’t the first and won’t be the last to star in a failed prophecy. “In late 1994, Time magazine explained why the internet would never go mainstream: ‘It was not designed for doing commerce,’” Kelly recalls in The Inevitable. “Any promising new invention will have its naysayers, and the bigger the promises, the louder the nays,” he adds.
The ubiquitous computing industry is a resounding the-bigger-the-promises case, which should result in a significant amount of “naysayers.” Regardless of the “nays,” however, it will happen. Soon. And here’s me, disrespecting my own advice: THERE IS NO way that 20 years from now we won’t be using conversational interface and a ubiquitous system to perform most of our online activities.
The question that remains — and it’s far more pertinent than it seems — lies only in assessing which group of companies will form the new Big Tech, the ones that will corner the “everyware” market.
Because there’s more than just entertainment in following this race closely. This is a technology that will control most of our daily actions — personal, professional and commercial. That is to say it will reorder, once again, issues like ethical behavior, user privacy, data transparency and (mis)information flow. Topics that — we know damn well — social networks, for example, have shown little, if any, ability to handle.
Depending on which companies win this race 20 years from now, we may have the cute scene described in James Vlahos’ book — the ubiquitous computing acting “as helpers, watchdogs, oracles, and friends” — or the paradoxical version of it: the one in which personified AIs become the exact opposite of “helpers, watchdogs, oracles, and friends.” And the latter is a plot that rarely ends well, whether in 2001 or in 2041.