mobilized: An Insider's Guide to the Business and Future of Connected Technology - S.C. Moatti (2016)
Chapter 5. The Mobile Formula in the Past, Present, and Future
The mobile revolution started over 140 years ago, but it only really took off with Facebook.
While mobile devices look cool, what people really value are the apps.
Millennials are the architects behind the mobile revolution.
Case studies discussed in this chapter: City of Montreal, Geminoids, Ginger.io, Nokia, Periscope, and Oculus Rift.
When Steve Jobs announced the iPhone on stage in 2007, no one at Nokia really paid attention. It didn’t feel like a threat to the company. According to Nokia engineers, the technology used to create the iPhone touch screen wasn’t viable.
To understand why Nokia dismissed that technology, you need to remember that the company is based in Scandinavia. Winters are very harsh and people are bundled up. They wear thick gloves and don’t want to take them off to use their phones. So Nokia’s resistive touch screens relied on pressure being applied to the screen, so they could be operated with gloves on.76 In contrast, the iPhone capacitive touch screens relied on contact with the skin on users’ fingertips, so they could only be touched with a bare finger.
It’s easy to make mistakes when trying to predict the future. Even though I had already been in Silicon Valley for years, I too casually read about the iPhone launch and didn’t foresee such a rapid convergence between computers and telephones. When I look back, it makes me smile how much I underestimated the innovative power of Silicon Valley.
My perspective today is more holistic than before, because now I have context from the past and present to inform my view of the future.
The Past: Devices That Connect People
Is there some sort of Big Bang theory behind the mobile revolution? I could take a short lens and say that the mobile revolution started with the launch of the first iPhone. But like most revolutions, the mobile revolution is a movement. A combination of many factors coming together. I could list over a dozen places where some key pieces were initiated, from Oulu, Nokia’s headquarters in Finland, to Silicon Valley in Northern California or Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, or even Milan, Thomas Edison’s birthplace in Ohio.
But if I had to pick one point in time when the mobile revolution began, I would say it was over 140 years ago, and it started with Alexander Graham Bell. Aleck, as he was known in his family, developed early on a special relationship with Eliza, his deaf mother. Instead of talking to her through an ear tube, he spoke very low and very close to her head. The power of his voice created deep vibrations similar to sound waves that Eliza could actually hear. Later on, he began a career as a teacher of the deaf (he liked to call himself so) and married one of his deaf pupils.
But Aleck was also a tinkerer, and he was taking science and physics classes in the evening. His secret hope was to find a way to improve a then new technology called the telegraph, by making it accessible to deaf people.
His research gave birth to an invention that changed his life and everyone else’s after him. It also made him extremely wealthy and created an entire industry. That invention? The telephone.
It took almost 100 years to go from Bell’s wired landline telephones to the small wireless phones people carried around in the early 2000s. Those early mobile phones were called candy bars due to their rectangular shape and size. Most of them were designed, produced, and sold by Nokia.
At the time, Nokia was the fifth most beloved brand in the world.77 When I started with them, two out of every five people who owned a mobile phone owned a Nokia phone. It was a thrilling time to work there.
The company’s mission was connecting people, and it completely lived up to it. Nokia employees all over the world were working together to connect all sorts of people—families, friends, business associates—with awesome mobile phones.
Soon, these phones evolved into feature phones because they had new features, such as the ability to access the Internet, store and play music, and send text messages. Some even started to incorporate a small camera. People could take pictures directly from their phone and send them to their friends. Pointing a phone at people or landmarks in public felt a bit awkward, but it didn’t matter. It was so much fun to share and connect anywhere.
Many people in the world today still use feature phones (since upgraded to include 3G and touch screen capabilities). For many of them, it’s their only connection to the Internet—and that’s a big deal. A staggering 97 percent of people with Internet access in developing countries say it has transformed their life, compared with 78 percent in the Western world. 78
Companies like Google, Opera Software, and Facebook (with its Internet.org initiative) are using mobile to bring free Internet to everyone on the planet. Of course, it’s important to control the influence these companies could have if they are the exclusive gateway to the Internet, but the fact is that by using mobile, they are connecting to the Internet billions of people who will never touch a computer.
These companies are effectively making the Internet a human right. Imagine a business or nonprofit trying to bring television to everyone. Would it have the same impact? I don’t believe so. Television is entertainment; the Internet is a door to knowledge, to communication, and to access.
So people in the developing world get even more from mobile. It makes no difference that many of them are accessing the Internet via outdated devices. The mobile revolution still brings health, education, and wealth to these underserved populations.
First, health. Several mobile health initiatives are helping reduce pregnancy risks and infant mortality by making it easier for pregnant women in rural areas to reach hospitals. Nokia Life Tools offers not only pregnancy and child-care advice, but information and assistance on a range of health topics, including diabetes, hepatitis, and respiratory, heart, and digestive health.
Second, education. A recent study by UNESCO and Nokia79 revealed that hundreds of thousands of people in the developing world use their mobile phone to read books. Many of them would not otherwise be able to get their hands on these books because they live in remote areas. Today, most of the content available on the Internet is in English, so the full benefit of mobile books will truly be reached once these books become digitally available in local languages.
Third, wealth. Mobile money services such as m-pesa are now available to 60 percent of the developing world.80 They provide financial access to people who previously didn’t have a bank account. Before money services, they had to buy everything in cash, or barter for it.
The mobile revolution has also sparked entrepreneur-ship in places like the Philippines and Vietnam. Designers, programmers, and customer support representatives from these and other countries source projects and jobs via services such as Elance and 99designs.
Because human-first principles are at the core of what great mobile is, the mobile revolution is creating a better world for everyone.
Although a lot has happened on the device side—from Alexander Bell’s first telephone, to Nokia’s mobile phones, to Apple’s mobile computers, to smartphones—hardware is only a small part of the mobile revolution.
The Present: Less Hardware, More Software
For mobile manufacturers like Nokia and Apple, the so-called reason to buy is a critical component of why phones that are pitched internally to the management team get approved or rejected.
During the era of the feature phone, the pitches would be all about hardware capabilities. They would sound like this: “People will buy this phone because it will have the best camera available on the market at its price point. Therefore we request approval to build and launch it.”
In today’s era of smartphones, the pitches are less about hardware and more about software. Today, people buy the phones that have their favorite apps. Apps, not high-resolution cameras, are the reason Apple and Google smartphones are so popular.
This in and of itself isn’t new. The computer revolution in the 1970s and ’80s was also more about software than hardware. People started buying computers and putting them in their homes not because they were cool devices, but because they had useful applications, like Microsoft Word, or games, like Pac-Man and Tetris.
Looking under the hood, at the operating-system side of software, things took a turn when Microsoft founder Bill Gates signed a very favorable deal with IBM, the industrial giant, which gave Microsoft a royalty for every sale of the software that became known as MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System). In about a decade, Microsoft captured more than 90 percent market share of the world’s personal computers.81
The hardware side—smaller hard drives, thinner screens, improved keyboards, innovative mice—was always a significant part of the appeal of computers. But the biggest needle mover was software.
It’s the same today. The mobile revolution is no longer about touch screens, cameras, and other hardware. It’s about software. Netscape cofounder and Silicon Valley icon Marc Andreessen put it colorfully when he said, “Software is eating the world.”82 His partner in charge of mobile, Benedict Evans, argues that “Google’s [mobile devices are] about devices as dumb glass,” meaning they are mere containers for the software wonders within.
The brilliance of Steve Jobs is that he applied the Moore’s law of computers (the industry he knew) to mobile phones. Moore’s law is an empirical assumption that computers get smaller and smarter and cheaper all at the same time. It’s counterintuitive because typically, people assume that smarter products cost more and that making things smaller, i.e., more efficient, is also more expensive. With computers and mobile phones, it’s the opposite, primarily because the rate of innovation is so fast in these industries. (OK, so maybe iPhones aren’t getting any cheaper, but you get my point.)
Things started accelerating when Apple and Google created an ecosystem of mobile developers. That’s when mobile apps appeared. And one app in particular—Facebook—is blazing the trail for all the other apps in the mobile revolution today.
The primary reason to buy for today’s smartphones is so people can check Facebook anytime. With more than a billion monthly users, Facebook is the largest social network on the planet.83 It connects hundreds of millions of people who constantly share photos, messages, and updates about their lives.
Wouldn’t you want to know immediately if, say, your sister posted a picture of her newborn daughter? Wouldn’t you want to see it immediately? A Facebook user who doesn’t have a mobile phone could only do so when they had access to a computer. It’s more than inconvenient; it’s frustrating.
Today, for every 10 minutes people spend on their smartphone, they spend at least 1 on Facebook alone.84 For them, the mobile revolution is less about carrying around a sleek iPhone and more about being able to check Facebook.
So just as Bill Gates was considered the father of the computer revolution then, today I believe that the father of the mobile revolution is Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook.
Almost 9 out of 10 users access Facebook from a mobile device.85 The frenzy for smartphones became even more important as services like Airbnb, Instagram, Uber, WhatsApp, and thousands of others started to launch incredibly successful mobile apps.
Some purists might argue that Facebook is an Internet company that became mobile because it went through a mobile-first transition, as we discussed in chapter 1. They may say the same about companies like Yelp, Trulia, or Amazon, that they are not mobile-first companies but instead are Internet companies because they started with a website. But the salient fact is this: two out of three current users of these companies are on mobile. And every month, these companies make more money on mobile and less everywhere else. They may have been Internet companies before, but they are very much mobile companies today.
Mobile Formula Case Study: The Facebook Smartphone App
Because the Facebook smartphone app is built on human-first principles, it replicates and amplifies human behavior and interaction. Let’s examine how it embodies the Mobile Formula.
The first characteristic is beauty. To be successful, mobile products must be beautiful. Beauty in mobile comes from efficiency, where nothing on mobile is wasted, and wow, a strong and primal emotion.
The Facebook smartphone app is so efficient and easy to operate that it’s used by 20 percent of the planet. It has inspired thousands of mobile designers around the world.
The way each person experiences the app is completely unique. It tells users what their friends are up to right now. Its appeal is universal. It has created wow.
The second characteristic is meaning. Mobile products are with us always and know exactly what matters to us. Meaning from mobile comes through personalization and community.
The Facebook smartphone app knows a lot about what matters to each of us. Not a single person has the same experience on Facebook. Everyone can constantly personalize their set of friends and hobbies, what they see on their News Feed, what they post, and so on.
As for community, Facebook’s mission is to make the world more open and connected. Facebook creates communities by connecting people everywhere.
The third characteristic is learning. Mobile products adapt constantly to us. They do so fast and slow. Adapting is a matter of survival.
First, fast. Inside Facebook, there is a sense of absolute urgency. The speed at which things are happening is striking. When I worked there, I’d go to a colleague and ask for information that I knew would require some effort to compile. I expected them to respond something along the lines of, “Got it. Let me work on it and get back to you in a week or two because right now, I’m wrapping up these other three projects.” Instead, my colleague would say, “Wow, let me look into this right now. It might take me a couple of hours to compile the results. Is that okay? If that’s too long, just let me know and I’ll get someone else to help out.”
And slow. The address of the Facebook headquarters is 1 Hacker Way. Hacking is a term that Silicon Valley geek culture borrowed from the phone phreak culture of the ’70s and ’80s. Phreaking was all about deconstructing, studying, and repurposing telephone systems. The company has made that ethos part of its own culture. Every couple of months, it hosts Hackathons, all-night coding sessions where employees create quick prototypes. The best ones are then integrated into Facebook. It makes for constant, ongoing evolution.
A Dystopian Future
So what future does the mobile revolution hold?
Some people are pessimistic. They believe that we’re gradually going to be replaced by our mobile products.
In the movie Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin may have been one of the earliest social critics of the relentless march of industrialization.86 In the role of his iconic Little Tramp character, he portrays a factory worker who is chosen as the guinea pig for testing a feeding machine designed to eliminate lunch breaks.
Little Tramp is strapped to a seat, fed by a mechanical arm, and regularly cleaned by an automatic mouth wiper. While everything goes smoothly at first, the machine suddenly starts to malfunction. Sparks shoot out of the motor, soup is splashed all over Little Tramp’s face, and the mouth wiper hits him in the head. Although played for laughs, it is an undignified, dehumanizing scene.
Chaplin’s argument is that rampant industrialization is at odds with the natural constitution of human beings. Factories strip workers of their humanity. Assembly line workers are seen as servants to machines, and they are needed only because automation cannot replace them yet.
In the summer of 2014, a hyper-realistic robot was showcased at a tradeshow in Japan.87 The artificial woman was the latest in a remarkable series, named Geminoids by their creator, roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro. They are a modern version of man-made creatures that aspire to become human, like Pinocchio or Frankenstein’s monster.
Geminoids don’t just look approximately or barely human; they look like actual humans. Representing the leading edge of mobile technology, they are the ultimate beauty. Remember the two characteristics of beautiful mobile products? Efficiency and wow? Geminoids have both.
Geminoids are helpful to people around them, answering questions in perfect Japanese (or any other language). They come across as empathetic, blinking and fidgeting the way we humans do. And, they are modeled after real humans, with a smooth silicon skin, a friendly smile, and natural hair. They have crossed that awkward threshold called the “uncanny valley,”88 a term coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori to describe the revulsion people feel when they interact with something that looks almost but not exactly like a human being.
Geminoids would seem like a perfect reconstitution of Mother Nature if it wasn’t for one thing they have that we never will: eternal youth. Don’t you dream sometimes that you could be young forever? I certainly do.
Well, Geminoids have no such concerns. The only thing they might dream about is electric sheep, but by the time we discover that, it will be too late. They’ll have taken over.
Are we at risk of gradually getting replaced and controlled by our mobile products? For now, the apocalyptic scenarios portrayed in movies like Blade Runner89 and Terminator,90 of a future where androids and robots have taken control, are nothing but horror tales to give us chills. But advanced AI getting out of our hands is a real and potentially serious threat, according to Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and several other visionaries. They’re concerned that by the time we realize it, it will be too late to take action.91
In his book The Question Concerning Technology,92 philosopher Martin Heidegger writes that we use technology to amplify our impact in and on the world. But he takes it further, explaining how technology also serves as a magnifying glass that amplifies both the good and bad sides of humans. So yes, I suppose mobile technology could have unintended consequences or, in an extreme scenario, be used for evil purposes.
But it could also be used for good, and that’s where I’m placing my bets. Look, I’m a positivist. I don’t have my head in the sand, but I think that mostly good things are going to spring from the mobile revolution and that we’ll be able to deal with the bad things. For instance, many jobs robots do—investigating hazardous environments, cleaning industrial ducts—are extremely dangerous. Living in a society where people don’t need to do them would be a good thing.
Mobile can also lead many of us to a more meaningful, rewarding work life. In her book The Human Condition, Heidegger’s pupil, political philosopher Hannah Arendt,93 observes how modern technology transforms our relationship to what we do: instead of working to live, we’re living to work.
She encourages us to find more meaning. She distinguishes work, the urge we all have to make an impact and leave a mark in the world through our talent and craft, from labor, the need to make a living and survive. Bound to necessity, labor is alienating while work is liberating. Driven by biology, labor is the realm of animals while work is distinctly human.
I believe the mobile revolution can help us all labor less and live better. Let’s explore what this future could be.
A Better Future: Millennials’ Hands Are on the Tiller
Millennials, people coming of age in the twenty-first century, are shaping the future of the mobile revolution.
What sets millennials apart from other generations first and foremost is their level of proficiency with technology. They’re often referred to as digital natives. Every day, they spend on average six hours online.94 Already, six million of them are smartphone dependent. That means that one in seven of them completely depends on a smartphone for Internet access.
A study by the Pew Research Center95 described them as confident, connected, and open to change. Let’s unpack this and relate it to the Mobile Formula’s rules of body, spirit, and mind.
First, millennials are confident that who they are and what is around them can be trusted, that their environment works as they expect it to. They believe that mobile products (and technology in general) make life easier and that they bring people closer to those around them. They want mobile products that just work, with ease of use and simplicity as a top priority. Beauty is a core value. It’s the Body Rule.
What does this mean? Designers will play a critical role in creating the types of mobile products that millennials not only want but expect.96 We’ve discussed that mobile design that incorporates the Body Rule relies on a whole new set of design elements—some focusing, some expanding. These design elements are the foundation not only of today’s mobile products, but also of tomorrow’s. Design best practices such as keeping users focused on one thing at a time, using touch extensively, and optimizing performance call for focusing design elements. Best practices for expanding design elements, including things like enabling location-aware services or allowing contextual reminders and push notifications, create offerings that make everyday life easier.
I experienced a futuristic moment when I watched a live stream of the Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well concert on Periscope last summer. Periscope is a live video streaming service that Twitter bought in the spring of 2015 for a reported $100 million. Its motto is “explore the world through someone else’s eyes,” and believe me, it lives up to its words. It was as if I was right there at Soldier Field in Chicago, experiencing the thrill of the music alongside the rest of the crowd.
“We think we’re building a teleportation product,” says Periscope founder Kayvon Beykpour.97 He’s not the only one. Several other mobile teams believe that teleportation is ready for disruption. I’m only half joking.
Entertainment experiences today are in two, maybe three dimensions. Tomorrow, they will be surround experiences, taking us places we would otherwise not dream of being. The efficiency of the advanced technologies will make it a seamless experience. The experience in turn will wow us. It will be beautiful.
Here’s another futuristic example of the Body Rule in action. A group of students were recently invited to participate in a simulation inside the Virtual Human Interction Lab at Stanford University.98 The experiment was designed to help people combat phobias.
One of them recalls: “When the floor surrounding where I stood disappeared and I was left balancing on a narrow wooden plank some 33 feet above a pit, I struggled not to fall off the edge. I was about to hyperventilate. In reality my feet were firmly planted on the ground, but my brain was tricked into believing I was suspended.”
He was wearing Oculus Rift, the new mobile headgear recently acquired by Facebook, and wanted to overcome his fear of heights.
In this lab, visitors are invited to try many more of these immersive experiences. Some let you see an alternate reflection of yourself in a virtual mirror. You become someone you’re not: a woman, an elder, or a person of color. The demo includes other avatars that throw abusive stereotypes at you. The intent is to make you more empathetic toward others.
Other stations in the lab are meant to help you be more resilient to pain, better manage your money, live a healthier lifestyle, and more.
The common thread is that, rather than relying on photos or video, the lab uses mobile technology to allow users to share entire immersive experiences. Not unlike what happens to the characters in the movie Avatar, it tele-ports them into an entirely new environment that becomes their virtual reality.
This new form of entertainment and expanding our boundaries could help people connect more intimately and understand each other better. It could create perspective and empathy. It could make us more trusting and confident. It shows us the power of the Body Rule.
Second, more than any other generation, millennials are connected all the time. They expect their mobile products to help them deal with the things that bother them so that they can focus on what’s important to them, on what gives them meaning. They want their mobile products to sort through the fire hose of information they are bombarded with by being highly personalized. They demand help to make everyday decisions. They need a way to find meaning from information overload. This is the Spirit Rule.
What does this mean? Author and user experience visionary Mike Kuniavsky predicts that our devices themselves are becoming avatars,99 our mobile alter egos. He distinguishes appliances like a fridge or computer, both of which we have to operate manually, from devices like smartphones, which are able to act on their own. Smart devices know a lot about us and can transform this knowledge into actions.
“Your tiny, wimpy device … can be effectively as powerful as the world’s most powerful computer,” says Kuniavsky. As a result, our relationship to our devices is changing. They are becoming avatars—extensions of us.
Tomorrow, argues Kuniavsky, every device will be smart. In fact, Goldman Sachs predicts that there will be 28 billion smart devices by 2020.100 That’s four devices for every one person on the planet. Companies like Google and Apple are already extending their mobile platforms to support every possible device, a mobile trend known as the Internet of Things. Kuniavsky advises top companies such as Samsung, Sony, Whirlpool, and Qualcomm to get ready for this too because their platforms will soon use the personalization and community filters we discussed in chapter 3 to power entire cities.101
The City of Montreal gives us a glimpse of what the city of the future could look like. It created a smartphone app that combined public transportation information with local offers from shops in the vicinity of subway stations. As commuters got off the train, they were presented with a personalized offer like a discount at the flower store around the corner, or a coupon for a pizzeria next door. Soon, people started going on shopping sprees. In fact, 15 percent of the offers that merchants put out were redeemed. That’s five to eight times the typical conversion rate of local coupons and offers. Merchants started asking the city to deploy the program more broadly.
The city also wanted to find ways to reduce pollution and congestion in order to improve quality of life. It created a mobile game called Save the Trees. Every time people took a trip into the city using public transportation instead of their own vehicles, they saved energy. The energy savings per trip is approximately equivalent to the energy created by burning a tree. So the game rewarded commuters with one virtual tree for every trip. This gave citizens a way to create communities that care about the environment.
These pilot programs were so successful that the Montreal is expanding its public transportation infrastructure and looking for other ways to use personalization and community to better the lives of its citizens and visitors by connecting them to the things that matter to them.
Of course, there are many other factors to consider before cities become smart, including regulatory and security requirements. But think for a moment about the possibilities of the Spirit Rule—achieving what matters to us through personalization and community—at the scale of an entire connected city. The possibilities for personal transportation alone are exciting: Traffic self-regulating without traffic lights. Accidents detected instantly, improving the effectiveness of emergency services. Connected cars driving us around, refilling their own gas tank or recharging their own batteries, parking themselves, maintaining themselves. It would not only make our roads and cities safer, it would make our lives exponentially easier.
Third, being open to change means that millennials want their mobile products to learn alongside them. They want them to adapt according to the Mind Rule.
Take an issue like health care. This is particularly important to millennials because more than any other generation, they are victims of chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. Companies spend huge amounts to promote weight loss programs, smoking cures, and other efforts to address unhealthy conditions and lifestyles.
Mobile products could power a revolutionary new approach to health care.102 Because they are with us always, they can learn from us in real time. This enables them to monitor chronic diseases and other health problems.
Apple, Samsung, and other mobile platforms have started to offer ways for people to automatically track their health data, such as heart rate. People can share it with their doctors if they want to. Several hospitals around the country have already agreed to conduct pilot programs. For instance, a doctor can be notified if a patient’s heart rate becomes erratic, potentially signaling a heart emergency.
Ginger.io, a Silicon Valley start-up, uses the data patients share from Apple HealthKit and combines it with other information, such as their location or whom they call, to proactively diagnose people who might be suffering from mental health disorders. For instance, Ginger.io might notice that someone had been home all day for a few days and stopped calling a loved one or sending e-mails. Suspecting the person might be suffering from early symptoms of depression, it automatically notifies their doctor.
Researchers at the City University of New York use smartphones to better understand the risks posed to public health by illicit drugs. They conduct experiments where they loan smartphones to a group of drug addicts in order to collect information about their addiction. From the data they collect, they create mathematical models that can predict how diseases like AIDS or hepatitis are likely to spread as a result of drug consumption in the community. They use their findings to make recommendations to such health organizations as the National Health Foundation. Their research helps decide how tax dollars should be allocated and what programs to prioritize to limit the spread of fatal diseases in our cities.
Mobile products could transform the way we do medical research. Medidata, a software company that facilitates clinical trials, has started to use smart devices to get new drugs to market faster. Instead of asking patients to come in for a checkup, say, once a month during a clinical trial, they provide them with a mobile device that tracks key health indicators continuously. This approach considerably accelerates Federal Drug Administration approvals so new drugs are available faster to the general public.
Of course, there are many obstacles to overcome on the way to better health care. But as we stay open to change and keep learning and adapting, the Mind Rule will help us create mobile products that can in turn help alleviate many of the problems that plague modern society—overeating, addiction, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy, depression … the possibilities are endless.
Remember and Share
The mobile revolution began more than 140 years ago with the invention of the telephone, but things accelerated considerably over the past 10 years.
Paradoxically, mobile devices are only a small part of the mobile revolution: the reason millions of people around the world buy smartphones is that they want to use Facebook. People value Facebook and other apps on their smartphones far more than they value the device itself.
Millennials show us the opportunities that the mobile revolution could bring about in the future. They want mobile products in their image: confident, connected, and open to change. Applying the Mobile Formula to future products will bring about new forms of gorgeous entertainments, useful learning opportunities, personalized experiences in connected cities, constant health monitoring and better treatments, and much more.