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It’s the little things that will change everything about the future of mobile


A touchscreen display integrated on Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
A touchscreen display integrated on Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

The other day I discovered the existence of such a thing as a “pickle caster,” which made me consider how much consumer market needs change with time and technology, so much so that they are sometimes incomprehensible well before and after their times.

This was later reinforced while sitting in traffic. I noticed the Harley-Davidson next to me, along with its multitude of chrome and pipes. It was also decked out with a touchscreen display.

I don’t know why this surprised me; touchscreens have been common in cars for some time. Not being a motorcycle rider myself, I guess I presumed Harleys to be more “old school” in terms of tech flavouring.

Both these things made me consider the magnitude of changes that are happening under our noses. Sure, we see the big stuff – smartphones, the Internet, WiFi, artificial intelligence, etc. – but it’s the little stuff that is having the most impact.

I’ve said that the next wave, which we’re in now, will be less about the flashy stuff and more about the infill between things. The gap-filling innovations that appear here will have the most profound impact on how everything works, but it’s a quiet, very un-Steve Jobsian revolution for most consumers.

It’s been years since many of us have encountered a gas station attendant filling our tanks or banked directly with a teller. Others of us check out and read library “books” via mobile apps like OverDrive. Even the simple farmer’s market is affected: Square and other services allow the local honey seller to accept credit cards – and have you sign up for their newsletter.

Consider that path from ATM to online banking to Mint to Square to texting your buddy money to apps that will allow the entire party to split the bill amongst themselves and pay the server in aggregate. Then consider the compression of time between each subsequent step.

Now consider that similar cascade but with restaurants: With the rise of the iPad, many restaurants began replacing print menus with tablets. Then they began using tablets and smartphones for order entry. Now fast food restaurants are not only replacing human staff with ordering kiosks, but some are encouraging folks to order and pay with their mobile apps before even setting foot in the store.

While some feel this is just another step toward totally dehumanising customer service, it also has the net benefit of reducing latency and increasing accuracy from order through delivery, reduced waste, lower costs, and improved output.

But the disruption ripples through the supply chain. Some folks are hurt by the changes – the servers, menu printer, menu designer, uniform manufacturers and sales people, and so on.

Others are helped – programmers, digital designers, network architects, etc. New vendors and products are brought into the market, filling gaps in the supply chain or improving processes and applications.

Daniel Burrus writes in his blog post “The Internet of Things far bigger than anyone realises” that “[the Internet of Things is] about upending old models entirely, creating new services and new products. There is no one sector where the Internet of Things is making the biggest impact; it will disrupt every industry imaginable, including agriculture, energy, security, disaster management, and healthcare, just to name a few.”

The ongoing disruption can be felt on a grand scale: Driverless cars communicating to one another on a highway. Sensors in pipelines. Robots sending pictures from Mars.

Or entertainment: Disney, a few years back, engineered a scavenger hunt using modified smartphones’ various sensors. Playing as secret agents, parents and kids answered a modified mobile phone and received clues to hidden things in each country around Epcot.

Upon discovering the answer, they’d enter it in their phone in the right location, or interact with an object – and suddenly an animatronic display would appear out of the waters in China, or sound effects would boom from a room in France, or a video on a screen would play. All of this experience felt tailored just to the child, even as three other kids waited their turn.

It can also be felt in small scale. I recently saw some new Halloween merchandise – a set of “haunted paintings” constructed from simple LCDs displaying looped animations. And the first thing I wondered was whether they smart enough to recognise other paintings grouped together and sync (if not, they should).

Many kid’s toys already do this already by using simple sensors to recognise and magically interact. How different is this from the refrigerator automatically adding milk to your shopping list app when it’s running low? Amazon’s already planting the seeds with its Dash Button.

The magnitude of change is so large because the interconnections can be so small and simple, and so ubiquitous.

And it’s growing daily.

Burrus, again: “What can you achieve when a smart car and a smart city grid start talking to each other? We’re going to have traffic flow optimisation, because instead of just having stoplights on fixed timers, we’ll have smart stoplights that can respond to changes in traffic flow. Traffic and street conditions will be communicated to drivers, rerouting them around areas that are congested, snowed-in, or tied up in construction.”

(Note: The day after submitting this blog for editing, The Verge reported that “New York is getting wired with traffic signals that can talk to cars.”)

So, yeah – big.

Bringing this back to strategy: Long-term market threats and opportunities are evolving in ways we can’t really predict. The future won’t resemble now any more than the newspaper of the 1980s resembled its current digital progeny. So we should presume opportunities will not resemble current options.

Media companies must watch technology trends and developments in and outside of home markets from the vantage point of a disruptor (and not just looking for opportunities to be newspapers in yet another place).

Because sometimes the market demands pickle casters.

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