Sometimes a few little ideas enter your brain at the same time and coalesce into a new gestalt. It’s not necessarily a light bulb moment, but if you read and pay attention, these little bits of information build up and eventually change your world view. Sometimes this process is incremental (probably most of the time) but sometimes it comes together all at once. Recently I realised a few things about technology, disruption, the NBN and – rowing. Let me explain.
I read a great article by John Winsor recently on Productivity Gone Mad “The World as we knew it is over. Now what?”. It’s about the economic disruption that has been caused by technology – specifically Steve Jobs’s iPhone. Here is my little version of how it recently applied to me – in a good way.
I row recreationally for fun and exercise. Rowing is quite a technical sport; a good rowing stroke is not unlike a good golf swing. Like golf, it takes time and dedication to become efficient and skilled. That is what helps make the sport both compelling and enjoyable. Like any sport, rowing has its unique training tools and technologies that are nice to have (as opposed to necessary) I call this stuff “bling”.
A cool piece of rowing bling is a little device called a Stroke-Coach that you attach to your boat (rowing term = Shell). The Stroke-Coach is wired into your seat and to a little impeller below the waterline of the Shell. It provides you with important information like speed through the water, strokes per minute and some of the more advanced models have features like GPS and can be interfaced with your computer so you can review your training by overlaying it on Google Earth. They cost in the order of $400 and are considered a necessary training tool for the elite and a handy bit of bling for the recreational rower with delusions of adequacy.
Needless to say, I don’t have one. Rowing is something I do when I can’t surf (a completely other story) and so I can better understand the achievements of my son who is a competitive school rower. However I must admit to a bit of envy when I see my more bling-endowed crew talking about their metres-per-second vs. stroke-rating performance. I simply don’t have a clue how I’m going, but as I get more experienced, I could see myself having to cough up the price of a new surfboard, just so I can measure my training better. However, it turns out I don’t have to…
A search of the Apple App Store reveals that you can get a fully featured Stroke Coach App for your iPhone. It uses the iPhone’s GPS and accelerometer for speed and strokes per minute, so you don’t need to install fiddly wiring or make holes in your expensive shell. Of course it connects to your computer and you get all the groovy features such as map-overlays and logging of mileage and workouts. A waterproof case for your iPhone can be purchased from eBay for around $15, so you won’t destroy your phone but there is another advantage that makes the app even more compelling – it can be upgraded as new features come out. Your traditional Stroke-Coach cannot, you have to purchase the next model up if you want more bling. The final nail in the coffin of the Stoke-Coach manufacturer is the price. You can get the app for as little as $25 (and you can try it for free).
When I realised all this, I wasn’t just happy that I could have my bling and surfboard too; it struck me just how disruptive a whole raft of technologies has become. The manufacturers of Stroke Coaches (and many other manufacturers and service providers) have a lot to think about in order to remain relevant in the face of a business model that has irrevocably changed. The iPhone is at the vanguard of this, but in reality it rides a wave of relentless advances in technology that characterise the Internet Age. That wave is all about mobility and making technology and services personal – the consumerisation of IT.
It might be hard to believe, but the iPhone has been with us in various forms for only five years (released to market in July 2007). The website Mashable claims that by the end of 2012, there will be more smartphones in the world than humans. Numbers of available apps for these phones are in the order of millions and rapidly growing. The usefulness of many (maybe most?) of these apps is debateable but anything that can be automated can be made into an app. Apps and mobile devices including smartphones and tablets have disrupted media, manufacturing, education, entertainment, research and nearly every definable aspect of our lives. Given they have become so integrated into our lives in five short years, imagine how much more these mobile devices will be doing for us in another five?
At about the time all this was soaking into my world view, I started to think about what this all means for the NBN in Australia. I am a resolute believer that a fast, robust, fibre based network is necessary for Australia and that it is justified in terms of nation-building infrastructure. Australians are going to benefit enormously from the NBN regardless of its final architecture once the politicians have had their way with it. The trouble is, in its current design I believe it will be in many ways obsolete, even before it’s complete in ten (or so) years’ time.
This is because despite the critical importance of fast, reliable bandwidth to institutions, businesses and homes (largely in that order), terrestrial connections will at best only support the inevitable surge of mobile service delivery. Communications experts will often say that wireless cannot replace fibre optic for bandwidth and reliability and they are right. However I think the NBN has to some extent missed the point. The future is mobility and in delivering innovative services into our hands wherever we are. The NBN can only play a supporting role in this – notwithstanding a very important one (probably no more so than enabling back-haul for increasingly speedy and ubiquitous wireless services).
It’s improbable to pick winners from this surge in mobility, because the winners and losers can be counterintuitive. For instance that Stroke-Coach manufacturer may find it far more profitable to sell apps than make devices. One thing is certain, if your business or service is not able to reach out to your customer so they can hold your product in their hand, you better look out before someone else writes an app for that.♦ End