Interesting Technologies Raise Interesting Questions — and Opportunities
Silicon Valley and its imitators around the world are always active on dozens of fronts that don’t break into the news cycle until they’ve gone through several cycles of innovation, consolidation, failure, and success. Effectively, information flows from the tech centers to the centers of political power through a garden hose rather than the huge pipelines it would take to carry the whole story. It may not be obvious that anything is happening in Silicon Valley apart from net neutrality bake sales, privacy campaigns, and denial of service attacks, but tech reality isn’t always obvious.
We’re about a quarter of the way into the year, so it’s a good time to evaluate the progress we’ve seen so far on the key predictions for the year’s tech trends.
Health and Fitness
One of the more interesting sources of insight about tech is Frog Design, a company that has grown from industrial design to forecasting and strategy by working with so many innovative companies. Their web site is an amazing gateway to the future. Here is one of Frog’s key predictions for the year.
Move Over “Step Counters”, Allison Green Schoop
Fitness technology startups are primed to shake up the health and fitness wearable industry, offering true insights and recommendations for athletic training. 3D, pressure, and motion sensors are being integrated to assess form, movement quality, and muscular exertion to automatically log your workouts and provide real-time recommendations to prevent injury and improve training. (Companies to watch: Sensoria, Moov, LEO, GYMWatch)
Where we are: Traditionally, this space is the domain of big kahuna Garmin and a host of small companies who analyze data captured by Garmin’s fitness watches and download customized workouts. Mass-market firms like Fitbit deal with pale shadows of Garmin’s training data. The reason for the gap is that the mass-market firms sell products that are cheap, sleek and unobtrusive, while Garmin (and its competitors such as Polar) deals in more expensive and more clunky devices you wouldn’t wear to the office.
Apple is going to redefine this space when its watch goes on sale. One of thethree models is a Sport edition that was previously rumored to provide the same measurements Garmin offers. Recent reports advise a correction as Apple has learned that it’s still very hard to collect heart rate and blood pressure without some very funky sensors.
- Sensor makers can produce those funky devices that provide greater insight into the activities and the metabolic reactions users experience, connecting them to iPhones and iWatches by Bluetooth. Sensor companies don’t need to conform to Apple’s exacting design standards and can target niche markets.
- Software companies can create tools to monitor health and fitness conditions, diagnose emerging health issues, and track user progress toward personal health and fitness goals. They can also create tailored workouts, communicate with doctors, and monitor eating. Since the Apple watch will be a 16 hour a day device – you’ll have to take it off for its daily charge – sleep monitoring is a gap, but it can be filled by sensors that communicate with the watch while it’s docked in its charger, or directly with the iPhone.
As with anything that deals in very personal data, health and fitness systems have to deal with the privacy lobby and its friends in Congress and the Administration. The current Administration direction is to require firms to provide easy-to-understand privacy policies and then to bind firms to them with the force of law. This is a step stricter than the previous standard that relied on self-regulation with unclear enforcement. There’s a clear trend for tighter privacy regulations, but advertising-based business are major contributors to the Democratic Party (Google and Facebook make nearly all their money from ads) so the tightening won’t be too fast.
The more serious threat to health devices and systems comes from the Food and Drug Administration. Congress has already held hearings on the legal status of software as a medical device because it has huge regulatory implications. This is a slippery slope, of course. The FDA, like any captured regulator, is protecting the interests of firms that produce enormously costly hospital devices, but the goal of consumers who use health and fitness devices and systems is to stay as far from the hospital as possible.
This is a technology area where the ability of the industry to move vastly exceeds the permission granted by the government. At the moment, personal fitness devices are considered toys and efforts by Congress to bridge the gap between hospital devices and smart monitors have not been successful; H.R.3303, the SOFTWARE Act of 2013 was introduced in the House but not taken up in committee.
Similar dynamics exist for the Internet of Food, the further evolution of calorie counters that combines diet plans, cookbooks, gardening, and the barter and sale of homegrown food.
We’ve all heard of Software-Defined Network (haven’t we?), but the trend toward “virtualization”, the replacement of physical things with software, doesn’t stop there. Deloitte University sees this trend expanding outside the networking space:
Amid the fervor surrounding digital, analytics, and cloud, it is easy to overlook advances currently being made in infrastructure and operations. The entire operating environment—server, storage, and network—can now be virtualized and automated. The data center of the future represents the potential for not only lowering costs, but also dramatically improving speeds and reducing the complexity of provisioning, deploying, and maintaining technology footprints. Software-defined everything can elevate infrastructure investments, from costly plumbing to competitive differentiators.
Where we are: This trend started a long time, but it has accelerated in the last five years with the onset of Cloud Computing. Thanks to the Cloud, firms can replace some of the computing facilities with rented machines or portions of machines in remote facilities. This trend is an outgrowth of virtual machines and time sharing, two independent precursors (we can actually trace elements of the Cloud back to the rental of computer timeshares on mainframe computers in the 1970s, but today’s Cloud is much more sophisticated.)
Today we have Cloud computing – Software Defined Computers – and the beginnings of virtual networks, Software Defined Networks (SDN), or facilities that allow business users to buy bandwidth with defined properties (capacity, delay, and loss) that function as if they were physical wires and switches. The next steps are Software Defined Storage, Software Defined Data Centers, and specialized features such as Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI).
All of this points to a market in which a service provider with expertise in a given application – like oncology expert IntrinsiQ – can offer turnkey services that bundle all aspects of an application with every bit of the computing, networking, and storage they need to do the job. So we get the efficiency benefits of vertical integration alongside the flexibility benefits of open, generic computing and networking facilities.
The Opportunity: Ultimately, Software Defined Everything gives business users (and someday, consumers as well) the benefits of two crucial things at the same time: deep expertise in a particular subject matter and low cost, generic computation facilities with massive flexibility. If this sounds too good to be true it’s because it probably is. While an oncology expert can handle every aspect of cancer patient care, this care takes place in a facility that handles other illnesses as well, so the coordination and interaction of other activities will be interesting.
Legal/Policy Issues: Cloud computing has always been dogged by the nasty intersection of the lovely virtual world with the ugly real world. Data is ultimately stored someplace, and every nation seems to have its own policies about privacy. Will US users be comfortable hosting vital corporate data in Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, or North Korea? So there’s need for harmonization of privacy standards, and the same goes for security and truth in advertising, two additional fronts that lack uniform global policies.
Software Defined Networking is on a collision course with the desire of some national regulators – such as the US FCC – to regress to legacy telecom regulatory models and to limit network flexibility. In principle, SDN allows users to pay for fast and slow lanes, improper transactions in the eyes of the current FCC.
Related Trends: A number of SDE projects relay on Open Source projects such as Open Stack that have gravitated toward the Apache licensing model where contributors don’t have to share their work with others. DevOps – rationalizing software development with virtual facilities – leverages virtualization to streamline testing and deployment.
Pervasive and Invisible Computing
My own sense is that we’re on the cusp of a new era of computing that combines the sensors and cloud facilities just discussed with extremely high-speed mobile networks, smarter smartphones, and additional devices such as virtual reality glasses, smart homes and cars, and holographic headsets like the Microsoft Hololens, and shopping and payment systems.
Just as the Cloud provides benefits by separating hardware from application code with a beefed-up system software layer, PIC interposes a layer of computer power between the senses and the real world. A heads-up display on a car dashboard or a backup camera does this sort of thing, and so does Mobile Augmented Reality; MAR is not an alternate reality like the province of gaming, Virtual Reality, it’s reality supplemented by information.
Where we are: The component parts of PIC are fast, reliable, pervasive networks; rich sensors; databases; social networks; applications; and valuable augmentations of sensory information. We have all but the latter two in most places, but the ability of networks to advance from the current LTE norm – about 10 Mbps most of the time – to 50 or 100 Mbps will give this trend a major boost. At a certain point, we’ll rich a tipping point and find it all takes off.
The Opportunity: Pervasive, Invisible Computing gives consumers benefits that parallel those that Cloud Computing brings to enterprises, but more personal. If we think of daily activities as a series of interactions with other people and the physical world, it’s hard to think of a great number of interactions that couldn’t be improved in some way by a little computing; even meditation would benefit from some feedback about brainwave patterns and it’s the least interactive of all. And who knows, married people might even have better and more frequent sex.
Legal/Policy Issues: Privacy, security, data ownership, and federal regulations about networks, medical devices, and spectrum play heavily in this space, for the same reasons they impinge on health and fitness and SDE; only more so.
Related Trends: Stationary computing, business computing, gaming, virtual reality, payment systems, the Internet of Things, smart homes, smart cars, smartphones, software development, and business models for networks and app stores.
These are broad stroke trends that tend to illustrate two things: technology advances in seemingly disparate areas become super-powerful when linked together, as we saw in the classic example of innovation-by-connection, personal navigators. With the addition of a GPS receiver to a smartphone, the phone becomes a platform that enables us to find a destination, navigate to it around obstacles, and enjoy intermediate destinations along the way. It also allows us to asses the best time to make the trip, and often enables us to avoid it all together by shopping or meeting from home or the office.
Every major technology development – and some minor ones – has to navigate market forces and competition as well has hidebound government regulators drive by lack of knowledge and personal bias. Developing more rational regulatory responses to new technologies that don’t stuff them into old boxes will be increasingly important.