Tag Archives: business

The Digital Transformation Playbook by David Rogers (2016)

The Digital Transformation Playbook by David Rogers (from now on: Rogers 2016), professor at the New York Columbia University, has been published on April 2016. I read it thanks to Fabio Paracchini @fcvg –he handed it over to me in an immaculate, shiny hardcover format. To the best of my knowledge, this is the second notable book offering an overview and a framework on the topic, following Leading Digital by George Westerman, Didier Bonnet e Andrew McAfee, published in 2014 (from now on: WBM 2014). I wrote about WBM 2014 more than one year ago.  Before getting into Rogers 216, I have to say that I am a bit puzzled by the relative rarity of these works. Let me clarify. The literature on the relationships between technology, business and society at large is vast, to say to least. However, studies that are precisely focused on the phenomenon dubbed as “Digital Transformation” are still few and sparse, especially if we restrict the range to solid, extensive analysis, discussing it in terms of boundaries, origins and evolution. Yet the formula is very much in vogue. Most likely I have missed this or that other book or paper. So anyone willing to point me in the right direction is very much welcome.

Rogers 2016 has a different genesis than WBM 2014. The latter started from two primary research cycles that provided the authors with an empirical basis, from which they shaped an interpretative model. Rogers has followed a more articulated path. The beginnings come from an earlier book by Rogers dedicated to people and consumer behaviour (sorry, I haven’t read it: The Network Is Your Customer: Five Strategies to Thrive in a Digital Age, 2011). Then Rogers has drawn from a series of interviews, personal exchanges and feedback collected over the years as he was advising companies or giving executive education course all over the world. Finally he has researched a number of academic papers, magazine stories, analyst reports and blog posts, all rigorously cited in the notes.

One of the more valuable contributions of Rogers 2016 is the identification of a number of cases that explain how all of those companies founded before the Internet came around cope with what we call “Digital Transformation”. The analysis starts with the definition of five domains: customers, competition, data, innovation and value. A newly launched startup or a well-established corporation would show very different choices and course of actions in tackling these strategic contexts. Yet both of these types of businesses have to transform themselves according to “digital era principles”. From this point of view, Rogers 2016 has a very similar standpoint to WBM 2014, in which too the primary focus was on all of the businesses that are not centred on digital technologies, even though they have to use them. This is not optional: their customers and collaborators have adopted these technologies anyway. In other words, here we are looking at those enterprises that at times are loosely categorized as “traditional” companies, implying that under this label falls any entity that has not its core in the Internet technologies. I think that this a good reason for making the reading of Rogers 2016 mandatory for anyone in the service business, not less than it was the case for WBM 2014. Be you someone working at an agency or consultancy, a solution provider or a vendor, of global scale or in a specialized niche, corporate or freelance, I think these books are highly relevant to your work.

As said, the case studies make one of the most interesting aspects of Rogers 2016. Even a 244 years old business like the Encyclopaedia Britannica can successfully embark on a digital transformation journey. The famed publisher, once dependent from the sales of the leather bound paper edition, has reinvented itself as a solution provider for the educational market. To get it there, it has shaped a new balance between its scientific heritage and a novel, more dynamic operational model. The Weather Channel is another case of radical transformation. It used to be a pure media company, highly specialized in weather forecasts, based on the daily elaboration of huge amount of data. Then it found out that these capabilities were not only a key asset but also a source of innovation and competitive advantage. Starting from them, they have developed an all-new range of services for a number of industry verticals that relies strategically on weather modelling and forecasts. Data have become the cornerstone of their transformation (The Weather Channel has been acquired by IBM in 2015; a few months ago they have announced a new “hyperlocal” weather forecast service).

…for each Britannica there is a Kodak or a Blockbuster

On the other hand, Rogers warns that for “each Britannica there is a Kodak or a Blockbuster”, or, in other words, there is a company that refuses to acknowledge the new rules of the game, trying to avoid the strategic change required by the digital reality. Once again, the advice recalls similar warnings of this inevitable wave of change already emphasized by WBM 2014. On a second thought, these warnings might sound a little bit too obvious for those of us that are in the agency or consulting business. One could wonder if these calls to action actually resonate as they should. Perhaps we are in a transition phase, in which many companies prefer to tackle the all thing with a lot of caution, encouraged by the fact that in their field there is still no startup going after their business with a disruptive technology and an innovative business model. It would be interesting to assess if that’s the case in analytical terms, looking at the specific situation of each country and each market.

One more very valuable and distinctive contribution of Rogers 2016 consists in the elaboration of a set of strategic planning tools, based on a combination of scientific literature and hands on consulting expertise, as they draw from the workshops led by the author. They cover pretty different domains, from ideation to mapping and planning. If used as analysis models they indeed can lead a team in defining shared and sound conclusions, following a rigorous process. This is the “playbook” core of Rogers 2016, rich of advice for real life practice, encouraging readers to take advantage of these helpers to better cope with digital transformation challenges.

There is further contribution of Rogers 2016 that sounds particularly new and original to me: it is the discussion on the “disruptive innovation” concept coined by Clayton Christensen, following the earlier path of “creative destruction” defined by Schumpeter. First Rogers starts defining the subject – a much-needed step considering that the expression has become a sort of buzzword. “Disruption” does not mean “extremely innovative”. So yes, a company, product or service are “disruptive” when they provide something of unprecedented value to the market, thanks to a business model that traditional competitors are not able to replicate. This is not to say that whatever extraordinary innovation anyone is able to achieve is less valuable in any way. However, it would trigger different market dynamics. They might open up novel business spaces, but without making traditional competitors plunge into a crisis, as is happens when proper “disruptive innovation” occurs. Having said that, Rogers delve into the discussion of Christensen theory; according to his model, “disruptive” innovators displace traditional competitors by reaching new customers with initially less robust but cheaper solutions, exploiting some sort of new technology. Then they keep improving them until they become mature enough and of greater value than those offered by the incumbents. Now, Rogers acknowledges famed independent analyst Ben Thomson for a critical intuition on the nature of Christensen model: it works well with business to business market contexts, but it fails to explain the cases in which consumers are those that determine success or failure of a given product or service. If we take the iPhone, which is more of a product-service system than an isolated product, what has happened is has displaced the dominant incumbent with a combination of higher quality and price, something very far from the pattern identified by Christensen. There was no price discount at all and the overall experience was superior from the very beginning, so that it became an instant success even with the customer of the best Nokia phones. The “disruptive innovation” brought in by Apple has provided consumers with something of unprecedented value and over time has proved to be impossible to replicate by Nokia in a short timeframe. Rogers’ explanation to this case is a theory of “business disruption” that would make Christensen model a special case of Rogers’ approach. Using the logic and the concepts typical of the business model theory, Rogers focus his attention on two core elements, the “value proposition” and the “value network”. According to Rogers, we have “disruptive innovation” when a company manage to bring radical change in both of these dimensions, and only then. To make its argument, Rogers discusses three big cases. Beside Apple vs. Nokia, he focuses on Blockbuster vs. Netflix and Warby Parker vs. Luxottica. I enjoyed very much the reading, here: these pages are very timely and clear, and they illustrate well how the theoretical models presented earlier are translated into real business stories.

One last topic that unfortunately is only briefly outlined concerns the role of agencies and consultants. As Rogers weights the competencies needed to face the new behaviours of digitally enabled consumers, he writes that outsourcing would be a serious mistake. The turn that organizations are facing is so important that delegate it to someone else would be to concede that they are not able to steer their future direction. On the other hand, Rogers is also ready to acknowledge the positive role played by external partners. Discussing rapid prototyping, he recalls e.g. the case of R/GA with a quote of the former CTO John Mayo-Smith. For a partner committed to the innovative Nike projects like R/GA it was essential to “build something” even in a 2 weeks’ cycle, so that athletes and other stakeholders could be shown something real to get feedback, and feed it into further fast development cycles. So, apparently the cooperation between agency and client company can be beneficial, as the first not only provides efficient delivery but also conveys with it new values and a new way to work, modelled on digital principles. I think that this is a very important issue, not only from my point of view as an agency professional. The capabilities and the technologies that are shaping the big changes ongoing now are very distributed: as said earlier, we have the big platform player, with their unique dynamics (GAFA and other similar leaders) and the all spectrum of solutions providers; we have the marketing and communication holdings and the independent agencies; the large consultancies and the individual freelancers. All of these actors collaborate in constellations that to me are also proper “value networks”, different for each company, playing an important role in the company business model. I believe that thorough investigation of these dynamics is necessary: we need to identify patterns and best practices. Rogers 2016, not less than WBM 2014, will be a valuable companion for those willing to start the work.

I report here another review of Rogers 2016: Kathy Anne Cowie, “Book Review—Inspiring Transformation for Decades to Come”, Global Business and Organizational Excellence, July/August 2016; it is a premium content, available on demand or via a library subscription (I bought it on Readcube).

Leading Digital (2014) by Westerman, Bonnet and McAfee

I read Leading Digital with a mixed sense of anticipation and suspicion. Heightened anticipation was there for a reason: I think that it is not common to read some rigorous, organic, extended, articulated analysis focused on how traditional corporations face the changes brought about by digital technologies. That slight suspicion came instead from the frequent déjà-vu that often happens to me when I get hold on something on the subject. This is an old debate now. Two decades have gone by since the New Economy highs and lows; some of the very same questions have been raised there, and left unanswered I’m afraid. Then, a few years into the new Millenium, with the advent of Social Media and the much awaited mobile explosion, and the new wave of enthusiam and investments that ensued, we got into the same discussion once again, especially in the professional service realm (where I have been working for a long time, as an agency guy – perhaps I should specify “digital agency” – or as a freelance). Sometimes this debate has turned into a rhetoric, or worst a trade event kind of cliché; paradoxically, it is often addressed to people already convinced of the importance of the issue – very much preaching to the converted, as they say. So, beside the debate and all of the digital “evangelism” (how dated it sounds!), now I would really like to read some systematic overview, have research results, and examine well founded reasoning. This is the promise of Leading Digital, and I think that to a large extent it delivers on that promise.  The book is the outcome of a collaboration between the MIT and Capgemini. It has been written by three authours: two of them have an academic profile, George Westerman and Andrew McAfee (the latter is also co-author of The Second Machine Age, with Erik Brynjolfsson), while the third, Didier Bonnet, is one of the global leader of the French-based consultancy.

The book is based on a three-years research work, from about 2010 to 2013 I would say (it is not specified but the book has been published in 2014). First, Westerman, McAfee and Bonnet, with the help of a team, have interviewed about 150 executives and managers at 50 large corporations that don’t have technology as a core business. This is an important distinction, as it specifies the generic term of “traditional corporation” I have used above. Secondly, they have run a survey involving almost 400 large corporations in 30 countries (“large” it means with revenues in excess of 500 million dollars). The authors are very clear about their global perspective, not centred on the United States. In fact, even if most of the major technology leaders are indeed from the US, as a matter of fact a vast number of large and very large corporations are based outside of the US in Asia or in Europe (where I’m based, en passant).

The focus on “traditional corporations”, defined as the ones that don’t have technology as core business, is a cornerstone of the all work: these firms make “the 90% of the economy”, so it is of outmost importance to understand how they react to the tecnologies brought on the market by the global platform leaders or by the all range of startups  – many of them coming the Silicon Valley or the US. The strenght and momentum of this wave of digital technologies, platforms and services are such that nobody can escape it. Westerman Bonnet and McAfee have no doubts: the firms that choose not to react are going to face obsolescence and decline.  Here it comes an analogy that has been made many times in these debate: digital technologies are the Second Industrial Revolution. Nothing can resist their momentum. It’s a warning for the executives out there: we have come to a point in which it is possible to discern between the corporations that have undergo a successful transformation, taking advantage of these technologies, and those that haven’t. The analysis of these outcomes has allowed the authours to devise an approach or a transformation roadmap that others can follow too.

En passant, Leading Digital is also the book of choice to get a synthesis of the many scholarly articles and white papers coming out from the cooperation between the MIT and Capgemini on the “digital transformation” idea. The expression has been quickly adopted by the industry jargon but it could be that many are not aware of the original formulation, or, better yet, of the formulation that has got the widest adoption. A 2011 MIT and Capgemini document reported the following definition:

Digital transformation (DT) – the use of technology to radically improve performance or reach of enterprises – is becoming a hot topic for companies across the globe.

I think it’s important to start again from here – it’s not about defining something once and for all but bringing some clarity about the context in which has been shaped. The first Altimeter report on the topic (published in 2014) says that in their instance digital transformation is analysed from the customer experience lens. A second Altimeter report on the same subject credits an earlier formulation by scholars Erik Stolterman and Anna Croon Fors. For what I can read through Google Books scans, they were pretty distant from an interest in corporations performances. In that discussion, “Digital transformation” is an emergent phenomena that calls for a critical scrutiny, it is a novel focus for information technology research – they might even quoting Marcuse if I’m not wrong.

… the most crucial challenge for IS [information Systems] research today is the study of the overall effects of the ongoing digital transformation of society. The digital transformation can be understood as the changes that the digital technology causes or influences in all aspects of human life. This research challenge has to be accepted on behalf of humans, not int their role as users, customers, leaders, or any other role, but as humans having a life.

This was about 2003. Fast forward to 2014 and typing “digital transformation” in the Google bar will get you a couple of ads from big and huge consulting businesses (Accenture, to mention one), followed by a deluge of organic results. Anyhow, my point is that for all of these mentions there is little research, so it’s worthwhile to have a close look at the book from the people that triggered the most informed debate.

I think the book offers three main original results and contributions. The first is a set of models and categories that frame and define the all question; they are the tools that allow to investigate its dynamics and produce practical recommendations. The second set of results includes the case  and example reviews, the corporations that have been analyzed, with all of the excerpts from the research interviews. The third is a proper “discovery”, so to say, regarding the fact that the best corporations from the digital transformation angle show also better business results.

Let’s have a look at the first and at the second point. One key categorization or model makes a distinction between three dimensions relevant to the digital transformation concept: customer experience, operations and business models. These are different but interdependent aspects, so that changes in one would influence the others, to some degree. All of the corporations cases mentioned in the book can be mapped to these domains. So Burberry and Starbucks e.g. are explored mostly in the customer experience perspective. Very distant businesses like Asian Paints (India), Codelco (Chile, mines) or Zara are in the spotlight when it comes to the operations dimension. Hailo, Uber, Airbnb, Fujifilm, Zipcar, Car2go and many others illustrates the business model discussion. So this is about how corporations react to digital technologies in one or another of these key three dimensions, or all of them at once. Then the authors introduce also a typology based on another distinction. There are digital capabilities or competencies and leadership capabilities. Here you get a typical two axis matrix with four cases, in which the upper right quadrant is for “Digital Masters” . I think that these are the most analytical parts of the book. Combining these models with real cases offers a very rich material, interesting per se and useful as the basis to build advice for other corporations. In fact the book offers plenty of checklists, summaries and an entire final “playbook” addressed to executives that want to face the digital transformation challenge. Those are not at ease with the business book flavor might be slightly annoyed at this point, but the authours have been impeccable in pointing to the many scholarly or public sources in the endnotes (to testify again the research rigour).

By the way. The book has 9 mentions of the term “advertising” and 8 of the term “campaign” (just 7 in the proper advertising context) and just one of the expression “digital advertising”. I am aware that this is nothing scientific but this rough count made me think that the research has not been conducive to the discovery of some distinctive way of doing advertising by the digital leaders. It is as if a smart, sensible usage of digital advertising is taken for granted, just as a necessary element of a broader framework. In other words, where the digital transformation is in place digital advertising will be   a part of it, but simple budget shifts from one channel to another don’t make a big difference.

Let’s move to the third result. Here we have a very sharp and interesting conclusion, based on the research empirical work combined with the typology created by the authors. “Digital masters” make more revenues and profits than their competitors.

[…] Digital Master outperform their peers. Our work indicates that the masters are 26 percent more profitable than their average competitors. They generate 9 percent more revenue with their existing physical capacity and drive more efficiency in their existing products and processes.

Even though Westerman, Bonnet and McAfee are keen to stress that this conclusion indicates a correlation and not a causal factor, it is evident that these are big figures (think about the 10% of a 1 billion in revenues). So here the authours are really zooming in on an opportunity, a huge one. Grab it is open for everyone – every company that is willing to. There is no need to be based in Silicon Valley, no need to have hundreds of software engineers, no need to have onboard some one of a kind maverick pioneer. For sure it will be an endeavor, more or less challenging depending on the starting point, and the honesty of your initial self-assessment, but it is something attanaible by every company with adequate willingness and practical means to go forward.

Once again, it is not just about a big opportunity. Beside the call for action to grab it, there is another take running through the book. Westerman Bonnet and McAfee warn readers that they need to get moving anyhow, since the transformation has just begun, and its effects are barely starting to emerge.

We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

This is not secondary, as said above. Moreover, it highlights a sort of paradox, a relative lack of solid knowledge about the possible negative outcomes of the transformation as depicted by this research. If we accept that at this stage the impact of digital technologies and platforms is only beginning to take shape, and much stronger changes are to come, then the reason to react is not only the opportunity to have more revenues and more profits (as Digital Masters have), but first and foremost companies is about the companies survival and essential prosperity. So what are the “traditional corporations” that prove the point? Yes, the authors mention Kodak, or cabs (“Uberized” as it has been said), and then? Talking about the standard verticals, or categories that have lost their descriptive power (say “telecommunications”, “advertising” or “newspapers”) is of little help I think. Here again what is badly needed is solid research, well organized reviews, structured cases, empirical evidence and models. After so many years of debates about the effects of digital tecnologies, how one can’t see the paradox of not having a great pars destruens in the library? If you know it, please tell me where it is, and I’ll get it straight away (likely via Amazon Prime).

Adventures in Adland

A post a year is not exactly brilliant but whatever – at least there is a post coming after one year… So over the winter holidays I managed to finish reading Adland by Mark Tungate, in all of his 2007 hardcover edition weight and dignity – how long since I haven’t bought an hardcover? I think there was no ebook version available yet when I looked for it, but I might be wrong (I noticed that now there is a new July 2013 edition, Kindle and paperback versions). Here it comes my review, ready to be copy pasted into Goodreads, Amazon, everywhere (joking, I just started again with Goodreads because it seems to me that aNobii is moving slowly, if not going downwards, which is sad because I like the service, without having been a heavy user).

Adland, full hardcover beauty, real paper!

Adland is a very well written story, and a rare example, perhaps still unique, of an history of advertising offering a global perspective (note that I haven’t done any serious bibliographic research, but I’m pretty sure that this book will stand out for a long time in any case).

I think that Adland is most fascinating when it comes to the portraits of men and women that have built and developed advertising over the decades. Tungate has interviewed many of them in preparation of his writing or he has talked to them elsewhere as it appears evident from his standing as a top class journalist. It’s a kind of paradox, but even if naming agencies after the founders is one of the more enduring practices in advertising, very often little is known of these people, and even more of co-founders, and the other most important collaborators, were they partners in the business or not (I mean, all of the great professionals beside the greatest starts, the David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, Bill Bernbach and so on, which do have an obvious prominent space in the book) – and then sometimes clients played a key role also (even if by and large this is an history from the agency side). Now, advertising means of production are people – well, raw material is culture if you wish, but it’s not a ready to use asset that you can buy on your own, as you would do with whatever commodity or manufactured good. You need people anyway to make it work! This is typical of professional services in general of course – which by the way are often not well covered by business histories as far as I know.

Bill Bernbach and Leo Burnett in the nice B&W photo insert

On a critical note, I would say that the very last chapters are less convincing, or let’s say that even if they put it clearly about the total overhaul of the advertising world spurred by the Internet, there is no proper discussion as such. I read somewhere online about a possible “Adland 2” from Tungate so who knows, something not less robust on the topic might well be in the working.

PS: I’ve been always interested in the collective and often anonymous nature of many creative endeavours. Advertising I think is a typical example, in that often people experience artifacts with no mention of the authorship (which is very relevant instead in a trade or analytical perspective). Right on the topic, I’ll add here a shameful propaganda note to Advertising is the eye of the beholder, a personal side project based on Instagram and Tumblr.

Last stream for allothercountries.fm (including Italy)

Likely you scrobbler or even occasional Last.fm listener have already heard the bad news: on the 15th of January 2013 Last.fm stops streaming to a large number of countries, including mine – Italy.

The announcement came to me first as an almost unnoticed clickable display on the top of the personal page (not linked here because I’ve never been there with my real name), which at some point I decided to check, with inevitable disappointment. Judging from the related thread on the Last.fm forum, this decision has upset a good number of folks in “all other countries”, i.e. all over the world except the US, the UK and Germany (where Last.fm will keep also the ad-supported free Web radio), plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Brazil (where radio has been and remains a subscription feature only, as they say). Link to the official announcement.

I won’t delve here into considerations specific to Italy (if you are from my country, I have a few lines on the other side); instead, I jotted down some general commentary. And let me copy here a pic of the pin that I got as a gift from Alberto D’Ottavi @dottavi brought back from London after his brief interview with Last.fm co-founder Martin Sticksel published in English on infoservi – (the blog has also more Last.fm and related themes coverage, in Italian). Well, that pin was something!

Last.fm pins

Others keep streaming anyway

In short, what came out for Last.fm is that licensing costs for streaming music and insufficient ad revenues are pushing them to this new restricted geography. Have a look at the Paidcontent or Techcrunch posts for more. Anyway, it’s not new to anyone that streaming music on subscription models have stll to find solid business ground. But it’s also a fact that there are a number of services pushing it — to name two European-based big players, say Spotify (from Sweden, not available all over Europe though) or Deezer (from France – I started using it right now). Then there are also a few more already well established brands and startup, all with its own history and positioning, from Pandora to Rdio, from Soundcloud to whatever you can pick. The thing is, while they are different, all of them seem to pursue an enlarging trajectory when it comes to geographies, even if at different paces.

Going down

As it can be read easily all around, I also think that Last.fm is not new to a downwarding spiral since when the founders left, sometime after the well remembered 280 millions pound acquisition from CBS, a historic name of the media business (and big in radio as well – but as people noted, no visible result in that regard yet). And by the way, the two co-founders and former leaders are now up for a new general-purpose content discovery startup called Lumi, as I just learned from another Techcruch post.

Proud subscriber

Seeing this decline unfolding over time has been quite sad for people that have been hanging around for years (2004 in my case). I’ve always been a service enthusiast, praising and recommending it to friends at all times, and paying the subscription not just for the add-ons, but also for support. Not only Last.fm has been the eponymous streaming music machine: I think that their mix of music discovery, community and recommendations has made it quite unique for years – perhaps still unique in some respects.

Best jukebox ever

By encouraging people to be creative with tags and personal stations and following in the listening steps of others, be they “neighbours” or “friends”, with the variety of custom stations that the service has offered over time (some unfortunately well gone, from the famed loved tracks radio to the tag ones), I think that Last.fm has been incredibly good in exploring new music consumption paradigms. Now “consumption” might appear reductive: actually it’s not. What I mean is that Last.fm to me was still very much a music consumption machine, a place primarily for listeners, novice or expert, fan or not. Last.fm was and still is a kind of uber-jukebox, an entertainment machine. In this respect, it’s not very suitable for the music connoisseur, for those that want very high quality sound and even more the orderliness and quietness of album listening; but that entertainment is not trivial, nor it passive. Quite the contrary: on top of music there is an all set of added meaning that is distinctively social and interactive, as opposed to other more traditional types of music-related experiences, such as, say, going to a concert or chatting about your favourite album or song over a beer. Beside shouts and messages, not particularly original as such, e.g. I think that groups on Last.fm have often created very nice sort of music venues, especially when it is about getting across conventional music genres of even cross-linking media bridging different services, e.g. with ANobii+Last.fm books&music groups (or viceversa; then I noticed that some of these hangouts turned into social games, not always that funny).

Getting kicked out is not like opting out

Now that these days I’m really stopping using the service, there are a couple of phenomena that caught my attention. The first is related to the nature of this specific interruption for all of those “in all other countries”. Usually the big drama in this consumer internet world is getting people use something, more and more, or provide a decent way to opt out if they want to. I mean, the usual problem is getting users *in*, not *out*. And this is quite different from the paywall concept, where you can still have a (premium) chance to get in. On the other hand it’s reasonable to expect that this is going to happen over and over again. Service and companies can obviously fail the deliver to all of the intended markets. Yet it’s utterly frustrating from the user point of view, and surely very bad for branding.

Plus, UI habits can get very deep, and sometimes emotional

Moreover, to me some of the Last.fm UI distinctive features, namely those of the desktop player, have become such a strong element of my music listening habits that I feel like something rooted in my daily routines is being stripped away. Once you have hit the love, skip or ban buttons a few hundreds or thousands times, that’s get really deep. And it goes beyond routines. It’s well known that some of the best physical design features nurture some form of emotional attachment, as the thing becomes part of our mental landscape, and of our social realm.

Online services tend to continually evolve over time, and paradoxically keep being unstable, forcing people to change habits from time to time (at some point Last.fm redesigned its Web UI spurring waves of protests and a number of “bring back to old Last.fm” groups), except that some very characteristic aspects might continue to stay and they become the hallmark of the service, a sort of “experience anchor” that one can’t remove altogether easily. In this respect, it’s interesting to see how these emotional qualities perhaps are finally beginning to transit from the mighty world of “pure” physical objects to the relatively more fragile and liquid world of software and services. I guess that the interaction design and service design literature will have already papers and papers on the topic… just don’t know so if you have readings to recommend, please do, much appreciated.

Playing with it

Last.fm APIs have also provided a playground for many inventive minds. Last.fm has held a series of hackatons in which they invited people to build on top of the service. As for me, I have a very vivid memory of @jnkka showing his Last.fm+YouTube visualization mash-up exploring Italian oldies like Venti chilometri al giorno transformed into 00s cult pieces with the voice of Mike Patton. Go for a break with this amazing cover of Nicola Arigliano.

It was in a Bergamo hotel conference room, if I remember well; after Jukka’s speech we started chatting about the thing, sharing our common enthusiasm for the service and the inspiration it provided for new ways to listen to music and enjoy it, as for instance it somewhat could do with new and promising combinations of audio and visualizations. We moved from there to writing a project idea with a number of friends & colleagues. It was about music and media “trails”, or hyperlinks of sort, an idea still causing a bit of Vertigo to us (project paper here with all references and credits).

Research folks, look here for a moment

Even before, I think it was 2005 or 2006, I presented Last.fm as an early, brilliant and simple socially-aware content discovery case from the consumer internet at one of the large WWI R&D mobile&wireless projects meetings, raising bright gazes from the youngest guys in the workpackage team and some skepticism from others (“yeah pretty interesting but mobile is different, these Internet models are not going to change everything”). When later on Last.fm got that huge 280 millions pounds CBS cheque I had the minor satisfaction of saying, you see? it seems that they are on something relevant…

Better must come

Now of course those skeptics might come back and point to me that the Last.fm decline proves that the model is wrong. Well, I think they are still wrong. The fact is, this stuff is so still in its infancy. As said, for a Last.fm retiring back to its song-tracking scrobbling roots, there is a very lively squadron of others already battling for music streaming leadership, not to mention the likes of YouTube and others. Clearly there is a big question here on licensing costs, business sustainability, industry changes and everything, but to me it’s difficult to argue that music streaming is here to stay. All of these providers will compete based on prices, sure, but also on the service, the interaction qualities, the user experience, call it as you like. In this respect, I think Last.fm has done quite a lot.

The corporation & the startup

Oh, of course I think that all of this story can also be cited as an example of yet another brilliant startup gone down when ingested into the huge corporate world. Some coverage offers support for the argument. But who knows, it’s easy as well to bash the bad big guys. If one wants to stay away from easy generalizations, the only way to go would be proper investigation and analysis of the company history.

Best of luck to the Last.fm team

As for the change and its possible effects on the future of Last.fm, I wish all the best to the team. Honestly I think that I’ve really got a lot of music & media pleasure for a few euros (I’d have given more, that’s sure, at least something closer to what you pay for proper on demand services).

Stay calm and keep scrobbling

So, at least for me that’s the end of the unpredictable, but very often enjoyable streaming story: no more love, skip, or ban, it’s a stop — with Last.fm I mean, thanks God there are alternatives out there. For sure, Last.fm has made me addicted to 1, music streaming in subscription mode and 2, scrobbling (i.e. tracking) + tagging + getting music suggestions + enlarging my (virtual) library as core aspects of the whole experience. I suspect it happened to many others, “in all other countries” as in the lucky ones. I’ll try to see if scrobbling keeps me attached to the place. It’s like one of those old bars long gone from the fashionable list, but where you keep going, because you get used it, and you have spent endless hours in good company, and well you just like it too much. “We’re ugly, but we have the music”.

ubicomp@Ikea (well, say TV@Ikea)

Full disclaimer: I am a very happy Ikea customer, and I have spent endless hours walking along their aisles in search of the perfect match for an usually limited budget and some Bauhaus-ish/Scandinavian piece of taste and practical use. Ok, getting closer to reality, I spent some good hours when in company (i.e. girlfriend), while I have always tended to run through when I was on my own. I am not sure about the side-effects of these meanderings on my mood and relationship health, but well, furniture is here at home, in good use. Then Ikea is a Generation X cultural icon, and I am right there. When I ran into the small illustration about the “semidisposable Swedish furniture” in Douglas Coupland’s Generation X it has been a kind of epiphany, truly a moment of self-awareness (what a self you have, one might wonder). And I guess that there is an already large body of scientific literature about Ikea and business and strategy and design and culture and everything in between, and I have not checked it, so this is just my own immediate thinking, bla bla, and that’s the end of this too long premise.

Now, you might have seen the video here below. It’s about Uppleva, the new TV and furniture offer for the living room put forward by Ikea. It has had a broad coverage, so not need to talk about it in detail etc. The video itself is a very well done piece of communication I think; it would be nice to know who has authored it as well. It’s a promotional thing but really smart in conveying the context explored by the people behind the design and the all business initiative.

I read about Uppleva somewhere when it broke the news and pinned it on my Pinboard (yeah “pin it” to me is for super-functional “anti-social bookmarking” Pinboard first, not Pinterest, with all due respect for the wonderful Pinterest). Then I noticed on Twitter that Alberto D’Ottavi had a post about it, and we had a couple of exchanges on the topic there with him @dottavi and @evilelka (in Italian, here to credit people). Alberto’s post is in Italian but see here for some recent Alberto Dottavi posts in English at Forbes; second disclaimer: Alberto is a good friend of mine).

In short, as tweeted, I might be totally wrong but I feel like there is something not quite right about Uppleva. So, discussion.

People took good notice that Uppleva is more than the separate elements that made the thing. It’s more than a TV set, and it’s more than a standard TV cabinet or table. Alberto and others called it “a solution” – which of course is something that many want, as the increasingly complex lives of us are more or less always in demand of solutions (to more or less serious problems). And yes design does not want to stop at the design of things etc. (do not open that door! I agree on the general concept, but it actually raises so many more questions).

But what kind of solution is this? I’ll stick to the words of the Uppleva girl in the video. She says that according to research done “all over the world”, people are not at ease when it comes to their TVs placement in the living room, because TVs come with too much stuff around them, first audio boxes and set-top boxes and game consolle (but she doesn’t name them) and especially CABLES (she actually screams at that point), yes the cable mess we are so used to and that now could go away with Uppleva. And it’s not just cable-concealing. Ikea has also worked on the TV software / UI and on the remote, so that the integrated blu-ray and connected / smart TV features are all better accessible and easily usable and more enjoyable and everything, which I think it’s a very sensible effort and objective.

Now, there are still two or three interesting problems here to me, somewhat related, even though they are of different nature.

Let’s talk about CABLES first, as they have an unusual prime-time in this spot. Yeah they are not nice. It’s very true that they give that messy nerdy garage-like air to everything and some might think that this tech flavor is all so passé now that TVs are just a normal presence in our home environment. Say that their tech appearance, black electronics with blinking LEDs is out of place. Well, now let’s step back from the argument that tech flavor given by cables is passé, because I might not agree (nerdy electronics is a matter of love for many, perhaps rightly so!). The point is that Uppleva comes with a number of *ports* (USB and HDMI) that, guess what, are obviously done for the damned plugs and CABLES. So the nice picture from the catalogue might disappear pretty soon… CABLES again; not easy to get rid of them, definitively (of course I think that Ikea has very sensibly produced Uppleva with all these ports — my take is just on the cables disappearing and then coming back, really much like nasty snakes).

Let’s see the remote then. Here we have another typical classic case of design chaos in the living room. Raise your hand if you have never used a slide with a bunch of remotes in your UX presentation (third disclaimer: I think I did used one of these slides more than once, I confess).  But here it comes the same point. Once you have plugged your extra stuff that is not already put into the integrated (integralist?) Uppleva you are back into square (slide) one with a bunch of pretty remotes, badly designed by unaware designers (whose houses have at least one Ikea piece I bet!). Point is, remotes are just one side of a bigger game and getting rid of too many remotes is as easy as solving the all issue of interactivity and television, which is still *huge* – I mean, even Apple, kings and priests of Design and User Experience in their Most Noble Forms, are still quite working on it… (not joking on Apple btw… they do great design of course etc. but it’s a fact that with TV they still have to find success etc.).

And what about more general or abstract qualities? What about the very notion of order and cleanliness and messiness that are at stake here? Because there is it, the Uppleva girl tells us that people around the world are tired of messy living rooms, full of nasty cable snakes. And how not to note that order is such a central concept of everything designed, from architecture to the universe? (I am talking about all things/intangibles that are artificially made, no implication about the fact that the “natural” universe has been designed 😉 — Well the intriguing point is that the messiness of consumer electronics in the “home context” (scientific tone) might be at the heart of the all evolution of related technologies, something really central and inherent to the thing.

Take the argument of two top scholars. Even though I haven’t still managed to finish the reading (second confession, nth disclaimer!), Dourish and Bell recent book on ubicomp (Divining a Digital Future) outlines a vision of the real evolution of technology in which messiness is not a casual attribute or contingent nuisance. Quite the contrary actually: it stands really much as a distinctive aspect of an endeavor that progress by not planned competitive (techno-scientific I’d add) programs and additional layers, as it happens with many of the traditional infrastructures of the urban environment (think the networks of mass transportations for an analogy, or I’d say the city itself as an infrastructure for living). Can we remove this mess, if it is so rooted in the all thing? Or, how to deal with it? Perhaps the first question should be about the mess itself, its relation with technology, etc.

I’m afraid that messy ubicomp can not be easily stored in a cabinet. It doesn’t disappear in the background (or not yet), it’s not part of an integrated solution, because it can’t be (maybe it will).

One specific aspect of the latter issue is about design & industrial cycles I think. With consumer electronics and information technologies and especially everything digital, you often have cycles that are pretty fast, say 2 years and another game begins. I can’t see how it’s possible to match these cycles with those of the furniture consumption. What about my Uppleva wooden side in 2 years or 4? What will be the average TV size then? Furniture has a pretty long consumption curve, it just works for a long time until it breaks down (or one decide to dump it), while tech stuff goes up and down like on a rollercoaster.

Having said all of that, it’s a fact that Ikea has taken an interesting and new challenge here, so I’m very curious to see how the thing plays out. In the meantime, I’ll roll my cables on the bottom of my Ivar shelves.

Nasty cables on the bottom of a lower Ivar shelf, typical Gen X setting

PS if you wonder… according to Google Translate, Uppleva means “experiencing” (have to check with Swedish friends).

“Smartphones”: market share & usage data

After every quartery release industry analysts, experts and all comment on the latest market share data, based on sales in that timeframe — something a bit misleading if you think about the expression “market share”: in fact, these numbers does not tell much about the actual distribution (i.e. platform share in a given period: look e.g. at the market share of Symbian, RIM and iOS published alongside this FT piece on Nokia CEO troubles, in which you have Symbian declining from over 60% in 2006/2007 to slightly above 40% in 2010, RIM moving from less than 10% in 2006 to 20% in 2010 and Apple iOS raising to something like 15% after the 2009 slightly higher peak; sorry for not being precise but the chart is very small… precious exact figures are missing ofc).

Update: via @tomiahonen I just found a Reuters infographics, Strategy Analytics data, that shows the general dynamic very well.

This is not to say that this information is not important: of course it is, 100%, for a number of obvious reaasons. But there is big but here in my opinion: if we want to look at the “user” side of the coin (end-user or business), then discussing smartphones market share makes sense as long as they are accompanied by some data on the actual usage of the specific capabilities that make them different (supposedly “smart”) when compared to “dumb” phones: i.e. online applications usage, be they related to Web app/mobile sites or native apps. Even in this case, we would still be at a very high level, unless we discuss about some sort of activity or product/service category: e.g. search, games, social networks etc.

To make the point clearer, look e.g. at the chart below, taken from a MocoNews.net post on a recent Pew survey:

In other words: we might well have a relatively small number of iPhones around, but if iPhone users (or Android users, or whatever) are those mostly actively browsing the mobile Web, using and spending on mobile apps, searching and possibly clicking on those paid search ads etc. then this is what matters most from a business and marketing perspective.

Now, data on mobile products/services usage vis-à-vis actual smartphone penetration divided by platform do not seem easily available, at least in the public domain — or am I wrong?

Update (27-7-2010): cf. e.g. these conclusions from a Yankee Group report (Why iPhone matter; premium access only, the following quotation is from the public executive summary): Two-thirds of iPhone owners use the mobile Web daily … Plus, iPhone owners download more apps, are more interested in mobile transactions and conduct more mobile e-commerce than users of other [smartphone platforms I guess — it’s truncated right there!]

PS: I put the quotation marks on smartphones in the post title for the same reason: Wikipedia tells that a smartphone “allows the user to install and run more advanced applications based on a specific platform” and then that they “run complete operating system software providing a platform for application developers”. Still you can use a smartphone pretty much in the same way of a dumb phone, as perhaps one went for it for other reasons than the possibility to use apps, the mobile Web and the likes. In short, couldn’t be this one the case for so many Nokia smartphones around? (especially in Europe) Smartphones are not created equal…

Latest “Internet trends” from Mary Meeker

Mobile business and online advertising enthusiasts have welcomed this latest deck from Mary Meeker, perhaps the most famous Wall Street Internet analyst to date (see the Wikipedia bio). I noticed it on the blog of London-based mobile agency Addictive (their weekly Mobile Fix is also worth reading).

The presentation has been given at a major industry event in New York just a couple of days ago. I read somewhere that Meeker has been often credited with an outstanding capability to capture big trends early on. So, her takes on the “unprecedented early stage growth” of the mobile Internet are of particular interest for all of those concerned with mobile things.

Meeker co-authored a seminal report on then emergent Internet industry more than 10 years ago — “The Internet report”. There is a digital version available from the Morgan Stanley web site but it comes also in book form from Amazon. The picture below is from KPCB site.

Mary Meeker portrait
Mary Meeker (pic from KPCB site: http://www.kpcb.com/partner/mary-meeker)

Android surge vs. iPhone repeats Windows vs. Apple pattern

This is not the blurb of some Google enthusiast or Apple hater but the reasoning of Fabrizio Capobianco, the CEO of Funambol and a leading voice in the industry, especially when it comes to mobile and open source. See the original post (published about one week ago. 9th of November 2013 update: failed to open page…) for the complete commentary on the NPD data on US 2010 Q1 sales reported below (again, copypasted from Fabrizio’s blog 9th of Nov. 2013 update: same data and image now taken from this post at Android and Me blog by Taylor Wimberly).

smartphone operating system unit share trend circa 2010

In short, the parallel drawn by Fabrizio is about the contrast between better but closed operating systems (the ones from Apple) on one side and not vertically integrated / somewhat open alternatives on the other side (Windows in the past for the PC, now Android for mobile — yesss, not open source on the MS side 😉 The end result is that Apple’s share in the PC market never reached high marks.

Any pattern recognition? I bet. That’s the PC business. One Apple operating system which was closed, and one Microsoft operating system that hardware manufacturer could adopt and ship at “low” cost (for the time). Apple was better and now they have 4% of the PC OS market share.

via Mobile Open Source

Two personal takes:

1, We all have heard the argument that you can run a very successful company with a small share of the market; but it can be counter-argued that the perspective of the analysis above is not focused on a single corporation as such, but on general market dynamics, which at some point in the future could indeed impact the performance of any company in the arena.

2, I know that I am mixing (real 😉 apples and pears, but the surprising NPD data are a striking confirmation of the expectations about future mobile OS diffusion expressed by the respondents to the RTM survey on which I blogged about a while ago (it was: Android first, iPhone second, but now it looks like it could be a very distant second).

Update: I noticed that Apple has publicly reacted to the NPD data claiming that “this is a very limited report on 150,000 U.S. consumers responding to an online survey”, as reported by Reuters and others. Furthermore, Apple reference to another report by IDC on global market sales for mobile vendors in 2010 Q1 highlights also how big is the difference for Nokia penetration in the US vs. the global markets. BTW, perhaps analysts shoud measure (OS) platforms and device vendors together (terminology discussions on “smartphone” vs. “mobile converged devices” might be interesting but they are not very practical).

Digital TV, audience, users and people

Having been invited to give a talk about “challenges and opportunities” of digital terrestrial TV — this month in Italy many regions will start the switch-over — I tried to draw some reflections on expressions like “audience”, “users” and “people”. I think they bring many assumptions that often go unquestioned. “Audience” is TV and media jargon, “users” are those of ICT, HCI and user research, and I guess “people” are the real individuals behind the previous categories. One great reference in this respect I think is the 2009 paper on “non use” by Satchell and Dourish (see here the PDF from Dourish publications page); some more comments on the local perspective in the Italian version of this post (click Italiano on top right).

Now, the presentation was mostly a series of visuals, so there is not much sense in sharing it here. But see below the video with which I managed to entertain the conference audience 😉 — It is a 2008 viral produced by a then successful FOX talkshow; the intent was to show how “insanely difficult” had been the switch from analog to digital TV. The conference has been held in Trento, under the auspices of the Autonomous Province of Trento and the public agency Trentino In Rete, in cooperation with Create-Net (I have already worked with them).

He can’t circle his programs in red pen [on the EPG]

Photo credit: Finding Love, Then by jonesing1 CC License

My Dad stopped getting his major city daily when they shitcanned the TV guide. He’s 87. I tried to explain the guide on TV. But he can’t circle his programs in red pen on it so it’s useless to him.

This comment from TroisFilles is one of the nicest from a Gawker piece on the continuous decline in magazine sales in the United States (found via Vanz feed). I think it’s remarkable because this 87 gentleman has a very good point in being dissastified with the EPG — even if I suspect that most of us would be tempted to delegate the issue to specialists of “technology for the elderly”…  Marking preferred programs with a red circle is certainly practical; I bet that whatever bookmarking feature is offered on an EPG, it can’t match the traditional pen ease of use and immediacy. But having an EPG where people can mark programs making e.g. a circle with their finger does not look like science fiction, right? Repeat with me: TV, EPG and STB needs massive doses of interaction design. (PS: this should be of concern to magazine publishers as well, unless they have already surrendered to the destiny of being reduced to pure content providers).