Here I am, back at it again with the random collection of things mashed together to try to compensate for the fact that they don't warrant posts of their own.
Isn't it weird how I can walk 10 metres across the office and my bluetooth headphones still play music from the phone sitting on my desk, but if I've got my phone in my left hand pocket and turn my head to the right, they cut out?
Anyway... You may have noticed another gap between posts, which I'm going to blame on a) summer happening, b) distracting computer games, c) a really busy couple of weeks at work 1, but it all comes down to "I had other things to attend to". Sorry about that. (I'm thinking that if I force myself to acknowledge the gap between posts every time, it will motivate me with a sense of urgency around the follow up, bit to be honest its kind of working the other way.)
On with the braindump…
Feel like it's time to get a new phone, but can't decide between the one with no headphone jack or the one that sets your house on fire.— Tom Bramwell (@tombramwell) September 13, 2016
Its an interesting time in the phone world. As I understand it, there have only really been two companies making any real money out of selling smartphones; Apple and Samsung. Apple makes quite a few expensive phones, while Samsung make quite a lot of cheaper phones.
And Google might be about to suck a lot of the oxygen out of Samsung's smartphone market. I haven't seen the Pixel phone they recently announced, although I have seen a pop-up Google coffee shop outside Euston station that took me a while to figure out that its purpose was apparently somehow linked to getting people to see the Pixel phone, but it sounds pretty cool. Probably not cool enough to pull me away from iPhones and the tethered collection of Apple laptops, Apple Music, Apple Photos etc. etc. but I'm sure people more loosely connected to the iOS ecosystem will see an appealing alternative in something built around Google's services. And at a time when Samsung's brand is probably taking the battering of its life (I imagine that being sued for millions for copying Apple is a happy memory now), the idea of their Google 'partner' cannibalising a bunch of their high end handset sales (ie. the most profitable ones) is probably pretty worrying for them.
But its the Google side that I find more interesting.
The thing is, Google makes something like 98% of its profits from adverts. The internet (read: "digital") has turned out to be a very successful platform for advertising, and no online advertising format has been as successful as search – which Google has the vast majority of.
But there is a problem. The future of the internet is mobile, and the future of mobile isn't typing stuff into a search box and looking through the results (which may or may not include a few adverts). The future of mobile is (probably) something like Artifical Intelligence powered assistants that get you stright from what you want to do to actually doing it - ask the AI for something, and it gives it to you. And there isn't really any convenient space in that kind of service to squeeze in some advertising.
So, Google's future might not be as an advertising company. It might be as an AI assistant company. Except, while not many people are likely to pay for an AI assistant, there are lots of people paying quite a lot of money every year or two for a new smartphone. And if Google can make that smartphone, sell it at a high price (or at least a high profit margin), then maybe there is a way for Google to stay true to its mission of organising the worlds information and making it universally accessible, while at the same time completely changing its business model from supported by 3rd parties paying for adverts, to selling features, but bundling it in with expensive hardware...
One to watch…
I got an iPhone 6s Plus last year, purely for the bigger battery. I like the big screen, but not as much as I dislike the massive thing that barely fits in my pockets. But I like running out of battery least of all, so it was really a simple decision. Thinking that a it would (should?) last me through a day of even the heaviest use.
Then I started playing Minecraft on my commute (well, the bits of it that don't involve cycling or walking) and things started getting pretty low by the evening.
Then something else happened, and I wasn't even making it to the afternoon. I've actually managed to hit 40% battery by the time I got to the office in the morning.
Why? You can probably guess. That old Google April Fools joke that weirdly turned real. Pokémon Go…
I'm pretty sure that by now, as the "craze" has died down (in that it isn't something that most people still care about - the question isn't "are you playing it", but "are you still playing it?") but that its still going to be a popular game for a more 'normal' number of people for a good while longer yet. Which means I feel safe writing about it, without feeling like either a "10 Things Your Business Can Learn From Pokémon Go!" LinkedIn piece or an overblown "this is the fall of mankind" article…
Batteries are really important
I think this is the one thing that Pokémon Go really shines a light on; if you had to name important technologies for the future, you would probably be thinking about super fast computers, super small computers, the internet, new places to put touch screens, wifi, 3G/4G/5G mobile internet and so on. But I think the really interesting stuff comes out of the technologies that are easy to overlook.
Right now, all the buzz seems to be around virtual reality - technology that requires a hardware platform consisting of dedicated 'wearable' screens, very modern, high speed processors and graphics coprocessors - at least a grand or so to spend on the computer, the headset, the controllers and the camera to get started on playing games… well, the killer games themselves haven't actually been made yet. To make a high end console title takes years of work. I've just finished playing Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare – the credits take a 28 page PDF to list all the names of people involved, and thats a few years worth of work. The costs are in the hundreds of millions.
And that is for a console game. Sure, consoles have come on a long way in the last 20 years in terms of processing power, graphics, physics simulation and so on. But in terms of the underlying mechanics, we have gone from sitting in front of a CRT television screen in 1997 holding one of these;
To sitting in front of a (bigger, flatter, thinner, LCD) television holding one of these;
Sure; we've swapped a cable for a battery. We've added a weird touchpad thing that only ever seems to be actually used as an extra button. But the basic mechanics – the user interface between the player and the game – really hasn't seen any fundamentally new ideas for about 40 years. (Longer, if you count the joystick as the most fundamental element of the controller.)
Is that massive progress – from Elite to No Mans Sky? Well, games have got bigger, richer, deeper… the internet has made some interesting things possible (now I'm the appalingly predictable idiot getting shot on the Battlefield, instead of the guy laughing at the appallingly predictable AI soldiers.) But have we really seen advances? I'm not too sure.
But VR games have to do a couple of things;
- Figure out how games work best in a VR world. Is that just a new screen, but the same controller? Is it standing up and waving at a clever camera that recognises your gestures? Is it actually something that works in the home – or are we going to see a resurgence in the arcade game model?
- Do it really quickly, because there are a bunch of companies investing a lot of money in this space, no doubt signing up some very valuable patents along the way, who will be expecting to make money out of it. Right now, there is no "path to VR success", but if these guys don't figure it out quickly enough to build businesses out of it, whats going to be left behind them is a bunch of well-trodden paths to nowhere in particular, littered with a bunch of patent landmines.
Don't get me wrong; I think the idea of Virtual Reality is extremely compelling. I think there are going to be lots of interesting things happening in that space. I want to see Sony, and Oculus, and Steam, and whoever else is involved succeding.
But I just don't think they are going to be interesting to all that many people - people who aren't going to spend a few hundred pounds on the hardware, or even go out of their way to try it out. And without that kind of marketplace, the likelihood of the kind of software that is able to show off what it can do getting developed seems pretty slim. (And if the software can't compare to something like the LA-inspired world that took £265 million to make, then who is going to be interested?)
But the Pokémon game itself is doing some interesting things – and not just in terms of Nintendo's intellectual property revival. The fact that I can walk through the village with my son and he will point out a local 16th century pub – not directly because of its historical importance, but because it happens to be a Pokéstop. I'm sure that there are plenty of gamers who are used to the idea of visiting a real-world location and being familiar with it through the virtual worlds it has inspired (I found it strange visiting L.A. earlier this year and feeling like I had wandered into the Grand Theft Auto world of Los Santos) – a feeling not unlike going somewhere you're familiar with through seeing it in films.
But flipping that the other way – experiencing the real world differently because of what is happening in a purely virtual world that has been overlaid on top of it – feels like something new, if only because I don't think its really happened at this kind of scale before. When have crowds of people come together at the same time to visit an old building because of a shared belief that something special can happen there on a different plane of existence… (apart from every Sunday, obviously.)
When Foursquare launched, professional people got very excited about something that nobody was using, because of the potential that this gamified social platform driving people to participating businesses. I'm actually kind of surprised how little "professional" talk I'm hearing about something that lots of people seem to be using. (Based on anecdotal, media industry, London-centric point of view, but I spoke to a headteacher from Derbyshire who was talking about having to give an end-of-term talk telling kids to be careful when playing the game, and was also playing herself, for what thats worth...)
But the potential has certainly been spotted; smart and agile businesses were setting lures at nearby Pokéstops from the early days of its release; McDonalds were on board in time for the Japanese launch
All those mobile games before fell into a few broad categories. There were the 'casual' games, that you could play on any platform, but worked really well on mobile because of how they fit into the mobile context – for example, the game of Candy Crush that you can pause at any time because your train gets to your stop, or the person you were killing time waiting for arrived. Then there are the 'mid-core' games – not as involved as the triple-A) console games that demand a few hours of dedication at a time 1, but still requiring a few minutes of on-the-clock, uninterrupted concentration. (Example - Clash of Clans, where battles can happen at any time, but once the clock is ticking, even a few seconds distraction can be the difference between winning and losing – and something like a 20 minute wait before you can train up an army for another go.)
But Pokémon Go doesn't fit into neat categorisation – you can 'play' it just by having the app open on your phone, clocking up miles as you walk around and hatching your eggs. Or you can play it slightly more attentively, collecting virtual goods when you pass a Pokéstop. Or you can take it more seriously, going out of your way to a Gym – not just any old gym, but one where your Pokémon are the right level to make it worth spending a few minutes doing battle. (You can even coordinate your battles with team-mates – everyone has to pick one of three teams to join, no swapping after you've chosen – although this is a few steps beyond my own level of involvement at this point…)
It reminds me of a piece I read about Snapchat a while ago; like Snapchat, Pokémon isn't just a 'mobile first' application, but is something different. This isn't a game that was designed for the iOS and Android platforms (ie. pocket-sized touch screens), but a game that couldn't really have been conceived of without some important platforms already in place;
- Ubiquitous 3G (or better) mobile internet infrastructure,
- Cheap enough data to be able to play without worrying about the costs
- Ubiquitous smartphone penetration,
- GPS and compass hardware on all of those smartphones,
- Ubiquitous familiarity with all of those technologies. (If you have to explain how to turn around in the real world to orientate yourself in a virtual world, you aren't going to understand the basics of the game).
And, of course, if you don't have good enough battery life that you can use the GPS without worrying about killing your phone for the rest of the day then you lose the ability to drop into the game's virtual world for the most casual element of the game play…
Pitches are a blight of the media industry. ↩
Sometimes that long just to download and install the necessary updates to be allowed to play in the first place… ↩