The latest issue of Foreign Affairs features the cover article “The Rise of Big Data” by Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schoenburger, which mostly details some of the incredible ways companies like UPS, Google and Apple have come to rely on vast arrays of numbers in order to run their businesses better. But data has always provided a problem in that it gives a substantive assurance of certainty that has a propensity to foster overconfidence in those relying on it. The article attempts to address this:
“[K]nowing the causes behind things is desirable. The problem is that causes are often extremely hard to figure out… Behavioural economics has shown that humans are conditioned to see causes even where none exist. So we need to be particularly on guard to prevent our cognitive biases from deluding us; sometimes, we just have to let the data speak.”
The sentiment here is admirable, and the context perceptive. But the final part of the quotation (my emphasis) assumes wrongly that data can speak objectively, that there is a fundamental ‘truth’ in a number. All too often though the wrong things are measured, or not all variables are measured. What data does not record, or worse, cannot record, can often be overlooked. While ostensibly data is there to provide assistance with building models and predicting future trends and movements, it sometimes leads to a very narrow view of one particular future, and fails to account for possibilities, that, though while unlikely, could potentially be devastating. This is what Nicholas Taleb writes about in his by turns unreadable but seminal work, Black Swan. The fictional, paranoid loner Fox Mulder of the hit series The X-Files had it right fifteen years ago when he lamented “in a universe of infinite possibilities, we may find ourselves at the mercy of anyone or anything that cannot be programmed, categorised or easily referenced”. The financial system before 2008 was a victim of such narrow thinking.
Hendrik Hertzberg, in his Talk of the Town column “Preventive Measures” in this week’s The New Yorker, made the adroit analogy with the 2002 film Minority Report in our quest to categorise and predict acts of crime. Hertzberg points out that in reality this “turns out to be a good deal more difficult than investigating such an act once it occurs”. Indeed, such prediction methods are being implemented, just with somewhat less efficacy than in the Tom Cruise movie. The stop-and-frisk procedure currently employed by the New York Police Department points to a sustained effort to engage in preventative measures to reduce crime, effectively what Cruise and his myrmidons were doing, albeit without the help of psychic imagery as in the film. While the psychic “Pre-Cogs” turned out to occasionally disagree, the success rate with stop-and-frisk is even less attractive. “In the final months of 2012″, writes the New York Times, only 4% of stops resulted in an arrest.
Hertzberg also alludes to the dilemma of mountains of data, produced without concern for oversight or management; producing more just because it’s possible to produce it:
“This fall, the National Security Agency, the largest and most opaque component of the counter-terrorism behemoth, will [open] a billion-dollar facility [analysing] intercepted telecommunications… each of the Utah Data Center’s two hundred (at most) professionals will be responsible for reviewing five hundred billion terabytes of information each year, the equivalent of twenty-three million years’ worth of Blu-ray DVDs… that’s a lot of overtime.”
The other problem this data poses – and increasingly this goes for many industries that are jumping on the Big Data bandwagon – is that intelligence departments and businesses alike are able to put quantifiable targets and figures to what they want to achieve, whether they are actually applicable or not. Police claim the low stop-to-arrest ratio implies that they are preventing crimes by stopping someone before they act. There is nothing to argue otherwise. The New York Times article alludes to the debate over what ratio or percentage the Supreme Court would be comfortable with under the tenet of “reasonable suspicion”. This leads down a dangerous path where we treat data as an answer to a question, rather than as supporting evidence to an answer.
While it’s difficult nowadays to write about telecoms or the mobile sector without drifting off into other areas of the TMT industry, Zeitgeist spent an evening last month as a guest of Accenture in Cambridge, discussing the successes and failures of the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. It came in the middle of a year so far that has already some significant shifts from mobile companies, in terms of branding, operations and revenue streams.
2013 has seen some interesting news in mobile. The week before last marked, incredibly, the 40th anniversary of the first phone call made from a mobile phone. This year also saw Research in Motion renaming itself to BlackBerry, with shares sliding 8% by the end of the product launch announcement for its eponymous 10 device. It saw Sky acquire Telefonica’s broadband operations, while responding to major complaints about the speed of its own broadband service. It has seen Huawei, which in Q4 of 2012 sold more smartphones than either Nokia, HTC or BlackBerry, come under scrutiny particularly in the US for its lack of transparency. Moreover, after much editorial ink spilled on Facebook’s lack of initiative and innovation in mobile, the release of the ‘super-app’ Chat Heads has piqued interest as it looks to compete with Whatsapp, Viber, iMessage et al., which Ovum reckons cost MNOs $23bn in lost revenue every year. This news mostly pertained to developed markets; JWT Intelligence’s interview with Jana CEO Nathan Eagle features some interesting insights on mobile trends in emerging markets.
Interestingly, 2013 thus far has also been witness to the beginning of more flexible contracts and payments. At the end of March, T-Mobile USA announced it would offer the iPhone to customers for cheaper than its rivals, and customers would not have to sign a contract. It effectively ends handset subsidies – something which Vodafone pledged to do last year and was punished by the stock market when it failed to do so – spreading the full cost of the phone over two years “as a separate line item on the monthly bill”, which may strike many as still quite a commitment. Customers must pay the bill for the phone in full in order to be able to end their tenure with the network. The New York Times elaborates, “Despite T-Mobile’s promise to be more straightforward than other carriers, some consumers might still find it confusing that they have to pay an extra device fee after paying $100 up front for an iPhone.” In the UK, O2 is going a similar route. At the end of last week the company announced similar plans to T-Mobile. While still keeping contracts as an option, the FT explained the company was looking to a plan, dubbed O2 Refresh, “that decoupled the cost of the phone from the cost of calls, texts and data. Customers will be able to buy a phone outright, or pay in instalments over time, and then sign up to a separate service contract that can be cancelled or changed at any time.” Although O2 said in the article that they expected customers to pay the same as they would on a standard contract, the new plans by both network providers will surely add to customer churn. Brands will have to work harder to develop true loyalty rather than relying on the lock-in feeling that adds to switching costs for many customers. Conversely, this added flexibility may make the providers feel less like utilities, creating more choice and differentiation.
At the aforementioned conference Zeitgeist attended last month, Accenture hosted an evening they dubbed “MWC: Fiesta or Siesta?”. It soon became apparent that many of the speakers invited were less than enthused with the conference this year. This was partly because there were no extraordinary leaps in technology or hardware on offer. It was also because of, as one speaker lamented, “the proliferation of suits”. Another speaker complained it was like listening to The Archers: long storylines “that ended up having no conclusion”. The very essence of the conference though is not about trendsetting, or cool new consumer devices. Mobile operators are utilities, the excitement around such an event is not going to be as visceral as that of SXSW or Embedded World. It led some to wonder whether the “real innovation was being developed in such ‘niche’ events, away from the “glitz”. Moreover, perhaps Samsung’s decision not to launch their new S4 handset at the Congress alluded to this lack of excitement, or at least a wish not to be drowned out by other announcements.
Among exciting trends on display at MWC, M2M – something Zeitgeist has written about before – was front and centre at the conference, particularly with regard to cars. Phablets continued to make their foray into the consumer’s view, with bigger screens meaning more data transfer. Zeitgeist wondered whether such a transition would put even more pressure on networks already struggling with large data handling. And although Firefox’s new OS gave some – including those at GigaOm – hope that it could provide more innovation through diversified competition in the marketplace, others, including Tony Milbourn, Executive Chairman of Intelligent Wireless, speaking at the event, thought it “underwhelming” after “lots of hype”. Bendable screens were also to be found at MWC, but those speaking at the Accenture conference like Richard Windsor of Radio Free Mobile said it was early days and much was still to be seen from this new type of phone. Its potential though, he readily conceded, was formidable. Wearable technology was a huge issue at the conference and one that Zeitgeist is particularly interested to see develop, especially as companies like Apple, Sony and Google enter the fray.
It seemed then that the Mobile World Congress failed to reflect what is turning out to be a tumultuous year in telecoms. Not only is there an increasing desire to address consumer needs – in the case of more flexible contracts and more consumer-facing company names – but as economies sputter their way toward ostensible recovery we are also starting to see M&A activity return to the sector. Time will tell whether new technologies, such as M2M or bendable screens can breathe new life into the sector.
After an annual loss of $6.4bn in 2011, Sony has since seen a new CEO come to the fore in the form of Kazuo Hirai, who immediately made it clear that major changes were needed, including significant job cuts, and a renewed focus on, among other sectors, videogames.
Last week at Gamescom, the company fared extremely well, “after unveiling wildly inventive new games for the PS3 and PS Vita, and fleshing out the appeal of its Wonderbook”. The Wonderbook – which consumers in London will get to try out this bank holiday weekend - in particular is of interest as it is a wholly separate device that works with your gaming device, and one of the few platforms that has an proprietary deal with author J.K. Rowling.
Mobile is another one of the significant sectors that Sony will be focussing on. The end of the company’s partnership with Ericsson will only help with this focus. The company tried to integrate gaming and mobile before the end of the partnership in the iteration of Xperia Play, with limited success. Beyond creating their own handset with PlayStation capabilities, they are now branching out. In June, Geek ran an article saying HTC has been given the rights to produce a certified PlayStation phone. Secondly, a company called GameKlip now allows you to play games on your Android phone with a PlayStation controller.
The Geek article talks about the initiative being “part of their attempt to broaden the PlayStation brand and increase total market share”. But since when has PlayStation been suffering as a brand? If you look at the social media fan base, PS has far greater affinity than the Sony brand. Is Sony giving away one of its biggest advantages (be it proprietary content, IP) to its biggest competitors in the mobile space, or is the bigger picture about simply extending the PlayStation brand as far and wide as possible?
You may have recently read news that Iran is quitening down a bit, hampered as it is with stringent economic sanctions. Or you have noticed things seemed to have quitened down merely by the absence of bombastic headlines foretelling a nuclear Iran.
Nukes are just one of myriad subjects that the power centre of Iran – namely, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad – seeks provocation over. Another is a dispute over three small islands that the UAE also lay claim to.
Mashable picked up the story from where this week’s The Economist left off, saying that Iran is taking umbrage to Google’s proclomation of said area as the Arabian, rather than the Persian, Gulf. The Deputy Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Bahman Dorri said such “lies” would cause Google’s users to lose faith in the company.
Maps have always been an intensely political construct. And this isn’t the first time the maps service has run into trouble. Google probably wasn’t intending to step on any toes here, or stir any controversies in an area of the world where there is already enough ire to go around. What is curious is that until a few days ago the map apparently did indeed note the area as the Persian Gulf. Rather than dithering, Google should commit to one as soon as possible and give a good reason for doing so.
While this video from Google might seem a bit fantastical – and it has drawn parodies – it’s actually all now feasible. It’s just a question of integration, mixed with a bit of time.
Movers and shakers and substantial tremors as social networks jostle for dominance…
Google+, which launched recently, is the latest volley from the behemoth in its efforts to battle with its similar-sized foe, Facebook. Time will tell whether it will encounter the same fate of the much-ballyhooed Buzz and Wave. Google is entering murky waters as it comes under scrutiny from Federal Trade Commission in the US, as well as the European Commission, for any anti-competitive activity. It is, increasingly, spreading its wings to areas previously considered far outside its remit. In some cases, such news is welcome, as when The Economist recently reported on the Summit Against Violent Extremism, “arranged by Google Ideas”. Importantly, the network effects of Googling are nothing compared to the network effects of Facebook, at least for now.
Meanwhile, Facebook announced “something awesome” this past week, which turned out to be the somewhat underwhelming news of group chat and video chat functionality, the latter a product of a collaboration with soon-to-be Microsoft’s Skype. It’s interesting to consider whether the audience for both platforms overlaps enough for it to be too much of a good thing; by allowing video chat on Facebook you might necessarily make Skype a much less crowded place, very quickly. The 750m users of Facebook are both a boon and a potential source of trouble for Skype. One of the things that was interesting in the conference was when the camera cut to further back in the press conference to reveal the journalists recording the event. Not as you might think, if you had watched too many West Wing episodes, were they all diligently leaning forward, facing the person speaking. Rather, as the picture above demonstrates, were they entirely arranged facing perpendicular to Mr. Zuckerberg, furiously typing away on their laptops. They weren’t reporting for tomorrow’s newspapers – or yesterday’s – they were reporting live, a constant stream of data for the data-hungry populous to instantly discuss and further disseminate.
Mr. Zuckerberg spoke confidently on Moore’s Law, applying it to the continuing growth in use of applications and tools by users on Facebook. Zeitgeist is in no position to question Zuckerberg’s thinking, yet it would seem that Moore’s Law applies to development and acceleration of technological development. Here, Zuckerberg is trying to apply it to sociological developments, rooted as they are in a technological sphere. However since Zeitgeist’s blog has not yet quite reached 750m users, we’ll defer to Zuckerberg’s opinions on the subject.
Who will win this showdown for social hegemony depends rather upon who you ask, but also upon what metric you’re looking at. Zuckerberg, rather dismissively, said it wasn’t about the number of users, but about how much they engaged with content. He may change his mind if news of a Facebook exodus in mature markets continues, and if Google has anything to say about it.
As we celebrate our first anniversary and approach our 150th post, please join us in celebrating our 30,000th hit.
We’ve written on the changing face of masculinity, and how men shop in the second decade of the 21st century. We examined why England lost it’s World Cup bid, and what the World Cup meant for the world as a whole, and the businesses that aim to profit from it.
We talked about the future of content; what it means to own something that only exists as a file on a computer, but you still have to pay for, as bookshops and videostores fade to dust and intellectual property rights evolve along an uncertain path.
We’ve ruminated on leadership, on how luxury justifies itself post-recession, and how antique brands like Louis Vuitton attempt to keep themselves fresh, as well as ultra-premium.
We’ve talked about how movie studios win by marketing their product, and how auction houses lost out to the pitfalls of behavioural economics.
We’ve debriefed you on our visit to the UK’s Google HQ, while waxing lyrical on Nintendo as it moves from taking on Sega to taking on Apple. We’ve asked what it means for the future of TV when everyone has Sky+ and a broadband connection. And we’ve looked at several examples of superb brand activation.
Stick around and have a browse, we’re not going anywhere.
Why dominance means nothing if you stop delivering.
Zeitgeist reported recently on the number of high street names issuing profits warnings after an icy December kept shoppers away from their tills.
The encroachment from online retailers onto traditional bricks and mortar stores is only going to increase as once dominant names slowly diminish into also rans, punished by their failure to adapt to progress.
While such a destiny is unfortunate for a lumbering organisation with a physical and costly infrastructure to maintain, for what should be a cutting edge technology company it is unforgivable.
A mere ten years ago, Finnish communications company Nokia dominated the mobile phone market. This rather quaint BBC story from from a decade ago reports that ‘Nokia has strengthened its grip on the world’s mobile phone handset market’ and that ‘for the first time, Nokia has a market share more than double that of its nearest competitor’.
The report concludes with a prediction from Forrester who anticipated that ‘five dominant players would control Europe’s networks by 2015′.
While that prediction may come true, it is questionable whether any of the dominant manufacturers from yesteryear will be among them.
This week’s ‘leaked’ memo from Nokia’s CEO Stephen Elop claimed that the company was ‘standing on a burning platform’ and surrounded by a ‘blazing fire’.
This is not a pleasant place to be. As mobile phones became smartphones an ever increasing importance was placed upon a phones operating system, both in terms of functionality and usability.
Just as the old high street stores threw up websites that weren’t quite as good as the dedicated online retailers Nokia produced Symbian, an operating system that failed to impress anywhere near as much as the ones you’d find on an Apple, Blackberry or Android phone.
Elop’s acknowledgement of the problem has opened the door for a radical change in strategy to try and rescue the problem.
Rumours abound of a partnership with an existing platform.
“It could either be a very bad marriage or a marriage of two players that have not been very effective alone.” commented Magnus Rehle of Greenwich Consulting.
The two likely candidates are Android, which would essentially relegate Nokia to a manufacturer in competition with other Android handset makers, or Microsoft who have also struggled to ship as many copies of their Window Phone 7 operating system as had been hoped.
The former would be a rather bitter pill for a once dominant giant.
The latter, and arguably preferable option, would bring together two massive organisations who have struggled to assert their dominance in the category.
An announcement is imminent, though as Hakim Kriout of Grigsby & Associates points out ‘Very few companies regain their leadership once they’ve lost it.’
Whichever route Nokia go down the lesson is there for brands in every category.
It is infinitely preferable to stay top of the pile than to have to climb back up after a fall.
Regardless of your current dominance, if you fail to keep up with what people want and expect from you, someone else will deliver it and take your crown before you’ve admitted there is a problem. Brands must avoid the complacency that dominance can bring.
If brands assumed that they were surrounded by crocodiles and stayed alert to change and ready to react, they’d be much more likely to avoid getting trapped by ‘blazing fires’.
Which telco is suing which other telco, captured in a lovely graphic from the always-interesting Information is Beautiful.
It would be interesting to note whether any of this activity (which we can assume includes negative press and derogatory remarks about multiple telecoms operators as they sling mud at one another) effects consumer perception, or if it is even on most people’s radars.
Signs of promise, but are reports of TV advertising’s death greatly exaggerated or not?
Near the end of the masterpiece manqué that is “Touch of Evil”, Orson Welles’ character pays a final visit to an old friend, a gypsy played by Marlene Dietrich. Usually a dab hand at fortune telling, the woman looks at the fallen detective dejectedly, and with pity tells him that his time is over, the world has moved on. What with the release of Google TV, as well as the newest incarnation of Apple TV, the industry could certainly said to be volatile. Reuters have an excellent primer on what both behemoth’s machines actually do, here. This will surely only divert eyeballs away from advertising. Why watch a commercial when I can easily watch other media from the Internet before Pop Idol returns from its break, as is possible with Google TV? Why watch broadcast television at all when all the films, music and photos I want are streamed from my computer’s iTunes via Apple TV?
Furthermore, increasing DVR penetration can also do nothing but dent the impact of above-the-line advertising. In an article in Variety by Brian Lowry a few weeks ago, the journalist commented that digital video recorders were now in 38% of US homes. “To which many will doubtless say, ‘Only 38%? But everyone I know has one!’”. As Lowry points out, this delayed and fast-forwarded viewing has led Nielsen to create special designations, such as ‘Live+7′, to allow for the different impact of viewing an ad after its original airtime, as commented on by The New York Times recently. More importantly however, the rise of the DVR – from only 1% penetration less than five years ago – “points to a shift that threatens to hasten the separation of haves from have-nots”. Augmentation of these platforms will, Lowry writes, cause a fracture between those doomed to watch commercials, and those suitably kitted-out to avoid them. In particular, the problem for advertisers, and hence the networks they support, is that those people that own DVRs tend to make up a more desirable part of the population, which 30-second spots will no longer reach.
“[W]eaving messages into programming will become even more of an imperative… Taken to its logical extreme, advertisers peddling big-ticket items will have to think twice about whather 30-second spots are an efficient use of marketing budgets. The companies still relying on TV… will be the ones pushing inexpensive products[.]“
So it would seem the structure of television as we know it is an endangered species, soon to shuffle off the coil. William Gibson once wrote that the future exists already, it’s just not well-distributed. Surely this is the case here, and what we are glimpsing at the fringes with uptake of new platforms for viewing multiple media serving as a looking-glass into what will be the widespread norm in the coming years. Yet despite these new technologies, and the continued rise of all things digital, a front page article in Variety at the beginning of the month noted,
Advertisers appear to be returning to TV again, with automakers, especially, shelling out more coin… In fact, the major broadcast and cable networks were cheered at the start of the summer by a better-than expected upfront advertising sales market.
Indeed, The Economist reported last week that, with the recovery of the ad market, the two clear winners are the Internet, and, yes, television. The article states that at the end of last year spending on British TV was predicted to fall by 0.2%. It is now forecast to grow 11.6%. The previously moribund ITV has seen advertising revenues shoot up by 18% in the first half of this year. And while disruptive technologies may eventually take hold, the fact remains that people are watching more and more TV; 158 hours a month in America, two hours more than last year. Markets less mature that the US or UK have not yet faced the technological developments that await. “30% of Chinese regularly use the internet, whereas 93% watch TV”.
The article doesn’t address the fact that this is likely to change though, and importantly it’s likely to change a lot more quickly than it has done in the West. Moreover, the articles states that “search engines and online banners… do not offer emotional experiences.” But this is not all that the internet offers as far as branded experiences go. To see some great examples of work done to promote this past summer’s onslaught of films, click here. But the thoughts of The Economist clearly are the prevailing philosophy at the moment. According to an article in the FT last week, online advertising “increased by 10% in the first half of the year, but has fallen behind that of television and other traditional media for the first time.” Cinema also gained 12% and outdoor was up 16%. Press continued it’s slow decline. The thinking is that in the midst of still-prevalent economic uncertainty, advertisers are flocking back to a medium that they trust. For how long this trust will hold is a question that few in the world of above-the-line and TV networks will want to answer.