Two gloomy views on consumer tech

Via @ModeledBehavior, one is by Alexis Madrigal and from Atlantic Monthly, excerpt:

On the mobile side, we’re working with almost the exact same toolset that we had on the 2007 iPhone, i.e. audio inputs, audio outputs, a camera, a GPS, an accelerometer, Bluetooth, and a touchscreen. That’s the palette that everyone has been working with — and I hate to say it, but we’re at the end of the line. The screen’s gotten better, but when’s the last time you saw an iPhone app do something that made you go, “Whoa! I didn’t know that was possible!?”

Those are high (and somewhat impatient) standards.  How about this line?:

…I think we’re into the mobile social fin de siècle.

What about making Siri better, or real on-line education through an iPad?  Nonetheless the article makes many excellent points, for instance about the increasing obsession with filling out niches, or this point:

I return to Jeff Hammerbacher’s awesome line about developers these days: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.”

Via Noah Smith, here is Ashlee Vance from Bloomberg, and here is his subtitle:

Tech bubbles happen, but we usually gain from the innovation left behind. This one—driven by social networking—could leave us empty-handed

And this bit:

“My fear is that Silicon Valley has become more like Hollywood,” says Glenn Kelman, chief executive officer of online real estate brokerage Redfin, who has been a software executive for 20 years. “An entertainment-oriented, hit-driven business that doesn’t fundamentally increase American competitiveness.”

In relative terms, those two make me look like a tech optimist, not just about the more distant future (which has always been the case), but about the present as well.


On the visible horizon (i.e., with acceptably-functional-but-unpolished-examples on the consumer market right now): additional screens, flexible screens, e-ink for lower battery consumption (screens consume the bulk of battery life and e-ink is easier to read, so this is a big one), writable surfaces with a paper-like feel using a stylus...

If I had to guess, the screens are precisely the next big thing.

The two next big things with e-ink will probably be a color version and some way to decrease the refresh times and ghosting. Is is possible to, say, play a video on -ink or is there a theoretical limitation that will make this impossible?

The requirements of multimedia and text apps seem divorced and we need some sort of hybrid device.

You can already have e-ink playing video. Here, take a look. Ghosting and refresh rates are still problems, though. But if you're using e-ink, its battery-saving ability is reliant on it not needing to refresh everything all the time - playing video would erase that advantage.

No reason a device can't have two screens, though, or possibly superimpose one atop another until we reach the point where e-ink video performance is acceptable.

The improvement of battery life is pretty much all I need at this point.

Indeed. Not having to charge my phone everyday would make me go “'Whoa! I didn’t know that was possible!?'”

Can't agree. I think writing will go away before we solve it. What's the point of it? We can already type and talk.

I would think the author of 'The Great Stagnation' would agree that we've plateau'd technologically. This is truly the end of an era, and all that's left is fighting over who gets what. There are no great form factors after touchscreen smartphones and tablets and TVs. Maybe wearable stuff will come, but all of that is simplistic compared to what we already have. The Google glasses rely on data clouds we already have.

We're very close on robot soldiers, and then we'll be done as a civilization/species, as the very, very few could remain in power indefinitely. The Chinese hegemony could span centuries.

Just some cheery thoughts for you economists who once upon a time naively thought that the American model was based on more than land and immigrant exploitation and our system could be applied to the world to bring prosperity for all. We can't even bring prosperity to our own nation, economists be damned.

The speed of digital/social media produces a lot of impatient technophiles. We'll have a wearable/omnipresent computer revolution and they'll eventually be asking what's next.

It's also a mistake to conceive of ad revenue as an accurate measure of the social value they generate. By and large advertisement matching has strong returns to scale (as the delivery platform acquires more and more information regarding its target demographic) and the natural tendency is toward monopolizing the entire platform - Google owns the open Internet market for ads whilst Facebook dominates its internal platform, as Apple does, etc. Thus the monopoly provider has a strong incentive to make it easier to make and afford stuff through that platform, since it captures the entire surplus from matching consumers and suppliers.

Hence even if Google's war with SEO bogs down in a permanent stalemate, it still wants to shovel that revenue stream into Android, the G-services, Firefox, etc and gains monetarily from the success of businesses that these services enable. Similarly Apple and hardware. We sit around worrying that delivering services over the Internet is hard to monetize regardless of how much social surplus it generates, well, guess who has a direct incentive to change that?


"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads" becomes, in the limit of indefatigable SEO and reactive privacy legislation, "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make the Internet monetizable - in a limited and specific fashion that encourages an ecosystem of advertising, but monetizable nonetheless". Thus resolves TGS?

How does advertisement resolve the great stagnation? Properly pointing people towards items they wish to purchase certainly is a helpful service, but it just improves what we already have, it doesn't create anything new. TGS is all about the lack of new things.

I'd say the big break through for mobile is application of deep results in machine learning. How about an app that uses NLP to passively listen to conversations then instantly and continuously stream relevant facts, links and news articles to the participants. What about an app designed to look at restaurant menus and identify which dish the diner's most likely to enjoy based on personal preferences and previous restaurant diners.

How about an app that checks real world and cross references them against your facebook friends and gives you the person's name, information and recent updates (or to get even more creepy, checks real world faces then mines through your friend of friends, friend of friend of friends and so on until it identifies the person).

Even better an app that listens to and looks at a person in real life and gives you a probability of deception based on voice/body language cues.

Given that attempts by the TSA to do this have been comprehensive failures, I don't expect to see this soon.

But when this app becomes evenly modestly successful, look for either a huge change in the compositon of legislatures or draconian penalties for distributing or using it. You guess which.

"a huge change in the compositon of legislatures"

So the voters will all know that the politicians are all lying. This would change things how?

Yeah, right, substitute technology for human contact and ingenuity. What could go wrong? We will all become like-thinking drones and there will not even be the slightest reason to talk to someone as you already know what he is going to say.

Seriously, what is the point of all this?

If humans are as simple as you imply, then I would have to agree that humans are of little value.

Value is subjective. What is certain, however, is that most people will be pretty miserable when such technologies are introduced and externalities and free raiding will prevent them from going back to a social order in which they are not available.

Is there an app to help me find people to go to lunch with who don't require an app to read a menu?

"when’s the last time you saw an iPhone app do something that made you go, “Whoa! I didn’t know that was possible!?”"

Any iPhone user, looking at the capabilities of Android apps would say this.

"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads"

This is a good thing. Its about matching up what consumers want with what suppliers have. Advertising has always been an industry where most of its product was hugely wasted, but the gains where so huge it didn't matter. Efficiency gains in advertisement are great for the real economy, and the positive externality of those gains, resonate throughout society.

These people seem to think that advertising is some sort of scam. Its not; its an attempt to connect suppliers and demanders in the market.

"but the gains where so huge it didn’t matter"

I mean the gains from trades that did allowed.

Advertising is not a scam, I agree; however I would change this: "its an attempt to connect suppliers and demanders in the market" to this: "it's an attempt to create new demanders for existing suppliers."

If we presume consumers have a reason for purchasing goods and services they found on their games, then I figure that it makes all involved better off, though maybe not as much as if they had connected in some other way.

In an ideal world businesses compute for an infinite number of dollars from an infinite number of consumers. For small businesses in large places, this can roughly be the right mindset. However, large businesses are competing for finite consumers with finite dollars. No matter how amazing your product, the right advertising can eke out more sales. That some of those sales are to people who would have spent the money elsewhere is not a secret.

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.”

I'd say the best minds (or at least the ones likely to make the greatest impact) right now are working at Udacity, Coursera, and Khan Academy. As with the automobile, airplane, telephone, etc -- the technology comes first (and the basic feature set is developed fairly quickly) -- but the social transformations enabled by the new technologies take decades to work out.

"On the mobile side, we’re working with almost the exact same toolset that we had on the 2007 iPhone, i.e. audio inputs, audio outputs, a camera, a GPS, an accelerometer, Bluetooth, and a touchscreen."

Well, what do you think about Google's augmented reality experiment, Project Glass?

I wonder what the next potential sensors could be that make it to cellphones and other similar devices. Has someone seen cellphones already with an exotic sensor outside the usual ecosystem? A temperature thermocouple maybe? Or some sort of advance on a olfactory / chemical sensor? Maybe on the medical side; a heart-beat / oximeter etc.?

A portable electronic device will become the swiss army knife of all things electronic or communicative you own or could own around you.

You just add that functionality, via hardware or software, in the device or in the cloud, to your portable device:

for example, portable devices now have the functionality of a camera and a video recorder. As those functionalities improve, cameras and video cameras, for some segment of the population, no longer are sold separately, but are part of the bundled functionality of the portable device.

Identify any electronic devices or communications devices in your life and transfer those functionalities to your portable device.

I suspect that much of the observed "Hollywoodization" of Silicon Valley is an example of lying with statistics. It's natural to see an explosion of entertainment-oriented, hit-driven businesses because those are the kinds of companies that have become so much easier and cheaper to start in the last decade or so—they're the independent films of startups. That does not mean that there are no longer any start-ups that are focused on solving real problems that fundamentally increase American competitiveness—there are, just as there are still big budget Hollywood movies. They are just a smaller percentage of a larger total.

The next big thing, IMHO, is geo-location services.

I walk into a store, the clerk knows who I am, knows my purchase history, and can transact with me instantly without my having to provide any physical credential because my phone is connecting to the register automatically while it's still in my pocket.

I walk by a clothing store I frequent. I have no plans of buying anything today — but as I walk by, the store's marketing system pushes an offer to me. It says the jacket I added to my wish list last week (using my smartphone) is 20% off. I buy the jacket.

Just a couple examples here; the possibilities are much greater though.

Possibilities yes, but I can also imagine the nightmares. The tricky parts are security, privacy etc. I believe there already are advertising apps that try to do what you suggest but most people are loathe to give them control because of the barrage of distracting notifications it brings. The signal-to-noise ratio is very low.

In Prague, the drugstore chain "Schlecker" tried this "innovation". If a customer of T-Mobile walked around their store, they would instantly send him a SMS with advertisement.

It generated a huge negative backlash on teh' Interwebs. Myself, after receiving several such messages, I am pretty much guaranteed never to buy anything there.

My two cents:

Right now a revolution in battery life rather than any killer app would make smartphones a lot more useful. At the moment they are seriously inadequate for travel as you need to recharge them too often (yes you can bring along a power pack but seriously--should I have to constantly worry about my battery?). And I count running out of battery at 10pm even if you had it working all day as a total fail.

A more random case of an app that will change my life is Skritter's forthcoming (much bated breath) iOS app ( It will allow you to practice drawing Chinese (and eventually Japanese) characters using your finger or stylus on screen. Other programs show you the character and then you can trace it, but this software actually tests you on it, and gives you a lot of control about what characters to practice with. The website version is great but has two flaws--you either have to use a mouse, which is too different from writing (and I use a different hand using a mouse than I do for writing), or a stylus and pad, which is also a bit weird when you are looking up but drawing down. While it's not out yet, I think it will revolutionize the learning of complex characters for many people, and of course the same technology could be applied for simpler tasks such as children learning an alphabet too.

Wonder why it took so much time to write that sort of an app. Something similar for LaTex symbols existed for a few years, although not on a Smartphone.

I wonder how long the razr Max takes to charge

At this point the revolution will be in business models, not technology, and I think these authors are vastly underestimating the effects of market penetration. Most people do not yet have smart phones, and of those who do, very few of them know how to use them as computers. Once you have near universal adoption then you see the type of business model innovation and destruction that will change the world. These things take way longer than gadget reviewers assume. Look at the non-mobile internet. As of 2000 all the technologies were in place for a total reorganization of retail, yet only now 12 years later, are we starting to see even the electronics retail sector organize around the fact that everyone can buy things online. If it takes 12 years to get the retailers for the early adopters to reorganize we probably have 10 more years before the retail revolution is complete. And who knows what the winning business model will be for retail. Maybe Amazon, but probably some hybrid online/bricks-and-mortor hybrid that nobody has thought up yet.

All of which is just to say that business model innovation is what makes a technology revolutionary. And disruptive business model innovation in major industries takes decades at its fastest. And these people think smart phones are played out? On the basis that they are bored with Angry Birds, or something. Please.

Completely agree.

A new technology comes out, a lot of people who think themselves very clever write about how it's going to change the world... and then, over the subsequent decade+, it *actually* changes the world, in ways that the clever people didn't think of back at the beginning.

I see two big considerations. You hit on one of them--Siri--which is just good enough today to be a tantalizing hint of the true "personal digital assistant" that will be emerging over the course of the decade. Human-computer interaction will move more and more to a paradigm of talking to each other, with the computer occassionally displaying images. Siri will be in a position to book your appointments for you before long, electronically at first, but probably actually calling people before long. I think there's a lot of nifty stuff just around the corner on this front.

The second consideration is market penetration. Yes, the cool kids have had this "toolset" for four years, but most of the world has not. Smartphones are just becoming a "free phone" option with many domestic carriers, and there is of course a whole universe beyond the USA, Europe and Japan. After all, the personal computer settled on a toolset, really, by the late 1980s, and that was just the prelude to the PC revolution, not the thing itself.

"Human-computer interaction will move more and more to a paradigm of talking to each other"

Why do you assume that most people want to interact with computers in this way? I know I don't and a lot of people find talking to your phone when you are actually talking TO your phone silly and distatestful.

Besides, most of the things a personal assistant is supposed to do can be done in a conventional way with well-designed apps and touch-screen/mouse interface. Scheduling appointments is one of them. What is Siri supposed to do? Call the other person and talk to him? Most people will consider this outright rude just as they consider constantly looking at your phone when talking to them rude - personal interaction is largely a signal that you care for the other person and PDAs are a huge sign you do not actually care for them.
Far more likely a PDA will just schedule appointments in a calendar - you do not need a talking AI for that, good old interface is at least as efficient.

I think voice-apps are over-hyped too. It is cool-ness winning over utility.

Spoken language is frequently ambiguous, imprecise and highly redundant. That's really not an efficient way to instruct a device except in certain situations.

but when’s the last time you saw an iPhone app do something that made you go, “Whoa! I didn’t know that was possible!?”

Apparently lots of people were shocked by "Girls Around Me":

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.”

In the Middle Ages the best artists were "thinking about how to get people to pray." The resulting art is still awesome.

Kepler did horoscopes. Feynman did bombs. The applications are a trick to get the money people to feed you while you think, because (like the CS dept of UF) you don't get paid for the positive externalities you produce.

I think that teaching is an important area to watch. There should be software that asks students questions and reacts in an intelligent and flexible way to their attempts to answer. Multiple choice systems like the Khan Academy test engine barely touch the surface of what should be possible. For popular subjects like high school algebra, or calculus, a system that achieves critical mass could quickly build a huge data set from which it could learn what works and doesn't work. I suspect that there is a reasonable amount of search engine technology that could be adapted to drive intelligent teaching systems.

I also think that medicine is potentially interesting. Already one hears occasional stories where certain expensive medical devices can be replaced by an iPad or a Wii Fit with appropriate software, which can reduce the cost by an order of magnitude or more. If we ever get to a situation where consumer tech economies of scale can be applied to medical systems, that could have a big effect. For example, you could get a toothbrush that would analyse all the biochemistry going on in your mouth every time you used it. My guess is that you could acquire quite a lot of health-relevant data that way.

Next big app idea:

An app that listens and watches and monitors your activity in real-time and looks for times when you get stuck doing non-productive tasks. You'll tell it what you care most about and establish goals and when you inevitably get sidetracked and start procrastinating it warns and admonishes you to get back on track.

Of course, they main thing this app will do is bug you to waste less time on Facebook and iPhone apps.

RE Glen Kelman's comment in this story: "Hollywood is uncompetitive".

Kelman is an idiot.

We (Hollywood) has nearly 50 percent of the entire world's market for movies. What other American industry has such a share of the world market?

If that is 'uncompetitive', then Mr. Kelman (a realtor) is a man who never tells a lie.

You'll know that intelligent phones have stopped evolving when I get around to buying one.

"What about making Siri better, or real on-line education through an iPad?"

With Steve Jobs dead, Apple can't be counted on to deliver these apps by 2015:
- the complete BA with economics major
- the complete Masters in economics
- the complete Masters in economics with thesis
- the complete Doctorate in economic
at $99 each.

That means the sales in hardcopy only of Modern Principles for $156.85 are safe. Is that good or bad?

Siri? Meh. The next big thing is truly realistic sex, virtual or robotic, whichever comes first.

The comments make it clear that battery life is a buzz kill for everybody. We need better batteries for so many things.

However, voice technology will be the next big change for phones. Siri is the prototype.

Another game changer is add-on gizmos that turn your phone into a credit card terminal, a heart monitor, x-ray camera, etc. The integral of this is that phones continue to absorb other gizmos. My current list (beyond the obvious) includes telescope, metronome, ruler, level, reading glasses, flashlight and many more. One I'd like is to replace my pc. Just dock my phone and the keyboard and mouse can see my data and desktop apps as can I by looking at the monitor in the airport lounge work area.

I'd really like a wristwatch that I could talk to without holding it to my mouth. That would give me phone, text, voice services, all hands free and with only a hearing aid-like earbud. I'd mostly leave the screen in my pocket.

The x-ray camera will require new laws of physics. The telescope and reading glasses are about optical hardware, not about electronics or software.

A pulse rate monitor is already available but I don't know enough about physiology to have an opinion* about heart rate monitors. All the rest are already available.

* You read that correctly: a comment on marginalrevolution said "I don't know enough to have an opinion"

The telescope and reading glasses (magnifying glass) are already available, too, and using the camera, without other hardware.

Don't be daft. Mobile has just barely STARTED.

The 70% government can be replaced by citizens with their mobile phones. NO ONE who claims to be an economist that favors the free market should be able to despise government and lament the lack of obvious technical innovation in our near future.

Technology is the only thing at solves anything! What's our BIGGEST problem? No new gadgets? STFU. If David hasn't slayed Obama with 1000 new apps - the future is ripe and juicy.

This also works the other way round. 70% of citizens with their mobile phones can be successfully blackmailed by the government, if their positional data are tracked 24/7.

And this power will be abused against any possible troublemakers.

Duly noted.

We've got your number.

Sounds like a galloping case of "what have you done for me lately?"

Five years after the first mass-market personal computer was invented, where were we? (Let's call that the Apple II, in 1977 -- so, 1982). No GUIs, no networking... still mostly just fussing with VisiCalc spreadsheets.

Five years after the web was invented, where were we? (Let's date that from version 1.0 of the Mosaic browser, in 1993 -- so, 1998). No blogs, no social networking, crappy search, JavaScript slow as molasses, no AJAX... still mostly just browsing the Internet, same old same old, ho hum.

It's a truism that people overhype the short-term effects and underestimate the long-term effects. Augmented reality will provide some "whoa"s. But historians looking back will see that the primary transformative impact of smartphones in reshaping society was their role as tracking devices, like transponders in aircraft, and that is only dimly discerned today (or perhaps we're just in denial).

Tyler, not sure if you knew, but the iPhone and the iPad are brands. They are not the product but the brand. I think what you meant to say is "improved online education via tablet computers" or even more generally "bringing connectivity to users in ever more places to engage with the world in new ways".

The revolution is increased connectivity to the world in more places. The iPad happens to be the popular brand of this, but using an Android tablet, or hell even the Playbook, is no less "revolutionary" just because you like it a little less.

Praising Apple for products that you think are great is perfectly fine, even if some may disagree about the level of praise. Acting like they are the product makes you sound like the people who don't understand that Facebook and/or Google are just destinations on the internet, not the internet itself.

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