Thursday, December 27, 2012

Social Media and Social Etiquette

This is the decade of social media. 

I was doing my usual scan of technology news.  Sure enough, there was yet another new media app. Samsung is releasing ChatOn2.0 as warm-up to CES 2013. It's like a mother of all chat apps - you can chat with up to five connected devices on a single account, you can do group chats, invite friends to conversations from different platforms such as Facebook, Twitter or Weibo, mix multi-media in your chat and on and on. 

It seems niche social networking apps are popping up almost weekly, connecting us in our virtual world in myriad ways - keeping track of our friends, sharing our media, arranging a game, check-in to your place of interest, finding a date and on and on. In other words, short of hugging your friend, you can pretty much connect to your friends in all possible ways without leaving your leaving room sofa.  

The beauty of these tools is that you can connect without really being connected. Your Facebook settings are configured to send birthday wishes to your friends while you are asleep. Before the clock strikes midnight on Dec 31, your pictures from Times Square will find its way to your friends so you can celebrate the New Year together - no need to be really together!

Don't get me wrong.  I am a personal fan of social networking and continue to be excited about things I could not have done without these tools. It is nice to be able to stay linked to people across the globe who may share the same hobbies or went to same school and be able to share ideas, location, media at the push of a button.

 I can't help wondering if the ease of our digital networking and sharing will someday take over our human connections or sometimes make us forget our basic human traits.

I was appalled and shocked last week to read about the most brutal andhorrific rape of a woman in India. I was appalled even more when I saw a picture of the woman from her hospital bed posted all over Facebook. Many of these people were well-intentioned and wanted to share their outrage. Did anybody pause to think about her privacy? Just because your smartphone can quietly take the picture and your social media app can post it instantly, should you not still remain concerned about some basic human protocol? 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Spectrum crunch – a new commodity problem

In a memo last week, Procter & Gamble told its 129,000 employees that they can no longer use the music-streaming site Pandora or the movie site Netflix at work. Apparently, the motivation was not censorship but bandwidth management. According to the memo, the company’s web capacity was over-taxed by employees’ over-access of streaming content at work. 

As more and more consumers, schools, and businesses need Web access and data-rich content to function, infrastructure and carriers are struggling with the so-called bandwidth "spectrum crunch." An educational site School 2.0 offers a nice calculator to show how quickly your 2mbps DSL connection can choke under the pressure of multiple data streaming.

Whereas streaming audio can vary between 64kbps and 128kbps, video streaming can very easily consume a throughput of 1mbps or higher (e.g., Netflix’s top HD streaming is about 4800kbps or 4.8mbps). The situation could get worse with the growing diversity of applications such as VoIP telephony, video conferencing, Skyping, streaming video, online gaming and any interactive apps needing constant exchange of data from the cloud or between peers. In fact, mobile, home and office data traffic is supposed to be doubling every year at least for the next 4 to 5 years.

Clearly, there is a gap between growing cloud computing and the availability of bandwidth to support and deliver the service. Think of it this way, suddenly a new system of on-demand beverage delivery is established where you do not have to stock cans of soda or bottles of juice or need coffee machines anymore. Instead you are asked to upgrade your home plumbing so that you can tap anything from the same faucet. Think of a scenario under this ‘cloud based beverage supply’ model where groceries stopped selling coke, tea or coffee. You are now completely dependent on this new high-tech plumbing. If your plumbing is not adequate, you have to wait for your soda because one of your family members is taking a shower and clogging the bandwidth with heavy-duty water streaming!!

Our life is increasingly morphing with the assumption of  24/7 connectivity. The only thing worse than a day without electricity is a day without internet. Yet the plumbing infrastructure for home, office or mobile is clearly in a catch up mode. While the media is abuzz with cloud computing, smart home, smart grid and smart everything, many rural US homes are still without adequate connectivity. The mobile connections are still largely 2.5G to 3G. The broadband data-centric wireless LTE or 4G will continue to be a small slice of the market for a while. And it will be a much longer while, before they are affordable for the public. Are we having the proverbial cart of streaming content before the horse? 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Final Frontier - Space exploration and technology innovation – part I

My recent posts have been more about technology in the context of  mobile or personal computing, social media, communication, media and entertainment. I wanted to come back to my original intent, which is to discuss technology in the broader context of its impact on our society. And the more I think about it, Space exploration (the romantic ‘final frontier’), like nothing else, has been one of the single biggest catalysts of  technology innovation.

Arthur Clarke once said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. A recent NPR interview by Neil deGrasse Tyson reminded me once again that nowhere is this magic demonstrated more than when an astronaut completes his or her spacewalk to fix the ISS or the Hubble telescope. Every time a space shuttle went into orbit, or a rover landed on Mars or someone completed yet another spacewalk, I couldn't stop marveling and wondering why that was not the biggest news on CNN or CBS or ABC that day  in place of comments by self-serving politicians!

Interestingly, passionate as Neil deGrasse Tyson was (while promoting his new book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier) about space exploration, he commented that “the most compelling reason to do it is we are fading fast on the world stage of economic strength”. In other words, developing space technology has implications for a nation’s economic strength.

A strong prevailing political position, however,  has been that investments in NASA-based space research is a waste of tax payers’ dollars and it may as well be left to the proverbial market to champion the cause of space innovation. This argument often avoids or misses the point that by its nature, space exploration touches not just the spaceship technology but a host of areas like materials, communication, biology, health, miniaturization, extreme temperatures, defense technology and hence elevates and impacts a whole plethora of our national and societal concerns directly and many other unforeseen applications, leading to many direct and indirect economic and strategic benefits.

National pride aside, this larger impact of space technology development is not lost on the global community. It's not a surprise that space exploration and related technology investment is a strategic part of all growing economic powers like countries in European Union,  Israel or BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China).

While Silicon Valley is rightfully perceived today as the hub of new technology, a case can be effectively made that NASA and all its centers have been the hub or catalyst that touches all major technology frontiers like electronics, computers, software, transportation, alternate propulsion, batteries, industrial automation, health and medicine, among others.

One could argue that the range of technologies that the space program has catalyzed  (some of which may not have passed market feasibility at that time and hence was rightfully considered an inefficient investment) has acted as the incubator of a broad technology capability  that has made the US a technologically sophisticated and developed society.

Now, to be fair, contrary to popular belief, NASA or JPL did not invent MRI, Velcro or Tang. But many other ideas – both software and hardware – came off work done for the space program, particularly in medical diagnostics, materials, mapping, imaging, information technology and communication.

Here are some common examples of these "Collateral Benefits" 

LIDAR (Light detection and ranging)  based imaging to ensure safe landing on hazardous Mars surface developed at JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) is now deployed widely in high end cars for collision avoidance saving lives. 

Fly by Wire: Developed as part of mission to the Moon, NASA’s fly-by-wire electronic guidance system is increasingly used now by the new state of the art commercial planes like Boeing’s new Dreamliner.

3D terrain rendering technology, commercialized by TerraMetrics as the TruEarth satellite imagery powers Google Earth and Google Maps.

Teflon-coated fiberglass developed in the 1970s as a new fabric for astronaut spacesuits has been used as a permanent roofing material for buildings and stadiums (like Atlanta’s Georgia dome’s fiber glass roof shown on left).

Many such innovations are on record, for which long term economic and quality-of-life impact are not hard to compute.

According to Tyson, the expenditure of the U.S.'s military budget is equivalent to NASA's entire 50-year running budget. Even though Tyson has a point here, dollar-based statistics often can be tricky – depending on what point one wants to make. But it is not a stretch to show that inefficient or otherwise, US investment in space research, like nothing else, has created innovations that are today saving lives, enabling medical services unthinkable before, running software, improving large scale agriculture, enhancing satellite communications, driving new defense technologies, not to mention the direct benefits of the knowledge of space and international pride, prestige and technology leadership.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Much ado about Google's integrated privacy policy

Google’s much publicized new privacy policy kicks in today. Reactions from online news, portals and related sites are varied – although the tone of unease and concern cannot be missed. 

To Google, it’s all about better data analytics and business efficiency. First, in place of many separate privacy policies and fine prints (assuming you read them), you have to read one. Second, by linking information about your online movements, interests and preferences - gleaned from Gmail, YouTube, Google search, Maps, Google can synthesize more complete individual profiles and hence serve up more targeted ads and more customized content.

To be fair, the new policy is not about collecting new or more information. But it is about centralizing or merging all your trail from otherwise disconnected Google products. It is about building a more comprehensive profile by linking data crumbs from everywhere - YouTube, Gmail, Blogger, Google TV, Google+ and particularly from the history of surfing based on searches. 

Clearly this demonstrates the tension between better integration of consumers’ information (and hence better business value of the data) and underlying un-ease about more organized monitoring of our online behavior. And it raises a good question, e.g., is an immediate in-your-face targeted ad for weight-loss products a value or a violation of your privacy when you’re only making a discrete search for weight-loss solutions and/or listening to a motivational YouTube link on diet management? 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Data Mining the Social Media – The New Gold Rush

Our mobile connectivity, social media and hunger for apps have opened up the Pandora’s box of privacy breaches and their potential abuse. Not a week goes by when we don’t hear yet another story involving a breach by not just small app makers but giants like Google, Facebook or Apple. Government is weighing in, announcing a proposal for “Privacy Bill of Rights” or winning agreements with mobile leaders to enforce do-not-track or other privacy protection options.

Interestingly however, a recent study shows that users aren’t that concerned with privacy implications. For instance, according to a new study by Sociable Labs, more than half of the consumers (56%) regularly grant online retailers permission to use their Facebook data that range from access to basic profile like gender and name to details like birthday, product preferences and authorization to post status updates on Facebook walls.

Access to such data is proving to be a gold mine for the eCommerce industry. Online monitoring of  Social Media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Youtube is a new emerging tool for anyone fishing for trends with your personal data. 

The story is particularly interesting with Twitter. The chatter of millions of tweets is increasingly viewed as a potential indicator of society’s mood. In fact, some wall street funds and traders are text mining and analyzing the words in tweets as serious “crowd sourced” market intelligence. A 2010 study by Indiana University found strong correlation between the collective public mood and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. At a company specific level, a similar study by Pace University found that the popularity of product brands, as measured by Facebook “Likes” or Twitter followers, can be a lead indicator of their individual stock performance.

Next time you tweet, remember that many web analytics firms are collectively trawling and monitoring your stream too.

Retailers and advertisers are jumping into this fray as well. They are quickly finding out that experience shared in social networks about any product also has the potential to predict what consumers or their network buddies could potentially buy. Isn't this a great opportunity to influence future purchase decision through targeted ads!!  Knowing what people like or want, as evident from their tweets or Facebook wall “likes”, can also help retailers better manage their supply chain. In the past such information was proprietary and only available from transactional data through companies such as Visa or Mastercard.  But, thanks to consumers’ sharing their opinions and personal data, often complete with where they are, a new gold rush for market analytics and targeted ads has just begun.

Walmart, for example, has set up a digital analytics division @WalmartLabs which reportedly uses crowdsourcing techniques to determine which items the company should stock based on its tracking of popular social media sites including Facebook, Twitter and Google+. 

Where do we go from here? Will there be new applications of social media mining for common good? Or will it evolve to be primarily a tool for tracking and advertising? Will there be consumer backlash? Or will consumers’ unwillingness to share personal details always be over-ridden by the instant gratification of getting the next discount or the coupon? 

Please comment here or simply share your thought by blowing in a new tweet to the cyber-space!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Does Internet limit our deeper thinking abilities?

In a recent conference, one fellow attendee, who happened to run a navigation software business, was lamenting how in-car navigation and PNDs (Personal Navigation Device) have atrophied our sense of direction and location.

He clearly has a point, but isn’t that true of all new technology? When human society transitioned to locomotive train and then to cars, we had to sacrifice our horse riding skills in favor of driving. When technology makes old skills useless, it often also requires us to learn new skills. The acute sense of space and direction of a traveler of pre-cartography days got replaced by our ability to decipher complex visual information of a map. And then the map reading skills got replaced by the new device-savvy awareness of running navigation apps. We give up certain skills but perhaps become smarter in some other ways as we adopt new technology.

While this premise of technology 'taketh some skill and giveth some skill' may often be true, clearly there are trade-offs. The point is eloquently highlighted in the context of the Internet by a 2010 book by Nicholas Carr – “The Shallows” – where he builds on his 2008 article titled “IsGoogle making us stupid”. Delving in to recent developments in neuro-science, he makes a case that the internet, while generous in its access to dynamic knowledge, encourages “rapid, distracted sampling” of information potentially atrophying our capacity for contemplation and deep reflection. In contrast, the age old printed book, with all its limitations, serves to focus our attention, potentially promoting sustained creative thought.  The internet while democratizing our instant access to knowledge has also added to our sense of distraction as we nibble at news, blogs, podcasts, videos while surfing from link to link to get quick answers.

Mr. Carr ultimately wonders if our over-exposure to online content is re-wiring our brains, making us shallow, addicted to quick bites of information, freeing us from the need to devote sustained attention to thinking as we constantly dip in and out of online content. Along with our power to get any content right away comes the inherent distraction that Carr argues may be changing our capacity to focus. The distraction is further accentuated by the fact that a single web page contains many different chunks of media – texts, audio, video, widgets, hyperlinks, advertisements – creating a “cacophony of stimuli”.

In a world of abundant content, ubiquitous connectivity and dynamic access, distraction is perhaps inevitable as we have the easy luxury of navigating content with the flash of a click.  But how this influences the style and depth of our thinking and adds to our cognitive load is the crux of Carr’s concern. Reading print material in many ways is a linear process allowing more stable attention, unlike the navigation of networked, dynamic content, peppered with hyperlinks, widgets and advertisements, which according to Carr constantly adds an element of being “distracted from distraction by distraction” (using the words from T.S.Elliot’s first of “Four Quartet”). Add to this the fact that our brains are not wired for multi-tasking (see my blog “Efficient Multitasking – the myth..” March27, 2011) and the challenge of fast cyber-hopping to our cognition and our capacity for deep thinking gets even bigger.

In today’s world of fast tweets, real time analysis and instant gratification, Carr’s concerns deserve attention as we grapple with the fire hose of everyday information.

Or, perhaps on a lighter note, all these may just be part of our evolution and at some time in the deep future, our brains will re-wire the neural connections, handle our online information without losing our capacity for deeper dive and focused contemplation.  After all, as Carr himself quotes the 17th century Spanish dramatist Lope de Vega, some of the same concerns existed 400 years back too about proliferation of printed books -
“So many books – so much confusion
All around us an ocean of print
And most of it covered in froth”

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Next Wave of Social Media - Will They be more Privacy Friendly?

Facebook is the biggest marketplace in the world where people gather, chat, share their personal data, play games and where advertisers have access to close to a billion people on the earth. Whatever may have been  the original intent or business plan, Facebook sure has become a dream-come-true for marketers, merchandisers and whoever else needs instant reach to a huge volume of consumers and their tastes, preferences and habits. It’s not a surprise that the impending public launch of this social networking platform is promising to be the biggest IPO ever – bigger than even the giants like Google, Apple and Amazon. It’s all about the lure of the biggest marketplace…..

So everybody wins. To the grandma keeping in touch with her far-flung grand-kids or to the boomer who just linked up with his or her high-school friends, to the high-school teen sharing the latest vacation pictures, Facebook is priceless; to the marketers it is a gold mine, and to the company shareholders, the $100Bn valuation may only be the beginning.

The insane money-making potential aside, will Facebook be able to extend its innovation to something bigger or should we be looking elsewhere for the next wave in Social media?

With our pervasive GPS tools, we all are increasingly fascinated by the location-based connections – not just with people but with places we visit and with things we do, We want to know where our friends are, if any of them is in the neighborhood and what's around us (without having to mess with any unwieldy paper maps). We want to geo-tag everything, geo-fence some of our connections and play geo-caching games… (I suggest Wikipedia if these were not in your current vocabulary!) There are even GPS dating apps – for your romantic networking, e.g., SmartDating app whose ‘People near me’ feature pulls up all the users (potential dates?) that are in your area! If SoLoMo (Social-Local-Mobile) is the new paradigm, will Facebook be still the reigning king or will it be up to the Twitters, Foursquares, Instagrams of the world to claim the next stake?

Whatever is the next wave, one thing is sure, social media will always need and thrive on our personal data. And that always brings up the dark side of our dependence and exuberance with social media. Should we be concerned with the recent disclosures that Twitter and other social networking companies are reaching into people's smartphones and retrieving their personal contact information without getting explicit permission? Twitter acknowledged that its "Find Friends" feature on smartphones (Android and iPhone) was merrily sending phone number and emails found in the address book to its back-office without clearly alerting the consumer.

Stories like this have a familiar ring … Every now and then a report of privacy breach leaks out, the company concerned apologizes, calls it a mistake and everybody moves on until the next story leaks out. Google, Apple, Facebook – all have been there. It all goes back to the premise that, benefits aside, all social media apps and platforms are a gold mine for marketers – where there are too many consumers ready to be tracked and lured.

Social media apps have brought people together, added many conveniences in our daily life and made the world a better place in many senses and I look forward to seeing continued innovation. We all however need to be aware of that its commercial value lies in reaching out to its captive base of the users and in knowing their tastes, preferences and whereabouts. May be, someday we all will ride out the hype-cycle of social media, or be just fatigued by our own over-exposure, find the sweet-spot of moderation and re-learn the pleasure self-reflection in our privacy.

Until then, Happy Tweeting. Look forward to you next Face-book update