November 25th, 2007

Technology Innovation Is Driven By Deep Dissatisfaction

by

A couple months ago I wrote that the mobile web sucks, based on my own user experience that didn’t seem to match the hype. Some people agreed, but a lot of people defended, passionately, the mobile web. Today the New York Times published some interesting data:

But at a recent conference, 3G was called “a failure” by Caroline Gabriel, an analyst at Rethink Research. She said data would make up only 12 percent of average revenue per user in 2007, far below the expected 50 percent. (The 12 percent figure does not include text messaging, but you don’t need a 3G network to send a text message.)

Similarly, surveys by Yankee Group, a Boston research firm, show that only 13 percent of cellphone users in North America use their phones to surf the Web more than once a month, while 70 percent of computer users view Web sites every day.

There are also some corroborating qualitative comments:

“The user experience has been a disaster,” says Tony Davis, managing partner of Brightspark, a Toronto venture capital firm that has invested in two mobile Web companies.

But the interesting part is actually towards the end, with examples of how the mobile web may “open over the next five years, solving many current problems” — which I believe will happen. The PC-based web sucked in the 90s, but then broadband came along, transformed the experience, and drove massive innovation.

Here’s an example:

Nathan Eagle an M.I.T. research, is working on mobile phone programming in Kenya, where he’s teaching computer science students how to build mobile Web applications that don’t use a browser. Instead, they rely on voice commands and speech-to-text translation to surf the Web

“People talk about the mobile Web, and it’s just assumed that it’ll be a replica of the desktop experience,” Mr. Eagle said. “But they’re fundamentally different devices.” He says he thinks that the basic Web experience for most of the world’s three billion cellphones will never involve trying to thumb-type Web addresses or squint at e-mail messages. Instead, he says, it will be voice-driven. “People want to use their phone as a phone,” he says.

On one end of the spectrum, you have the technology enthusiasts who defend the current state of technology and blame the users for the not being good users. On the other end, you have innovators like Nathan Eagle, who are driven by a deep dissatisfaction with the current state of technology and a belief that it could be so much better.

You won’t find people like Nathan Eagle telling you that you just need a better mobile web browser or a better device and some better hacks. No, people like Nathan are busy taking a sledgehammer to the current underperforming technology and completely reinventing it.

That’s how innovation happens — seeing the deep flaws in how things currently work — and how things can be so much better.

Innovation starts with, wow, this really sucks. But what if…

Comments (18 Responses so far)

  1. With all due respect to Nathan Eagle (whose mobile work is cool, and frightening), my experience with voice-driven applications has been abysmal. I’m a member of City Carshare, an SF Bay Area service that lets you use cars by the hour. It has two ways of interacting with its reservation system: voice, and web. The website is heavy on the ajax, so it’s completely unsuitable for use from a phone (haven’t tried with an iPhone yet, not expecting the screen size and fat-fingering to work well). The voice system is my only option when I’m out and about, and it’s *terrible* – completely impossible to use from e.g. a restaurant or busy street, barely loud enough to be heard and voice recognition that interprets every environmental noise around you as a command. My preferred form of interaction would be identical to the voice system, but carried out over SMS instead. In theory, this should be a lot cheaper to build and maintain than a voice-driven application. The companies thinking about this approach seem to have their heads in the e-mail world, e.g. http://iwantsandy.com. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that even regular voice usage of phones seems to be dropping in favor of text, based on what I observe around me.

  2. Michal,

    I don’t know whether a voice-driven mobile web will be the transformative innovation — you may well be right. But it’s this kind of complete rethinking that often leads to the breakthrough.

  3. Hi Mr Karp,

    Interesting and polemic topic indeed. Mobile web is being called “the next big thing” since forever, but I’m sure we’re getting there as some new players (namely GOOG and AAPL) jump in onto that fight…

    On the “thumb-typing web addresses” department, I’m curious to know what you think about mobile web accessing technologies, such as ShotCodes (www.shotcode.com). Also, do you think content-formatting (done by sites like http://www.phonifier.com, http://www.mowser.com and now google) has the potential to solve the ‘not made for mobile’ issue?

  4. I’m also a user of http://citycarshare.org/ and second Mike’s comments above – if you’re anywhere that there’s external noise, the experience is quite bad. I usually wind up using my mobile-enabled-technology-device (iPhone) to simply call the office directly and tell a real person that I want to change my reservation.

    On the other hand I’ve bought movie tickets successfully with http://fandango.com/, which seems to have a separate (automatically-forwarded) url for access via mobile devices, and it’s worked out quite well. And the google maps function on my iPhone has gotten me to where I need to go on several driving trips, as well as determining the course of rainy-day walks in San Francisco.

    I think the one voice-enabled mobile app that works incredibly well is google’s voice browser – I’ve navigated search results for restaurants in town quite easily and been very satisfied with the results.

  5. i think Nathan is doing a brilliant thing… lets extrapolate it a bit further…

    most of us have 5 senses that we are aware of… so far, the web (at least the control part) seems to be only about one – visual (and that too only images and text) (and touch in a way… as you have to type) and with Nathan… sound as well, as you have to speak :-) but imagine now that the web is only data exchange between certain points… why are we not abstracting the input from output completely even more…

    aka, input might be touch and output might be via sound… ? our visual senses might be what we depend on most… but certainly there is potential in the others?

    take for example… imagini… ( imagini.net ) … you don’t set your profile by typing text.. you select a bunch of images you like … now extract that to be even more abstract…. only conceptual at the moment i know, but its steps like Nathan’s that will take us there… :-)

  6. Once a day, I find myself in a situation where my BlackBerry Curve, pretty decent new smartphone, can’t get the job done with regards to things I end up needing my laptop to accomplish. Media is one issue. Another is Flash anything.

    I’m starting to root for Android. Sad?

  7. The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
    George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903) “Maxims for Revolutionists”
    Irish dramatist & socialist (1856 – 1950)

  8. (As co-founder of Dial Directions, this is a biased opinion.) I do believe voice-activation by phone call (when done right) can accelerate mainstream adoption of mobile consumer services faster than mobile web.

    Our own experience is in the world of driving directions – this summer we rolled out a nationwide phone service for ‘directions assistance’. It lets any cell phone user dial the word DIR-ECT-IONS (347-328-4667); tell the voice-activated service their starting and destination address; and receive a text message with Mapquest directions. The service is proving popular with ‘regular folks’ because it is simple to understand (make a phone call) and easy to use (speak, read). Other voice-activated services for 411 (Google, Microsoft) are catching on for the same reason.

    No doubt over time, web browsing on phones will be easier to access, and handset UI will be better – but today the combined metaphor of calling and speaking is powerful (and underutilized) for mobile consumer services.

  9. I think the key phrase here is “That’s how innovation happens — seeing the deep flaws in how things currently work — and how things can be so much better.
    Innovation starts with, wow, this really sucks. But what if…” and I can’t agree more with that. A good point!

    That said, I don’t know how well the voice-activated navigation can be accepted socially. For example, here in Korea, many people use their cell phones in public transportations like subways (as opposed to the US where most people commute in their own cars). It is considered to be polite to keep it down when people receive calls in subways (which however isn’t practiced by all people, unfortunately), and it’s kinda hard to imagine people talking to their phones several times to navigate the menus in subways… that would annoy people and might make the person look like talking to himself.

  10. arrrr… “Web 2.0 Asia”‘s post really annoys me… you are just listing problems… problems in the way *you* see the technology being used and in the environment you see it in… jump in man!!!! jump in!!! perhaps its not ideal for a certain environment, but if you don’t start thinking you can solve problems… you will never even find alternative paths or solutions … !!! arrrr..ggggg!!!

  11. First, mage ringlerun, grow up. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. It’s why they write comments. What they have to say is no less valid than what you have to say. arrrr..ggggg!!!

    Second:

    She said data would make up only 12 percent of average revenue per user in 2007, far below the expected 50 percent.

    I dunno. I’ve really begun to wonder what all of these stats mean — in a world where most of the devices really suck.

    I wonder what the stats would be if everyone had an iPhone/SideKick/HTC Tilt 8925. In fact, it’d be interesting to see what the web usage was for that segment of the market. I’m sure it’d be higher than 12%.

    And therein would hang a tale.

  12. IT’s all completely different in Europe. In Europe 3G is way further in regards to coverage and usage in the amount of users who have a 3G-capable phone or modem that hooks up to your laptop and connects to the 3G network. Mobile phones are starting and will develop more into “good web readers”. The iPhone is a start. {hence, one of the reasons the iPhone has not sold as good in Europe as it has in the US is it’s lack of 3G compatibility.}

  13. oh leo.. i’m so sorry.. i must have missed the memo that said “i hearby decree that everyone’s opinion is valid!” … good to see that you are considering my opinion valid (yes, i am being sarcastic!)… anyway… i do have time to grow up… but it sounds like you have already grown up and are rigid in your way of thinking and are sooo much yesterday’s man!

  14. [...] Technology Innovation Is Driven By Deep Dissatisfaction Innovation starts with, wow, this really sucks. But what if… (tags: technology innovation mobile) [...]

  15. [...] Technology Innovation Is Driven By Deep Dissatisfaction – Publishing 2.0 “On one end of the spectrum, you have the technology enthusiasts who defend the current state of technology and blame the users for the not being good users.” (tags: article technology) [...]

  16. This voice-activated mobile might encounters some problems but I’m pretty sure that they always have the solution of the problem.

    -Jan

  17. This is quite impressive, I am pleased to read this post, keep posts like this coming, you totally rock!
    Cheers,
    gadgettechblog.com

  18. This is quite impressive, I am pleased to read this post, keep posts like this coming, you totally rock!
    Cheers,
    gadgettechblog.com

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