Jul 292014

‘Her” was released six months ago, but a 14 hour flight between Sydney and Los Angeles was an opportunity to catch up on movies missed. From a technologist’s view Spike Jonze’s story worth thinking about.

The story revolves around Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, a writer struggling with his divorce from his childhood sweetheart.

He’s a bit of a geek – who goes to the beach dressed like they are at work?

Theodore’s life changes when he installs OS1 on his pocket computer. Billed as the first artificially intelligent operating system, the program’s interface is witty, intuitive and named Samantha, played by Scarlett Johansson. Theodore falls madly and hopelessly in love.

Samantha, like all good operating systems, takes control of Theodore’s online world and quickly starts to take over the rest of his life.

As Theodore and Samantha’s relationship develops, his neighbours and friends Amy and Charles separate, Charles goes to a Buddhist retreat and Amy, played by Amy Adams, becomes deeply involved with her own iteration of OS1.

The question as you watch the movie is how many of the crowds on the subway, beach and mall with Theodore are deeply in relationships with their own Samanthas. Almost everyone Theodore passes is talking to their own personal devices.

From a technologist’s point of view, Jonze’s vision of the near future is a fascinating. It’s one where screens are not the important part of people’s lives – Theodore rarely looks at his pocketbook computer outside of his work at Beautiful Personal Letters and he certainty doesn’t have a smartwatch as almost everything is done is by voice recognition.

A key part of Jonze’s vision is the alienation of people looking for human contact and in many ways this is reflected in today’s social media world – we’re all looking for our own Samanthas; witty, understanding and aligned with our view of the world.

One wonders how the helpdesk of Element Software, the developers of OS1, deal with the complexities of human relationships; particularly from angry spouses whose partners have ditched them for their more empathetic computers.

For Theodore, a hint to his future employment prospects are shown when he asks Samantha to proof read his work – she is very, very good at it and it’s not hard to see him and his letter writing colleagues being replaced by artificial intelligence in the very near future.

There’s also the privacy aspects; Theodore is writing personal letters for his company’s clients that he shares with Samantha who in turn passes them onto a publisher. It hints at the sprawling and complex issue of personal information in a world of pervasive computing.

Probably the biggest theme is how the operating systems – Samantha and the others could just be one big cloud system – start to work together. In this respect, Samantha’s eventual fate is intriguing and quite possibly terrifying for us mere mortals.

Jonze portrays a benign version of the Skynet of the Terminator movies, it’s also interesting juxtaposing Asimov’s first rule of robotics of doing people no harm against the psychological damage these system could cause, however inadvertently.

“I never loved anyone the way I loved you” are Theodore’s final words to Samantha.

The evolution of Theodore’s and Samantha’s relationship and eventual breakdown is a complex and unpredictable tale with a disturbing ending that leaves the question of what they do next.

Her is a fascinating movie that raises deep questions about human relationships in a digital world of the near future. Many of those issues are beginning to appear today.

Jul 272014
How do businesses attract customers with social media and cloud computing

“The internet of things is about what we own and how we build solutions around that rather than what we buy and companies following us around and guessing about us,” says veteran industry commentator Doc Searls.

In an interview with Decoding the New Economy, the writer of the Cluetrain Manifesto discusses how he sees the internet of things changing marketing.

For Searls, the connected shoe is a good example of how individuals can control the data being collected on them and the way businesses can get far more relevant information about how customers are using their products.

Searls sees that the trend towards companies trying to dominate their fields in the Internet of Things as being doomed.

“It’s our internet of things, not theirs. Right now the internet of things is being discussed as Apple versus Google versus Facebook.”

“None of those are going to own the internet of things; the internet of things is a matter of you and your things and me and my things.”

Empowering customers

Searls sees the connected shoe as being a good example of how the internet citing his own New Balance shoes as how manufacturers can get richer data on its customers.

“The interesting thing is there’s much more intelligence a company can get directly from its customers who already own something rather than following us around on the internet.”

Searls’ view challenges today’s model of advertising based services; it may be this is the reason why companies like Google and Apple are so focused on playing a part in the internet of things.

Jul 262014

It’s typical for a new businesses to go several years making losses but Amazon has barely made a profit over the last twenty years despite being valued at $150 billion by the stockmarket.

That luck could be running out though as the Amazon’s stock fell nearly 10% last week after the company announced it had slipped back into losses last quarter.

Amazon’s losses are largely due to Google starting a price war on web services which is a warning that other deep pocketed web giants are now lining up for the company.

Google’s actions in crippling Amazon are somewhat ironic given how Amazon disrupted the publishing industry by using its deep pockets to subsidise its loss making bookselling business.

Amazon’s problem is it operates in commoditised industries where deep pocketed players are prepared to challenge the company’s market position.

Companies like Google and Apple have incredibly profitable products like Adwords and the iPhone while Amazon relies on the largesse of investors hoping to turn a future profit, that is a clear weakness against strong, well funded businesses.

For a tech company, twenty years is clearly the future and now Amazon has to define exactly where the profits are in its business.

Sometimes, just being a disruptor isn’t enough.

Jul 222014
radio discussion on technology, social media and cloud computing

I was asked by ABC Radio Newcastle today to talk about the dark uses of social media – spreading propaganda.

This is an topic that’s come to the fore with the troubles in the Gaza Strip and the downing of MH17; all sides are using traditional propaganda techniques with a thick overlay of new media.

A key part of the social media aspects of the modern propaganda methods is those who want to spread their message only need to confirm the prejudices of their loyal followers.

In turn the loyal foot soldiers will then spread the word through their Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr feeds; a modern Goebbels doesn’t have to control the media, they just need enough useful idiots.

It’s also worth noting the new media tools complement the old broadcast and publishing methods with the most effective modern propaganda – and marketing – campaigns cleverly using the strengths of each medium to create an amplifying effect.

Propaganda is nothing new, many of the Ancient Greeks’ stories were written to discredit their enemies, and every technological advance has seen new ways for people to spread misinformation.

In that respect it shouldn’t be surprising that we should take with everything we read on, or off, line.

Jul 182014

Google’s quarterly results are in – revenue up 22% on the previous year with a gross profit margin of 300%.  Although the adwords river of gold still makes up 90% of the company’s income.


While spectacular, such a reliance on one product line is a vulnerablity. It’s not surprising Google’s leadership is experimenting with new businesses.

It’s also notable that payments to network partners fell as a proportion to revenues, which explains some of the pain sites that rely on Google Adsense checks are feeling.

Jul 112014

From a PC on every desktop to a services and devices company and now “productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world.”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s long missive lays out where he’s taking the company.

It’s a radical shift from the company of the Gates and Ballmer years.

In order to deliver the experiences our customers need for the mobile-first and cloud-first world, we will modernize our engineering processes to be customer-obsessed, data-driven, speed-oriented and quality-focused. We will be more effective in predicting and understanding what our customers need and more nimble in adjusting to information we get from the market.

This describes a very different company from five years ago; it implies an end to bureaucracy and management conveniences like stack ranking; if Microsoft is really going to be more nimble, then it means a smaller, more focused management.

In 1995, Bill Gates turned Microsoft around in a few months when he realised the strategic mistake he’d made in underestimating the impact of the Internet, so the company has adapted quickly to dramatically changed times in the past.

Whether Microsoft can adapt and maintain its position in a computing world very different to the one it once dominated will be among the great business studies of our time.