Counterpoint Research attended the 2014 Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland in November 2014. Web Summit has been going for 4 years. In that time it has grown from 400 to more than 20,000 attendees.
Attendance is a mix of start-ups looking for support and funding through to some of the biggest names and personalities in technology and media.
A vibrant exhibition was wrapped around stages that hosted various conference tracks broken out across different focal areas as follows:
- Main Stage: covering many of the bigger thematic issues facing the technology industry today and in the coming years.
- Machine Summit: mainly dealing with hardware
- Marketing Summit: mainly dealing with advertising, media and content
- Enterprise Summit: focusing around how larger organizations grapple with the rapid pace of tech development
- Builders Summit: dealing with the reality of developing software, applications and user interaction design
There was a huge amount of activity, both in terms of the presentations as well as from start-ups looking to make a splash or gain funding. We have summarised briefly here what we took away as the key themes of the event:
– IoT, Analytics, UI/UX, Robotics and Delight
Internet of Things (IoT)
IoT has become a favourite buzz term in the last couple of years. Perhaps the easiest way to think of it is that anything that can be connected, will be connected. Many currently think of it and communicate the concept in terms of the connected home. However it is very likely going to impact in the industrial space first. The consumerization of IT has been a phenomenon whereby technology originally destined for the enterprise found application in the consumer space – PCs being a good example. Over time it became more commonplace for consumer tech to start migrating into the enterprise – the phenomenon of BYOD. With IoT the balance likely swings back the other way although consumer applications will become rapidly commonplace. Industrial systems don’t necessarily need the level of device interoperability that more open systems will. Therefore a process can potentially be optimized based on information flowing from multiple ‘sensors’ across an entire supply chain. This then promises to make, for example, a complex manufacturing process more efficient.
Other areas of focus at the event was around practical issues around IoT. Key topics of concern that will need to solved, and rapidly, are:
- Standardization – the old chestnut of having multiple, disparate devices able to communicate without an intermediary. Discussions naturally ranged across the two leading solutions, the AllSeen Alliance (largely viewed as a Qualcomm led initiative) and the Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC) to which Intel is a founder member.
- Security – securing the many sensors and other devices, and data they contain and transmit. It was widely agreed that security will be a continual battle and not something that can ever be declared ‘done’.
‘Big Data’ was a recurrent theme right across the event – whether talking about how data streams from environmental sensors can be used to improve infrastructure efficiency; service providers utilize the data flowing from billing systems to create a more delightful consumer experience; or advertisers make use of the ability to better understand their audiences to serve ads that are likely to elicit a more positive response.
There was a general consensus that making the best use of available data will be a critical component in business competitiveness in future. Those companies unable to use data will lose to those that can.
There was also consensus that not everything is subject to discovery through using machine algorithms. Machines are seen as superb at sifting massive amounts of data, but they’re not necessarily good at making connections between widely disparate pieces of information. And one speaker quoted Einstein to good effect, ‘Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.’
UI and UX
User interface design was discussed, but in relation to an enterprise rather than a device. The concept of having a user interface in an organization seems superficially strange, but the demonstrations provided by Oblong Industries were among the more memorable seen at the event. The team that became Oblong Industries did their foundation work at MIT Labs before getting pulled into Hollywood to create the memorable UI used in the movie Minority Report. That same UI is now available to use commercially. The offshoot of it, called Mezzanine, is used by a growing number of organizations to work collaboratively with data intensive material.
UX was memorably described by one speaker as being, ‘like fairy dust, sprinkle a little on everything.’ This chimes well with how Counterpoint Research has been advising clients. User experience on devices is largely dictated by the limitations of the operating system UI. Sure, you can add layers on top but doing so usually comes at a cost. However the way a customer experiences your brand is a fundamental basis on which differentiation is created. Every touch-point a consumer has with your brand is an opportunity to build a relationship. Too many mobile device manufacturers still look at the world through the lens of a hardware producer. The reality is that sustained differentiation in hardware is exceedingly difficult. This means softer factors have to do the work of creating differentiation.
The devices that generated most interest at the event were cars and planes, or more specifically autonomous or self-driving cars and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – sometimes called drones. Depending on the use case both can be seen in the wider context of robotics.
UAVs are already gaining both interest and notoriety. Interest from a wide cross section of vertical industries that see the potential for UAVs to significantly enhance business efficiency. These include things such as agriculture, construction, energy and emergency services. Notoriety because their use is poor or totally unregulated in many countries and outlawed in others. However recent incidents have included UAVs being flown around a French nuclear power station and close to airports.
One of the more unusual – for the libertarian, laissez-faire, tech community – aspects of the discussions around UAVs were the strong calls for more regulation. This is especially understandable in the context of the USA were commercial use of UAVs is currently banned by the Federal Aviation Authority (with some exemptions). Until the regulations can be established commercialization of UAVs will be fraught with difficulties in all markets but will be particularly challenging for US-based companies.
When asked, panel members likened the current state of UAV development to that of PC’s in the very early pre-networked days, however they expect the industry to develop more quickly than did the PC market.
There were some fascinating presentations from companies that included Audi, Bentley and Raco Wireless (recently acquired by Kore).
The net of these were that autonomous cars that can drive themselves safely around are not likely in this decade, but that many elements of the technology that will enable autonomous cars have already started to filter into current generation cars and that this trend will continue to grow to the point where the ultimate move to fully self-driving cars will be fairly seamless. And when ultimately the change to autonomous cars does occur, the changes that can be made to life, work and the urban landscape can be radical in the extreme.
As to be expected there was lively discussion on the topic of wearable devices – both in a standalone context and as part of the wider internet of things discussion.
We have been somewhat skeptical of the wearables concept aside from in very specific use cases such as for athletes who employ wearables as a means of measuring and recording training times and effort, or in some vertical enterprise applications. In almost all other situations a wearable device is a nice to have rather than a must have.
This was captured nicely in our view by Sonny Vu from Misfit Wearables who described a critical test as the ‘turnaround problem’. By this he means that if you left home for, say, work and you were 10 minutes from home, would you turnaround to collect something you’d left behind. His view was that for a wallet, a phone, keys, you may well do, but he questioned whether you would for a current wearable device – even his own company’s.
Next generation wearables may take on the role of wallets and keys, as well as a range of other functions including health monitoring and even clothing, substantially increasing the likelihood of passing the turnaround test.
In all however the focus of the creator of the device should be on making the ownership and use of the device a delightful experience. The focus should be on considering what ‘function’ can be wearable, spending huge effort on inventing and refining without compromising the delightful experience. This was contrasted with the apparent current design approach which is to start with the technology, design around it, try to make it better looking in v2…and cheaper, and then market aggressively.
Highlights from the Exhibition
There were over 2000 companies, mostly start-ups, exhibiting their concepts and products. We barely scratched the surface but a few stood out – covered here in no particular order and in no great detail:
- Umoove: providing superb eye and head tracking using the camera on a smartphone. If you’re thinking hey, Samsung did this and it was lame, think again. Umoove’s solution was immediately usable to drive a game and was completely intuitive. Certainly worth a look if you have an application that could be driven by simple eye or head gestures.
- Vorbeck: developing innovative graphene based technology such as wearable electronics and high density, flexible batteries.
- Spritz Inc: offering an amazing reading technology that will allow you to read War and Peace on a smart watch. Well maybe not, but emails would be a breeze.
- View: a smart window that through the use a metal oxide coating can go from clear to dark reducing UV infiltration and thereby reducing energy costs by up to 20%.
- Aerialtronics: was showing its Altura Zenith UAV. Capable of carrying a 2.9kg payload and flying for more than 30 minutes. It was also showing a smaller UAV that can fly for longer but with a lower payload.