2010: A Year of Inflection Points

Fans of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are familiar with the Infinite Improbability Drive, a spacecraft engine fuelled by the energy of highly improbably events.

Fans of this blog (both of them) will be keen to learn about the Corvus Irony Timing Chain, which prevents me from writing year-in-review posts until a few days after New Years. The Chain makes space for the news that would have contradicted, enhanced or otherwise changed what I was going write. This exclusive innovation lets me write without having to look back on a post less than a week old and feel like a dupe.

Safely a few short steps into 2011, we can look back on 2010 for what it was: an exciting year that delivered a number of inflection points.

What’s an Inflection Point?

Here’s an example from not so long ago. Think back to 2006. If you wanted to use the internet at work, how did you do it? If you worked in within managed corporate IT, you did it very carefully. You minded what you said in email, you didn’t go to sites identified as time wasters. If you did go to those sites you might have been blocked, or had software silently snitch to your manager. You sure didn’t use your phone unless you were desperate to look like you knew how.

Then take it a year ahead, to a world with the iPhone and unlimited data plans. While pundits were grousing about how the iPhone could never make it in the corporate world, the infiltration had already begun with the ultimate workaround on corporate IT policy. Check Facebook? Sure. Write a saucy email? Knock yourself out. The difference between the old way and new way marks an inflection point.

With that, let’s dive into Inflections 2010

The iPad and the Future of Computing
You don’t have to like the tradeoffs that come with the iPad to agree that it’s sent the personal computing market into a tizzy. But the iPad isn’t the whole tablet story, and the real story isn’t all tablets. Tablets are part of it, but in the context of the new Macbook Air models you can see that the real new market Apple is trying to create is the next stage of what netbooks started but failed to evolve into: lightweight appliance-like computing.

Between smartphones, tablets and PCs, computing tasks spread have spread out across devices. That leaves each device being less than a general purpose computer can being capable of doing more than before because they’re connected. There’s convergence, but it’s happening at the same time as device fragmentation. It’s frustrating for people who like simple landscapes (PC vs Mac) but a world of opportunity for disrupters and agile companies.

Experience Design on the Rise
Still thinking of the iPad a little, 2010 was also a year that many more people came to appreciate Experience Design as something that can bring technology, service, marketing and more together into something coherent, something bigger than the sum of its parts.

The iPad’s success as a version one product is a triumph of experience design, because the product is not just its internal specs, not just its interface, not just its marketing, but all of those things working together.

Forrester Research noted recently that customers didn’t ask for a tablet like the iPad, yet its finding a ready market. Experience design as a process often reveals needs and wants that customers can’t articulate because they don’t know what’s possible. Through Apple’s process, they not only showed a new category of possibilities, they also delivered them strongly. What do your customers want that neither you nor they know yet? One can only wonder.

Facebook, the Last Social Networking Website
This was the year I left Facebook, and to be honest I don’t miss it.

My main reason for leaving was the approach to “making Facebook more open”. Restated without the marketing fairy dust, the moves to monetize member relationships and content by introducing more search engine traffic were executed in ways that created a philosophical divide. Facebook made those moves with naked aggression by imposing the changes before announcing them, and by making privacy controls difficult to understand while pretending it was hard to make them easier. It’s an attitude that marks the last people I’d want mediating relationships for me.

Facebook’s success is not lost on me. It’s huge, and much of that success is owing to good experience design. So good that many won’t think to try and build the next big social network unless they’re crazy or have an incredible head start.

By the way, the massive social network that Apple is quietly building will be the topic of my next newsletter. If you want the scoop you should subscribe on the sidebar of this page, because content posted there doesn’t make it onto the blog.

That aside, I don’t think we’ll see a next big social networking destination because after this year, the next phase of social networking will be as a feature of other products. To put it differently, Facebook’s approach is “Come to where your friends are to do stuff,” while I see the next phase as “Do stuff and include your friends.” Early signs are already there with Ping, Path, Instagram and others. Facebook as the most evolved of its breed will succeed to the point where its ecosystem is exhausted. Only email can survive that kind of death; it has many times, it will survive many more.

A Shift Away from Ad-Supported Freebies
I’m not a lover of free services, chiefly because the conventional wisdom is that they can’t sustain without making the people using them the product that’s sold to advertisers.

What I do like is value for money, of paying for something without hidden costs. With ad-supported services, there’s an inevitable tension between what people will tolerate and what a service provider can get away with in a shell game where the two ends of a transaction are never seen by each other. Friends sometimes tell me that complaining about that is like complaining about the wind blowing – it’s just part of how things are. But I think/hope it’s changing.

More web services are launching with some kind of paid plan ready or at least on the roadmap when they hit the market. I speak from my experience with Ma.gnolia and the difficulty we had getting to monetization, and the unsustainable state of Delicious as Yahoo! seeks to offload it after a huge devaluation exercise through inept PR. Contrast that with the the effective if unpleasant Pinboard and the lovely Licorize, both of which ask members to pay for their use. We’re seeing that popularity plus ads doesn’t often pay the rent, and more web services are launching with a solid monetization strategy that doesn’t depend entirely on the sub-penny world of ad impressions.

Not convinced? Ads might seem inevitable, but so did the Yellow Pages. Then Google came along and the ad money went to them. Now we see upstarts like Groupon giving businesses a way to directly win customers with – guess – value for money. Groupon is currently growing revenue at 50% a month. If your mind isn’t blown by that, grab a coffee and consider how fast disruption is happening to the disruptors, so you can only guess what this year might have in store for what we now take for granted.

Android Advances the Mobile Market
You won’t catch me using an Android phone because the ones I’ve seen so far feel clunky and compromised. But that’s my taste, and the profound change that Android is bringing to the mobile market is not lost on me.

By making a modern OS with a competent UI available free for the taking and with very few restrictions, Google has started a huge rollover of feature phones (small screens, numeric keypads only) to smartphones (big screens, keyboards and good browsers).

Without Android, that rollover would have taken place over a number of agonizing years while manufacturers tried to roll their own smartphone operating systems. The unholy brew that would have resulted would have been hell, especially in the mobile browser space, so we have a lot to be thankful for in Android.

Finally, Flash
2010 also saw a brutal exchange between Apple and Adobe on the subject of Flash and its exclusion from iOS. Did you notice that the argument suddenly just sort of went away?

It’s not because Apple relented on its cross-platform development rules. It’s not because Flash is really optimizing for mobile. It’s because Flash has become irrelevant, beginning its long exit with a whimper.

Rather than trying to win a war of words online, the modern equivalent of a land war in Asia, developers have stopped arguing and started building more on web standards. Even on mobile devices, where the native app would seem to be king, developers are working in HTML5 girded by fancypants Javascript and delightful CSS to deliver polished experiences that just work AND play by the rules.

The proof is all around, in animation, motion comics, responsive designs and even into the complex mechanics needed for gaming, we’re seeing web products succeed not because they ignore Flash but because they can get where they want to go without it. Check out these lovely links, all of which open in new windows:

Ben the Bodyguard – a highly engaging pre-launch site for some secure storage

Never Mind the Bullets – a motion comic created by Microsoft to demonstrate the standards-compatibility of Internet Explorer 9. I know! IE! Wild weird stuff.

An animated model of the solar system

Pirates Love Daisies – a game played in the browser but without Flash.

Spider Man in CSS – a primitive but promising rendering of the beloved 70s cartoon intro done entirely in CSS and Javascript. Safari and Chrome only (for now).

And then today, when the Irony Timing Chain really paid off, I came across this site touting Nike’s sustainability and social development efforts.

Sites like the Nike offering are built by agencies, and agencies have traditionally loved Flash because they could charge big bucks behind an opaque curtain of technical obscurity and locked up code.

If even agencies are turning to standards-based development, the argument for Flash’s future is hard to make. It’s not like some big final battle happens with Apple and Adobe, it’s that people see enough good stuff happening without it, and Flash loses its signature of being able to do things in the browser that nothing else can do. After that, the reasons for its continued use disappear like so many shortbread cookies over the holidays. Fast, and leaving only crumbs behind.

That’s 2010 as I saw it, and this year is already shaping up to be anything but boring. Mobile payments are in a terrible state and begging for a fresh take. Telecom companies and ISPs are spending more time in bed with governments whose feelings were hurt by Wikileaks. Both would like to see an Internet less neutral about what information goes where and how much it costs to move those bits, changing the economics and legalities we currently know. Gaming continues to surge. I could go on, but that’s the best way to be proven wrong, by making a bunch of predictions.

2011, baby. You’re living in it. Cheers.

Other Links
Forrester Research report on the tablet market.

Jeffrey Zeldman’s roundup of the year in web standards

Had enough of people talking about HTML5 and not knowing what the fuss is? Me too! Here are 9 websites that get you up to speed

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