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21 October 2014

An exponential approach to peace?

While the information-based world is now moving exponentially, our organizational structures are still very linear (especially larger and older ones)…

We’ve learned how to scale technology… Now it’s time to scale the organization: strategy, structure, processes, culture, KPIs, people and systems

Opening slide

The above messages come from a punchy set of slides that have just been posted on SlideShare by Yuri van Geest. Yuri is the co-author of the recently published book “Exponential Organizations: Why new organizations are ten times better, faster, and cheaper than yours (and what to do about it)”, and the slides serve as an introduction to the ideas in the book. Yuri is also the Dutch Ambassador of the Singularity University (SU), and the Managing Director of the SU Summit Europe which is taking place in the middle of next month in Amsterdam.

Conference overview

Yuri’s slides have many impressive examples of rapid decline in the cost for functionality, over the last few years, in different technology sectors.

Industrial robots

DNA sequencing

But what’s even more interesting than the examples of exponential technology are the examples of what the book calls exponential organizations – defined as follows:

An Exponential Organization (ExO) is one whose impact (or output) is disproportionately large — at least 10x larger — compared to its peers because of the use of new organizational techniques that leverage exponential technologies.

Organizations reviewed in the book include Airbnb, GitHub, Google, Netflix, Quirky, Valve, Tesla, Uber, Waze, and Xiaomi. I’ll leave it to you to delve into the slides (and/or the book) to review what these organizations have in common:

  • A “Massive Transformative Purpose” (MTP)
  • A “SCALE” set of attributes (SCALE is an acronym) enabling enhanced “organizational right brain creativity, growth, and acceptance of uncertainty”
  • An “IDEAS” set of attributes (yes, another acronym) enabling enhanced “organizational left brain order, control, and stability”.

I find myself conflicted by some of the examples in the book. For example, I believe there’s a lot more to the decline of the once all-conquering Nokia than the fact that they acquired Navteq instead of Waze. (I tell a different version of the causes of that decline in my own book, Smartphones and beyond. Nevertheless I agree that organizational matters had a big role in what happened.)

But regardless of some queries over details in the examples, the core message of the book rings true: companies will stumble in the face of fast-improving exponential technologies if they persist with “linear organization practice”, including top-down hierarchies, process inflexibility, and a focus on “ownership” and “control”.

The book quotes with approval the following dramatic assertion from David S. Rose, serial entrepreneur and angel investor:

Any company designed for success in the 20th century is doomed to failure in the 21st.

I’d put the emphasis a bit differently: Any company designed for success in the 20th century needs to undergo large structural change to remain successful in the 21st. The book provides advice on what these changes should be – whether the company is small, medium-sized, or large.

A third level of exponential change

I like the change in focus from exponential technology to exponential organizations – more nimble organizational structures that are enabled and even made necessary by the remarkable spread of exponential technologies (primarily those based on information).

However, I’m interested in a further step along that journey – the step to exponential societies.

Can we find ways to take advantage of technological advances, not just to restructure companies, but to restructure wider sets of human relationships? Can we find better ways to co-exist without the threat of armed warfare, and without the periodic outbursts of savage conflict which shatter so many people’s lives?

The spirit behind these questions is conveyed by the explicit mission statement of the Singularity University:

Our mission is to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.

Indeed, the Singularity University has set up a Grand Challenge Programme, dedicated to finding solutions to Humanity’s grand challenges. The Grand Challenge framework already encompasses global health, water, energy, environment, food, education, security, and poverty.

Framework picture

Peace Grand Challenge

A few weeks ago, Mike Halsall and I got talking about a slightly different angle that could be pursued in a special Grand Challenge essay contest. Mike is the Singularity University ambassador for the UK, and has already been involved in a number of Grand Challenge events in the UK. The outcome of our discussion was announced on http://londonfuturists.com/peace-grand-challenge/:

Singularity University and London Futurists invite you to submit an essay describing your idea on the subject ‘Innovative solutions for world peace, 2014-2034’.

Rocket picture v2

First prize is free attendance for one person at the aforementioned Singularity University’s European two-day Summit in Amsterdam, November 19th-20th 2014. Note: the standard price of a ticket to this event is €2,000 (plus VAT). The winner will also receive a cash prize of £200 as a contribution towards travel and other expenses.

We’ve asked entrants to submit their essay to the email address lf.grandchallenge@gmail.com by noon on Wednesday 29th October 2014. The winners will be announced no later than Friday 7th November.

Among the further details from the contest website:

  • Submitted essays can have up to 2,000 words. Any essays longer than this will be omitted from the judging process
  • Entrants must be resident in the UK, and must be at least 18 years old on the closing date of the contest
  • Three runners-up will receive a signed copy of the book Exponential Organizations, as well as free attendance at all London Futurists events for the twelve months following the completion of the competition.

At the time of writing, only a handful of essays have been received. That’s not especially surprising: my experience from previous essay contests is that most entrants tend to leave essay submission until the last 24-48 hours (and a large proportion have arrived within the final 6o minutes).

But you can look at this from an optimistic perspective: the field is still wide open. Make the effort to write down your own ideas as to how technology can defuse violent flashpoints around the world, or contribute to world peace in some other way within the next 20 years. Let’s collectively advance the discussion of how exponential technology can do more than just help us find a more effective taxi ride or the fastest route to drive to our destination. Let’s figure out ways in which that technology can solve, not just traffic jams, but logjams of conflicting ideologies, nationalist loyalties, class mistrust, terrorists and counter-terrorists bristling with weaponry and counter-weaponry, and so on.

But don’t delay, since the contest entry deadline is at noon, UK time, on the 29th of October. (That deadline is necessary to give the winner time to book travel to the Summit Europe.)

London Futurists looks forward to publishing a selection of the best essays – and perhaps even converting some of the ideas into animated video format, for wider appeal.

Footnote: discounted price to attend the SU Summit Europe

Note: by special arrangement with the Singularity University, a small number of tickets for the Summit Europe are being reserved for the extended London Futurists community in the UK, with a €500 discount. To obtain this discount, use partner code ‘SUMMITUK’ when you register.

 

 

22 October 2008

Winners of Symbian student essay contest

Filed under: Essay contest, Smartphone Show, universities — David Wood @ 6:25 am

At the Smartphone Show yesterday, Symbian announced the results of our first Student Essay Contest, and called for entrants to a new contest – with an entry submission deadline of 31st January 2009.

The theme for the 2008 contest was “The next wave of smartphone innovation“. The prize winners are as follows (listed in alphabetical order of surname):

  • Benoît Delville, Ecole Centrale de Lille, France: The hardware tech of smartphones. Benoît’s essay examines four factors which threaten to prevent the fuller adoption of smartphones.
  • Alexander Erifiu, University of Applied Sciences, Hagenberg, Austria: New interaction concepts in mobile games. Alexander’s essay describes a project the author carried out with some colleagues to increase the suitability of smartphones for certain types of games.
  • Andreas Jakl, Johannes Kepler University, Linz, Austria: Optical translator: word spotting and tracking on smartphones. Andreas’s essay considers some developments that will enable advanced new applications that take advantage of the high quality camera technology that is currently widely available on smartphones.
  • Florian Lettner, University of Applied Sciences, Hagenberg, Austria: Smartphones in home automation. Florian’s essay investigates the possible use of smartphones in a number of practical situations, including several in the home.
  • Pankaj Nathani, Bhavnagar University, Gujarat, India: Improved development and delivery methodologies. Pankaj’s essay focuses on the fact that developers can face many challenges in developing and delivering novel or evolved services on smartphones.
  • Milen Nikolov, The College at Brockport, State University of New York, Brockport, USA: Exploiting social and mobile ad hoc networking to achieve ubiquitous connectivity. Milen’s essay examines a particular example of what is known as a ‘Mobile Ad hoc Network’ (MANET) involving smartphones.
  • Aleksandra Reiss, Petrozavodsk State University, Russia: The next waves of smartphone innovation. Aleksandra’s essay is targeted at discovering what new functionality can be added to smartphones in the near future.
  • Sudeep Sundaram, University of Bristol, UK: Situation aware maintenance mate. Sudeep’s essay reviews possible uses of a smartphone in coordination with a head mounted display, where for example, a user could see the positioning of electrical wires in a wall and carry out diagnostics.
  • Iftekhar Ul Karim, BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh: Opportunities with smartphone technologies for the base of the pyramid. Iftekhar’s essay challenges readers to consider novel uses of smartphones for users in the so-called ‘base of the pyramid’ – the four billion poorest people on the planet.
  • Alejandro Vicente-Grabovetsky, University of Cambridge, UK: The smartphone of the future: A powerhouse or a mere terminal? Alejandro’s essay explores the potential for the smartphone to act as a ‘social computer’ as opposed to merely copying features from the ‘personal computer’.

My congratulations to the prizewinners! There are thought-provoking elements in all of the winning essays. For extracts and summaries, see developer.symbian.com/essays.

The contest received many other essays that also contained interesting and valuable observations. My recommendations to entrants of future contests is that that essays are more likely to be awarded prizes if they:

  • Concentrate on making a small number of points well, rather than on trying to cover a large number of different points;
  • Address specific issues, rather than describing abstract theories;
  • Have a clear structure and a logical flow of argument;
  • Back up their claims by providing evidence (for example, references).

My goal for the 2008 contest were threefold:

  1. To encourage university students to carry out research on topics of interest to Symbian, its wider community and the mobile industry;
  2. To find out where the most interesting research was being carried out;
  3. To stimulate interest in Symbian’s emerging University Research Relations programme.

Following the success of our 2008 contest, we’re repeating it in 2009. The deadline for submission for the next Symbian Student Essay Contest is 31st January 2009. The overall theme for this new contest is “Architectures to enable breakthroughs for mobile converged devices.” Students are encouraged to address one or more of the following topics in their essays:

  1. Software development that takes best advantage of multiple processor cores
  2. Allocation of responsibilities between managed code and native code
  3. Delivering maximum power from the hardware and the networks to applications
  4. Security and privacy concerns in mobile device architectures
  5. Taming the complexity of mobile system architecture: the role of open source
  6. Enabling devices, applications and services that appeal to huge new groups of users
  7. The role of system architecture in significantly improving consumer experience.

Winners of the 2009 contest will receive £1,000 with runners up earning special commendations. For the rules of this contest, see www.symbian.com/universities.

1 October 2008

The student syndrome

Filed under: Agile, critical chain, Essay contest, predictability — David Wood @ 5:13 pm

Entries for Symbian’s 2008 Student Essay Contest have just closed. The deadline for submission of entries was midnight (GMT) on 30 September 2008.

The contest has been advertised since June. What proportion of all the entries do you suppose were submitted in the final six hours before the deadline expired? (Bear in mind that, out of a total competition duration of more than three months, six hours is about 1/400 of the available time.)

I’ll give the answer at the end of this article. It surprised me – though I ought to have anticipated the outcome. After all, for many years I’ve been telling people about “The Student Syndrome”.

I became familiar with the concept of the student syndrome some years ago, while reading Eliyahu Goldratt’s fine business-oriented novel “The Critical Chain“:

Like all Goldratt’s novels, Critical Chain mixes human interest with some intriguing ways of analysing business-critical topics. The ideas in these books had a big influence on the evolution of my own views about how to incorporate responsiveness and agility into large software projects where customers are heavily reliant on the software being delivered at pre-agreed dates.

Here’s what I said on the topic of “variable task estimates” in the chapter “Managing plans and change” in my own 2005 book “Symbian for software leaders“:


A smartphone project plan is made up from a large number of estimates for how long it will take to complete individual tasks. If the task involves novel work, or novel circumstances, or a novel integration environment, you can have a wide range of estimates for the length of time required.

It’s similar to estimating how long you will take to complete an unfamiliar journey in a busy city with potentially unreliable transport infrastructure. Let’s say that, if you are lucky, you might complete the journey in just 20 minutes. Perhaps 30 minutes is the most likely time duration. But in view of potential traffic hold-ups or train delays, you could take as long as one hour, or (in case of underground train derailments) even two hours or longer. So there’s a range of estimates, with the distribution curve having a long tail on the right hand side: there’s a non-negligible probability that the task will take at least twice as long as the individual most likely outcome.

It’s often the same with estimating the length of time for a task within a project plan.

Now imagine that the company culture puts a strong emphasis on fulfilling commitments, and never missing deadlines. If developers are asked to state a length of time in which they have (say) 95% confidence they will finish the task, they are likely to give an answer that is at least twice as long as the individual most likely outcome. They do so because:


  • Customers may make large financial decisions dependent on the estimate – on the assumption that it will be met;
  • Bonus payments to developers may depend on hitting the target;
  • The developers have to plan on unforeseen task interference (and other changes);
  • Any estimate the developers provide may get squashed down by aggressive senior managers (so they’d better pad their estimate in advance, making it even longer).

Ironically, even though such estimates are designed to be fulfilled around 95% of the time, they typically end up being fulfilled only around 50% of the time. This fact deserves some careful reflection. Even though the estimates were generous, it seems (at first sight) that they were not generous enough. In fact, here’s what happens:

  • In fulfilment of “Parkinson’s Law”, tasks expand to fill the available time. Developers can always find ways to improve and optimise their solutions – adding extra test cases, considering alternative algorithms and generalisations, and so forth;
  • Because there’s a perception (in at least the beginning of the time period) of there being ample time, developers often put off becoming fully involved in their tasks. This is sometimes called “the student syndrome”, from the observation that most students do most of the preparation for an exam in the time period just before the exam. The time lost in this way can never be regained;
  • Because there’s a perception of there being ample time, developers can become involved in other activities at the same time. However, these other activities often last longer than intended. So the developer ends up multi-tasking between two (or more) activities. But multi-tasking involves significant task setup time – time to become deeply involved in each different task (time to enter “flow mode” for the task). So yet more time is wasted;
  • Critically, even when a task is ready to finish earlier than expected, the project plan can rarely take advantage of this fact. The people who were scheduled for the next task probably aren’t ready to start it earlier than anticipated. So an early finish by one task rarely translates into an early start by the next task. On the other hand, a late finish by one task inevitably means a late start for the next start. This task asymmetry drives the whole schedule later.

In conclusion, in a company whose culture puts a strong emphasis upon fulfilling commitments and never missing deadlines, the agreed schedules are built from estimations up to twice as long as the individually most likely outcome, and even so, they often miss even these extended deadlines…

This line of analysis is one I’ve run through scores of times, in discussions with people, in the last four or five years. It feeds into the argument that the best way to ensure customer satisfaction and predictable delivery, is, counter-intuitively, to focus more on software quality, interim customer feedback, agile project management, self-motivated teams, and general principles of excellence in software development, than on schedule management itself.

It’s in line with what Steve McConnell says,

  • IBM discovered 20 years ago that projects that focused on attaining the shortest schedules had high frequencies of cost and schedule overruns;
  • Projects that focused on achieving high quality had the best schedules and the highest productivities.

Symbian’s experience over many years bears out the same conclusion. The more we’ve focused on achieving high quality, the better we’ve become with both schedule management and internal developer productivity.

As for the results of the student syndrome applied to the Symbian Essay Contest:

  • 54% of the essays submitted to the competition were received in the final six hours (approximately the final 1/400 of the time available)
  • Indeed, 16% of the essays submitted were received in the final 60 minutes.

That’s an impressively asymmetric distribution! (It also means that the competition judges will have to work harder than they had been expecting, right up to the penultimate day of the contest…)

10 July 2008

Inspiring the rising stars in universities

Filed under: collaboration, Essay contest, universities — David Wood @ 11:28 pm

One of the goals I set myself for 2008 involves influencing university research departments around the world to become more active in the areas of smartphones and Symbian OS.

With that goal in my mind, I decided to accept an invite to the “Wireless 2.0” conference organised by Silicon South West, here in Bristol, where I’ve travelled for the event. I decided to attend because of the mix of both industry and university attendees.

The event hosted a “Rising Star Awards Dinner” this evening, where six university students studying electrical engineering (or a related degree) received special awards – a plaque and a handy amount of spending money. There was one winner from each of the six universities in the area covered by Silicon South West: Bath, Bournemouth, Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth, and West of England. It was heart warming to hear the personal testimonies of the winners (and their university tutors).

But links between commercial research departments and university research departments aren’t always so rosy. Universities and industry have many overlapping interests, but also some conflicting cultures. I see Symbian as having had mixed success, historically, in relations with universities:

  • On the clearly positive side, we’ve run good graduate recruitment and induction programs, every year since 1993 (that was in the Psion days, pre-Symbian); these have gone from strength to strength.
  • On the increasingly positive side, 58 universities have enrolled into the Symbian Academy program, in which Symbian supports university lecturers to deliver academic courses on Symbian OS software development.
  • On the “could do better” side, there are still only a small number of truly productive ongoing research collaborations between Symbian and individual universities, in which findings from university research projects regularly feed into Symbian’s roadmap (and vice versa).

It turns out that it’s not just Symbian that feels somewhat uncomfortable about the limited benefits realised from attempted collaboration with universities. Other commercial companies have noted similar concerns. And this has even become a field of academic study in its own right, known as (amongst other names) UIC, meaning University-Industry Collaboration. My friend Joel West of San Jose State University recently attended a two-conference on UIC at University of California, Irvine, and wrote up his observations. There’s lots to ponder there. For example, Joel described three pieces of advice on successful UIC negotiations, as given in a presentation by UIDP executive director Anthony Boccanfuso:

  1. A successful UI collaboration should support the mission of each partner. Any effort in conflict with the mission of either partner will fail. (Joel’s translation: all deals must be win-win)
  2. Institutional practices and national resources should focus on fostering appropriate long term partnerships between universities and industry. (It’s more than just the money)
  3. Universities and industry should focus on the benefits to each party that will result from collaborations by streamlining negotiations to ensure timely conduct of the research and the development of the research findings. (There is a finite window for commercialization)

With Symbian research projects, one additional hiccup has been the difficulties in allowing universities access to Symbian OS source code. Time and again we’ve been discussing an attractive-sounding joint research project with a university, when we’ve realised that the project would need more visibility of Symbian source code than was possible under the existing licensing rules. And that’s constrained the kinds of projects we can consider. (This realisation was just one of many that led to an increasing desire inside the Symbian ecosystem to find ways to liberalise access to our source code – and thus helped to set the scene for the mega-decision to embrace open source principles.)

However, not all research requires close access to source code. With that thought in mind, Symbian Research decided a few weeks back to launch the Symbian Student Essay Contest. This involves students writing an essay of no more than eight pages on the general topic “The next wave of smartphone innovation – issues and opportunities with smartphone technologies“. Up to ten students will receive a prize of UKP 1000. (See here for the contest rules.)

This prize contest has some common principles with the Silicon South West “Rising Star Awards”:

  • We’re seeking to encourage and reward individual students who show particular insight into this ever-more important set of ideas
  • We’re also seeking to inspire individual universities to give a higher priority to this domain of study.

High quality essays from a university will indicate to Symbian that there is good smartphone expertise in that university. That’s something we’re particularly interested to find out, since Symbian Research needs to decide which universities worldwide should receive higher priority attention for future collaborative research projects. That’s a tough decision to make.

Footnote: At tonight’s dinner, Prof Joe McGeehan of the University of Bristol mentioned that wise heads had been advising him, ever since 1973, that “there’s no future in research in wireless communications”. Thankfully, he persistently ignored these skeptics, and the field has indeed grown and grown. There’s now an impressive list of local south-west companies that have world-beating wireless technologies. I’m looking forward to hearing, tomorrow, what they have to say. The future of smartphones is, of course, a big part in “wireless 2.0”, but there’s lots more going on at the same time.

16 June 2008

Anticipating the next ten years of smartphone innovation

Filed under: Essay contest, Symbian — David Wood @ 5:17 pm

This June, Symbian is celebrating its tenth anniversary. As someone who has been a core member of Symbian’s executive management team throughout these ten roller-coaster years, I’d like to share some of my personal reflections on the remarkable smartphone innovations that have taken place over that time – and, in that light, to consider what the next ten years may bring.

It was on 24 June 1998 that the formation of Symbian was announced to the world. The industry’s leading phone manufacturers were to cooperate to fund further development of the operating system known at the time as EPOC32 (this name dates from the inception of the OS, four years earlier, inside the UK-based PDA manufacturer Psion). The funding would enable the operating system to power numerous diverse models of advanced mobile phones – known, in virtue of their rich programmability, as “smartphones”. The news echoed far and wide. In time, the funding repaid investors handsomely: more than 200 million Symbian-based smartphones have already been sold, earning our customers substantial profits. It’s not just our direct customers that have benefited: a fertile ecosystem of partner companies is sharing in an ongoing technological and market success.

But there have been many road bumps along the way – and many surprises. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the degree of difficulty in actually bringing smartphones to market. We time and again under-estimated the complexity of the entire evolving smartphone software system – mistakenly thinking that it would take only around 12 months for significant new products to mature, whereas in reality the effort required was often considerably higher. To our dismay, numerous potential world-beating products were cancelled, on account of lengthy gestation periods. Or, when they did reach the market, their window of opportunity had passed, so their sales were disappointing. For each breakthrough Symbian-based phone that set the market alight, there were almost as many others that were shelved, or failed to live up to expectations. For this reason, incidentally, when I see commentators becoming highly excited about the prospects of possible new smartphone operating systems, I prefer to reserve my judgement. I know that, just because an industry giant is behind a new smartphone solution, it does not follow that early expectations will be translated into tangible unit sales. With ever-increasing feature requirements, operator specifications, and usability demands, smartphone software keeps on growing in complexity. It requires tremendous skill to integrate an entire software stack to meet a rapidly evolving target. If you pick a sub-optimal smartphone OS as your starting point, you’ll be storing up more trouble for yourself.

Another surprise was in some of the key characteristics of successful smartphones. In 1998, we failed to anticipate that most mobile phones would eventually contain a high quality digital camera. It was only after several years that we realised that the “top secret” (and therefore rarely discussed) features of forthcoming products from different customers were actually the same – namely an embedded camera application. More recently, the prevalence of smartphones with embedded GPS chips has also been a happy surprise. Mapping and location services are in the process of transforming mobile phones, today, in similar way to their earlier transformation by still and then video cameras. This observation strengthens my faith in the critical importance of openness in a smartphone operating system: the task of the OS provider isn’t to impose a single vision about the future of mobile phones, but is to enable different industry players to experiment, as easily as possible, with bringing their different visions for mobile phones into reality.

As a measure of the progress with smartphone technology, let’s briefly compare the specs of two devices: the Ericsson R380, which was the first successful Symbian-powered smartphone (on sale from September 2000 – and a technological marvel in its day), and the recent best-seller, Nokia’s N95 8GB:

  • The R380 had a black and white touch screen, whereas the N95 screen has 16 million colours
  • The R380 ran circuit switched data over GSM (2G), whereas the N95 runs over HSDPA (3.5G)
  • The R380 supported WAP browsing, whereas the N95 has full-featured web browsing
  • The R380 had only a small number of built-in applications: PIM, and some utilities and games
  • The N95 includes GPS, Bluetooth, wireless LAN, FM radio, a 5 mega-pixel camera, and a set of built-in applications that’s far too long to list here!

Another telling difference between these two time periods is in the number of Symbian smartphone projects in progress (each with significant resources allocated to them). During the first years of Symbian’s existence, the number of different projects could be counted on the fingers of two hands. In contrast, at the end of March 2008, there were no less than 70 distinct smartphone models under development, from all the leading phone manufacturers. That’s a phenomenal pipeline of future market-leading products.

Although smartphones have come a long way in the last ten years, the next ten years are likely to witness even more growth and innovation:

  • Component prices will continue to fall – resulting in smartphones at prices to suit all pockets
  • Quality, performance, and robustness will continue to improve, meaning that the appeal of smartphones extends beyond technology aficionados and early adopters, into the huge mainstream audience of “ordinary users” for whom reliability and usability have pivotal importance
  • Word of mouth will spread the news that phones can have valuable uses other than voice calls and text messages: more and more users are discovering the joys of mobile web interaction, mobile push email, mobile access to personal and business calendars and information, and so on
  • The smartphone ecosystem will continue to devise, develop, and deploy interesting new services for smartphones, addressing all corners of human life and personal need
  • The pipeline of forthcoming new smartphone models will continue to strengthen.

It is no wonder that analysts talk about a time, not so far into the future, when there will be one billion smartphones in use around the world. The software that is at the heart of the majority of these devices will have a good claim to being the most widely used software on the planet. Symbian OS is in the pole position to win that race, but of course, nothing can be taken for granted.

Symbian’s understanding of the probable evolution of smartphones over the decade ahead is guided, first and foremost, by the extraordinary insight we gain from the trusted relationships we have built up and nurtured over many years with the visionaries, leaders, gurus, and countless thoughtful foot soldiers in our customer and partner companies. As the history of Symbian has unfolded, these relationships of “customer intimacy” have deepened and flourished: our customers and partners have seen that we treated their insights and ideas with respect and with due confidentiality – and that has prompted them to share even more of their thinking (their hopes and their fears) about the future of smartphones. In turn, this shapes our extensive roadmap of future enhancements to Symbian OS technology.

To provide additional checks on our thinking about future issues and opportunities for smartphones, Symbian is inaugurating an essay contest, which is open to entries from students at universities throughout the world. Up to ten essays will win a prize of £1000 each – essays need to be submitted before the end of September, and winners will be announced at the Symbian Smartphone Show in October. Essays should address the overall theme of “The next wave of smartphone innovation”. For details of how to enter the contest, see http://www.symbian.com/news/essaycontest/.

As a guide for potential entrants, Symbian has announced a set of six research sub-themes, which are also areas that Symbian believes deserve further investigation in universities or other research institutions:

  1. Device evolution / revolution through 2012-2015: The smartphones of the future are likely to be significantly different from those of today. Although today’s smartphones have tremendous capability, those reaching the market in 2012-2015 are likely to put today’s devices into the shade. What clues are there, about the precise characteristics of these devices?
  2. Improved development and delivery methodologies: The dramatically increasing scale and complexity of smartphone development projects mean that these projects tend to become lengthy and difficult – posing significant commercial challenges.
  3. Success factors for mobile applications and mobile operating systems: What are the factors that significantly impact adoption of mobile software? What can be done to address the factors responsible for low adoption?
  4. Possible breakthrough applications and markets: The search for “killer apps” for smartphones continues. Are there substantial new smartphone application markets waiting to be unlocked by new features at the operating system level?
  5. Possible breakthrough technology improvements: Smartphone applications and services depend on underlying technology, which will come under mounting stress due to increased demands from data, processing, throughput, graphics, and so on.
  6. Improved university collaboration methods: What are the most effective and efficient ways for universities and Symbian to work together?

For lists of questions for each of these sub-themes, see www.symbian.com/news/essaycontest/topics/.

The evolution of the “smartphone” concept itself is particularly important. Whereas successful smartphones have mainly been portrayed so far as “phones first” and as “communications-centric devices”, they are nowadays increasingly being appreciated and celebrated for their computer capabilities. Some of our customers have already been emphasising to end users that their latest devices are “multimedia computers” or even instances of “computer 2.0”. Personally I prefer the name “iPC” (short for “inter-personal computers”) as a likely replacement for “smartphone”. Whereas Symbian’s main technology challenges in the last ten years tended to involve telephony protocols, our main technology challenges of the next ten years will tend to involve concepts from contemporary mainstream computing.

The scale of the future opportunity for iPCs dwarfs that for smartphones, just as the scale of the opportunity for smartphones dwarfed that of the original PDAs. But there’s nothing automatic or easy about this. We’ll have to work just as hard and just as smart in the next ten years, to solve some astonishingly difficult problems, as we’ve ever worked in the past. We’ll need all our wisdom and ingenuity to navigate some radical transitions in both market and technology. Here are just some of the ways in which devices of 2018 will differ from those of 2008.

  • From the WWW to the WWC: Nicholas Carr has written one of the great technology books of 2008. It’s called “The big switch: rewiring the world, from Edison to Google”. With good justification, Carr advances the phrase “world wide computer” to describe what the WWW (world wide web) is becoming: a hugely connected source of massive computing power. Terminals – both PCs and iPCs – are increasingly becoming like sockets, which connect into a grid that provides intelligent services as well as rich data. The consequences of this are hard to foretell, but there will be losers as well as winners. The local intelligence on the iPC will act as a smart portal into a much mightier intelligence that lives on the Internet.
  • Harvesting power from the environment: Efficient usage of limited battery power has been a constant hallmark of Symbian software. With ever greater bandwidth and faster processing speeds, the demands on batteries will become even more pressing. Future iPCs might be able to sidestep this challenge by drawing power from their environment. For example, the BBC recently reported how a contraption connected to a person’s knee can generate enough electricity, reasonably unobtrusively, from just one minute of walking, to power a present-day mobile phone for 30 minutes. Ultra-thin nano-materials that convert ambient light into electricity are another possibility.
  • New paradigms of usability: Given ever larger numbers of applications and greater functionality, no system of hierarchical menus is going to be able to provide users with an “intuitive” or “obvious” guide to using the device. It’s like the way the original listing “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web” – which formed a hierarchically organised set of links, known as “Yahoo” – became replaced by search engines as the generally preferred entry point to the ever richer variety of web pages. For this reason, UIs on iPCs look likely to become driven by intelligent front-end search engines, which respond to user queries by offering seamless choices between both offline and online functionality on their devices. Smart search will be supported by smart recommendations.
  • Short-cutting screen and keyboard: Another drawback of present day smartphones is the relatively fiddly nature of screen and keyboard. How much more convenient if the information in the display could somehow be conveyed directly to the biological brain of the user – and likewise if detectors of brain activity could convert thought patterns into instructions transmitted to the iPC. It sounds mind-boggling, and perhaps that’s what it is, in a literal sense. Nano-technology could make this a reality sooner than we imagine.

If some of these thoughts sparked your interest, I suggest that you bookmark the dates 21-22 October in your diary. That’s when Symbian will bring a host of ecosystem experts together, at the free-to-attend Symbian Smartphone Show, in London. It will be your chance to hear 10 keynote presentations from major industry figures and over 60 seminars led by marketplace experts. You’ll be able to network with over 4000 representatives from major handset vendors, content providers, network operators, and developers. To register, visit smartphoneshow.com. Much of the discussion will focus on the theme, “The next wave of smartphone innovation”. Your contributions will be welcome!

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