Friday, July 30, 2010

Virtual Reality With Real Pain

I hurt my shoulder…playing tennis on a Wii.

This experience made me ponder how the concept of immersive virtual reality evolved over time. Ever since the novels such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash or Michael Crichton’s Disclosure, we have had the idea of what virtual reality should be like. It is this cool place where people can do virtually everything and that is way better than the real reality because it was designed by programmers. Since then, we are trying to build such immersive virtual reality in the non-fiction world.

Virtual reality has come a long way from the first oh-so-slender-looking avatars in Yahoo’s Instant Messenger. Second Life became the rage a couple of years ago, allowing our still oh-so-slender avatars to attend product announcements, fly through the cyberspace and flirt with strangers. Second Life has since lost a bit of its luster – at least for now. Frankly, the flying and flirting via mouse clicks wasn’t all that immersive and got pretty boring after a while. So far, Second Life is falling short of the promise of Stephenson’s metaverse.

There are actually some useful applications for virtual reality today – from home decoration and landscaping, all the way to production line design. I saw once a very cool virtual reality application for chemical facilities that enabled the repair crew to analyze best path of access and determine needed equipment in case of a breakdown. But these applications are more focused on modeling the reality rather than the human experience in it – they are not particularly immersive. By the way, Wikipedia offers several good ways of categorizing immersive virtual reality.

I am really excited by the new types of immersive virtual reality applications that combine the cognitive immersion with sensory-motoric immersion, and sometimes even the emotional immersion (to use the Bj√∂rk/Holopainen categorization). Here, the experience on screen is combined with actual physical activity. Driving and flight simulators were the first of such applications. If you want to see how immersive they can be today, check out the Cyber Speedway at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. Playing tennis on a Wii is a similar kind of immersive virtual reality. This kind of immersion provides a pretty decent physical experience of the activity. OK, the experience might be still lacking the G forces or the sliding stops but that’s perhaps only a temporary limitation. The highly acclaimed Microsoft’s Wave (aka Project Natal) is the next step in this direction.

What’s exciting about the immersive virtual reality is the fact that it offers a more realistic experience than just clicking buttons while staring at a screen. It allows us to actually do things – develop and improve our skills through practice that would otherwise be restricted by physical limitations. And that’s way more engaging than flying through Second Life.

But now it’s time for me to rest my shoulder while I practice piano on my iPad. Or perhaps a round of golf on Wii?

Images:
1. Grand Slam Tennis for Wii by Electronic Arts
2. Professional grade offering by RedBird Flight Simulations, Inc.
3. Playing piano on iPad with JamPad by ONG

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Meeting Clay Christensen and My Innovator's Dilemma

Communitech is an organization devoted to promote the Waterloo Region (Region = County in Canada) as a technology hub, which it is, with over 700 tech companies including RIM, Open Text or the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Once a year, Communitech puts on a fabulous Technology Leadership Conference which I got to attend yesterday. The keynote speakers were Fast Company's founder Bill Taylor, Avid Life Media CEO Noel Biderman, and the Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, author of the renowned Innovator's Dilemma book and one of my gurus.

Having seen that Clay Christensen was on the agenda, it took me only about 5 sec to decide that I had to clear my day and attend. And so, I got to see him speaking about the innovator's dilemma which is so acute for so many high tech companies today. The long and the short of the story is that established vendors are often being challenged by bottom feeders who take over the unattractive, low-margin business that the established vendors are more than happy to give up. But as they get good at it, the disruptive innovators start moving up the stack, getting better and better at addressing more complex problems while leveraging the disruptive innovation that challenges the incumbent's pricing and business model.

In the subsequent roundtable discussion, Prof. Christensen explained that there are only two solutions for the dilemma. One of them is to make yourself obsolete by either acquiring or organically building a new business and keeping it separate from the old business. Over time, the new business makes the old one obsolete which is bad for the particular business unit but good for the company. Because, as Clay Christensen said, “…while the business units cannot evolve, the company can”. Failing to do this can only mean a demise as the company is driven into obsolescence by new entrants.

The second way to counter the innovator's dilemma is moving up the stack. The incumbent company has to keep innovating on the top tier, creating more sophisticated capabilities, as it surrenders the bottom to the new arrivals. This is of course only delaying the inevitable but this strategy can work for many years.

We see this happening all the time in the software world. For example, Microsoft Office is being attacked from the bottom by new, lower-cost entrants such as Google Apps or Open Office. And Microsoft keeps countering with innovations on top of the stack, such as the Office infrastructure provided by SharePoint. But as Google or Open Office keep adding features, Microsoft needs to consider disrupting itself with an innovation that would make Office obsolete. Otherwise, Office will become history.

Even my industry, enterprise content management, is not immune to this problem. Established vendors such as Open Text or IBM are being challenged by new entrants coming up with new business models from the bottom. Google Wave or Box.net are examples of disruptive innovations – free and based on a SaaS model – that could become competitors in the long term. So far, they don’t address the kinds of problems that our customers buy our software for and we have been successfully moving up the stack by adding new capabilities along with horizontal and vertical solutions. We, at Open Text, have plenty of ideas to keep doing that for several years. But we are also working on technologies that may completely change the way content is managed. Stay tuned for that.

Meeting Clay Christensen was inspiring and it made me think about his Innovator's Dilemma model again. And that's what is so great about the Communitech Leadership Conference in Waterloo. I saw Seth Godin there last year and I can't wait to see who comes next year. In the mean time, I will be working on the Innovator's Solution...

Friday, July 9, 2010

Sorry IT, the Time of Homogeneous Environments is Over

In the early days of computing, the IT (information technology) world used to be wonderful. There was typically just one computer in the organization to worry about - a mainframe or a mini. The computer was locked in a secure data center and all users used the same hardware and software. This centralized IT environment was relatively easy to manage, control, and secure. IT was in charge and the users couldn’t do anything but work with their applications. Life was beautiful.

But then came Intel and Microsoft and put a computer on every desk and ever since Novell has connected them together, the IT world became a nightmare. (We called it IS back then but I digress). Every user had a different PC and everyone used different software. And what was even worse, the users could tamper with it. They were able to install new applications, add additional hardware such as cameras or external drives, and compromise security by taking the data home, contracting viruses and committing other sins. The IT environments became extremely difficult to manage and impossible to secure.

Then decades later, IT was finally regaining control. After years of desktop dominance, Microsoft was establishing a position where they could control the entire environment: the desktop OS, the desktop apps, the network OS, the database, the Office infrastructure, the server based apps, and even the systems management tools to automatically configure the desktops and prevent users from tampering with them. IT was just inches away from the goal line – Microsoft’s promise of the beautiful life was very tempting.

But Microsoft got distracted - first by AOL and Yahoo!, then by Nintendo and Sony, then by Google, and now by Apple, and Facebook. The results are quite evident – Microsoft is losing its monopoly on the desktop. In my professional life, I have never seen so many iMacs, iPads, iPhones, Androids, and BlackBerrys that people around me use to do their job. These are desktops, tablets and mobile devices that use no Microsoft software at all.

Many people buy these devices on their own, regardless of what the company’s IT standard is. They simply help each other get them integrated with the corporate systems and circumvent IT altogether. And IT is on the defensive again as they have to do what they users want. The Microsoft monopoly and its promise of a homogeneous environment is fading and the good old days of mainframe are not coming back.

The old IT mantra that ”nobody gets fired for buying Microsoft” is shaking. The users are taking over. They are rebelling against Windows, Exchange, and PowerPoint. What they want is iMac, iPad, iPhone and Android and the two hundred thousand applications these systems offer. The time of homogeneous environments is over. Long live the freedom of choice!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Content Without Borders

Since the early days of the World Wide Web, we have understood that the Web transcends national borders. It is not governed by any country and it is open to anyone, anywhere and in any language. We have believed that even a small company can compete with the big ones on the Internet, using it to reach customers anywhere in the world. The Internet has no borders which is what makes it so appealing and which is perhaps the key reason why the Internet has changed everything.

But not everyone sees it that way. I will not dwell on oppressive governments that filter the content or outright prevent their citizens from accessing certain sites. While I decisively condemn this kind of censorship, it is at least not surprising given the agenda of such dictatorships. What really puzzles me is to see such actions from for-profit companies in the free world – the media companies.

In the history of entertainment, the media companies followed a flawed logic according to which they can reduce piracy and increase profits by preventing content from crossing borders. That's relatively easy with physical goods and with content that is language specific. Books are hard to move between countries because they are relatively heavy physical goods and their transport is a major cost factor. Movies on VHS were available only in one particular language which kept them effectively from crossing borders.

But since the dawn of digital content, the situation became a bit more tricky. First, the media companies failed to prevent CDs from traveling. CDs were relatively cheap to transport and they are not language bound. That got even worse since the invention of the MP3 format that made the audio content easy to transport at no cost. And we all know what happened next. The Big Media won the Napster battle but they have lost the music war. Today, Apple makes money on music and the media companies are relegated to be the low cost suppliers.

But Big Media has sworn a revenge. The next battlefield became movies. The emergence of the digital video disk (DVD) created a disruption that prompted an action. Just like CDs, DVDs are relatively cheap to transport and unlike VHS tapes, they are not bound to a single language. In fact, many DVDs in Europe are published in as many as 10 audio and 20 closed captioning languages to lower production cost. DVDs could easily cross borders and to prevent that, media companies invented something new – DVD Regions which make it impossible for DVDs from one region to be played on DVD players in another region. As a result, Europeans can't buy the relatively cheap DVDs in the US and the pirates in China have much more overhead dealing with multiple zone formats. This technique has been somewhat effective even though you can buy a region free DVD player on the Internet for about the same amount as a regionalized one at the store.

The DVD regions are enforced also on the computer DVD drives, which makes DVD ripping more difficult. But there are tools available on the Web that allow you to circumvent this restriction easily. And of course BitTorrent has rendered this problem obsolete – by avoiding DVDs altogether as you can download movies already ripped. Whether or not this is legal has been a subject of an ongoing debate. As consumers, it is our right to digitize our own DVDs to play them on a computer or a mobile device. It is also unacceptable to prevent us from buying content from foreign countries. Today, we can order German DVDs from Amazon.de and have them shipped to the US. But we cannot order those same movies online on iTunes? That's not right and this artificial border only promotes piracy. All in all, the media companies lost again.

But they have not given up on their revenge. Their next frontier is the streamed content. This is the future of personal entertainment and a new set of players are becoming powerhouses in streaming content such as movies and TV shows: Netflix, Hulu, ABC, etc.. However, this time, the content stops at the border. If you try to access your Netflix subscription from abroad, even from Canada, you get an error message saying that “Due to international rights agreements, we only offer this video to viewers located within the United States and its territories.” Yikes!

This is completely unacceptable. It's basically like disabling your iPod when you cross the border. No matter that you pay for your Netflix subscription – you only get the streamed content while in the US. It is only a question of time before users find a way around this. Already today, you can VPN into a US network from abroad or use a Slingbox which circumvents this restriction. The media companies are doomed to lose again, because they simply don't get it. They are in denial of technology and the changes it causes. They have proven it with every innovation, from early phonograph, to VHS video to Internet music on MP3. Each time, they fought the innovation and each time, they had to accept it and lose a ton of money while someone else makes out in the end. They will lose again, again, and again, until they finally accept that the Internet knows no borders and that content needs to be available everywhere.