Category Archives: Communications trends
To create anything that is truly pathbreaking, you need to look for it in new places
CREDIT: Getty Images
At the center of every significant innovation is always an idea. Clarence Birdseye’s idea about freezing fish revolutionized the food industry and American diets. Charles Schwab’s idea about flat commissions changed investing forever. Steve Jobs’s idea about creating a device that could hold 1,000 songs in your pocket turned around Apple’s fortunes.
Yet we shouldn’t confuse a great idea with where it came from. Truly useful ideas don’t arise from out of the ether or through fancy techniques like brainstorming or divergent thinking. The best ideas come in response to an important problem and thrive under constraints.
In researching my book, Mapping Innovation, I found that the most innovative firms aren’t necessarily any more creative or even better at solving problems than most. Rather, what set them apart was how they aggressively sought out new problems to solve. The truth is that if you want to create a truly innovative culture, it isn’t ideas you should glorify, but problems.
A young boy’s dream
As a boy, Albert Einstein liked to imagine what it would be like to ride on a bolt of lightning. In many ways, it was a typical childhood fantasy. If he had been born in another time, you could imagine him learning to speak Klingon or becoming immersed in the lore of the Jedi. Yet Einstein took the idea so seriously that it became the first of his famous thought experiments.
As he grew older and began to study physics, he learned that according to Maxwell’s equations, the speed of light was supposed to be constant, but according to Newton’s laws, if a boy riding at the speed of light shined a light forward, then the beam would travel at twice the speed of light.
Clearly, both couldn’t be true. Either the speed of light was relative to absolute time and space or the inverse was true. As we now know, Einstein proved that the speed of light was absolute and that time and space were relative quantities. In other words, an inch is an inch and a minute is a minute only in relation to a specific context.
This seems incredible because it’s so alien to our everyday experience, but today it’s easily proved. Simply get in your car, turn on the navigation system and follow its directions. GPS satellites are calibrated according to Einstein’s equations, so if you get to where you want to go, you have, in a certain sense, proved the theory of relativity.
What’s interesting about Einstein’s theory is that he didn’t discover it in the same sense that Columbus “discovered” America. He didn’t uncover a single fact that wasn’t known to every working physicist at the time. His genius was to see a problem where nobody else realized that one existed.
A new era, new challenges
Every age comes with its own unique problems. For the past 20 or 30 years, we’ve mostly been occupied with finding new applications for technologies built in the 1950s and ’60s, like microchips, relational databases, and the internet. That effort spawned entirely new industries, such as personal computers, enterprise software, and e-commerce.
Yet today, many of those old paradigms are running out of steam. Moore’s Law is slowing down and will soon grind to a halt, open software has created the need for updated database structures, and the internet has been shown to be dangerously insecure. Solving each of these problems will create fantastic new opportunities.
Consider the case of quantum computing, which has the potential to be millions of times more powerful than current technology. A full-scale commercial version is probably still five to 10 years away but is already being tested in areas as diverse as medicine, financial services, and artificial intelligence.
It will also create enormous problems to be solved. For example, it will render current encryption technologies obsolete, so business will have to invest in quantum safe encryption. Because quantum computers work fundamentally differently than classical ones, new computer languages and software protocols will need to be devised.
And that’s just one example. Take a look at the Gartner Hype Cycle and you will find dozens of emerging technologies that will have an impact over the next decade. Each one comes with its own problems to solve and each of those problems represents new business opportunities. In some cases, entirely new industries will be created.
Identifying new problems
Anyone who takes even a casual look at the future can’t help but be bewildered. These days, even teenagers can build websites and smartphone apps, but highly trained specialists struggle to understand the implications of emerging technologies like genomics, nanotechnology, and robotics. That presents a dilemma for business leaders: How can you plan for a future you can’t predict?
The simple answer is you can’t and you shouldn’t even try. Technology today moves so fast — and in so many directions — that those who think they can truly see the future are just fooling themselves. But what you can do is uncover problems related to your business, your customers, and new emerging markets.
That’s one thing that truly great innovators do differently. They constantly seek out new problems. IBM routinely sets up grand challenges, like beating humans at Jeopardy. Experian set up its DataLabs unit to identify problems its customers are having that they can turn into new businesses. Google’s “20 percent time” policy acts as a human-powered search engine for valuable problems.
The truth is that it’s more important to explore than to predict. To create anything that is truly pathbreaking, you need to look for it in new places.
Moving from strategic planning to innovation planning
Management in the 20th century was, in large part, the art of strategic planning. You gathered information about markets, competitors, and other trends and then planned accordingly. Strategy was like a game of chess. You planned each move in response to a changing board and in anticipation of a competitor’s moves.
Yet today, technology cycles move faster than planning cycles ever could, so we need to take a more Bayesian approach to strategy. Instead of trying to get every move right — which is impossible in today’s environment — we need to try to become less wrong over time. Essentially, we need to treat strategy like a role playing game, taking quests that earn us experience and artifacts along the way.
That means that we will need to plan differently. In addition to strategic planning, or planning based on things we know or think we know, we need to start innovation planning, or planning based on things we need to learn to solve new and important problems. That’s how you quest. You don’t plan the journey as much as you prepare for it.
And that’s what makes ideas like those of Birdseye, Schwab, and Jobs so great. They solved important problems that people cared about. So if you want to innovate, don’t look for a great idea. Look for a good problem.
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Ant Financial, an affiliate company of Alibaba that runs popular digital payment service Alipay, has delayed its initial public offering (IPO) until late 2018 at the earliest, according to a report in the Financial Times. The IPO, which had been expected sometime this year, has been widely anticipated, given that Ant Financial was valued at $60 billion during its most recent funding round in April 2016.
That’s a staggering figure, considering Alibaba’s IPO was $25 billion in 2014, which ranks as the world’s largest ever. The company now has a market capitalization that tops $308 billion.
So what is Ant Financial’s relationship with Alibaba, and where does all of this value come from? The answer to both of those questions lies, in part, with Alipay.
The digital payments service had 432.0 million active users for its mobile app in Q4 2016, according to data from Analysys International Enfodesk. The platform also accounted for more than half of all mobile payment transactions in China for the quarter.
Other sources also underscore how important a player Alipay has become in China’s digital ecosystem. QuestMobile reported that Alipay had the fourth largest number of monthly active users (MAUs) in China in December 2016, with 402.4 million, a figure that represented a year-over-year increase of 60.6%. Only messaging services WeChat and QQ, along with Alibaba’s ecommerce marketplace Taobao, had more MAUs.
But Alipay’s relationship with Alibaba is a little complicated.
The payment service was originally founded by the ecommerce giant in 2004. As a result, it is tightly integrated with Alibaba’s ecommerce platforms Taobao, a consumer-to-consumer (C2C) marketplace, and Tmall, which focuses on business-to-consumer (B2C) sales.
Therefore, Alibaba is gathering a host of tremendously valuable data about Alipay users. The estimation of that information is only increasing as Alibaba seeks to grow its advertising business. eMarketer estimates Alibaba’s ad revenues will grow 34.3% to $16.0 billion this year. By 2019, that figure will have increased by more than $10 billion, to $26.1 billion.
In 2011, Alibaba founder Jack Ma spun off Alipay in a controversial move he said was required under new government regulations in China, drawing the public ire of Yahoo, a large Alibaba shareholder at the time. (Alibaba later settled with both Yahoo and Japan-based telecom firm SoftBank, another major Alipay stakeholder.)
Under its current structure, Alipay is owned by Ant Financial. Alibaba management and employees control a little more than three-quarters of the company, while the remaining stake is held by investors in China.
Alipay has now migrated outside of Alibaba’s ecommerce operations into much wider use in China.
The service uses QR codes to complete transactions, allowing offline merchants to sidestep investments in costly payment terminals. Instead, they can simply post a unique QR code. Shoppers scan the code with their smartphone at the point of sale, then finalize payment details on their devices.
This sort of organic growth has made Alipay an integral part of China’s digital payments ecosystem, and has helped to drive estimates of its worth.
Ant Financial is now hoping to take the lessons it has learned with Alipay and apply them to other markets in Asia-Pacific, many of which are five to 10 years behind China in the adoption of smartphones and other digital technologies. Since the beginning of the year, the company has taken aggressive aim at countries in the region in a series of moves.
In February, the company invested $200 million in Kakao Pay, one of South Korea’s larger digital payment services. Also that month, Ant Financial acquired a stake in Mynt, a digital payments and lending platform operated in the Philippines by Globe Telecom.
Ant Financial followed that with a purchase in March of a majority stake in the ecommerce operation of Paytm, an India-based company that also operates a digital payment service. The two firms have already partnered on the rollout of Paytm Mall, an ecommerce platform closely modeled after Alibaba’s Tmall.
In April, Ant Financial forged a partnership with Elang Mahkota Teknologi (Emtek Group), an Indonesia-based media group that licensed messaging platform BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) in the country. Under the agreement between the companies, BBM plans to host a mobile payments service developed by Ant Financial.
But Ant Financial is not pinning all of its hopes solely on digital payments.
The company is also among the vanguard in developing financial technology products for the mobile-first consumers that dominate in Asia-Pacific.
Ant Financial already operates Yu’e Bao, a money market fund tied to Alipay that currently manages about $165 billion in investments. In addition, it created online bank MYbank in 2015, a business that targets consumers in China that have historically lacked access to retail banking services—no small feat in a country where the concept of a credit score was an alien one until just a few years ago.
Scanning with your iPhone is almost as quick as taking a photo, and way more useful down the line.
Photo: Cult of Mac
Paper is still great for a lot of things. It’s lightweight, it’s fairly water-resistant, and is just about the best tool available for reducing the number of trees in the world. But it doesn’t sync with iCloud, and anything written on it is not searchable.
Luckily, there’s an easy way out of this dark age. You can scan all those clipped recipes, and those receipts, all those sheets and scraps you have laying around, and which annoy you until you ned one, at which point it disappears. Today, we’re going to use Readdle’s excellent Scanner Pro to turn your paper into pixels. You may be surprised at just how easy and useful this can be.
Why bother scanning?
First, why scan instead of just snapping a picture? There are a few good reasons:
- It looks better. If you’re scanning an actual document, then a scanner app will produce a result as good as using a proper document scanner.
- It keeps the pictures out of your camera roll.
- OCR, or Optical Character Recognition. This is the big one. A scanner app will read any words in your picture and turn them into searchable text. If it’s a typed document, then the accuracy is almost perfect, but it can even work on hand-written text.
You can scan a whole lot more than just paper scraps and documents, too. Text recognition works on any picture containing text, in theory. If you see a poster for a concert you want to check out, scan it, and make it searchable. Scan articles from magazines you find in coffee shops, and copy out whole chunks of text later, or highlight passages you like in your PDF reader of choice. Pretty much anything can be scanned.
What about the menu hung outside a restaurant? If you scan it instead of just snapping a photo, you will be able to find it in future, even if all you remember is that they had “carpaccio” of tofu among the appetizers. What about the teacher’s blackboard in your evening class? Why write all that stuff down when you can just snap a picture, and see it all in the original context any time you like?
Scan with Scanner Pro
Of all the scanner apps I’ve tried, Scanner Pro is my favorite. It’s clean, easy, fast, accurate, and never confuses me. It also has a lot of extra power if you need it, but works as a plain-old scan-and-forget app if that’s all you want. So let’s fire it up and scan a document.
Everything is automatic, except adding a caption, and even that is mostly done for you.
Photo: Cult of Mac
First, find a bright spot in the room. Kidding! Scanner Pro uses the iPhone’s flash to illuminate the scan, so you can do it anywhere. This may be the only time you want to use a flash to take photo. What you will need is a background that contrasts with the paper you’re scanning, so the app can automatically find the edges of the paper.
I picked a magazine, in German, to show off some of Scanner Pro’s other neat tricks. To scan, just 3-D Touch the icon and tap New Scan, or launch the app and hit the big plus symbol. Then point your phone at the document and wait. The app detects the paper’s edges, and when it does it flashes the flash and snaps a pic. Here you can tell it what kind of document you’re scanning (a photo or a document, B&W or color). This only affects the final appearance.
If you have multiple pages or sheets, just flip through them, pointing the camera each time. It’s pretty fast. When you’re done, tap the icon at bottom right (the one with a number showing how many pages you’ve scanned). On this screen you can give the document a name. This takes a second and makes a huge difference in future, when trying to find something, so do it. You can also have the names generated automatically (visit the settings). I have it add the date to the name. Now, just hit save. Or you can share the new scan right away. More on that below.
Automatic text recognition
Scanned text is turned into editable text automatically.
Photo: Cult of Mac
This is the best feature of scanning apps, I think, so you’ll want to switch it on. When I first purchased Scanner Pro, OCR was off by default. If that’s still the case, then you should visit the app’s settings (the cog icon, top left on the main screen). Tap Text Recognition (OCR), then tap Automatic Recognition, then pick the languages you want it to scan for. Only switch on the ones you’ll actually use regularly, otherwise you may slow things down as the app tries to figure out which language to use. I have German and English, for fairly obvious reasons.
When OCR is switched on, Scanner Pro will automatically convert any scans to text, if it can. You can always display the image as text to see how well it did (above). In text view, you can also copy snippets, or the whole thing, to the clipboard. For any serious work, you might consider exporting to the PDF app of your choice.
Sharing and saving your scans
Scans can be shared as PDFs or JPGs. PDFs keep the recognized text layer, whereas JPGs don’t. The app’s custom share sheet can send straight to Dropbox, Evernote, and others, as well as print and fax. Yes, fax. In 2017. It’ll cost you money (the price depends on country, and so on, and is shown before you send the fax), but it avoids a trip to… well, it avoids a trip to wherever they still have faxes.
Sharing is easy, and text recognition can manage most languages.
Photo: Cult of MacFollow Cult of Mac’s Apps Channel
You can also create customs “workflows.” These are presets to share documents to your choice of service. You can save to a particular Evernote note, for example, or send the scans in a custom mail template. I don’t bother. I just switch on iCloud Drive in the app’s settings, and let it save all my scans there. That way, I can access them from any app, and from my Mac. It also lets me find anything I’ve scanned with a simple Spotlight search, and I never have to manually save anything.
Turning your existening photos into scans
If you’ve been taking regular photos of your paper scraps until now, then you can still turn them into scans. To do this in Scanner Pro, you just need to hit the little radar icon at the top of the main screen. This scans your photos and picks out any it thinks may be papers, or other eligible subjects. Go ahead and tap any you want to import. It works just like with freshly-scanned images. One thing to note it that it will combine all selected images into one multi-page document, which means multiple visits to import lots of documents. Still, it’s a pretty great feature.
Scanner Pro can find and process images you already have in your camera roll.
Photo: Cult of Mac
That’s it. Now you can keep scans out of your camera roll, all in one place, and you can easily find them again, even if you can only remember one or two words from the scanned document itself. Give it a try. It might not seem that useful as you’re doing it, but in the future, when you’re trying to find something important, you will be super-duper pleased that you made this (trivial) effort.
In the latest episode of “Behind the Numbers,” eMarketer analyst Victoria Petrock highlights developments in connected technology for the home. What’s getting “smarter” and what does it mean for consumers? Listen to Podcast
Why You Brag About Being Busy 1:23
Being busy isn’t an excuse or a lament anymore. It’s a sign of status — maybe even a humblebrag.
At some point, the standard answer to “how are you” changed from “fine, thanks” to “busy!” Researchers at Columbia and Harvard set out to understand why.
In a series of studies recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research, they analyzed thousands of Tweets from celebrities for “humblebrags,” and found about 12 percent of those were about being busy — “having no life” or needing a vacation, for example.
Then they created a fictional Facebook user and asked volunteers to look at her posts. When she posted about working nonstop, people thought she had higher status and more money than if she posted about her leisure time.
The researchers, led by Silvia Bellezza, a professor of marketing at the Columbia Business School, found that people were even impressed by the use of products aimed at busy people — like the grocery delivery service Peapod, or a Bluetooth headset.
Previous research at the University of Chicago found that people actually prefer being busy, even if it hurts their productivity.
“People dread idleness, and their professed reasons for activity may be mere justifications for keeping busy,” University of Chicago professor of behavioral science and marketing Christopher Hsee observed. For example, they might respond to non-urgent email instead of finishing a big project.
And while we may legitimately feel busy, Americans’ working hours have steadily decreased over the last seven decades. In 1948, when the government started keeping track, Americans worked an average of 42.8 hours a week. Today we average 38.7, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey.
The finding that busyness has become a status symbol turns Thorstein Veblen’s idea of conspicuous consumption among the “leisure class” on its head. Veblen theorized that the absence of work, or conspicuous leisure, was the ultimate status symbol.
But at some point, our popular conception of wealth changed from something like Thurston Howell III with a yacht and plenty of downtime, to a mega-mogul working around the clock.
Bellezza and her colleagues write that traditional status symbols like luxury cars or handbags also make people seem less likeable, so busyness may be “a potentially more socially acceptable and efficient way for people to signal their social status.”
They theorized that Americans might be more impressed by being busy than would Europeans because of our belief in social mobility — that if we just work hard enough, we can achieve the American Dream.
Sure enough, when they tried similar research with Italians, the results flipped. Italians considered people with more leisure time to have higher status than those who were working all the time.
So next time you’re feeling crazy busy, think about whether what you’re busy doing is really accomplishing your goals. And if all else fails, consider Italy.
Why You Brag About Being Busy 1:23