As general manager of MSN in Canada, tech guru Ken Nickerson was the one who convinced Microsoft to buy Hotmail. Now, as the founder of iBinary LLC, a Toronto-based technology research and investment firm, he’s an angel investor, advisor or board member for several early-stage tech companies.
Here he shares his take on the technological and other business trends that are creating the most opportunities to launch new companies.
Work as Play: With the vast improvements in computer processing and communications, more and more work could become “play.” We’re seeing this already with the U.S. military using next-generation unmanned aerial drones controlled with Game Boy-like interfaces. And this trend will almost certainly spread beyond warfare. It will filter its way down to other environments with massive volumes of data, such as business in terms of stock analysis, or medical searching for tumors or skin damage from melanoma.
“Workers” will fly over the data, zooming in and out to investigate the possibilities. This work could slip out of the hands of the expert and be passed on to legions of piece workers diligently searching for the “win.” It may even be possible to embed this work within actual games. This would be not unlike the way SETI [a project that harnesses the collective processing power of five million computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] has done with massive parallel-computing environments running on our screen savers over the past few years.
Personalization or “myPoding”: There is so much “media” that we will become very specific in choosing our media to order, like Meg Ryan did in “When Harry Met Sally” [when she placed a hilariously detailed meal order in a restaurant]. We will expect services to be personalized because it saves time, although at the risk of giving up more personal data. “Mixes,” movies, reads, RSS feeds, news, portals and such will spoil us. And this will accelerate as all business portals and so on start offering a high degree of tailoring.
Green Products: Everyone is trending from being concerned about the environment to actually acting on that concern. Business and product designers are accelerating this, because they are beginning to see that going green can bring in the green, as people are willing to spend a little more to help save the world.
It only grows where people have attained a level of wealth where they can afford to do it. If you’re barely making rent and having troubles of your own, it’s harder to think more broadly than that—not to say people don’t do that, just that it would be harder. But the folks I know that drive Priuses can certainly afford more, so they’ve made a conscious choice. In the Western world, there are people who are willing to pay more to reduce their footprint. And outside the Western world, there are some interesting indicators, such as that there’s lots of work being done on electric vehicles for India, and in China they’re looking to gasify coal.
Ultra-simple Design: Thanks to Apple in particular, the threshold of what is and is not good design has been permanently raised. Central to this is simplicity. Few consumers or business professionals will tolerate the increasing onslaught of “stuff” or functions at the cost of simplicity. We are overloaded. Apple has gone in the other direction, and that has proven to be a multibillion-dollar decision.
Mobile Everything: As the price of processing collapses and wireless high-speed networks continue to evolve, everything is becoming mobile. Laptops and BlackBerrys started the trend, and moving forward it will be assumed that any virtual goods and services will be available anywhere at anytime. This trend is reinforced by the trends “myPoding,” “Ultra-simple Design” and even “Green Products.”
Private Travel: Travel has become incredibly inconvenient, whether by plane or automobile, and less so by train, so there are other things that try to compensate. When you fly, often your pre-time and post-time at the airport is longer than the flight itself. It’s not uncommon on a one-hour flight to spend two hours in prep, not including your commute to and from the airport. So the airline needs to think about “how can we make the time in the plane as pleasant as possible?” so you don’t leave with such bad memories of travel.
On trans-Atlantic flights, you can fully recline into this little shell and sleep the night away. It used to be you were sleeping next to a stranger, but now you’ve kind of got your own bed. That started off as a very elite, in first class. Then it moved to business class, and more and more it’s working its way to the back of the cabin. And you’ve now got your choice of movie. It used to be one movie on the shared screen; now there are 25 movies on your own personal screen.
We’re also spending much, much more time in traffic in our cars, so they’re becoming an extension of our homes. We have cars now that have DVD players, and even personalized DVD players for each kid in the back seat. And some cars have fax and laptop access, although that scares me.
Faster Cycle Times: The Internet and open-source software development in general are to be thanked for this trend, and Google in particular. The idea of continuous product release is new and possible thanks to virtual goods. Both consumers and businesses expect much faster cycle times in terms of availability of new services, based for example on “mashups” [a website or Web application that combines content from more than one source] and Web 2.0 features. From finding information to negotiating a purchase to enabling a new service, such as instant messaging on a cellphone, we expect it faster.