TEDx Hilversum: “How to spot the next big thing” – slides and commentary from my talk

I spoke at the first TEDx in Hilversum, Holland

There was a “selfie booth”, appropriately enough.

I was invited to talk at the inaugural TEDx Hilversum – the Dutch city which is the country’s medialand, and whence the TV format ideas both for “Big Brother” and “The Voice” came.

The topic: “How to spot the next big thing”, building on a column I wrote for The Guardian’s Tech Monthly supplement back in October, about how the selfie was pretty much accidental.

What I wanted to explore and expand on in the talk was how these “next big things” in social interaction happen, and where you’d look to find the next one. (This isn’t a transcript – it’s the ideas I spoke on. The talk is about 15 minutes. I’ll put up the link when it’s available.)

Spotting the next big thing

How to spot the next big thing
Photo by c@rljones

This isn’t, therefore, about which startup you should put your money into, though it might give you hints about what sort of things could generate money – if you’re ahead of the game.

Three characteristics

Three characteristics of a 'next big thing'
Photo by Japanexperterna.se

Three characteristics of “next big things”: they’re about kids and teens experimenting; adults find them a bit silly (or impossible or embarrassing); and they don’t require anything extra, because they’re immanent to the device.

Only mobile matters

Mobile is the only platform that matters
Photo by Kris Krug

When we’re looking for the “next big thing”, the only place to bother looking is mobile. It’s the only platform that matters. People might say “what about the PC? There are 1.5 billion of them installed around the world.” Nope.

Think about this: what was the last important app that launched first on the desktop (not in the browser, because browsers work on mobile too)? There were two – Spotify and Dropbox, which both launched around the autumn of 2009. Everything big since then – Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp, Uber – has launched first and pretty much only on mobile, with essentially no functionality on the desktop.

By contrast, everyone has a mobile phone – there are more than 2 billion smartphones in use today. Pretty soon everyone will have a smartphone. Look at the people in the picture above: they’re holding up their mobile phones, not their laptops.

The first big thing

The first big thing on mobile: texting
Photo by larskflem

The first big thing was text messaging, aka SMS. Invented in 1986 and implemented in 1992, it didn’t take off at first – until the advent of pay-as-you-go (PAYG or pre-pay) phones, which meant that they were cheaper and adults didn’t have to commit to a contract for their kids; they’d just use what they needed. And those kids discovered SMS was cheap, and fast, and personal, and they loved it. The explosion in PAYG phones, in the UK at least, happened in 1999.

Watch SMS grow

How SMS use grew globally
Here’s how SMS use grew globally. There’s almost exponential growth right up to 2011; and then it peaks in 2011-2012 and has fallen off since.

Why the falloff? Because the people who had been kids in 1999 were 12-13 years older. They’re grown up, having their own kids. Meanwhile the other kids growing up in the intervening years were moving on to their own things – OTT services using data, such as BBM, iMessage and Whatsapp. SMS was a golden goose for the carriers; now it’s being killed off. Whatsapp has only been available for five years – founded in 2009 and first released in 2010 – yet it’s now bigger than SMS in volume.

Me, my selfie, I

The source of 'selfie'
Sure, we know that there have been “selfies” for ages – painters in the Renaissance doing self-portraits, even Buzz Aldrin doing one in space during an Apollo mission in 1966. But we didn’t call it that, and “selfie” has a particular meaning in our context: pictures taken with our mobile phones, generally using the front-facing camera.

Watch ‘selfie’ grow

Photos tagged 'selfie' on Flickr, 2000-2005
I thought this 2002 origin was interesting, so I dug out data from Flickr, looking for photos tagged “selfie” by year (1 January-31 December for the respective years). There’s that first 2002 use highlighted for reference, and clearly lots of millennium-dated photos that were backloaded; Flickr didn’t even exist until 2004. Yahoo bought it in 2005, and things started growing.

..and grow

Photos tagged 'selfie' on Flickr, 2000-2012
Fast forward to 2012, and the number is exploding.

..and peak?

Photos tagged 'selfie' on Flickr, 2000-2015
Fast forward again, and this really looks like exponential growth. Though the 2015 figure – with my estimate for the final total – looks like growth has slowed substantially. Why’s that? We’ll come to that in a moment.

Trending searches

Google search trends for 'selfie'
Just for contrast, here are the Google search trends for “selfie”. Pretty much nothing until 2013, when it takes off. (Think of the selfie at the Mandela funeral by Obama and the Danish prime minister in December 2013, which is the first peak there, and the Oscars selfie by Ellen DeGeneres – actually taken by Bradley Cooper in March 2014 – which marks the high point.) But it looks as though interest in the selfie is dying, doesn’t it?

Peak selfie?

Google trends and Flickr trends for 'selfie'
If you superimpose the Google Trends data and the Flickr data, their growth looks pretty similar. So is the selfie dying off?

What’s more probably happening here is that a new generation of kids isn’t using Flickr – they’re on Instagram, where millions of selfies are posted every day. I couldn’t extract the data from Instagram, but you can be sure it’s huge. The selfie has probably got a few years left in it yet. But that generational shift is interesting, because it’s just what we saw with SMS before.

Next to arrive

Two big things; what might be a third?
So there are two examples so far of “next big things”. What might be next?

Well, the smartphone is the most personal device ever. It knows who we know, when they call, when we ignore them, what we like and what we watch, what we read, how we communicate, where we go.

Why wouldn’t it be used for… sex?

Call me maybe

Tinder's three-screen explanation
Turns out, it already is. Apps like Tinder fit all of our three criteria: it’s used by the young, it puzzles the old (“why would you judge someone based on so little information?”), and it uses qualities inherent to the device – selfies for profiles, real-time data updates, touch interaction, geolocation.

Tinder alone sees billions of “swipes” on profiles every day, and millions of meetups, and there are surely going to be Tinder babies – people created on the basis of algorithms on smartphones. Is that weird, or just natural? Your view might depend on your age.

A new search

It's in our phone, but what is it?
After SMS, selfies, sex, what will the next big thing look like? There are some clues. The biggest one is that it’s almost surely already in the phone, just as SMS was a capability in 1992, before PAYG phones, and selfies were possible from the first phones with a front-facing camera in 2003.

So here are three elements that I think might feed into the next big thing.

Three potential elements

The capability is there, and growing
Deep dream: photo by kevin dooley
Google Cardboard: photo by juan tan kwon

Artificial intelligence: The first, and biggest, is artificial intelligence or “machine learning”. This is a picture of someone as visualised through Google’s “Deep Dream” neural network. We don’t understand it because the machine refracts its view. But to the machine, it makes a sort of sense. There is a growing amount of AI/ML/NN technology in all our smartphones: Apple’s Siri, Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana. You can also get “assistants” such as Amy (which will set up meetings) and “Charlie” (which will give you a social media profile of people you’re going to meet).

This AI tells us if we should leave early for meetings, who’s calling us (perhaps based only on phone numbers found in emails, not our contacts), what apps we look at, what news we look at, how we interact with the world through our phone. In the next few years, we should expect that it will become far more powerful, even without a connection to the cloud; if you think that sounds fanciful, just go back five years, to 2010, and none of the phones we have had those sorts of capabilities. Siri hadn’t been introduced. Think five years ahead, and that’s the sort of gap between now and then that we’re going to see.

Health/fitness: if my AI knows what I’ve been doing, shouldn’t it also know how well I’m doing? Connected to devices such as a watch or fitness band, there’s far more data about ourselves becoming available. Does that feed into the Next Big Thing by showing that you’re *really* fit in your online dating profile? Does your AI tell you before you’re going to be ill?

Virtual reality: This is Google Cardboard, a super-low-cost implementation of virtual reality: you cut and paste it together from a kit, and then slot your smartphone into the gap, and bingo. It’s on the tipping point, I think; ready to take off. And when that happens, everything becomes possible. What if the Tinder profile of the future lets you walk around the person you’re interested in dating, in 3D? What if you meet without physically being in the same place?

Conclusion

I don’t know what the Next Big Thing actually is. But consider a couple of points. SMS was invented over a decade before it actually took off. The word “selfie” was coined for the activity back in 2002 – yet it only exploded into public consciousness a decade later.

Perhaps the word for the next big thing has already been coined; it’s been tossed around carelessly on an online forum where someone is describing something they did or something that happened. And in years to come we’ll look back and say ah, it was obvious.

That’s because spotting the next big thing is a puzzle, not a mystery. There’s a difference between the two. A mystery is – well, think of a murder mystery. Only one person knows who did it, and they’re not saying. Mysteries are meant to remain unsolved.

But to understand a puzzle, think of a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces are all there, in plain view; the only problem is putting them together correctly.

For entrepreneurs, there is good news: if you’re alert, you can cash in. SMS made huge profits for carriers. Selfie sticks meanwhile have been nice business for some factories in Shenzhen. (They’ve even led to museums changing rules; that’s success, when you change society, even a little.)

Just as puzzles just need the pieces put together correctly, it’s very likely that everything necessary for the next big thing is right there, just waiting for someone to put it together. The people who do that probably won’t be the adults; it’ll be the kids and teens messing around. And adults will probably think it’s stupid. But that’s how it goes.

Still, we won’t have to look far to find it. It’ll be right there in the palm of our hands – in our phones.

Start up: Google’s antitrust expansion, Morocco goes solar, Apple Music revealed?, IoT hacked again, and more


What makes a great selfie? Ask a neural network. Photo by Verónica Bautista on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Lather them on. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

EU antitrust chief Vestager speaks about Google and other key cases » WSJ

Amazing to think it’s a year since Vestager took over (and the Google case[s] still aren’t resolved…). She tells Tom Fairless and Stephen Fidler in a long interview that with the cases against various bits of Google’s operations:

what they have in common is that the name Google appears in each one, but apart from that they are very different. And therefore I do not think of it as one Google case but literally as different investigations and different cases.

WSJ: So there’s not a read across from the shopping case to the others?

MV: Well, there may be a lesson learned. It’s a very fine balance. The shopping case may have similarities when we eventually look at maps and travel and a number of other related services, because the complaints sort of tell the same story. People feel or experience that they are either being demoted, or Google preferences its own services. But there is no such thing as you have done one, you’ve done them all. You can’t do that. On the other hand, if you look at the shopping case then there will be insights that will probably also be valid when it comes to other neighboring markets. But it’s a very, very fine balance, because we cannot do one case and then say the rest is the same. In a union of law and with due process, this cannot be the case.

WSJ: But equally, Google has many business lines besides shopping and could have many more in the future, and you would presumably not want to open a new case each time. So you would want to establish some sort of precedent?

MV: Yes, but still whatever precedent comes out has to be taken from the finalization of the case. And since we’re not there yet, it is very difficult to see where that will take us.

link to this extract


What a deep neural network thinks about your #selfie » Andrej Karpathy

Karpathy set a neural network to examine a few million not-liked and well-liked selfies, and draw conclusions:

A few patterns stand out for me, and if you notice anything else I’d be happy to hear about in the comments. To take a good selfie, Do:

• Be female. Women are consistently ranked higher than men. In particular, notice that there is not a single guy in the top 100.
• Face should occupy about 1/3 of the image. Notice that the position and pose of the face is quite consistent among the top images. The face always occupies about 1/3 of the image, is slightly tilted, and is positioned in the center and at the top. Which also brings me to:
• Cut off your forehead. What’s up with that? It looks like a popular strategy, at least for women.
• Show your long hair. Notice the frequent prominence of long strands of hair running down the shoulders.
• Oversaturate the face. Notice the frequent occurrence of over-saturated lighting, which often makes the face look much more uniform and faded out. Related to that,
• Put a filter on it. Black and White photos seem to do quite well, and most of the top images seem to contain some kind of a filter that fades out the image and decreases the contrast.
• Add a border. You will notice a frequent appearance of horizontal/vertical white borders.

You can also tweet your selfies to @deepselfie and get a score (100% is top!).
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Morocco poised to become a solar superpower with launch of desert mega-project » The Guardian

Arthur Neslen:

When they are finished, the four plants at Ouarzazate will occupy a space as big as Morocco’s capital city, Rabat, and generate 580MW of electricity, enough to power a million homes. Noor 1 itself has a generating capacity of 160MW.

Morocco’s environment minister, Hakima el-Haite, believes that solar energy could have the same impact on the region this century that oil production had in the last. But the $9bn (£6bn) project to make her country’s deserts boom was triggered by more immediate concerns, she said.

“We are not an oil producer. We import 94% of our energy as fossil fuels from abroad and that has big consequences for our state budget,” el-Haite told the Guardian. “We also used to subsidise fossil fuels which have a heavy cost, so when we heard about the potential of solar energy, we thought; why not?”

Solar energy will make up a third of Morocco’s renewable energy supply by 2020, with wind and hydro taking the same share each.

link to this extract


Lawsuit accuses Apple’s iOS 9 Wi-Fi Assist of burning through $5M+ in data » Apple Insider

Neil Hughes:

Apple was slapped with a class-action suit on Friday, claiming that the company failed to properly warn users that the new Wi-Fi Assist feature in iOS 9 will use data from their cellular plan.

In the complaint, plaintiffs William Scott Phillips and Suzanne Schmidt Phillips allege that because of costs related to Wi-Fi Assist, the “overall amount in controversy exceeds” $5m. Filed in a U.S. District Court in San Jose on Friday, the suit was first discovered by AppleInsider.

Once users update to iOS 9, Wi-Fi Assist is turned on by default. Its goal is ensure a smooth internet experience, switching to cellular data in the event that the user is connected to a weak Wi-Fi signal.
The lawsuit claims that Apple “downplays the possible data overcharges a user could incur” from Wi-Fi Assist.

Some who don’t understand how Wi-Fi Assist works, or even that it exists, have alleged that the new feature has caused them to use more cellular data than anticipated. But the new class-action suit alleges it should be Apple who should reimburse customers for any overages [excess data use].

Default-enabling something that could burn through your mobile data is plain stupid. Why not offer people the chance of whether to use it the first time the chance comes up? This is poor focus – putting user experience in the narrow field of device use ahead of the wider user experience of “how big is my mobile bill?”

It puzzles me how implementations like this get through Apple’s processes. (See also: the pain of being the person working on Wi-Fi inside Apple.)
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TalkTalk boss says cybersecurity ‘head and shoulders’ above competitors » The Guardian

Josh Halliday:

TalkTalk chief executive Dido Harding has insisted the company’s cybersecurity is “head and shoulders” better than its competitors in the wake of the massive hack attack affecting thousands of customers.

In an interview with the Guardian, Harding conceded it would be “naive” to rule out the prospect of the telecoms firm suffering a similar cyber-attack in the future, describing the threat from hackers as “the crime of our generation”.

Asked about claims by an IT researcher that he raised concerns about TalkTalk’s security with her office last September, Harding said its security had “improved dramatically” in the last year.

TalkTalk’s customer account details (excluding bank details, but including usernames and phone numbers) were stolen from an India call centre last year, and again, and now it has been hacked in a big way. The hackers are miles ahead of the companies here – which is becoming a depressingly common refrain. Also see the blogpost from last October showing how poor TalkTalk’s cybersecurity was.
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Content paywalls on the agenda for digital news sites » FT.com

Matthew Garrahan:

Business Insider, which was acquired by German media group Axel Springer last month for close to $390m already charges for its research service and is now on course to be one of the first digital only news operations to erect a paywall around some of its general content. John Ore, Business Insider’s product manager, said in a recent blog post that the company was planning a broad “subscription offering” for readers “who prefer to pay us directly”.

Sweeping changes to the online advertising market mean other free news sites may follow suit. Sir Martin Sorrell thinks all newspapers should charge for content: the chief executive of WPP, the world’s largest advertising group said this week that paywalls were “the way to go”.

The problem, he says, is the lack of growth in digital advertising — an issue which is likely to get worse as ad blocking software grows in popularity. Ad blockers pose a real threat to the revenues generated by news sites. Meanwhile, rampant online ad fraud and the fact that brands often do not know whether their campaigns are being seen by real people, has shaken confidence in an industry that could do without the additional anxiety.

Would Business Insider try to block people using adblockers, as Axel Springer has?
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New screenshots purportedly show Apple Music for Android ahead of release » 9to5Google

Mike Beasley:

In bringing its software to Android, Apple has taken a slightly different approach from Google’s own iOS apps. While Google’s apps attempt to mimic the company’s Material Design principles—even going so far as to include custom-made toggle switches and other elements—Apple relies on UI elements built into Android rather than attempting to recreate the iOS versions of them. The main navigation has even been moved from an iOS-like tab bar to a more Android-friendly slide-out sidebar.

Despite this, the company hasn’t managed to stick completely to Google’s design guidelines and has injected some of its own style into the app. For example, the For Me page almost identically mirrors its iOS counterpart.

The images appear to be legitimate and match up with the design Apple teased during the Apple Music announcement at WWDC this year. Not every feature of the app is shown off in the screenshots below, but you can get a feel for how the app will look and behave from our gallery of screenshots.

Looks quite Android-y, though not a full dive into Material.
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DoJ to Apple: your software is licensed, not sold, so we can force you to decrypt » Boing Boing

Cory Doctorow:

The Justice Department lawyers argue [in a case where a defendant’s phone has been seized but they won’t give up the passcode; Apple has however acknowledged that it can bypass the code in pre-iOS 8 devices] that because Apple licenses its software – as opposed to selling it outright – that it is appropriate for the government to demand that Apple provide assistance in its legal cases.

To my knowledge, this is an entirely novel argument, but as I say, it has far-reaching consequences. Virtually every commercial software vendor licenses its products, rather than selling them. If the DoJ establishes the precedent that a product’s continued ownership interest in a product after it is sold obliges the company to act as agents of the state, this could ripple out to cars and pacemakers, voting machines and tea-kettles, thermostats and CCTVs and door locks and every other device with embedded software.

Might work in this particular case, but devices running iOS 8 onwards it won’t. That of course doesn’t apply to the many more internet-enabled “things”. Though those bring their own associated problems…
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Compromised CCTV and NAS devices found participating in DDoS attacks » Slashdot

the security firm Incapsula [reports] that its researchers discovered compromised closed circuit cameras as well as home network attached storage (NAS) devices participating in denial of service attacks. The compromised machines included a CCTV at a local mall, just a couple minutes from the Incapsula headquarters.

According to the report, Incapsula discovered the infections as part of an investigation into a distributed denial of service attack on what it described as a “rarely-used asset” at a “large cloud service.” The attack used a network of 900 compromised cameras to create a flood of HTTP GET requests, at a rate of around 20,000 requests per second, to try to disable the cloud-based server. The cameras were running the same operating system: embedded Linux with BusyBox, which is a collection of Unix utilities designed for resource-constrained endpoints.

The Internet of Compromised Things is growing faster than our ability to cope with its effects.
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