Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The World of Work in 2012

While this post mentions a number of Google products, the opinions expressed here are mine, not those of my employer! I do not work on any of the products mentioned in this article.

I believe that how we work and collaborate will fundamentally change over the next 5 years. This is no far-fetched vision, but pretty obvious stuff, and I'm even not the first to connect the dots and point it out. In the space of five years, most technically inclined consumers will see:
  • their lightweight communication and collaboration move almost entirely to the mobile phone,

  • most document editing and heavyweight collaboration move to the browser,

  • with just a few heavyweight applications remaining on the desktop.

Last weekend, I went to visit Lucerne, Switzerland, with friends. Among them was Fabian, who is a strong believer in using the cell phone solely for calling and sending text messages. He still owns a trusty old Nokia 6210 . We had no city map, and I had only a vague idea of the city's layout, so I whipped up Google Maps Mobile on my 6280 and searched for Lucerne. Fabian was hooked. (The only thing he's worried about now is data fees.)

Back in my student days, there used to be these group assignments: Each group had to come up with some form of document and hand it in. This is where the world split into nerds and normal people. The nerds used Latex files or HTML pages checked them into CVS. The normal people used Word documents that were mailed around and eventually unified into one by the last person. Today, the obvious choice is to put this into Google Documents.

These two examples illustrate how we'll see user behaviors change on cell phones, in browsers, and on the desktop.

The World of Cell Phones

There are many possible killer apps on cell phones:
  • maps, directions, traffic information, timetables,
  • shopping comparisons,
  • fact lookups on Wikipedia,
  • email

Some of these are already available, but are either unusable or usable only on a few devices, such as BlackBerries (CrackBerries?). This will change.

Have you seen the iPhone keynote? When I heard the announcement, I was a bit skeptical at first, since my current cell phone does almost everything theiPhone can do: It doesn't have WiFi access, but matches Apple's product on all other counts. But the iPhone's goal is not to introduce new functionality: Its goal is to make existing functionality usable. If you make something 10x more usable, 1000x more people will use it. But Nokia, Motorola, and Sony Ericsson aren't stupid - in a year or so, expect their phones to get significantly better, too.

In the next few years, the average cell phone user's device will have a great email client, a decent browser that displays the same version Internet as a desktop browser, and access to her online documents with lightweight editing. Some of this software won't come from the phone vendor.

In 2012, the most important part of your cell phone plan will be the price per transferred megabyte, not call minutes. You'll leave your house without a timetable printout, a clear idea of what gift you want to buy for your girlfriend, or even where the shop you want to visit is. You'll read all your email on your cell phone first, and only use a computer when the response needs to be more than a couple of lines.

But sometimes, you'll still need to sit down in front of a screen.

The World of Browsers

Let's say you're putting together your company's budget for 2013, or maybe you're writing a memo about how your car fleet should move entirely to hybrids. In 2012, you'll be working on this inside the browser.

Creating, editing, and revising documents are the prototypical activities of the office worker. Today, these documents are created in Word or Excel, after which they are emailed around to get feedback and iterate on the original draft.

The reason why Word and Excel are used is because of network effects: If you have the same software as everyone else, you can be sure the document will look the same as on the sender's machine. Most office users have also gotten used to the clumsiness of emailing around documents as just another aspect of drowning in email.

Even today, web office suites such as Google Documents or Microsoft's Office Live get rid of the need to sink thousands of dollars into desktop software. Documents look the same everywhere, and instead of emailing around revisions, all users can edit the same document at the same time, for free. In addition, you have access to these documents from every web browser anywhere in the world, instead of carrying a single copy of them on your laptop.

By 2012, these web applications will have evolved to a point where the default way of dealing with documents is by loading up the web app. But there are some applications that will remain on the desktop for a long time to come.

The World of the Desktop

Aaaah the power of the desktop. If you run applications right on the machine, you lose mobility, but you gain processing power, storage capacity, and the ability to build richUIs . That's why some applications will stay here: They require processing a lot data in real time, or need specialized user interfaces that cannot be replicated in the browser or the mobile phone. Examples are:
  • Programming
  • Desktop publishing
  • Audio/Video editing
  • Computer games

Let's take video editing, for example: If you're a video artist in 2012, you'll still be working with Gigabytes of data, and many work steps will still require huge amounts of processing power. It's unlikely that there will ever be enough bandwidth to handle all this data remotely. The same applies to anything from desktop publishing to computer games. Even five years down the road, you'll see these things happen on the desktop.

How to Get There

Plenty of things will have to happen before this becomes reality.

There are technical hurdles: For example, anyone who has worked with Java on Mobile Phones will happily attest that the UIs you can implement with the standard libraries aren't that compelling. On the browser side, there is also room for improvement. For example, making rich editing work right on both IE andFirefox is a nightmare. And then there's the offline problem, which I've written about before: No amount of technical innovation or investment will ensure 100% coverage of the planet. We need to build cell phone and web apps so they can deal with being offline.

Then there are the economic problems: For all this to work out, the price for data communication needs to drop very significantly. In countries where there's healthy competition between network operators, this will happen - all others will lag behind.

In addition, will users need to trust Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, et al enough to store their documents' data in their datacenters? Corporations in particular are very sensitive about security and privacy issues.

But the greatest hurdle is that non-technically inclined masses tend to stick with what they know, even if something better comes along. (People clinging to the old ways are hardly ever convinced later; they just die out.) If email in Outlook works, why switch? According to Bob Cringley, the masses only switch quickly if something is 10x as good - so these mobile and web apps will have to really kick ass!

So if my prediction doesn't become true, I have plenty of parties to blame. Still, I hope that this works out.


Thanks to Douwe Osinga, Fabian Siegel, Bálint Miklós, Julia Ferraioli, and Keno Albrecht for their ideas and comments on initial drafts of this.

Monday, February 19, 2007


When Corsin and I started organizing BarCampZurich last year, we had lofty ambitions: I remember sitting in an organizers’ meeting in a basement in Chur, Switzerland, explaining to a room of skeptics that we’ll have 50 or more attendees. It worked out pretty well, though: Almost 100 people showed up. (Here's a summary of how BarCampZurich worked out.)

When I heard that Dominik Tarolli et al. are setting up BlogCampSwitzerland - an unconference for European bloggers - I was on the side of the skeptics: "They’ll have 50 bloggers, maybe," I thought. So far, they have more than 150 signups!

I hope the European blogger crowd will be as interesting as the roomful of geeks who met last October. I’ll try to be there and may even host a discussion.

BlogCampSwitzerland, March 24, 2007, 10 am - 4:30 pm, ETH Zurich.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The 3-Year Halbtax

In Switzerland, the fastest way to travel is by train. In an effort to segment customers, base fares are pretty expensive, but there is a card for heavy users which reduces ticket prices by 50%. In German, it's called "Halbtax". Typically, you get a one-year card for 150 CHF, but you can get a three-year one for 350 CHF. That's the one I bought.

Oh the audacity of selling a 3-year subscription to anything! Only in Switzerland are biographies stable enough for anyone to think about travel three years in advance. Only here can the railway company sell these without having to worry about what may happen to their cost base over such a long period.

Even more shocking: The expiration date: 2010 – drum roll – "The Future!". Only three years away. Isn't that the date by which all our problems were supposed to be solved?