Monday, December 23, 2013

Digital Camelot - The Once and Future Web of Engelbart and Nelson

If you care about modern culture and how technology is shaping it, this is worth thinking about -- A powerful eulogy for where the Web might have gone, and still may someday, and the friendship of the two people most responsible for envisioning the Web*  --  Ted Nelson's eulogy for his friend Doug Engelbart, as reported by John Markoff in The Times -- with Nelson's inimitable flair.

As Markoff says:
Theodor Holm Nelson, who coined the term hypertext, has been a thorn in the side of the computing establishment for more than a half century. Last week, in an encomium to his friend Douglas Engelbart, he took his critique to Shakespearean levels. It deserves a wider audience. 
Dr. Engelbart and Ted Nelson became acquaintances at the dawn of the modern computing era. They had envisioned and invented the computing that we have come to take for granted.
I first encountered both of them in 1969, and what I saw set the direction for my life's work.  Engelbart gave "The Mother of All Demos" (I first saw him give a follow-up the next year, and read most of his work).  Nelson dreamed of hypertext and hypermedia, and wrote papers on what he called "hypertext" in the '60s and the highly influential Whole Earth Catalog of "Computer Lib / Dream Machines" in 1974.

As Nelson laments, both received a degree of recognition, but both were marginalized. Powerful as it may be, expediency took the Web in more limiting directions.

Their ideas remain profound and forward looking. Anyone who really cares about the future of media, intellect, and culture, and how information technology can augment that, should consider their work.  Just because the Web took a turn to expediency in the past does not mean it will not realize its richer potential in the future. (One hint of that is noted in the next section.)

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As to Nelson's comment about "keeping the links outside the file," he refers to the important point that HTML embeds the links in the HTML file, which largely limits linking and annotating to the author/distributor of the HTML page. Nelson views this a crippling to the vision he and Engelbart (and Bush) had, in which links could be created by third parties and associated with the page from outside, thus allowing anyone to link from, annotate, and enhance any work.

I was struck by the fact that  interactive hypermedia centered on TV and video are becoming mainstream, and much of it now does keep the links outside the file. Perhaps just a primitive version of Engelbart and Nelson's ideas, but a step in the right direction that might lead to further movement, and maybe spill over into other Web services...

Prime examples are the growing use of Automatic Content Recognition (ACR), which recognize a program and current viewing time-position, and is used to associate independent linkbases with video.  This is occurring both with 2-screen apps like Shazam, Zeebox, and IntoNow (Yahoo), and with 1-screen apps in smart TVs from most of the major TV vendors, and with support from major studios.

Video seems to naturally make embedded links problematic (where to put them?).  The TV industry tried to embed the links into the content (in such forms as ATVEF trigger streams in the VBI, and more recently in cable operator OCAP/EBIF platforms), but this has proven difficult to get to mass market.  Meanwhile, ACR has become popular -- first on the fringes, but now increasingly accepted by both the market and the industry.  Studios like Fox are even opening up their TV enhancement content to let independents like Zeebox use that content apart from (and in competition with) the Fox apps.  They recognize that the value of their services is enhanced by letting others re-distribute enhancements to their shows (along with independent enhancements) -- anything to increase attention to their shows.

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*Of course there were others, most notably Vannevar Bush, who inspired both Engelbart and Nelson.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

"The Future of TV" - MITEF-NYC Think Tank Session 1/14 (First in a Series)

Given our success at thought leadership in MITEF-NYC events, we are trying a new kind of Think Tank session that builds on the inventiveness of our MITEF community.  The Future of TV is the first of a series of Think Tank sessions on different industries, "The Future of X."
MITEF Think Tank Session: The Future of TV - January 14, 2014, NYC
Propositions for an audience that has seized (the remote) control

The first of a series of MITEF Think Tank Sessions on The Future of X
Tech-based opportunities for changing industries and changing audiences


...It is up to the brightest minds in technology to find solutions to these exciting challenges--and how to profit from that. MITEF-NYC is therefore introducing a new event format. In a highly engaged and interactive setting, a Think Tank session will gather ideas and concrete answers on how technology and innovation can shape the future of television
Some prominent industry participants (including seasoned executives and consultants, respected columnists, and successful entrepreneurs and inventors) are already registered, and space is filling up. Now is the time to register if you have not already.

We look forward to a stimulating session with strong audience participation. We hope to not only generate lots of good ideas for innovators, but also for learning how this format works and can be extended. 

Future events might target other industries in disruptive transitions where technology is both a challenge and an opportunity, such as publishing, music, retail, transportation, and education.

Some background on our Think Tank format...

As a long time co-chair of the programming committee, and co-organizer of this event, I am enjoying the process of trying this new format. I have been involved in applying several successful formats at MITEF since the late '90s, notably panel sessions, and we have done many ground-breaking events that established our reputation for thought leading coverage of important developments, panels of top-level innovators, and sophisticated audiences of entrepreneurs and those who work with them.

The Think Tank idea arose at a member/volunteer brainstorming session we did in August to generate new program ideas for the coming year, and emerged as the brainchild of one of our recently joined members, now co-organizer of this event, Katja Bartholmess. She is an energetic champion of new ideas with an eclectic background in e-commerce and branding. She pointed out that we have such smart audiences that maybe we don't need formal speakers and panelists, just a little catalyzing. We began to work together, settled on TV as the place to start the series, and are working to find a format that is manageable, brings out the best in our base of attendees, and lets them create. We thought of calling it a salon, brainstorming, or a round table, but went with think tank. We see our roles as facilitators, to help frame and herd the discussion, but with the real energy coming from our participants. We also hope to find ways to give the session continuing life, to build on ideas and human connections made that evening.

We are identifying a small number of "lead" participants who have experience innovating in the industry to help stimulate discussion, and shape it with their knowledge, but view them as "first among equals," with the idea that all of our audience participate actively, and that creative outsiders can often bring new thinking, outside the box, to sometime see opportunities that insiders ignore.

Comments and suggestions are welcome.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Twiiter Ad Targeting + Comcast Show It -- Crossing the Chasm?

Two very interesting moves toward mass market Interactive TV and T-commerce were made recently, and I suggest putting them together will lead to a major step beyond.

Twitter announced that its ad targeting now allows advertisers to send you promoted tweets if you tweet about a program during which their ad appeared.  A one-two punch, to follow up on the TV ad impression. A crude but clever way to synchronize Internet with TV, but potentially on massive scale, and thus a big step.  You tweet; that tells them what you are watching; they know what ads air with it; and let the advertisers tweet you. There are better ways (such as ACR and triggers), but not in wide deployment (but that will come).

Comcast announced that it is working with Twitter and NBC to enable tweets to include a Show It button that when clicked, tunes your TV to the program that was tweeted about (or sets your DVR to record it).  That is if you have Comcast's new X1 set top box. In any case you can also view the video on your Twitter device (second screen on phone or tablet). Comcast says they hope this will become a standard, used by other networks and distribution partners.

Given the scale of Twitter and Comcast, this could finally get Interactive TV across the chasm. Their reach can bring it to the masses, show the economic imperative, and lead to far richer versions. If the money is shown to be there, along with the mass market to deliver it, that will launch a major build-out.

[***Update 12/12:  A nice analyst commentary by Joel Espelien that agrees on the importance of these moves (in spite of little press attention) was posted today. (In the I almost told you so department, I had this post largely complete in mid-October, but let it sit as a draft until this week.)]

Soon:  Once these first steps take hold, other advanced features will be easy to add.

Some of this is suggested by Comcast: expansion to Facebook, and presumably any other Web service or app. This enables the idea of "the Web as program guide" that I described in my CoTV work,
...where all media types can be fully interlinked, in a manner that is fully consistent. Hotspots can serve as link anchors whether in text, image or video, and targets can be of any media type -- rich combinations of hypermedia browsing and navigation across devices.
It also seems that one valuable enhancement in TV advertising will be easy: telescoping ads synchronized across two screens.  From an ad on your TV to a video follow up on your phone or tablet. This has been done for years on some TV platforms, but not on a scale that gets much recognition or much interest from advertisers. But there is money there, if it reaches scale.

Telescoping to a second screen could be easy with Twitter Ad Targeting combined with See It with just one small twist.
  • As it is now, See It is described as linking to a program, in the sense of content you could select by channel, or from a program guide. Nice, but what about advertising?
  • As it could be, it might also enable links to advertising video-on-demand.  Comcast may have enabled this already, but if not, it should not be hard to add.
That enables telescoping across two screens. Ad Targeting flags a viewer who is seeing the ad on TV, and sends a link to his companion device that links (via See It) to a commercial video that picks up from there. A 15 or 30 second spot can link to a longer form video that drives home the message -- and can also include an online call to action, with all of the ease of interaction via a phone or tablet. All with widely deployed and widely used technology.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Joy of Showrooming: From Profit Drain to Profit Center

Showrooming has become a major scourge of bricks-and-mortar retail, but maybe it is the way to a new golden age.  I suggest that showrooming can become a major source of profit, and can enable retail businesses to fully exploit the value of showrooms in our experience economy.

Brick-and-mortar stores like Best Buy and Walmart are struggling as e-tailers like Amazon and many others are stealing their lunch with more efficient channels and lower prices.  Adding insult to injury, they are losing increasing portions of business to the practice of "showrooming," where a customer comes into a store to view merchandise, checks for better prices online, and then buys from Amazon or others.  Services like Amazon's Price Check app have become popular to facilitate just that.  It is reported that 60% of Best Buy customers use thier smartphones to comparison shop.

Faced with this serious challenge, the reaction of retailers has been to try to impede it.  The main response has been to increasingly customize products so that they cannot be found and compared online, having manufacturers create SKUs that exist only for them (whether name brand or private label).  Oher counters are more dynamic pricing and price-match offers.

What I suggest is to take this threat, and view it as an opportunity:
  • What if showrooming activity could be tracked, and e-tailers convinced to pay a "showroom fee" to the provider of a showrooming service, if the sale came from that showroom? 
  • What if the retailer could filter Internet traffic from their store, and trace which URLs are for competitors, track purchase transactions that emanate from the store, and pass through only those that go to retailers that agree to pay the fee? 
There are a number of ways this can be done, and that can lead to a new retail ecology that benefits all.

Showrooming has great economic value.  It enabled customers to see, feel, and try products.  That has been a serious limitation of e-commerce, and has been exploited by those who recognize the value of show, like Apple.  Now Samsung is working with Best Buy to do that as well.  But this has been on a closed basis, for single brands.

How could showrooming fees be obtained? 
  • One method that seems promising is for retailers to place microcells in their stores to carry cellular traffic, and work with the carriers to track and monitor the traffic, and seek agreements with electronic competitors to pay a fee in exchange for the showrooming service.  This might be done through independent parties that ensure privacy, aid in the negotiations, and address any legal issues that may be involved (such as the wireless carriers, or specialized third parties).  Sellers that refuse to pay such fees might be blocked. (This can be done using some combination of blacklists and whitelists.  A microcell alone might not eliminate all uncontrolled mobile access, but, if necessary stores might use shielding to prevent that.)  While blocking traffic may have legal ramifications, if it is done for such valid economic reasons, and in a way that ensures passage of non-commercial messaging, waivers might be sought as necessary.  Mobile carriers might find this a desirable way to obtain new revenues.
  • Offering free WiFi service would provide a similar way to filter and track such traffic--and to introduce related in-store messaging services as well.  Even without any limits to cellular access, this might provide a value-added service channel, and do the job well enough, in simpler manner.
  • Offering comparative shopping tools that are showroom-fee-compliant and given favored treatment might be a way to get get customers to facilitate such a process without need to filter all mobile traffic.
  • This could also be facilitated via loaner mobile devices or in-store kiosks.
  • An even higher touch service might be achieved with personal shopper programs.  The personal shopper might facilitate the online sale with partners that cooperate. 
If we open our eyes to the positive side of showrooming, this can lead to a virtuous value cycle for all.

On the e-tailer side, working with showroomers can provide numerous valuable benefits that are worth a reasonable fee:
  • Customers can experience the items, know exactly what they are getting, and order with less likelihood of returns, reducing costs to the electronic retailer.
  • Cooperating retailers can get featured access and be more likely to be found.
  • Correct identification of products can be facilitated (reducing return costs and increasing satisfaction).
On the retail showroom side, working with electronic retailers in return for showrooming fees can provide a whole new range of possibilities for profit:
  • Instead of spending money creating inefficiencies just to prevent showrooming, those costs can be eliminated.
  • Fees can be negotiated based on the level of showrooming services offered, ranging from a boxed item on a shelf, to play with the item, to guided demonstratins and advice by sales staff and full personal shopper services.
  • With greater probability of compensation from both direct sales and showroomed sales, physical retailers can spend more to make their showrooms into rich and valuable customer experiences.
  • Showrooms might even emerge as free-standing businesses--sort of an experiential shopping Disneyland--with all sales and fulfilment done by an open market of electronic retailers.
  • By passing some sales to electronic counterparties, the physical retailer finds real offsetting savings by eliminating need for much of their inventory and eliminating returns.  By cutting these costs, showrooming fees need not be equal to the full in-house sales margin.
This creates opportunities for more complex cooperation:
  • Physical retailers can serve as pickup and return centers for electronic retailers, whether for products they do carry or for those they don't. Amazon, ThankYou Rewards, and others already are seeking just such physical services in non-competing venues, but much richer possibilities might be enabled in a more open ecosystem. (A complementary step in this direction is the ShopRunner service.)
  • The various elements, costs, and benefits of the retail supply chain and service ecology can be deconstructed, and broken into elements that can be costed and charged for individually, and handled by whatever party is most capable of doing it in a way the is efficient and serves all. This can cover the range from marketing, selection guidance, demos, sales transactions, fulfillment, service and support.  Best Buy might even swap inventory for pickups of Amazon sales, with bulk replenishment by Amazon.  It might also facilitate blurring boundaries between sales and subscription services.
There is great economic value to a rich showroom experience.  We see that in many department and specialty stores, in Apple stores, and in The Samsumg Experience stores.  People like to kick the tires, see the alternatives in real space, talk to sales people face to face, and have a fun family or social experience.  What is the sense of a business ecology that pushes bricks-and-mortar retail toward commoditization and increasing friction?  Why not find a way for complementary players to work together?

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Ideas in bottles.  This is one of what may become a series, publishing some of my inventions without any effort to seek a patent.  Just putting the idea in a bottle, throwing it into the Internet sea, and seeing where it floats, for whoever wants to apply it.  Of course this post just skims the surface, and patent opportunities remain in the details (such as filtering and payment/settlement systems) for those with the inclination to develop them (and at some point I might decide to jump in myself).  Creating such an ecosystem will not be easy, but I think there is very great potential here.  I would be happy to collaborate with those who might pursue this.

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[Update 6/16/17: The press made much of an Amazon patent on much the same ideas, including ideas for doing counteroffers, that was issued this week (and was filed a year prior to this post). (I was pleased to see that the Amazon patent cited 17 of my earlier patents/applications as prior art, and also happy that I chose not to file for a patent on these particular ideas!) For those interested in applying the ideas outlined here, the newly issued Amazon patent may add a complication.]