Tag: google (Page 1 of 8)

Apps for Good: Future Learning (or learning the future?)

Here’s an initiative to whom a shout-out is long overdue: the good people from Apps for Good have been working with children in schools on making apps. They provide a framework through which children learn everything from concept and market research to design and execution. And some of them then go ahead and publish the results in the wide world of Google Play (check for instance the formidable team from Mount Grace School in Hertfordshire whose “Social Bank” app that helps you to achieve saving what you crave most. Go have a look and download it (here on Google Play); I assure you it is very far cry from Jurassic scenes rebuilt in shoe boxes…

I had the great pleasure to work with some of the teams as a voluntary “expert” and – assuming if you read this blog you, too, are active somewhere in mobile – should have a look at doing the same thing. Here’s why:

  1. It’s tremendous fun. I consider Apps for Good sessions as an energizer to my day: to work with enthusiastic children and seeing them come into their own in a learning environment that allows them (and demands of them) to get out of their usual routines and create something from nowhere – and to then go and execute on it is nothing short of inspiring.
  2. It’s the simplest and, let’s face it, cheapest way to invest in the future of not only those children but all of us: this is an area where children learn 21st century skills that are not (yet) embedded in national curricula around the world (there are some initiatives to change this of course, such as Ian Livingstone’s plans for the Livingstone School in London Hammersmith) but there is still a lot more to be done. And with one hour of your time here and there, you can help. If this is for you, apply here to become an expert.

The work they are doing is being recognised all over the place, expressed for instance by winning Google’s Global Impact Challenge.

Apps for Good delivers its programme in over 200 schools across the UK so far. If you are a school and want to participate, go here.

A New Thing: Emerge Venture Lab

Some of you might have seen it (OK, most won’t have) but I have a couple of new gigs going, one of which is Emerge Venture Lab‘s Emerge Education programme. It launched last week in style on L39 in Canary Wharf (yes, we were looking at you, you bankers).

Be it as it may, I am now a Venture Partner there. And I am thrilled to be there. Swanky title, you say, what else? Here’s what: Emerge merged (oooh) a couple of rather sweet things into one coherent offering, namely:

  • The guys come out of Oxford University’s prestigious Said Business School and have hence, per se, a pretty awesome pedigree AND network. But these are not your usual millenials. They put their talent to hard, hard work and assembled a team of mentors that is mind-bogglingly good: you will find a network of insanely gifted (and successful) entrepreneurs there that comprise the true heavyweights of today: tons of entrepreneurs, investors, big corporates (yes, Google is also there) and public ventures (like NESTA) are there.
  • I would suggest (but of course I would say that) that your chances of finding follow-on funding are better here than anywhere else because of the above. Why (besides that bloody awesome advisor list)? Oh, just read on…
  • Emerge have managed to compile a list of top-tier educational institutions that will work with you to hone your application or service before it hits the market. So the next time Mr Big Investor asks you if you have any proof it works, you will just coolly whip out that Oxford Uni study. Not bad, huh? And if you think that this still is all my usual BS, just think of the sell-in cycles in education. Then pause. Then think of what Oxford University on your PowerPoint might actually do for you. With me?

Everything aside, I am truly excited by what Emerge has achieved in a very short space of time. They have managed to navigate the insanely complex and dangerous seas of the educational minefields to assemble something that should accelerate aspiring ventures in the field in the true sense of the word. If you come out of this programme, you will have had your product vetted not only by passionate entrepreneurs but also by real clients. And that, my friends, is pretty astonishing for an accelerator programme, don’t you think?

And, yes, that’s why I am excited, and, yes, that’s why I am here! Get in touch, talk to us, apply to the programme here!


Monetizing Twitter: of social networks, ads and roads

Twitter goes public, right? And as of today we know the terms. Those are straight forward and no big surprise: large user base, high growth, huge losses but rising revenues. Alas, on the revenue side, there is probably consent (or at least strong voices) that they need to improve. So just coincidentally, Twitter also announced a few days ago that it struck a deal with CBS about video ads in tweets this autumn (erm, they called it fall, actually). This triggered a discussion on Facebook (yes, my friend Rob was at it again) where people argued if this was a Trojan horse by Twitter to get to those coveted second-screen ad dollars or if it was the natural extension of a movement towards “personal brands” or if it might ring in the death of Twitter as an empowering platform.

What struck me though was this: everyone seems to agree those ads are pesky things that are in your way. No one likes them (I really do not know a single person that has said even once “wow, just my kind of ad, how lovely”). An annoyance. Much worse than billboards or those banner ads we have by now all learned to ignore. Because you have to scroll past them. They can only be compared to the equally annoying video ads on YouTube you can “skip” after X seconds (and, yes, YouTube, we all want to skip them). Without wanting to diminish the significance of Madison Avenue then, I think we can – so far – deduce that the only reason why Twitter makes any money on this is that they can monetize the friction – it’s so annoying and in your way that it will catch some people out. I would love to see measures as to its effectiveness. I would posit that there are a gazillion ways to do it better.

Twitter & Wilshire Boulevard

This got me thinking: they should really be able to do it a lot better, right? I mean, 200m active users, 1bn tweets in every 48-hour period. There’s some money in there, surely. But let’s have a look of what Twitter is. Twitter connects people with each other. It creates a network. A social network. Right? Well, how about this: the road grid of LA connects people with each other. It creates a network. Would you ever call it a social network? Hell, no! And why not? Well, because it’s infrastructure, stupid! Now, ad dollars are being spent plentiful on the streets of LA but no one would ever dream of having them pay for the roads. And that might just be the flaw in all this!

Monetizing Infrastructure

Roads, you see, tend to be “monetized” (financed used to be the word) in one of two ways: tolls or taxes. There are some interesting toll concepts though: In London, the congestion charge (a cool £10 [=$15] charge per day) is being levied whenever you want to drive into the more congested parts of the centre. Makes money! In Germany, only lorries have to pay: commercial use of public infrastructure carries the levy. The Swiss and the Austrians simply run a  subscription service. And then you have your distance-driven ones (hello, Italy, France, M6 Toll, etc. etc.). The other way is to treat infrastructure as a public cost to provide an essential service. And because that is a social cost (no, my American friends, no need to run away; this is actually a fairly universally accepted concept), namely one by society, it should be spread across society. And the customarily applied technique to do that is taxes.

Why do we think that roads on the Interwebs can function differently? Mind you, you could probably plaster billboards all over the place and make sure that each neighbouring property onto which those billboards are mounted pays a “viewing charge” (the value of the billboard on that wall has nothing to do with the wall but all to do with Wilshire Blvd. passing by). But – without having run the maths – I am fairly sure that that would not be able to finance the whole thing. The reason why many people think it does work is that it only costs a fraction to build a road grid on the web than it does in real life (all of Twitter’s employees would arguably still be wrestling with that one bypass down in Santa Monica). And that’s really cool! Because it helped many a great technology to come into its own and bring a ton of good to mankind.

Alas, it doesn’t tackle the systemic flaw in the thinking: it is friggin’ infrastructure and that is not really the best way to finance it: annoyance by design? Come on, we should really be doing better. Or can we?

The Value of Networks

Metcalfe’s Law (which I often [ab]use in my talks) states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportionate to the square of its users (he stipulated it to demonstrate the value of ethernet ports). But that doesn’t mean that monetary value of X is Y. Because values can be non-monetary and – sadly (if you’re in the business) – non-monetizable. He would have been more accurate had he replaced the word “value” with “usefulness”.

However, if we home into this then, we might be getting closer to the solution: what it tells us is that Twitter (and every other “social” network) should be aiming to harvest the value it truly brings, namely that of the connections it facilitates. Regular users would most probably scoff at that and move on. However, commercial ones maybe not so much. It would be – crudely comparing this – taking the German toll system to social networks: if you use my infrastructure to transport commercial goods across my said infrastructure, you should pay. Because, you see, you are using my asset to maximize the value of your asset. And because I contribute to this value maximization, I should get a cut. Logical, no?

The value of the commercial use of digital infrastructure is, of course, humongous! On its most basic level, we pay for access (that’s your monthly broadband fees). Twitter (and everyone else in the wider realm) provides a value-add on top of that most basic level, and that is (more or less) meaningful connections. You could liken it to road signs, if you want. And with a network the size of Twitter’s, you’d be lost without them. So there is undoubtedly a lot of value there. But would a regular driver really want to pay for the use of a roadsign? Well, maybe not (even though it would be prudent as it would get her more quickly from A to B). Would a commercial delivery pay for their use? Probably: time is money, dude! And would, say, an ice cream van pay extra if said roadsign could direct him to the road full of ice cream-craving kids who have just had their pocket money? You bet!

This is, of course, what clever algorithms do. Google is pretty nifty with this, I hear. At least when it comes to AdWords and such. The others? Not so much though. The number of completely random, off-target ads and promoted tweets (or, on Facebook, “suggested posts) I have been seeing is mind-boggling. What are they thinking? (no, don’t answer).

To get this right might solve some monetization headaches. It would also do a few more good things: it would leave us regular users in peace! But, even more importantly, it would actually monetize where value is.


Apple, Bubble Designs? Dude, We Can Do That!

Today is a day where I have to sing our own praise a little. Today, as some of you will know, Apple released iOS 7 into the wild. I will spare you a wider critique (I reckon there will be plenty of them out there). But one thing caught my eye. Given my historical interest in social gaming platforms (after all, Scoreloop did a lot of the things – and better – that Apple tried to mimic with Game Center), I went to have a look how they re-designed it (Jony Ive’s hues and all). Now, not only is the dreaded felt gone (phew!) but also did they adopt a playful bubble design. Fits the image and all, right?

Now, it did look somewhat familiar though. And then it struck me: it is very similar to the design approach our very own Blue Beck took when we (well, our teams as I didn’t do much) designed the app for Three, the UK network operator. Compare for yourself (left our Three app, right Apple Game Center):

I actually think, we did the colour scheme a lot nicer! I am still not a fan of Jony’s hues, I’m afraid (though I like the more “contemporary” feel of the new iOS generally…). You can, incidentally, download it here:

And so, tonight I would like to sing the praise of our wonderful team at Blue Beck and our esteemed client Three (on whose style guide we based the design) and will sit with a smug face and think that Apple “borrowed” (which they probably didn’t, but hey) from our own design prowess. Carleton, Dose, Rick, Pete, you rock (and, of course we always knew that), and tonight is the night to call it out! (and, to the rest of the Blue Beck team: so do you – just don’t get the hang of them hues, OK?).

Hail the kings of Blue Beck castle! 😉 (and if you haven’t realised: full disclaimer: I am a shareholder and director of Blue Beck).

What is the Value of a Twitter User?

German newspaper F.A.Z. had a nice graph where they compare the “values” of users by putting user numbers in relation to market capitalization. The paper says “experts” estimate (ahead of the recently announced IPO) the value of Twitter to be up to $15bn (€11.3bn) which, with some 200m users, would equate to the value of a user to just under €57. They then go on and compare it to other companies and suggest that that value is really rather low. They provide comparative numbers:

  • Amazon: €809
  • Walmart: €752
  • Vodafone: €327
  • Google: €200
  • Facebook: €72
  • Procter & Gamble: €49

Now, this is of course a somewhat crude analysis (an Amazon or Vodafone user arguably must be a lot more valuable as those two companies derive value directly from transactions with and by those) but it is interesting nonetheless. If you want to see snazzy graphs and/or can read German, here’s the article.

MoPub is Now With Twitter

Over everything else that’s been going on today (my resignation from BlackBerry only putting one of the smaller cats amongst my own pidgeons), I nearly missed a rather remarkable deal: Twitter is buying MoPub for – according to unconfirmed sources – $350m in stock. Not too shabby, huh?

Why’s that then? Well, we have all been following Twitter’s attempts to turn its growing user base into dollars for (arguably) too long. Their previous (and current) initiatives may have gained somewhat over previous attempts but they still do not really stack up in terms of revenue to what their powerful network (which has famously made regimes tumble down) would suggest it could do.

They have been looking for an ad exchange for a while (the signs were on the wall then) and MoPub looks like a good fit: they are a truly “mobile first” company as was, arguably, Twitter (they have had more mobile usage from Day 1 than most other networks). They run a real-time ad-exchange, meaning the offer of an open space is being created the moment a page loads, an app opens, something happens – in real time (check here for a better explanation). It is basically like Google AdWords for mobile, with the nifty variation that they couple all sorts of mobile inventory and sources into one output. Rather sweet. This of course makes even more sense for Twitter than it might for some other folks as Twitter is “changing” by the second depending on waves of popularity – and, as I said before, a lot of it is on mobile – and it will be more still in the future. So this dynamic nature coupled with the mobile-centric view of MoPub will, I suspect, have been the part that made Twitter part with that much of their stock.

As to this being an all-stock deal (if what TC reports is true): Twitter is probably one of the better pre-IPO stock to hold, I suppose… 😉

Leap Motion: First Impressions

I signed up for the pre-order of the Leap Motion controller ages ago. And, of course, it must arrive whilst I was on vacation… But, hey, it’s here now and since I was asked by a couple of friends to provide them with my thoughts, this is my first ever product review. A few words of caution though: I am not providing a fully-fledged review, just a few bits and bobs and my thoughts on the overall thing. For more traditional things, see e.g. here or here (consumer-focussed simple overview) or here (more in-depth technical).

Installation Environment

I installed it on my MacBook Pro (13” Retina, 3 GHz i7, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD) running on the latest OS (at the time of writing, that’s 10.8.4). It comes with two cables, a long and a short one, which is a neat idea. Alas, I would actually have wanted a cordless one but the, I guess, it might be a wee bit early for some BlueTooth 4.0 magic, so I’ll let this pass. It does not come with a manual and whilst that is oh-so-valley-style, a “cheat sheet” for the various gestures might be a good idea: as it is such a completely novel interaction method, it would make peoples’ lives a lot easier if they could check back quickly in the old-fashioned style. I mean, you could do it hipster-infographic-style as a hat-tip to the Valley, could you not?

You plug in, are asked to go to a website and install the software. Simple.

The Start

The first thing you do is go through an “orientation” programme, which is sheer beauty and gives you the first, well, orientation on what to do (and what not). This is the first bit where it shows you what it sees (in rough but pretty terms):

Then it shows you what it really sees (in more accurate and mechanical terms):

The rest is play. Here’s my son practicing his signature:

Using Leap Motion…

Then I started off. There are quite a few pretty cool apps available already (the company announced 1m downloads today, a mere 4 weeks after starting to ship to consumers). The New York Times app is nice (if practical). There are some sweet ones exploring molecules, etc. There are, alas, also some that don’t really work (yet). The usual shenanigans every new platform goes through. Anyway, I then downloaded the “Touchless for Mac” app, which turns the Leap controller into a navigation tool for your computer. And it works: It took me the best part of 20 minutes to actually get going nicely. I could open web pages, scroll through my Facebook feed, open links, play (and pause) video, etc. without too much struggle or stress. Latency is basically absent.

Mind you, this is not Minority Report if you are in the early stages of use (there is a “basic” and an “advanced” setting; I haven’t ventured beyond “basic” yet). But what would you expect? It is new, you have never used gesture controls in space (unless you’re Tom Cruise of course), so you will have to learn. I have little times for nay-sayers that already point out that it’ll fail because it is not perfect. It is a very impressive start!

My son (18, slightly geeky [and designy] aspiring Physicist and skateboard apparel entrepreneur) was, unsurprisingly, a lot faster than I in picking this up. It took him the best part of 5 minutes to successfully navigate around the parts that caused me some trial and error (small buttons, e.g. the “close window” one). BTW: Even my wife thinks is cool, and she hasn’t even seen Minority Report!

Apps, Apps, Apps…

In the year of the Lord (if you are so inclined) 2013, we all know that any device is only ever as useful as the applications that exist for it. And this is where the whole Leap experience delights and, erm, shows potential for growth at the same time: there are some apps out there already (and bear in mind that it’s a mere 4-5 weeks they are in the market only) that show you what can be done with this. And I would say it shows great promise! There are, however, also some absolute dogs (I won’t name and shame as I have no inclination of rubbishing brave developers that took an early leap [sic!] of faith to get behind a new platform).

User Interface

The biggest challenge is the bridge between today’s computer interfaces (I have yet to play around with it on Windows 8; need to “borrow” my daughter’s computer for that) are either mouse- or touch-centric. This is to say that they do not take into account the intrinsic constraints of gesture-based UX systems. That is to say: there is a natural constraint in how the Leap Motion can work with today’s computer systems. That, however, is (arguably) not the Leap Motion’s fault. The promises are huge as it removes artificial middlemen between the content and the user’s natural input mechanism (of which gesture is one). However, the full power of it will only come to fruition if paired with an OS interface that is designed for it, and this might – at least in the short term – be the snag: Leap doesn’t have that.

They have done a lot of things right though (the developer uptake is testament to that for a start) and it would be thrilling to see it being married to an interface that is actually built for it. It is not that hard, I think: Leap Motion’s own store shows (in a webpage) how to adapt a few things that make it very usable indeed.

Big buttons, clear borders between items, etc. make it a whole lot easier to navigate fluently and quickly using the gesture input. This is running in a present-day browser, so can’t be rocket science. There are already some convincing implementations of the Leap’s controls into live services: Google Earth as well as Nokia’s Here Maps already allow you to use the Leap Motion controller as an input device and that works really well!

One downside is the “jump” if you scroll: it sometimes just drops when you move your finger forward (a “click”), essentially misinterpreting what you want to do. This then can open another app (because it got “hooked” in the app tray below) or do some other stuff you didn’t really want it to do. Because of the above-mentioned challenge with small “close window” buttons, this is not a welcome distraction.

Another challenging piece is to use the Leap Motion in concert with keyboard and touchpad: because your fingers move in and/or near the “vision” of the controller, it sometimes interferes by e.g. re-setting your pointer to somewhere else on the screen, which is somewhat annoying. For everyday use, this is even fatal: if you always have to activate/de-activate and/or connect/dis-connect, you will probably not be using it at all once the early excitement has worn off. But let this not deter you from the concept: this last challenge could very easily be abolished would OEM incorporate the controller into an actual computer: the moment you use the keyboard, the Leap controller would simply be “muted” (or something a whole lot smarter than that). None of the constraints are flaws of the technology but merely on how it interacts with today’s commercially available hardware. If you allow a crude comparison: a Lamborghini Aventador would not have been much fun on cart tracks in the 19th century: the device would simply not interact that well with its incumbent environment. Alas, we are not 150 years apart here: all components exist and could work hand in glove (I know, tacky pun) with each other with only very few tweaks.

And Onwards!

And this is where it gets exciting: imagine a controller like this for navigation tasks, voice, etc for things like text input and couple this with anything from Google Glass to Pico Projectors (fairly sure Wikipedia needs an update here) to proximity-aware screens in your environment (you walk into your home, it all comes alive on a 50” screen whereas it would happily play on your Google Glass-type screen whilst you are on your way from work in the metro/tube/bus/subway). You have the freedom to choose and use natural inputs (voice, gestures) depending on what makes most sense for the task at hand. Doable? Absolutely. Close? I suspect so!


So what do I think? After the above, you’d appreciate this is only an interim conclusion. In principle: I love it! How often will I use it in the next six months or so? Not very much, I guess, as it still doesn’t have the critical bits I particularly need (I am one of the boring MS Office/Keynote/Chrome types). But what can it (and/or competitors, successors, subsequent evolutions of it) do? Enormous things!

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