Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Life Changing Innovations

I have been pondering technology innovations and the legacy you can leave on the world if you can create something which encourages the mass market to change the way that they live their lives. It sounds fantastic but actually if you think about it, it has been done many times.

Take a look at the list below as my personal reflection. I’d be interested in which you would identify as having changed your life and others that I have clearly missed which are relevant to you. I have tried to steer clear of platform discussion e.g. the internet, the mobile phone but instead focus in on a functionality, design or service which has catalysed the transformation in unexpected ways.

Undoubted Hall of Famers


One could argue that the iPod only achieved the mobility that the Sony Walkman pioneered in the 1980’s but the integration with iTunes, the sleek design and the cool factor basically made music an integrated part of people’s everyday lives again and certainly in a more pervasive and long lasting way than the Walkman. You never have to not be listening: on a commute, jogging, at home, swimming! For the music labels it has been a lifeline in difficult times (and, if they were smart, a phenomenal distribution channel for alternative business models). It has also been the birth of Podcasts (one of which I am listening to on the plane while I write this), another alternative media channel which enables people to be better informed on any topic, anywhere, at their convenience.

Ultimately, I would be more of an evangelist of the iPod if it were more of an open model. But these two impacts: music in the pocket and the birth of podcasting will mean that even if iPod should die as a brand or a form factor its legacy shall live on. Simply put: podcasts have enhanced my life.


This certainly polarises opinion – called in some circles the Crackberry because of the inability to put it down (although with out the personal hygiene side effects) – but there is no doubt that the advent of the Blackberry changed business behaviour and the use of email within the business environment. It has spawned a lot of copy cats in the form factor which is flattering. But, it is the fact that if someone sends you an email now, they expect that you will have read it if they were to call you on it later in the day. This expectation exists whether you have a Blackberry or not, whether you have ever owned one or not. People expect you to be able to access emails on the road.

It also created a means for team members to correspond within meeting environments in a way not possible previously, and allowed them to do so at least semi-discreetly.

Not as far reaching as the iPod which transcends all levels of society but a definite change agent in business communications.


Skype was originally marketed to university students. The theory was that downloading a client to be able to use a sub-optimal communication software for free is a bit tedious and, let’s face it, something that the cash constrained will do but nobody else.

However, Skype first exploded in the consumer market amongst the elder generation (Silver Surfers) who all of a sudden found a free and easy-ish way to stay in touch with relatives abroad. The fact that calls were free if you could persuade the receiving party to download the software too created a viral effect which is every marketer’s wet dream.

From there, your definition of cash constrained needs to broaden from the consumer market and we begin to look at the business space. I can ‘hand on heart’ state that Skype will have saved my business thousands of pounds every year based on saved international call charges, particularly on conference calls and particularly when I am roaming.

The benefit of Skype is such that it survives – and flourishes – despite the fact that most calls start with ‘Can you hear me? Can you hear me? Oh good. Yes, I can hear you too’. Though in fairness call quality has become much better and Skype has always excelled in making the download process as easy as possible.

It has transformed the way that cross-border families communicate and the way that small business does business. It is a no-brainer for the life changing hall of fame.

[On a sour note, it has probably done more to raise awareness of Voice over IP traffic than anyone else. This has put the mobile data market back at least four years as operators seek to find ways of protecting their profits from voice calls.]

The Business Class Flat Bed

An odd one, but since working for a start-up, I have come to appreciate the innovation which allows you to lie flat on an overnight journey on a plane (if you are 5’6’’ or less or near flat if not). The point being of course that I always now fly economy which is okay but it would be a big stretch to describe it as a comfortable sleeping experience.

I admire this innovation so much because it was delivered to the market not by an eager start-up but by an industry giant. I have a personal grudge against British Airways (long story, do not ask) but on this topic you can only admire the execution of this particular strategy – wouldn’t it have been easier to ridicule the person that presented it in the first instance, consigning it to the ideas dustbin, than embark on a campaign of refitting aircraft, re-pricing, maintenance training etc etc?

This represented a real step change in long distance plane travel and while it is difficult to justify spending thousands of pounds for a decent night’s sleep, if someone else is paying or you do not have as much equity in the business, why not?


A bit cliché perhaps but if a service works its way into your native tongue’s vocabulary as a verb of its own then you have a very strong indication that the mass market has noticed your presence.

Google does what it set out to do which is make the world’s information easier to find and use in a meaningful way. It transformed the way that we discover new things sinking Yahoo!’s portal model along the way and transforming the way that business would be conducted online (whether through the desktop or through mobile).

Quite apart from behavioural differences in how you find things and quaint games such as Googlewhacking, Google created a model which allowed the user to neatly sidestep paying subscription fees. This is one hell of a contribution to the end user.

Google’s ambition is that the ads that are placed in the content will become as useful and contextual to your needs as the content itself, in which case any small residual resentment about having to stomach advertisements in order to get something for free will disappear completely.

The test of this list is that if the company or the brand were to disappear tomorrow would there be a lasting legacy? Google’s Search, Adwords and Adsense pass the test.

Up and Comers


Cynics bill the iPlayer as ‘Making the Missable Unmissable’ but the use of the iPlayer is more than a video recorder/sky + box. First, a whole catalogue of programmes are available at any time – which as a father of two young children can be a godsend as Bob the Builder, 64 Zoo Lane etc are always available for a swift rescue without planning. Video and Sky + cannot match this.

More than that, BBC has integrated the technology into their online proposition in a way which is breathtaking – it brings a lot more coverage to life, allowing you to create your own TV news programme, especially for you, without fuss.

And then more. It can give access to live events such as in the Olympics – where one could be at work using email in one pane and having the Olympics Live in another at the same time (and why not, it only comes once every four years!).

As a consumer, it has made the online offering of the BBC much more useful, created immense value for me around one live event and made my weekend mornings less stressful. Beyond that, it is potentially a complete IP TV offering which would transform physical architecture within the home if more widely adopted across the industry.

It might be some time before we understand the full benefits but my intuition tells me that this technology will be seen as the forerunner of some pretty fundamental changes in publishing, broadcasting and the way we live.

Nintendo Wii

Tentatively, I’d mention the Nintendo Wii, though my hypothesis requires further development and evolution around a particular theme which would take this device into the mainstream.

Not only did Nintendo create a user interface which made people prance around like demented monkeys with no self-regard whatsoever, its reach has gone beyond simple gaming into people’s broader lifestyle. The advent of Wii Fit might single handedly save Britain from obesity. What do you think?

OK, so this might be over-egging things but one cannot doubt the revolutionary design and the way that the Wii has transformed how games are played on the PC, in some ways potentially a forerunner to more sophisticated role play within an alternative reality. There are many examples of revolutionary design though which would not make this list (e.g. iPhone – see below). What makes this list special are innovations which have changed behaviour or gathered universal appeal – often in areas which were unexpected. I’d argue that Wii fit is potentially one such element.

[Interestingly, brain train puzzles on the gameboy (also Nintendo) might be another example of a technology being used more extensively in a different way to how it was originally conceived.]

Not on the list but close


I am nervous about including the iPhone on the list. The design is a step change and has since created many copy cats. Yes, that is certainly true. But what will be its impact on the world at large? It was heralded as defining a new way of dealing with mobile operators, shifting the power balance etc etc. But in essence all it did was cement the importance of device exclusives for operators which is not good for the consumer. You might argue that it has brought internet from your mobile to the masses. Well, it has certainly raised awareness across the industry. But then, so did Vizzavi back in the day but you would not expect them to make the list. I think the jury is out on the iPhone for the time being though it could be a future contender.


You may not have heard of Spinvox. It is a small/mid-sized UK technology company that specialises in converting voice to text. Its most famous implementation is a service which converts voicemail into text. If you were to use it, you would become an advocate of accessing voicemail through text allowing you to read and respond immediately without having to dial into a voicemail number and navigate an IVR menu.

It does change people’s behaviour. Using spinvox, voicemail changed from something I disliked to something I use on a regular basis. I can see a message even if in a meeting and act on it immediately (through text). I also get less of it as people are nervous of leaving a message when a machine is going to convert it and that suits me too. If it is important they’ll call me back.

There are a couple of things stopping Spinvox hitting the mainstream. Its technology still makes too many errors – usually they are amusing and certainly not enough to turn me off the service - but they are frequent. I’d estimate two a message. Names in particular are a bugbear and if the sender does not leave a number this is a pretty important bit of information.

It is also too expensive for the mass market. This frustrates me. This company is sitting on a mass market revolution but has the wrong pricing model to make it happen. It is a potential tragedy in the making.

Toyota Prius

In California the perspective on the Prius might be different. The Prius will always be remembered as the model which introduced hybrid engines to a wider audience and heralded the advent of ‘green’ motoring but I actually believe it will be another model, probably from a different manufacturer, that will steal the show and claim the credit for a green revolution.

Why? Because the Prius is ugly. It is that simple. If Toyota had put the hybrid engine in a VW Golf, in the UK alone, you’d have to imagine the largest single market share for any car. But, the Prius is a terrible design on the outside which makes ownership unpalatable. It works in the US because in California it has become a badge of responsibility (which itself would be odd in the UK). It also works in the US because it possesses the ugliest cars in the world by which standard the Prius is a bit of a looker. ;-)

There will be a clean engine revolution which will grip the mass market – but it’s not here yet. The Prius will be the Walkman to a later iPod.

So, there we go. I hope a decent conversation opener. I must have missed something blindingly obvious. What is it? What would you add?


Martin said...

What about the cameraphone (possibly as an almost-ran) brought to market between 1994 and 2000 depending on which historical account you believe.

Concerts, football games, olympics and any activity is now capturable as photo or video by the masses, a as a result of the cameraphone always being with you and pretty much being in all modern phones. Look at young concert-goers holding up their cameraphones to capture the moment (and presumably preserve the experience). Nokia is the largest (video)/camera maker in the world, which may at first seem unexpected.

Cameraphones have definately changed my behaviour. I take more photos, more often than I ever did with a digital camera...

Coalface said...

That's definitely a good one. I'll add it to the list. Thanks!