Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

15 JUNE, 2011

Brian X. Chen on How the iPhone Changed Everything

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Business advice from Steve Jobs, or why everything you knew about multitasking might be wrong.

Last month, we took a look at how Shakespeare changed everything. It turns out, the great bard may have some stiff competition in the face of another cultural agent: the iPhone. At least that’s the premise of Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future — and Locked Us In, a fascinating new addition to this list of essential books on the future of the internet by Wired contributor Brian X. Chen that explores how the “Jesus phone” transcended its status as a mere gadget to become a powerful force of cultural change.

Today, I sit down with Brian to chat about the secret to Apple’s success, open experiences amidst closed platforms, and what we can do to be smart information omnivores.

q1

What was it about the iPhone that transformed it from a personal technology to a conduit of cultural change?

There are two pieces to the iPhone zeitgeist: the product itself and the App Store business platform. Somehow, Steve Jobs negotiated with AT&T to carry the iPhone without even allowing the carrier to touch or see the device; the handset’s hardware and software were designed entirely by Apple. This was a significant turning point in the wireless industry, because previously carriers told the manufacturers what features to put in their handsets.

The second piece is just as significant: the App Store, which opened in 2008. The App Store allowed any programmer put up an app for sale in the App Store. And for the customer, the App Store was an extremely simple way to purchase apps with the tap of a button. The store opened the floodgates for hundreds of thousands of “apps” — 400,000 to date.

Now the iPhone isn’t just a smartphone, but also a medical device, a musical instrument, an education tool and thousands of other apps. A single app has potential to compete with an entire industry and impact our culture.

q2

How has Apple managed to find and retain success in a vertical, closed business model in the age of sharing, open-source and collaborative consumption?

It’s interesting that Apple is the most valuable corporation in the world today thanks largely to its vertically integrated business model, whereas in the past it was a niche player in the PC industry with the same approach. One broad reason is that times have changed, and now that computers have become a mainstream staple, the iPhone entered the picture to offer something fresh, new and more convenient for customers than ever before.

The fundamental reason the iPhone is so convenient is because its design and app ecosystem are tightly controlled by one company, Apple.

Furthermore, despite being closed and exclusive to Apple hardware, the iPhone, and now the iPad, are succeeding thanks to the gigantic army of developers providing apps. Many of these apps do enable people to share and collaborate (e.g., we still have Twitter apps, a Dropbox app, Facebook, etc.) Even though this is a “closed” platform, we still get more from the iPhone experience than we do other platforms, because there are more programmers contributing to the App Store compared to competing stores.

q3

A lot has been said about how social technology is changing the way we think. Where do you stand on this, as it pertains to the iPhone?

Many journalists have already concluded that the “multitasking” we do in this always-on lifestyle is bad for the brain. However, little research backs these claims. One study on “media multitasking” by Stanford found that people who juggled around a lot of media (e-mail, videos, music) were poor at concentrating compared to those who didn’t consume much media. But a study by University of Utah found that a small number of people are incredibly good at multitasking, which challenges the theory that multitasking is bad for the brain. I urge people to be cautious about drawing hasty conclusions.

I’d say rather than live in fear of smartphones, we can be more productive by asking ourselves what we can do NOW with this technology to make ourselves more powerful individuals.

What apps can I download to be better at my job, or help improve my health, or contribute to a community? In my book I tell stories about people using always-on technology in incredible ways, like a blind man who is able to use apps to “see” and take pictures, and scientists using smartphones to diagnose malaria in Africa. This is the future at our fingertips.

Ed. note: Always On is out today this month and a must-read for smartphone-slingers and cultural scholars alike.

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07 JUNE, 2011

The Sorcerers & Their Apprentices: The Untold Story of MIT Media Lab

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What jazz-playing robots have to do with intelligent cars, the future of reading and augmented intuition.

Since its inception by Nicholas Negroponte in 1985, the MIT Media Lab has become a potent petri dish of innovation, churning out some of the smartest, most exciting, most optimistic technology-driven promises for a better tomorrow. From humanoid robots to e-ink to smart city cars, the lab continually pushes the bleeding-edge of what MoMA’s Paola Antonelli calls “humanized technology” — objects, devices and systems that enrich and empower our lives. Now, the fascinating story of the MIT Media Lab is finally told in full in The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives — a fantastic new book by Frank Moss, who spearheaded the lab’s vision and operations between 2006 and April of this year, when he was replaced by Joi Ito.

Moss, whose formal background is in aerospace engineering and who became an early tech entrepreneur before taking over the lab, pulls the curtain on what Google’s Eric Schmidt calls “the creative chaos” behind the remarkable inner workings of this hub of human genius.

The book really is about people and their passion, how they go about inventing. So often today people write books and talk about innovation as if it were a business process. True creativity and invention, which are the seed of innovation, come from people and they come from the stories of people. They come from their backgrounds, their passions, what moves them, the things that worry them, the things that are their dreams.” ~ Frank Moss

For a taste of the kind of astonishing, jaw-dropping, all-inspiring brilliance that emanates from the lab and its projects, look no further than the incredible Sixth Sense wearable gestural interface project by Patti Maes and Pranav Mistry, demoed at TED in 2009:

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent review and Amazon has a fascinating (but ironically un-embeddable) video tour of the lab as Moss talks about the book.

More than anything, The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices is a fresh breath of optimism amidst a culture of techno-dystopia 30 years in the making, offering a surprisingly believable blueprint for the kind of innovation that maybe, just maybe, can abate our worst nightmares and materialize our greatest dreams for the future.

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24 MAY, 2011

The Interface is the Message: Aaron Koblin on Visual Storytelling at TED

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What 10,000 sheep have to do with Johnny Cash, Marshall McLuhan and the evolution of storytelling.

I was thrilled to see my friend Aaron Koblin, presently of Google Creative Labs, take the TED stage earlier this year. I’m an enormous data viz geek, I’m deeply interested in the evolution of storytelling, and have been a longtime supporter of Aaron’s work. This talk is an excellent primer to both the discipline itself and Aaron’s stellar projects within it, but also an insight-packed treasure chest even for those already immersed in the world of data visualization. Perhaps most interestingly, Aaron revises iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan‘s revered catchphrase, “The medium is the message,” to a thought-proviking, culture-appropriate modernization: “The interface is the message.”

An interface can be a powerful narrative device, and as we collect more and more personally and socially relevant data, we have an opportunity and maybe even an obligation to maintain the humanity and tell some amazing stories as we explore and collaborate together.” ~ Aaron Koblin

Aaron mentions a number of projects previously featured on Brain Pickings: The Sheep Market, A Bicycle Built for 2,000 and The Johnny Cash Project, if you’d like to take a closer look.

For more on the kind of magic Aaron is making, you won’t go wrong with Data Flow 2: Visualizing Information in Graphic Design — easily the most comprehensive compendium on data visualization candy around.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.