Future Past: Looking Back to Understand the Future of Tech

My pager bleeped the other day, and a message came through: it was talking about the popularity of the NES Classic, which sold out in (null) seconds before Christmas. And how Stranger Things was the biggest TV event last year, dragging Dungeons & Dragons with it (from the Upside Down) as a thing that people actually did outside of the IT Crowd. Is it any wonder, the next thing I find out cassette tapes sales are up 140%?

Future Past - A Concept for a Different Type of Tech Event

Future Past - A Concept for a Different Type of Tech Event

By their very nature, digital/tech/media events are mostly in a race to be the most future-gazing. Having worked on a number over the years, I tried to imagine something a little different.

We do a lot of looking forward these days, but not so much looking back. Maybe we feel there's no time to trawl through the past? Or perhaps it’s just another symptom of an industry, or even a wider culture fixated on the new. Anyone who's found the term ‘millenials’ grating (or even misguided) might know what I'm on about.

We’ve heard lots of speculation about the latest crop of unicorns, but where are the stories about previous waves of growth (and shake downs) in tech to put them into context?

Occasionally, they pop through: like last year’s demise of UK fintech firm Powa, provoking some discussion around its CEO’s activities at the time of the last bubble. But generally in terms of what we talk about, you'd be forgiven for thinking we're living in a kind of future filter bubble.

Future Past

All of which leads me to the idea for this event: instead of asking speakers and delegates to look to the future, we point the beam back to how we got to where we are: the past, where personal computing, gaming and mobile technologies all began.

Infographic timeline of past tech wins or failures

To take one example, just look at some of very obvious parallels between the mid-90s and now. Like in the re-emergence of virtual reality, whose first wave was a massive flop (anyone remember the Nintendo's entry into VR?)

It’s my belief that looking into the reasons behind past failures not only helps us see how we’ve changed since, but also how the future tech landscape might look – and by extension, whether the current crop of Oculus Rift, HTC Vive etc. will themselves make a splash, or go the way of the Virtual Boy (not to mention the QR code).

What the Future Past website might look like. Overall, The design treatment seeks to match the subject of the event—to represent the transition from past to future while avoiding the typical pixellated approach to branding tech events. Sponsors are of course imagined (and mostly also defunct.)

What the Future Past website might look like. Overall, The design treatment seeks to match the subject of the event—to represent the transition from past to future while avoiding the typical pixellated approach to branding tech events. Sponsors are of course imagined (and mostly also defunct.)

Just to be clear... Future Past is just an event concept at this stage... But I think the idea could also lend itself to a wide range of other uses.

Interested in learning more? You can fax me here.

ad blocking: 10 things learned from #dms16

Ad blocking: Digital Media Bugbear 2016. Ruler of Column Inches. Greatest Use (or Misuse) of Technology of the Year.

At last week’s Digital Media Strategies event, I was lucky enough to chair a roundtable on the subject. These breakouts usually provide lots of interesting tidbits – they’re the part of the event where people really put their guard down and speak their minds. A great place to find out what publishers, tech companies and everyone else in between really thinks, in other words.

Here’s what I learned:

1.     Some tech providers really are taking no prisoners. One described a new video solution it was offering that shuts the blockers down at source. Notably, it was left to the publishers on the table to point out they didn’t feel this was the way forward.

2.     Anyone thinking of entering an arms race with the blockers should be aware what they’re dealing with – an open source army of people supporting it. Are there any guarantees that today’s ad blocker blocker will even work tomorrow?

3.     Since the launch of iOS9, mobile ad blocking hasn’t taken off in the way some expected. Still, we need to learn the lessons of desktop and rein in the takeovers and uncapped retargeting campaigns if we don’t want to repeat the same mistakes. Heavy ads sapping peoples’ data limit is another major concern.

4.     Three’s announcement around embracing mobile ad blocking at a network level may have been more PR bluster than genuinely workable. However, it reminds us of the benefits of building app audiences over mobile web - app ad blocking being a lot trickier, involving ‘deep packet sniffing’ (not my phrase) which violates app store rules.

5.     As discussed at the roundtable, then announced to the trade press in the days that followed, Swedish publishers are coming together to trial anti-ad block messaging en masse – turn off, pay, or see access limited – and as you can see from Digiday’s reporting, many see even this approach as too heavy handed. Whatever your view, you can bet others will follow this type of collective action if it works.

6.     Paying to be whitelisted, which incidentally the Swedish publishers refuse to do – is another option. However, the collection of publishers and tech companies on the table agreed there can be little argument by now that Eyeo/Ad Block Plus is in it for the money, not the user.

7.     Another lesson here is around the path of least resistance. Since it’s just a couple of clicks to download Ad Block Plus and use as default, that’s what most people do. While it only takes a little more effort to override its ‘approved’ (i.e. mostly paid to be whitelisted) ads, most people stick with the standard settings – hey presto, business model.

8.     Conversely, the same could be said for the very existence of ad blocking: As long as we have bloated ads that slow down loading times, eat up data plans, follow you around indiscriminately or otherwise degrade the user experience, ad blocking will exist. People have drawn the parallel with music piracy more than once – and did the moral (or even legal) argument help there?

9.     There was much grumbling about the histrionic tone of IAB US Chief’s address on ad blocking on this side of the pond. Less attention around his pronouncements that ads had to get better – but they were there too:

“Multitudes of could-be formats and wannabe standards crowd screens, interrupt consumers’ activities while impeding the delivery of desired content, create supply chain vulnerabilities, generate privacy concerns, and drive fears about data security. Ad-blocking… offered consumers a vote – and they have voted no on chaos, opacity, and slowness.”

See here for a definitive list of all the reasons people block ads.

10.  In other words, everyone is aware of the problem. Untangling the knot is a little trickier. On this point, it was also interesting to note Google presenting its Accelerate Mobile Pages (AMP) project at the event. The proposition is pretty clear – AMP is built on a scaled down, JavaScript-light version of HTML – and hey presto, a new, more user-friendly user experience is restored. Someone at the event also told me Google might be rolling out this service to desktop too. Could this be the beginning of a (more) beautiful new relationship between publisher, advertiser and user? Could Google be launching its own, more business-friendly version of an ad blocker? While it’s keen to emphasise it is supporting that entire ad ecosystem, it also talks about encouraging ‘beautiful’ not ‘irritating’ ads, and elsewhere there are hints of the ‘community’ playing a role in separating one from the other.

Will AMP play a role in stemming the flow of ad blocking from desktop to mobile? Could this be the beginning of the end for Eyeo’s ‘old-fashioned extortion racket’? No-one knows, but it’ll certainly be interesting finding out.

The evolution of Product Management for publishers

In September 2009, AOP inaugurated its Product Development Committee, which brings together a range of Product Managers and Heads of Product Development from publisher member businesses to share tips and best practice. The topics covered initially included mobile, implementing agile in large media organisations, attracting the right talent and skills for product teams, the mechanics of paid content, analytics and building data teams and developing global products.

Below is some of the content that I wrote, edited or published during my time at AOP. At the time, the discipline was quite new to many UK publishers, so through events, articles and videos, I sought to make accessible what was then a vital new area for media businesses to adopt in order to succeed in digital: