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Time to make time

December 05, 2012


Consumer technology is addictive. It isn’t always convenient, nor is it always beneficial, and it almost always isn’t affordable. Yet despite all this, the appetite for technology of the average consumer keeps increasing.

More demand means more supply which in turn means more demand and so on. This self-feeding spiral has gained pace with several external factors acting as a catalyst; from advances in materials and manufacturing techniques that have helped reduced the cost of ownership of gadgets, to increased broadband penetration rates which have changed social mindsets by drastically increasing levels of awareness.

However, the most magnetic factor, and the one that is leading to normalisation, is the internet. Most consumer technology devices, be it televisions or refrigerators, are coming with inbuilt internet capabilities.

Why? There is a different case to be made depending on whom you ask. The fact is that it doesn’t really matter why. No one needs to watch cat videos on their cell phones while commuting to work. Most people can’t afford an automated home. Most families don’t need so many tablets, phones and laptops that they outnumber the people in the family.

Technology is getting completely integrated in our lifestyles and entrenched in our psyche, and it’s distracting.

For illustration purposes, US Internet users watched 34 billion online videos in the month of May. Germans are spending 33 per cent more time on retail sites.

Online dating sites grew by 22 per cent in the UK. Time spent on online gaming sites increased by 8 per cent in Italy. Across the EU, 25 per cent of all online time was spent on social networking sites in June 2012. A Nielsen study found that 27 per cent of employees watch adult content in the office. Separately, AIS Media found that 54 per cent of women and 46 per cent of men check Facebook from office bathroom. These are just snippets of data to illustrate the increasing problem of distraction.

It’s quite a paradox since technology is supposed to increase our efficiency thereby improving our productivity. It’s supposed to make us more intelligent, more sociable and more knowledgeable about the world. Yet, the reality is that people can’t hold conversations face to face, they don’t accomplish more and most perspectives have become silos.

I am a dinosaur; a remnant of an era long gone. There is an entire generation growing up who doesn’t know any different. Using a touchscreen, being familiar with artificial intelligence, streaming video content and computer-assisted living are, and will be the norm for them. And while they will undoubtedly capitalise on their circumstances, they will also live in an increasingly distracted future.

It has become so commonplace that people now have withdrawal issues. Treatment centers for ‘pathological computer use’ have opened. Weaning strategies are being used globally. Corporations have team-building activities which strictly ban the use of computers and cell phones. Households have cell phone-free hours and days.

Internet Deprivation Tests being conducted since the early 2000’s show that subjects experience depression without the ability to connect on demand, yet a myriad of other studies and experiments show that personal productivity peaks when one is disconnected.

Statistics show that, people think the best when they are in the shower; that is, when they are free from distraction. Second place goes to a long solo drive.

Those two places – the shower and the car – seem to be the last two bastions for one to have time to think, to be introspective, plan, conceptualise and get some clarity. Not for long.

The next isthmus, between time to reflect and an increasingly connected life, about to be submerged is the automobile. For years, all the leading car manufacturers have tried to incorporate some semblance of personal computing in their products to try to command a premium and offer differentiation. However, those interfaces have been plagued by a number of problems ranging from clunky user experiences to mandatory proprietary hardware requirements.

This sub-industry is no longer poised for disruption; the transformative process has already begun.

WWDC is an annual developer conference which Apple holds to inform, educate and assist its growing developing community. Historically, it has also been a platform for product launches. One announcement which went relatively unnoticed amidst an avalanche of hardware and software announcements was Siri’s ‘Eyes-Free’ integration.

Apple’s ex-VP of iOS, Scott Forstall, demoed Siri’s vehicle integration features, and announced partnerships with BMW, GM, Mercedes, Land Rover, Jaguar, Audi, Toyota, Chrysler and Honda, while showing a dedicated ‘Siri hardware button’ on a car’s steering wheel. The implications of this are colossal as it brings a much-needed standard to a chaotic landscape.

A small sampling of the ridiculous number of proprietary technology systems in existence today with zero cross-compatibility.

Siri brings an element of uniformity to the inconsistent efforts of in-car intelligence of various automobile manufacturers, whether they are high-end or not. Adoption of technology is directly correlated to the ease of user experience.

Currently, a family with a Ford and a Hyundai would probably never use smartphone integration features simply because it requires 2 separate instances of programming, and that is for one single phone. Now imagine a family of 6. It’s not just installation issues that act as a deterrent. Car companies also try to use technology options as a revenue stream.

This means that it’s not just the pushy car salesman trying to up-sell options that you have to contend with. Land Rover requires you buy a $75 cable to connect your iPod to its audio system. Lexus charges over $200 to update the maps on an installed GPS.

Would people use Google Maps if Google tried to charge obscene amounts of money every time a new road was built? These antiquated pricing models and proprietary systems reek of old-world thinking and are precisely the reason why there is such disparity between systems.

Last week at the Los Angeles International Auto Show, General Motors (GM) announced that Siri will be available on the available on the Chevrolet Spark and Sonic early next year.

Even though it will run through it’s proprietary MyLink infotainment system, Siri would enable users to make voice-activated calls to their contacts, play songs in their iTunes library, switch music sources, listen to text messages, compose and send text messages, access their calendar and add appointment, for now. Apple has the ability to add or remove functionality via software updates.

Siri could theoretically provide directions, make restaurant reservations, command apps like Pandora and Spotify or send a tweet or read a Facebook post. For in-car operation, these seemingly complex functions are reduced to simplicity with the press of a button and a voice command. Adoption will increase because Siri will make it easy.

Chevrolet is not the only manufacturer with current models featuring Siri. The new Mercedes A-class has Siri onboard. Two brands operating at opposite ends of the spectrum. Adoption will spread because Siri will be widespread.

Data connectivity became a commodity globally and the subsequent price war to the bottom started many years ago. This means the ‘connected car’ is no longer a myth, but an affordable reality. Adoption will spread because Siri will be cheap.

Easy, cheap and widespread. At this point it seems like we’re headed down a one-way street with no way back. It’s just a matter of time before other smartphone manufacturers try to emulate the functionality and try to establish similar strategic partnerships. It’s just a matter of time before it’s time to find a new way to have some time.



The writer is based in the US.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.