Cuckoonomics

Here’s a piece I wrote for the BBC which went out today. (They often air some time after I’ve recorded them.) 

It’s very hard to be in the technology business these days because you don’t know when someone is going to be a cuckoo, A cuckoo, in case you are not an ornithologist, are what are called brood parasites, which means they lay their eggs in another bird’s nest — effectively outsourcing the whole brooding process.

Technology players have been playing this game for a while. The problem is that no one is quite sure who is the cuckoo, who is the sucker and what’s the nest. I call it cuckoonomics.

Take the recent spat between Apple and Google. Google was quite happy to have its Maps software on an iPhone — after all, it makes more money from an iPhone than it does from a phone running its own Android software — but it didn’t want to give away the farm. So it wouldn’t allow a feature which allowed users to navigate turn by turn. So Apple ditched the whole thing and went, somewhat disastrously, with its own version of maps.

Google in this case thought it was being a cuckoo, and the iPhone was the nest. But it didn’t want iPhone users enjoying the product so much that its own users jumped ship. 

In the old days technology was about hardware. Simple. You make something, put a sticker on it, and sell it. That’s all changed. Now it’s about software, about services, about experience. I may run an expensive telecommunications network but I can’t control what goes on it. Cuckoos offering video, games, messaging etc flock onto it, parking their eggs and reaping the benefits.

It happens in more subtle ways, though the implications may be just as drastic. Microsoft is about to launch a new version of its operating system called Windows 8. It’s quite quite different from before and a major gamble; not surprising, because Microsoft’s once cushy nest is being dismantled by Macs, mobiles and tablets.

It’s a brave attempt by Microsoft, but what’s interesting to me is how they’ve aimed their sights not at Apple but at Google. Microsoft have baked search so far into their new operating system they hope it will be where we do most of our stuff. From one place we can search all our apps, the web, our contact list, our saved notes and documents.

Of course this isn’t new. You can do this on a Mac, on an iPad, on an Android phone, even on a Windows PC. But it’s not been quite as well done before.

I’ll wager if Windows 8 catches on this will be one of its biggest features, and Google as a result will take a hit. Which is ironic because it’s been Google who have used cuckoonomics against Microsoft for more than a decade, gradually building a library of services around search that have ended up taking over Microsoft’s nest. Think Gmail taking over Outlook and Hotmail; Docs taking over Office, and then eventually the Chrome browser taking over Internet Explorer. 

What’s intriguing is that Microsoft is also trying to the same trick with Facebook. Windows 8 dovetails quite nicely with your Facebook stuff but at no point does it look like Facebook. I couldn’t find a Facebook app for Windows 8 but it didn’t seem to matter; instead all my Facebook friends, updates, photos and messages all appeared within Windows 8 — with rarely a Facebook logo in sight. 

Which cuckoo is going to win? 

If we can’t imagine the past, what hope the future?

Another piece I recorded for the BBC

Up until we discovered a body in a glacier in the Italian Alps more than 20 years ago, we didn’t really have a clue about our ancestors.  The body  belonged to a man who died 5000 years ago,. While much of the interest has focused on how he died — it took scientists 10 years to discover he was killed by an arrow whose head was still lodged in his shoulder — much more interesting to me is that we had no idea about how someone like this dressed. 

Otzi, according to an excellent book by Bill Bryson, has confounded all assumptions: for one thing he had more gear than your average outdoorsy dude today , like

two birchbark canisters, sheath, axe, bowstave, quiver and arrows, small tools, some berries, a piece of ibex meat and two spherical lumps of birch fungus, each about the size of a large walnut and carefully threaded with sinew. One of the canisters had contained glowing embers wrapped in maple leaves, for starting fires. 

His clothes — leggings, garters and belt, a loincloth and hat — were made from skins and furs from red deer, bear, chamois, goat and cattle,  He carried a rectangle of woven grass that might have been a cape or a sleeping mat — we don’t know. he was wearing boots that looked like birds nests on soles of stiffened bear skin, which looked awful until a foot and shoe expert recreated them and walked up a mountain. Turned out their grip was better than modern rubber, without giving blisters. 

Now it’s great that we now know this stuff, but it’s somewhat humbling to think how little we had imagined any of this. We were wandering around for several hundred years looking down on our ancestors thinking they dressed and were equipped like Raquel Welch in 10,000 years BC. 

Turns out that we lacked the imagination to figure out what our forebears looked like. We’d have done better to have wandered down to our nearest outdoor store than listen to the experts pontificate. And yet I’ve seen no collective mea culpa about this and to reassess what we think we know by trying to imagine a little harder. 

And so for something even more depressing: if we’re so bad at imagining what the past looked like, what hope do we have about the future? We’ve generally been pretty poor at this, even in the short term. Bladerunner may have been a great movie now thirty years old this year, but the world it depicts of seven years hence appears to be completely without the one thing that already dominates and defines our world: mobile devices. 

Sure we are supposed to be surrounded by robots that look so much like us we’d need a lie detector machine called a Voight-Kampff to tell the difference, and we’d be floating about in flying cars, but to yack with our love interest, we’d need to find a bar with a video payphone, and if someone wanted to reach us they’d have to  track us  down in the permanent rain to our favorite noodle stall. 

Now our mobile devices are indispensable, wrapping the Internet around us in a way that few of us predicted even ten years ago. None of us predicted social networks like Facebook. None of us thought that nearly a billion people would sign up. I dread to think what we haven’t imagined about the next ten, 20, 30 years.

My money is on us all wearing bird nest boots.