BBC : The Mantra of Disruption

A piece I recorded for the BBC World Service. Not Reuters content. 

Disruptive innovation is like one of those terms that worms its way into our vocabulary, a bit like built-in obsolescence or upselling.   It’s become the mantra of the tech world, awhich sees its author Clayton Christensen, as a sort of messiah of the changes we’re seeing in industries from taxis, hotels and media. Briefly put the theory goes: existing companies are undercut and eventually replaced by competitors who leverage technology to come up with inferior but good enough alternatives — think the transistor radio displacing vacuum tube radios — or come up with wholly new products that eventually eclipse existing markets — think the iPhone killing off the MP3 player (and radios, and watches, and cameras, and guitar tuners etc.) 

A backlash has emerged against this theory, partly because it’s somewhat flawed — even Prof Christensen himself has misapplied it, as in the case of the iPhone — but also because it’s scary. Uber may be a great idea if you’re looking for a ride, but not if you’re an old-style cabbie. Airbnb is great for a place to crash, but feels like a car crash if you’re running a real b’n’b. And don’t get me started on being a journalist. 

But there’s a much bigger problem here. The tech world is full of very inspiring, bright, charismatic people and that’s one reason I choose to write about it for a living. But it has changed in the past decade or so, undeniably.   15 years ago, just before the last dot.com crash, a tome appeared: The Cluetrain Manifesto, and you’d either read it or you hadn’t. It was a collection of writings by some fine thinkers, the great bloggers of the day like Doc Searls and Dave Weinberger. The main thesis: the Internet is unlike ordinary, mass media, because it allows human to human conversations — and that this would transform marketing, business, the way we think. Markets are conversations, it said. 

For a while we were giddy with the power this gave us over corporations. We could speak back to them — on blogs, and later on what became known as social media. Even Microsoft hired a blogger and let him be a tiny bit critical of things at Redmond. 

Looking back, it was probably the last naive blast of the old dying Internet rather than a harbinger of the new. The language, if not the underlying philosophy, lives on in conferences and marketing pitches. Most social media conversations are harsh, mostly inhuman — we refer to deliberate online baiters as trolls, which I suppose makes them subhuman — and we’ve largely given up influencing the companies we do business with except in the occasional diatribe or flash hashtag full frontal mob assault.  

And more importantly, there is no longer any of that idealism or utopianism in any startup movement that I can see. For sure, we cheer on these players because they seem to offer something very seductive, from free email, calendars, spreadsheets to cheaper rides, stays, music, video and goodies, to shinier bling, gadgets, wearables and cars. And they all sing the same mantra: we’re disruptive, we’re disintermediating, we’re leveraging technology, we’re removing friction, we’re displacing old cozy cartels, we’re doing it all for you. 

The problem is that underneath this lies an assumption, an arrogance,  that technology is a natural ally of good, that disruption is always a good thing, that the geeks parlaying it into products are natural leaders, and that those opposing it are reactionaries, doomed to the scrapheap. 

The result: we’re just getting into a more rapid cycle of replacing one lot of aloof, cloth-eared giants with another lot, who in short order will be replaced by another. Microsoft, IBM, and HP, the giants of when Cluetrain was written, have been replaced by Amazon, Apple, Alibaba, Facebook and Google, all of them as hard to hold a conversation with as Microsoft ever was. And the big players of tomorrow, which may or may not be Uber, Airbnb, Tencent and Twitter, don’t seem particularly interested in a conversation either. 

We need to recover some of that old Cluetrain idealism, naivety, when we thought that what we were doing was building a new platform for anyone to use, to talk back to authority, to feel heard and appreciated — and not just a cult-like celebration of the rugged individuals who dismantled Babel only to build a bigger, shinier and more remote one its place. 

Reuters: With WebRTC, the Skype’s no longer the limit

Something I wrote for Reuters: 

With WebRTC, the Skype’s no longer the limit

By Jeremy Wagstaff

SINGAPORE Thu Dec 11, 2014 4:07pm EST

(Reuters) – WebRTC, a free browser-based technology, looks set to change the way we communicate and collaborate, up-ending telecoms firms, online chat services like Skype and WhatsApp and remote conferencing on WebEx.

Web Real-Time Communication is a proposed Internet standard that would make audio and video as seamless as browsing text and images is now. Installed as part of the browser, video chatting is just a click away – with no need to download an app or register for a service.

WebRTC allows anyone to embed real-time voice, data and video communications into browsers, programs – more or less anything with a chip inside. Already, you can use a WebRTC-compatible browser like Mozilla’s Firefox to start a video call just by sending someone a link.

Further ahead, WebRTC could add video and audio into all kinds of products and services, from GoPro cameras and educational software to ATMs and augmented reality glasses. Imagine, for example, wanting to buy flowers online and being able, at a click, to have the florist demonstrate arrangements to you live via a video link.

WebRTC will be a market worth $4.7 billion by 2018, predicts Smiths Point Analytics, a consultancy. Dean Bubley, a UK-based consultant, reckons over 2 billion people will be using WebRTC by 2019, some 60 percent of the likely Internet population.

Most of these will be mobile. Some versions of Amazon’s Kindle multimedia tablet, for example, have a ‘Mayday’ button which launches a WebRTC-based video call with a customer service representative.

By the end of the decade, consultants Analysys Mason reckon there will be 7 billion devices supporting WebRTC, nearly 5 billion of them smartphones or tablets. Automatic voice and video encryption means web conversations should be safe from eavesdropping or external recording.

FROM DREAM TO REALITY

“The promise is fantastic,” said Alexandre Gouaillard, chief technology officer at Singapore start-up Temasys. “There’s always a problem with timing, between dream and reality.”

Initially championed by Google, WebRTC was adopted by Mozilla and Norway’s Opera Software – between them accounting for more than half of the world’s browsers. In October, Microsoft committed to including a version of WebRTC on its Internet Explorer browser, leaving only Apple as the main holdout. An Apple spokesperson declined to discuss the company’s plans for WebRTC in detail.

Last month, technical experts agreed a compromise on a key sticking point: which of two encoding standards to use to convert video. All sides agreed to support both for now.

Some prominent names are staking out the WebRTC arena.

Skype co-founder Janus Friis this month launched Wire, a chat and voice messaging app that uses WebRTC, and Ray Ozzie, who created Lotus Notes and was chief software architect at Microsoft, is challenging messaging and conferencing services with Talko, an app using WebRTC. Mozilla has teamed up with U.S.-based TokBox to launch Hello, a plug-in-free, account-free web conferencing service within its Firefox browser.

Dozens of mobile apps already leverage WebRTC – including Movirtu’s WiFi-based CloudPhone, allowing voice calls over WiFi. Movirtu CEO Carsten Brinkschulte says WebRTC “gives us a lot of things that are free that are normally very hard to do.”

“A MAGNIFIER”

This makes some incumbents nervous. One is the $2 billion web and video conferencing industry. And telecoms firms are still reeling from free voice and messaging services like WhatsApp and Skype. Even those companies look vulnerable as WebRTC reduces the cost of setting up a competing service.

“WebRTC is a magnifier,” says Bubley, the consultant. “It makes the opportunities bigger and the threats worse, and everything faster.”

Some, though, are putting up a fight.

Microsoft is rolling out a web-based version of Skype that will, eventually, require no extra software and will be compatible with all WebRTC browsers. And Cisco, whose WebEx is king of web-based video conferencing, has been active in developing standards. But, says Bubley, “it’s in no desperate rush to accelerate.”

Among telecoms companies, Telefonica bought TokBox “to learn about the space, and they’ve largely left us to pursue that,” said TokBox CEO Scott Lomond. SK Telecom and NTT Docomo are also experimenting with the technology.

But those championing WebRTC say the technology isn’t so much about challenging what’s available today, but more about creating opportunities for new products and services tomorrow.

Cary Bran, vice president at Plantronics, a headset maker, sees a time when online gamers won’t just be able to see and talk to each other, but feed heart-rate and other sensor data into the game, “making it more difficult or easy based on the user’s level of engagement.”

More prosaically, TokBox is working with banks in the United States and Europe to provide branch visitors with video links to specialists, cutting down on staffing costs.

Such options, says TokBox’s Lomond, only scratch the surface of what’s possible. “I don’t think the broader market has fully appreciated how potentially disruptive this is,” he says.