Covid 2: The Best/Worst of Times

This is part two of a series on the lessons we should, and shouldn’t be drawing from the Coronavirus Pandemic. Part One is here.

Woman Wearing Mask on Train
Remembering the Cluetrain/Anna Shvets, Moscow

A crisis defines us. Perhaps more precisely, a crisis highlights what we have lost, and what defines us is how quickly we can regain it (or not).

First there’s the humanity. One of the redeeming features about Hong Kong’s dense life — and a restorer of faith in human nature — was that once you got into the hills and trails passing strangers would greet each other as if they were on a jaunt in Kew Gardens. It’s a strange world now, when we venture out alone and nervously pass another lone pedestrian at a safe distance, and bark when they get too close. And you know we are in the territory beyond compassion when a family loses one of its kind to the coronavirus, and yet doesn’t want to say that is the reason for fear of stigma. Society, even at its smallest component unit, can break down quickly if social norms don’t catch up with the crisis in its midst. Now that family (friends of a friend) can’t properly mourn, or warn others in the tightly packed neighbourhood where they live of a lethal infection, and those around can’t find a way to offer support because they can’t speak the killer’s name out loud. Empathy withers, rumours prosper and dog ignores dog.

But there are other trends afoot. When there are practical things to do, air rushes in to fill the gaps. Our obsession with just-in-time supply chains has exposed its achilles heel — a lack of the things we need the most. But others have stepped up. A group calling itself OSCMS-Mods (Open Source Covid-19 Medical Supplies) has emerged on Facebook “to evaluate, design, validate, and source the fabrication of open source emergency medical supplies around the world.” It has quickly proved its mettle: a document listing needs ranges from hand sanitizer to laryngoscopes, complete with glossary and warnings about safety and liability.

The Facebook group is dynamic. At the time of writing it has nearly 48,000 members. In the past hour or so I’ve seen posts by an electrical engineering instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison mulling whether to assign as a final project to his students an infrared thermometer. Others chip in, saying they’re working on something similar, offering advice (“don’t forget to program in an emissivity factor”) or help (“I’m pretty fast with 3D modeling and a 3D printer. If you guys need some help with the casing, hit me up!”). In another post a resident of Vancouver Island reports, after driving 500 km, that there is no hand sanitiser or isopropyl on the island. Some offer alternatives (not all them wise) but someone in Hong Kong offers a simpler solution: shipping some of the excess from Hong Kong, where emergency orders arrived too late and the price has fallen below its suppliers’ cost. Medical workers from Southampton, New York, post a photo of themselves in full gear to ask for help alleviate a shortage of surgical caps and masks. The jury is still out on this one, but there are some good suggestions, and hopefully the gap is plugged.

Such adhoc approaches are reassuring. For one thing, people want to help, and the platforms are there to make that a reality — Facebook, with its groups, and a growing mastery of the technology: 3D printing, materials, Arduinos and Raspberry Pis. Of course, these initiatives are only going to be meaningful if they are consistent, and find a way of ensuring that requests for help are not just met by comments and virtue-signalling responses, but concrete action. Time will tell. Technology can often be a hammer looking for a nail.

I think another side to this that may outlast these emergency responses is that the technology will find a way through to real usage, rather than a pure business model. In other words, that tools emerge not because people want to make money, but because they can be useful, and there’s nothing like a jolt to the system for us to realise we need different, or better tools and to define those needs better. A piece in TechCrunch relates how Jahanzeb Sherwani, who developed a popular screensharing app called ScreenHero which he sold to Slack, pushed out a follow-up app called Screen ahead of time — and made it free — to help teams stuck at home share their screens. Given how quickly we’ve grown sick of the ‘heads in a box’ conferencing view (where everyone to me looks like they’re baffled seniors, looking around for their false teeth) this tool works well by going the other way, realising that we’re online to work on something, not look up each other’s noses.

Image result for zoom multiple members
Zoom

This reminds me much more of the 2000-2005 era, when collaboration and thoughtfulness tended to be the norms, a post-boom pause which led to the development (or propagation) of the tools that became Web 2.0, and which in turn provided the (largely unacknowledged) foundations of the social media era. I’m thinking RSS, XML, podcasts, wikis, tagging, web-based apps, microformats, the Cluetrain Manifesto, simple beautiful interfaces. If you think we could have got to Twitter, Facebook etc without the work of largely unrewarded pioneers of that age, you’re mistaken. But it was born out of a particular era, a transition from the web’s beginnings to the mobile, silo-ed era we know today. It was a vastly underestimated period, where an explosion of ideas and connectedness led to an explosion of tools to make the most of that. Nearly all those tools were open source, nearly all became bedrock of these later, frankly more selfish, times. But the spirit, it seems, lives on, and I am hoping that what I’m seeing in initiatives like OSCMS and Sherwani’s generosity is something akin to that: a realisation that technology is the handservant, not of viral growth and big payoffs, but of building connections between us – in times of calamity (personal or global) and beyond, by providing tools for free because they might be useful and might lead to something great.

I don’t think for a moment that these initiatives will of themselves be enough; it’s clear that nearly every public medical facility and service was woefully underfunded and hence underprepared. No battery of 3D printers is going to be able to fill that void. But hopefully the level of interest and involvement — call it civic, call it individualist — in trying to address that gap contributes to a broader discussion about what is our baseline for supplying, funding, equipping and populating such services in the future. And just as Wikipedia arose, not out of commissioning existing experts to write up entries (an effort that failed abysmally) but out of just letting anyone — no need to flash credentials — to contribute and allow the water level to rise by itself, so may we find that out of this Quarantined Era emerges a new sense of how individuals might contribute, and what mechanisms and tools need to be developed or honed to make that happen.

The Changes A-coming

Covid-19 has reminded us, if we needed reminding, that people behave in unpredictable ways. We are not, it turns out, rational beings. Our leaders lead from the front, the back, not at all, or just feather their own nest first. People defy curfews; they cough on others, smear their saliva on lift buttons, and fight over toilet rolls. Others sacrifice themselves helping strangers, look out for neighbours they barely know, sing and perform to lift others’ spirits. This should give us pause before we start predicting what the world will look like after the virus.

A piece by Politico confirmed my bias that there is a tendency among those viewing the crisis unfold towards confirmation bias — nearly all the experts asked to contribute their thoughts on how the world will be changed effectively said what you think they would say: the author of a book called “The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarisation” said that there would be a, er, decline in polarisation. The author of a book called “The Death of Expertise” said there would be a, um, return to seriousness and respect for expertise. The author of a book about how social infrastructure can help fight inequality said the virus would “force us to reconsider who we are and what we value” and “make substantial new investments in public goods-for health.”

I’m not mocking these writers, or the article itself. It’s natural enough to see in the virus the seeds of the change one is hoping for or has already predicted would happen. Such predictions rarely stand the test of time. We saw the same phenomenon after 9/11, the last great external shock to the West’s system. People talked then about leaving New York, about embracing a different, simpler life. They bought canoes, bulletproof vests, ammunition, parachutes. Analysts predicted a quite different future for us all. A N.R. Kleinfield wrote a decade on in the New York Times:

Paul Simon said he didn’t know if he could ever complete another album. A woman wrote on a remembrance site that she regretted that she had had children, that she had brought their innocence into a world no longer fathomable to her.

But there has been a chasm between expectations and reality. The prophecy of more attacks on the United States has not been the case, not yet at least. Bumbling attempts got close — involving underwear and a shoe and a 1993 Nissan Pathfinder — but the actuality has been that terrorist acts on American soil in the succeeding years have been, as always, largely homegrown.

So many things were expected to be different that have not been. Time passes, and passes some more. Exigencies of living hammer away impatiently. People — most of them, at least — began to become themselves. New York, which by its nature accommodates so much, was willing to absorb 9/11 and keep moving.

That day for many of us is as fresh as if it were yesterday, but the way we thought it would change us has grown stale. Yes, we have the security theatre of airport checks — though they too, might change emphasis once the viral dust has settled — but for most of us our lives didn’t change substantially. (Paul Simon has released six albums, six compilations and one boxed set since 9/11.)

It’s understandable we feel that momentous events have momentous, long-term impacts on our lives, but the reality is that the changes wrought are both less and more than what we anticipate, even by the boffins among us.  

Probably the best way to view the impact of Covid-19 is to view the impact of its predecessor. Not SARS or MERS, although they highlighted how those countries with a institutional and collective memory of a recent epidemic are best equipped mentally and logistically for a new one; but the Spanish ‘Flu of 1918-20, which affected much of the same territory as Covid has — namely the world.

Beds with patients in an emergency hospital in Camp Funston, Kansas, in the midst of the influenza epidemic. Date: circa 1918. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
With masks over their faces, members of the American Red Cross remove a victim of the Spanish Flu from a house at Etzel and Page Avenues, St. Louis, Missouri. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Firstly there are significant similarities between the two in the way they played out. As we have seen in Europe, Australia and the U.S., there’s a reluctance on the part of government to impose unpopular measures — most obviously to get people out of pubs, off beaches and indoors. The same was true in France in 1918, where local officials were reluctant to enforce measures such as closing theatres, cinemas, churches and markets “for fear of annoying the public.” Japan happily banned mass gatherings in its Korean colony, but didn’t even consider trying the same thing back home.

People are people. Officials don’t want to do unpopular things (except when they do not actually face the voter — Japan was by then a democracy of sorts.) And while during the pandemic itself people behaved much as we’re behaving — most of us with “collective resilience”, as Laura Spinney puts it in her excellent Pale Rider — that group identity eventually splinters, and “bad” behaviour emerges. She points to the 1919 Rio carnival, intended to mark the end of the crisis even while the flu was still claiming lives, where the partying took a dark twist: one historian, Sueann Caulfield, found that in the period after the epidemic, there was a surge in reported rapes in the city, temporarily outnumbering other types of crime. The point — beyond the horror of the crimes themselves — is that people behave in strange ways, and crises both fundamentally change their behaviour, but also amplify existing traits. There is no simple outcome.

So predicting is a dangerous game, or it would be if we were ever held to the predictions we make. And it is, of course, far too soon to even know how this crisis will unfold, how long it will take and how many of us it will take with it. So it’s probably unfair to ask others to predict the lasting impacts, at least at this point, and unfair to mock them for their confirmation bias. I would love a more civil society that takes electing its leaders seriously enough to realise they aren’t electing someone to entertain them as much as operate the levers of government. I would love to believe that the selflessness we’ve seen come out of the crisis thus far would linger after peace returns, that we will properly honour those in and serving the medical professions — from the cleaner to the surgeon. That we will realise it can’t go on like this, that we have to take better care of the planet, not move so selfishly through it and past each other, that Gaia is a complex being that weaves everything into her web, even unseen droplets that can pass between us, which we can use to kill each other if we do not take the utmost care.

But that would probably be asking too much. We have to assume that the crisis brings out both the best in us and the worst in us, and we need to stop virtue-signalling about helping old folk with their groceries or checking in on neighbours and just do it, sotto voce, both during the quarantine and after it. If you need a reason why, it’s because collective resilience is as selfish as looking after yourself alone; during crises we tend to perceive ourselves not as individuals but as members of a group, and hence (so the psychological theory goes) helping others in the group is a form of selfishness. Do it, but don’t pat yourself on the back and post something to Facebook about it. If you were really serious about it you would have been doing it long ago, and keep doing it long after.

So my predictions? I’ll jump off that cliff in a later post, but for now, it seems likely that we will both underestimate and overestimate the length and impact of this crisis. Those of us who think we’re well prepared for this, will find that it hits us in other ways. Those of us fearful for the future will probably find fresh reservoirs of strength. The only thing I can predict with any certainty is that it will start to get boring quickly, and while people are dying, others will be defying curfews and sabotaging efforts to stamp out the virus. At the same time, I believe there will be more quiet heroics that will go untold, more quiet domestic solidarity among families that once fought, and the rise of business ideas amidst the lockdown that will make millions for those who nurse them to life. I’ll hang my hat on those predictions, alongside my mask and hand sanitizer gel.

How do subscriptions fare in a recession?

App Annie Report on Subscription Economy

Source: App Annie, State of Mobile 2020

The subscription model (‘subscription economy’ was a term apparently coined at least four years ago) is becoming de rigeur in many zones. App Annie’s recent State of Mobile report found that In App subscriptions contributed to 96% of spend in the top non-gaming apps. As an overall proportion of spend they rose from 18% in 2016 to 28% in 2019 (games, of course, still dominate.) It concluded in a recent post: “Clearly companies across industries need to not only be thinking about their mobile strategy, but also their subscription strategy, if they want to succeed in 2020.”

But is this a wise move?

The attention economy, as folk call it, depends on competing for a limited resource — our attention. But it will always be trumped by a resource that determines what can be done with that attention — money. If we have no job, then our attention tends to be focused elsewhere. If we have a job but not much money, or are afraid of losing that job, then our attention to other non-job issues is probably limited.

The other thing the attention economy relies on increasingly is the subscription model. Recurring fees are much more appealing to a company than a one-time cost, which is why everyone is heading that way. But the subscription model has an achilles heel: most services that used the subscription model in the old days were because of the way they were produced and delivered — electricity, water, telephone, gas, newspapers, cable. And most involved some lock-in: an annual or quarterly contract etc, which hid the overhead costs of connecting, delivering and disconnecting in the subscription. But to disrupt these entrenched subscription services OTT upstarts which didn’t have those costs like Netflix made it real easy to subscribe — and unsubscribe.

And here’s the rub. When subscription becomes a discretionary spend — something you can shed like a skin when the rain comes, then you find the weakness of the subscription model. This is why old guard subscription model players like the New York Times have transferred their approach to digital, knowing it’s better to alienate a few users by making unsubscribing disproportionately harder than subscribing, absorbing the hit of a few angry folk like me in order to keep the bulk of subscribers who couldn’t be bothered to jump through the hoops.

So when the Coronavirus Recession hits you, what are you going to shed? Discretionary spend is the first one to go, and that usual means monthly outgoings that just don’t seem to be as important as they were when you were coasting. Indeed, a lot subscription economy players, like Statista and others, only offer an annual subscription, although they price it per month to make it sound less. It’s cheaper, and more predictable, to charge per year.

I’m not convinced that software is a good candidate for subscription models. I understand its appeal, and I am as frustrated as them how the mobile appstore has reduced the amount that people are willing to pay for good software.

When Fantastical, a calendar on steroids for macOS and iOS from Flexibits, went from a one-time fee to a subscription model it split the community — especially those on iOS who suddenly had to pay 10 times what they were paying before. John Gruber argued $40 a year for a professional task app on all Mac platforms was a decent deal, arguing that those who don’t want to upgrade can still use the old version, and he’s probably right. But I haven’t upgraded and have instead shifted over to another calendar app, BusyCal, that is included in Setapp, another subscription model which bundles together multiple apps for $10 a month. In part that was because of the annoyance of finding certain features still available as menu items in Fantastical but blocked by popups:

Not the kind of productive experience I am looking for. Hobbling or crippling, as it’s sometimes called, is never a pretty look. You either have the functionality or you hide it.

A better route is to be flexible. Of course, there’s an upside to monthly subscriptions that are real easy to start and stop — when the sun shines, you can easily resubscribe. Indeed, the smartest subscription model in my book is the freemium one — where you can easily move between subscription levels depending on usage and how empty your pockets are. I recently canceled my paid Calendly subscription, downgrading to the free model and was told by a helpful customer service person that “you can certainly choose the monthly plan on your billing page and pay for only the months you need it for! That might work better for you.”

I would recommend any company moving to the subscription model to do this. Or to pursue the bundling model. Not to lock people in — where one subscription depends on another — but to make what might have been discretionary spend something that becomes necessary spend through a compelling use case. Setapp is that model (though sometimes I baulk and wonder if I’m paying over the odds). A lot of the apps I use on Setapp are ones that I would have not otherwise found — and I’m an inveterate hunter of new apps. By making the marginal cost of using them zero, I find they worm their way into my workflow. Setapp helps this by taking  an interesting route, in that its appstore-like mothership is so baked into macOS that searching for an app installed on my computer via Spotlight or Alfred will include in the results apps that haven’t been installed but are part of Setapp. So if I’m looking for a photo editor, or screenshot taker, or calendar app, on my Mac the results will include those in Setapp that I haven’t installed.

This shoehorns productivity into the subscription model. It’s helping to make Setapp more useful by introducing me to new apps it is has in its portfolio — thus making all the apps in Setapp more recession-proof because the more Setapp apps I use, the less likely I’m going to cancel the subscription overall. (Yes, those apps I don’t install or use won’t get a cut, or will get a smaller cut, but the overall rising tide will help keep all the boats afloat. Or in a tweak of the analogy: all the apps in the Setapp boat, amid the buffeting recessional sea, rely on the size of the boat to keep them all afloat. Only if the boat sinks will they sink).

Bundling makes a lot of sense in disparate fields — I’ve been advising media clients to seek out bundling options with other subscription model companies which previously might have been regarded as competitors. Bundling should not be the cable TV model of putting the good stuff and crap together and forcing subscribers to pay for both, but to try to anticipate — if your customer data is good enough you shouldn’t have to guess — what else of value is in your customer’s discretionary bucket, and try to move both yours and those into a necessary one. A tech news site coupling with a tech research service, say. 

In the meantime, expect a lot of subscription-based approaches to suffer in the recession. I expect by the end of it the subscription model won’t be so appealing, or will require more creative thought processes to evolve. The key is in not treating the consumer as either stupid (that we don’t realise $5 a month adds up over a year) or lazy (that we won’t do what is necessary to cancel a subscription if we have to), but to take the freemium model seriously: make it really easy to reduce our payment when we need to, and really easy to go back when we’re feeling flush again. Just don’t cripple the quality of the service you have committed to deliver, even if it’s free, by ads beseeching us to pony up or by drawing arbitrary and punitive lines which make the free version more irritating than alluring.

Then just wait out the storm, as are we all, and hopefully you’ll remain useful enough in the free version to stay on our radar when the sun returns. 

Swiss to Cheese: Apple Transforms Another Industry

Apple Watch VS Swiss Watch

Another Apple product I’m unlikely to purchase — a smartwatch. I don’t need more screens to look at frankly, but I doff my smartcap to the company for the way they’ve usurped an industry that already existed and then doubled it. This approach has some parallels to the AirPod strategy, which I looked at before : take a market that exists, wait until the technology works, have a couple of shots at it, dominate it and then expand it. Here are the latest numbers, courtesy of Strategy Analytics:

UntitledImage

In short, Apple has not only grown its shipments by more than a ⅓, it’s eaten a sizeable portion of the Swiss watch industry’s cheese lunch. As SA’s Steven Waltzer puts it: “Traditional Swiss watch makers, like Swatch and Tissot, are losing the smartwatch wars. Apple Watch is delivering a better product through deeper retail channels and appealing to younger consumers who increasingly want digital wristwear. The window for Swiss watch brands to make an impact in smartwatches is closing. Time may be running out for Swatch, Tissot, TAG Heuer, and others.” The full report can be purchased here.

So let’s put this in a slightly broader perspective. This is a tipping point in the evolution of the watch and a hammer blow to the Swiss watch industry. While the figures don’t quite tally with Strategy Analytics’, those from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry show just how effective Apple has not only created a market for itself, but also usurped another’s. For years the Swiss watch industry had been relatively settled, only to see Apple — and knee-jerk competitors like Huawei and Samsung, who have also carved a market for themselves on Apple’s coat-tails — gradually erode their business. Last year shows just how far it has gone:

UntitledImage

This is classic Apple in many ways. There were lots of ‘this is make or break for Apple’ type stories in the first year, and overblown predictions of 2015, and 2016, had to be revised. Indeed, while overall shipments of  smartwatches rose in 2016 (from 20.8 million to 21.1 million, according to Strategy Analytics, Apple’s shipments actually shrunk, while others rose. But these were teething problems: sensors needed to be more accurate, sales channels with telcos needed to be tweaked. By 2017 Apple had fixed most of this, and the trajectory is clear. Probably more importantly, consumers realised that if you were going to put a smartwatch on your wrist, it had to be a classy one. There was no ‘good enough’ syndrome for that bit of prime real estate. And, like the Air Pods, the device needs to have a seamless relationship with the parent device.

Lessons learned? I once again wasn’t convinced about the smart watch. I haven’t bought one, and don’t intend to. But I get it; Apple is currently making much from the stories of how these devices may have saved lives. This isn’t the reason people buy these things, but it’s a good argument to win over the spouse, or conscience, and it does point to how, eventually, medtech and consumer device will merge beyond the hobbyist and fitness fanatic. And it’s not hard to see how soon enough the ear piece and the wrist will eventually become The Device, and we can ditch the smartphone altogether.

Apple, Again, Creates a Market Out of Nothing. And It’s Massive

White AirPods

Having recently (finally) bought a pair of big chunky Bluetooth headphones, thinking they were so commonplace I wouldn’t get any weird looks, I now realise that once again I’m at the wrong end of a trend curve. People are staring at me — and not for my rugged visage. I’m the oddity: everyone else is sporting wireless earphones, the Apple AirPods variety (although I suspect quite a few of them are the cheap knockoffs which are indistinguishable in look and a tenth the price.)

Man wearing white AirPods.

Reality bites: what once looked a bit weird — massive headphones — looks weird again, and what looked even weirder — wireless earphones with little sticks dangling out of them — looks cool, and increasingly normal.

Man wearing a Bluetooth headphone
Man wearing a Bluetooth headset.

The data is surprising.  Canalys reports that what it calls “smart personal audio devices”– lumping together all the various wireless or semi-wireless buds, earphones and headphones — are this year set for strongest year in history, with real wireless earphones (true wireless stereo, or TWS) “the largest and fastest growing category.”

Indeed, it’s not only the fastest and largest growing category. It has leapfrogged the other two in the space of a year.

Hearable pr20191226 final slide2final

That’s particularly interesting because the original AirPods were launched three years ago. It’s taken that long for them to conquer the market, and this is a product that cost anywhere between $140 and $250. Yes, I know people spent silly money on headphones but that’s a lot of dough for something so small you’re likely to lose it down the back of the couch or running to catch the bus. But it has become, in quite short order, a massive market when you consider how many smartphones there are. In terms of units, it’s a quarter the size of the smartphone market (see below) which, according to IDC was about 360 million units in Q3 2019. And that market is virtually static, while the ‘smart personal audio devices’ market has nearly tripled.

Hearable pr20191226 final slide3

This is all of Apple’s doing. They created the wireless earphone market singlehandedly. They were slow on headphones, and they never went for the wireless earpieces connected by cord, and their ordinary earphones have never really, in my view, stacked up, but it seems with the second version of the AirPod, and the AirPod Pro, they’ve taken the market they created and dominated it:

Hearable pr20191226 final slide1final

You could argue that since they only work with Apple devices the data is skewed but you could also look at it the other way: the Samsungs, Huaweis and Xiaomis of this world have not risen to the challenge for the Android market, and are lagging woefully. Given that Samsung shipped 78 million devices in Q3, while Huawei shipped 67 million against Apple’s 47 million (IDC numbers again), it’s clear just how much of a market opportunity they’ve missed. Canalys’ numbers, meanwhile, suggest that Apple shipped 18.5 million AirPods that quarter, meaning that 40% of every iPhone sold was sold alongside, or nearby, an AirPod. That’s impressive stuff.

While Canalys focus on the ‘smartness’ of these devices — the control they allow, the possibility of sensors etc capturing health data and serving as payment devices — I think that’s not the point. The likes of Jabra have been trying to sell wireless earphones for swimmers, runners etc for years, and it’s remained a niche market. Apple have instead done what they do best — mastering the technology to make the experience of listening to stuff easy, seamless and, at least now, so cool it’s become de rigeur. The problem was always a simple one: wires. They got rid of the wires, and they made devices that sound good, fit snugly and well (at least with the Pros) and connect relatively painlessly.

That was the problem to solve, and hence the market unleashed.

Don’t overcomplicate it.

The Future of Work Rethought

I recently did two things I hadn’t done before. One was to cancel my membership at a co-working space. The other was to meet, face to face, my virtual assistant of seven years. I belatedly realised the two events were connected: the freelance world, once a parallel universe hidden from view, is fast switching places with the real one, and governments, companies and families should take note.

It’s tempting nowadays to think that technology is redefining work, and not in a good way. AI and robotics are stealing away work from top to bottom, from lawyers to assembly lines. Gig platforms like Uber and Deliveroo are slicing up jobs into ever smaller chunks, making robots of us before the jobs are actually handed over to robots. And technology outsources what can be outsourced.

But I realise this is just one side of things. Who are all these people to whom this work is outsourced? By 2020, the number of self-employed in the U.S. will triple, to 42 million people. Freelancers are the fastest growing labour group in the European Union. Behind these statistics is a story, not just of harried drivers and deliver guys, but of knowledge workers who have chosen their own lifestyle, who have defied the disintermediation of the so-called platform economy. They offer a counter-narrative to the usual technology story of innovative disruption.

Take co-working spaces. On the one hand such spaces have proliferated. I recall looking for a co-working in Singapore space back in 2009 and finding only one, on the campus of one of the universities, and when I turned up one morning there to find the curtains closed, bodies all over the floor and a distinct odour of unwashed students. Now, every other floor in the tower blocks of the business district are co-working spaces, though the business looks nothing like it was originally imagined to be. Just don’t expect to find many freelancers there.

Co-working sounded like a freelancer’s dream — a place for those working alone and from home to find space to work, to mix, to find work, to find comradeship. It may have started out like that, but you won’t find many freelancers in a co-working space nowadays. Respondents to a survey of 99designs freelancers, for example, showed only 4 percent of them used a co-working space.

I asked Patrick Llewelyn, CEO of 99designs, why this was. One reason, he said, was that most of the designers on his platform are primary care givers, looking after either their kids or a family member, and so tend to keep less formal hours. As co-working spaces have become substitute offices, they keep office hours which don’t suit most freelancers, most of whom want to get away from the 9-5 grind.

I also realised there was little that was appealing. I abandoned mine when I realised I didn’t enjoy going there. I had returned to working for myself a year or so ago and long admired co-working spaces as a vibrant, tasteful, colourful alternative to the dour, dusty and downbeat newsroom I worked in. But I realised that co-working spaces were too self-conscious, too brimming with hipness to be genuinely convivial. And expensive.

So freelancers choose their own path, and it doesn’t fall easily into any fancy new disruptive model.

And then there’s the other thing: my virtual assistant. She’s real, but based in a Philippines town far from the madding crowd. I had always imagined that one day I’d make the pilgrimage there to meet her, since when she started working for me, she didn’t have a passport. But by now she, husband and two kids in tow, was the peripatetic one, carving time for me in her hectic tour of Singapore.

This is the other thing that struck me about what Patrick told me. When I asked about how his freelancers find social fulfilment if they’re working from home, he said that’s the point. By staying home, often looking after family, they’re able to retain those physical connections that those working in an office tend to lose. And being able to support themselves gives them a sense of contribution as well as a creative outlet, which in turns give them confidence.

When Patrick recently went to Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia and one of 99designs’ biggest markets, he attended a meet-up of freelancers who clearly knew each other and felt a kinship and warmth you’d be hard pressed to find in a co-working space. Amarit Charoenphan, cofounder of Thailand’s first and largest co-working space Hubba, told me that in the rush to grab market share and protect themselves from competition, many co-working players had lost the human touch, of fostering a community among their members. He sees the future in algorithms, co-working 3.0, where spaces draw on technology to address the emotional benefits of being together.

Freelancers might argue they already have that, using apps to connect to friends and colleagues, while staying or moving to the places they love. My virtual assistant continues to work from her seaside home, bouncing her two-year-old daughter on her knee on conference calls with her main client, a friend of mine based in Texas. She worries about brownouts and the occasional typhoon, but with internet connectivity improving, she’s rarely offline for long.

She’s part of a massive, gradual shift in knowledge work, from the big city to the smaller towns and villages. This shows up in the data: Less than a quarter of the 99designs freelancers live in urban hubs of more than a million people — just as many live in towns or villages of less than 20,000. This is true more or less across the board: In the U.S. and Indonesia the number falls to be low 14% who live in a metropolis. Data from Upwork, a general freelancing site, shows that for a lot of specialised work even those based in remote towns in the developing world can command decent USD rates.

For sure, freelancing isn’t for everyone, and it’s not always easy to get your first client. And platforms that break down basic tasks like delivery and driving will always be a race to the bottom. But for those with skills, or those motivated to acquire them, the freelance economy has grown in the past decade to be a vast continent in the landscape of the future of work, mostly unnoticed by governments and immune to Silicon Valley’s eviscerations. Which reminds me; I have to go, my virtual assistant is reminding me we’re due a virtual brainstorming session.

A Battery-less Future?

(Corrected: Atmosic has not (yet) won the GSA Award, but is short listed for it. The winner will be announced in December. Apologies)

At what point can we ditch batteries, the last encumbrance to our wireless nirvana?

The biggest single block on a wireless, connected future where everything everywhere is attached to chips and sensors which relay, receive and act on instructions from afar is power. And that means either that the device is connected to the electricity grid (which probably means you don’t need it to be wirelessly connected) or it has a battery in it. Which will need charging or replacing.

Long-range low-power technologies like low-powered wide-area networks (LPWANs think LoRa, NB-IOT and SigFox) have gone some way to solving this problem — instead of a power-hungry 4G modem you have a simple chip that sends only the most necessary data and runs off a battery that can run for years — but that doesn’t solve the problem of more complex or power-hungry devices that need to communicate more frequently and more loquaciously. These endpoints will need someone to service them. Internet of Things, Interrupted.

But what if the devices could find their own energy? What if they could “scavenge the energy they need to operate from whatever naturally occurring electrons were in their environment, regardless of that environment”, in the words of Chris Rust, founder and general partner of VC investor Clear Ventures?

Energy harvesting, as it’s called, is not new. Solar power is in effect harvesting the sun’s rays and turning it into energy via photovoltaic cells; wind or wave turbines do something similar (called electrodynamics). But scavenging ambient energy in the immediate environment into electrical power will yield only a few watts at most — enough to augment batteries or, possibly, to replace them. (Still enough to power your solar calculator indoors, and solar power is highly efficient at conversion.)

Energy harvesting can be done an in a number of ways:

  • kinetic energy — vibrations, stress, tension or movement using piezoelectric materials, for example. Imagine the vibration on aircraft wings being converted to energy, or the reverberation of heartbeats to power a pacemaker. (Some examples of vibration energy harvesting can be found here from ReVibe Energy of Gothenburg.)
  • Other examples of vibration-based energy harvesters are triboelectric charging — when certain materials are separated one becomes electrically charged (think the static electricity from running a comb through one’s hair) or the more traditional electromagnetic vibration, where relative motion between magnet and coil induces current into the coil. (Think turning a door knob or hitting a switch.)
  • Then there’s temperature — where differences across a thermoelectric crystal cause a voltage, or the temperature of a pyroelectric crystal changes, generating a charge. The new PowerWatch, for example, uses both thermoelectric — the heat emitted from your wrist — and solar charging. The device uses chips from Matrix Industries.)
  • Then there’s radio frequency (RF) radiation, emitted from routers and cell towers, or from RF chargers, that transmit electromagnatic waves in a specific area. So while this might be scavenging in the sense that it is capturing wasted or existing radiation, it could be deliberate — say, via pointing an RF source at your remote device and switching it on.

So some of this is happening. A RFID (radio-frequency identification) or NFC (near field communication) sticker (think price tags) or chip (think contactless cards, or has no battery in it, instead harvesting the power from the device connecting to it through a technique called backscatter, which transmits data by reflecting modulated wireless signals off a tag and back to the reader.

In the labs of academia the vision is that the body becomes a patchwork of, well, patches, where the energy is derived from the body itself to power unobtrusive sensors which monitor our health: solar-powered heart sensors no bigger or less flexible than a Band-Aid, or sensors that draw their power from the natural conductive properties of skin, storing their energy in stretchable capacitors made of carbon nanotube forests (so called because the material grows like trees 30 micrometers tall, their canopies tangled on wafers.)

But for now, the movement is in industry, and buildings. Companies like EnOcean sells self-powered switches and sensors for maintenance-free lighting which draw their power either, in the case of switches, from the kinetic movement of being pressed or in the case of sensors, from light (indoor and outdoor) or temperature differences to detect occupancy, say.

The changes will really kick in when devices can generate enough energy to be able to transmit over significant distances wirelessly. That means WiFi, which requires a decent-sized battery, rather than, say, Bluetooth, which has too short a range to be any use beyond your headset, mouse or keyboard. That, however, may not be true for much longer. The latest version of Bluetooth, version 5, expands its range by four times, making it comparable to WiFi. And companies like Atmosic Technologies believe they can extend a Bluetooth device’s battery life by between 5 times, to, well, forever.

Atmosic Technologies, just announced as winner of shortlisted for the Global Semiconductor Association’s startup of the year, says that “with the advent of Bluetooth 5, combined with ultra-low-power functionality, power consumption is low enough to be supported by harvested RF, light, or heat energy, while still able to provide the range and coverage equivalent to Wi-Fi.” In short, it makes “the concepts of “forever-battery” and “battery-free” IoT realistic. IoT devices can work for the lifetime of the devices on the batteries they come with, or without batteries at all.”

Atmosic says its a fully integrated single chip with RF energy harvesting (for size see the image at the top of this post) can provide small form factor battery-free operation up to a distance of several meters from the RF source. This could be a game changer, because it would mean not only that all your Bluetooth devices would not require charging, but that they could communicate over longer distances. It would also mean a lot more devices could communicate with each other without you having to worry about whether they need charging. But Atmosic acknowledges that “this is the first step in the journey,” which sounds as if we’re still some ways off the battery-free IoT revolution.

Volocopters, UAMs and eVTOLS

Another acronym you need to get used to: UAM, for Urban Air Mobility. Think flying cars. Or for now, helicopters and drones that carry people. Like the Volocopter, which completed its first manned flight over Singapore’s Marina Bay last week (see below). It’s also opened the first air taxi voloport (yes, you’re going to have to get used to these names, I’m afraid.)

You don’t think of Singapore as a place where traffic jams and poor infrastructure make you want to take to the skies, but in terms of friendly regulators and investment boards, it’s certainly the place to start. German-based Volocopter opened an office in Singapore in January 2019 and has plans to expand in South East Asia. The company has recently presented their VoloCity – the next generation eVTOL (that’s electric vertical take-off and landing to you and me) air taxi and recently announced Series C funding. Investors include Daimler, Geely, Intel Capital, BtoV, and Manta Ray Ventures.

They’re not alone, of course. There’s EmbraerX, a ‘market accelerator’ which is part of Embraer S.A., a Brazilian aircraft manufacturer which has crowd-sourced the design of an autonomous eVTOL (below, note apparently obligatory Singapore skyline), which is still at the theoretical stage, it seems (you can help them name it but please don’t suggest eVTOLy McTOLface).

There are several hurdles that need to be overcome before you see these things buzzing around the skies. The Singapore Volocopter flight, for example, covered 1.5 km and lasted for two minutes; blink and you’d have missed it. Airbus told a conference here in April that the three design hurdles are the development of a battery pack for flight beyond 15 minutes, the maturity of autonomous systems and noise levels. Airbus is working on an upper limit of 65 dB, which is the same as a passing subway train, and will affect where the aircraft can land in a city.

Some companies are looking to liquid hydrogen which is less efficient than batteries but has a better energy density. Skai of the U.S. is working on an eVTOL air taxi which could go as far as 430 miles.

Most of these companies talk about the ‘democratization’ of air transport which the cynic in me would sniff at. No way are the prices of these trips going to come down to one ordinary folk can afford any time soon. But then again, Uber etc have shown that it is possible to ‘democratize’ chauffeur-driven transport (which is pretty much what ride-hailing is) so maybe I shouldn’t be so sniffy.

Indeed, it’s partly’s at Uber’s prodding that companies like EmbraerX are exploring eVTOLs. Uber is someway down the track on this, realising that a lot of its rides are to and from airports. So it’s working with partners to get the infrastructure ready for when these eVTOLs overcome their current limitations. Who wouldn’t pay for the efficiency of getting to the airport in 15 minutes against an hour or so? The well-heeled, initially, but maybe it won’t be long before ‘taking an Uber to the airport’ has a different meaning to the one we currently assume.

Subscription Model Redux: Loadsa Money for Uncertain Returns

Subscription Model

Last week I wrote about subscription fatigue particularly as it applies to video. Ampere Analysis (I don’t yet have a link to the press release) have just released some data that looks at another angle of this.

Global spend on TV, film and sports content “expanded from $100 billion to $165 bln between 2008 and 2018 – a 65% increase. Nearly $50 billion of this growth was in the last five years alone.” But what’s interesting about this is that while Netflix and others have sunk a significant chunk into this — from $2 bln to $19 bln last year, the vast majority of spending is still done by the traditional networks and broadcasters, accounting for $111 billion in 2018. “It is their reaction to the entrance of the new OTT players,” Ampere concludes, “which has fuelled the global content boom.

This means that these broadcasters are having to dig deep to fend off these new players: in 2013, a typical broadcaster or network spent roughly 41% of its revenue on content rights. Ampere expects that by the end of 2019, this will have increased to 50%. Disney’s spending rose from $10 bln in 2013 to $13 bln in 2018. NBCUniversal’s content expenditure has risen by over $4 bln between 2013 and 2018.

Ampere sees this as a rising tide lifting all boats. As networks shift to what its calls a Direct to Consumer model (and I would call a subscription model) OTT platforms like Netflix will have to spend more on original content, as I mentioned in my blog. But Ampere argues it also represents an opportunity for producers and rights holders (read indie producers) that don’t have any interest in building their own subscription services to replace the content the likes of Disney withhold from Netflix.

I’m not so sure. For one thing the likes of Disney are going to face shrinking margins as they funnel more money into content, and a subscription model isn’t going to bridge the gap, at least for now. And are Netflix users going to be drawn to more indie content on Netflix, and are they going to be willing to pay the same fees as they did for the Hollywood stuff? The good thing, generally speaking, about Netflix-commissioned stuff is that the viewer feels a certain bar has been reached — not always true, but you’re willing to give it a few minutes based on the Netflix logo. Wading through lots of indie content looking for gems might not be quite the experience existing users are looking for.

Which brings me to another problem with video subscription services. It’s not like music, where if you’re a U2 fan you might be up for listening to something the algorithm reckons is similar. But you can only watch so many murder-set-in-rustbelt-town documentaries. The contradiction is simple: Quantity does not equal quality. But quantity is what brings the punter back to the service. Netflix and other streaming services are going to find it hard to maintain their position if their app starts slipping down the list of priorities the user reaches for when they want to watch something. Pretty soon they’re hitting the unsubscribe button.

Is 5G Bad for You?

5g

5G has reignited old discussions about whether mobile signals are bad for us — both from cell towers and from the devices themselves.

I’m not a doctor, first off. But I think it’s at least worth taking a look at the data.

A piece by Fierce Wireless’ Sue Marek points to some poor reporting on the 5G base station issue. This centres around the assertion that because 5G requires denser base stations — more antennae per square mile, in other words — there are going to be more radio frequency emissions which will put us in danger. She points to a report, to put it charitably, by RT (yes, them, let’s call a spade Russia Today) which was explored by the New York Times. This was quite easily dismissed as disinformation, but is the Times’, and Marek’s conclusion — that ” 5G is not a health threat”, actually true?

There’s plenty of solid reporting that suggests it is. The WHO, the American Cancer Society, the NIH and others all report that, as WHO put it, “RF exposures from base stations and wireless technologies in publicly accessible areas (including schools and hospitals) are normally thousands of times below international standards.” All these reports are helpfully collated at Wireless Health Facts, which carries the logo of an outfit called CTIA, which the website doesn’t explain, but is in fact a trade association representing the U.S. wireless communications industry. (I don’t have a problem with the CTIA putting up a website collecting the solid research about 5G and health, but I wish they would make it clear a) who they are, b) link to their website, c) offer some way to connect to them via that website and d) include some contrary research for balance.)

And that last point is the thing. There IS contrary research that does suggest there’s a problem. Medical News Today, a UK-based commercial publication owned by Healthline Media, produced a report in August whose tagline said: “As 5G wireless technology is slowly making its way across the globe, many government agencies and organizations advise that there is no reason to be alarmed about the effects of radiofrequency waves on our health. But some experts strongly disagree.” The piece was written by Yella Hewings-Martin, a PhD in pediatrics and child health from University College London. The piece was fact-checked by a Bristol-based copy editor, Gianna D’Emilio.

Hewings-Martin’s piece, which is worth a read, walks the reader through the issues. At its core the question is: do the radio frequency electromagnetc fields (fields of energy resulting from electronomagnetic radiation, itself the result of the flow of electricity) from base stations and handsets cause negative biological effects on us humans?

Yes, is the answer: at high levels they cause heating, which lead to burns and other tissue damage. But mobile devices emit these RF-EMFs at low levels, so is this going to be a problem?

A panel of 30 scientists the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2011 concluded that there was limited evidence, and so classified RF-EMFs as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, lumping it in the same group as aloe vera whole leaf extract, gasoline engine exhaust fumes, and pickled vegetables, according to Hewings-Martin.

Although IARC is part of the World Health Organisation, the WHO is conducting its own study. That’s not finished yet. For now, the WHO states that: “To date, no adverse health effects from low level, long term exposure to radiofrequency or power frequency fields have been confirmed, but scientists are actively continuing to research this area.”

Hewings-Martin acknowledges in her piece that 5G is a different kettle of fish. 5G needs smaller cells because the high-frequecy radio waves it uses have a shorter range. But she quotes a paper in Frontiers in Public Health from August that:

dHigher frequency (shorter wavelength) radiation associated with 5G does not penetrate the body as deeply as frequencies from older technologies although its effects may be systemic.

Here it cites two studies which both say our understanding of, for example, “the implications of human immersion in the electromagnetic noise, caused by devices working at the very same frequencies as those to which the sweat duct (as a helical antenna) is most attuned.”

The bottom line: Researchers always want to do more research. But their point is a good one: long term studies, like this one, are looking at the effect of all these EMF-related health risks over decades. We’re barely into two decades of mobile phone use, and now we’re shifting the technology into new areas. While I definitely agree with those who want to see less fear-mongering, I think it’s intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge the medical and academic literature that points to concerns and which highlights our lack of understanding of the long term effects of the technology.

I would like to see the CTIA include these studies (or solid pieces like Hewings-Martin’s) on its website, and I would also like to see a proper investigation of claims by academics like Lennart Hardell that the provisional conclusion of the WHO cited above was written by a team of six people, five of whom were serving or former members of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), what Hardell calls “an industry-loyal NGO”. The ICNIRP is explored in an Investigate Europe piece here.

These alleged conflicts of interest are an area of controversy in themselves: Susan Pockett, a psychologist at the University of Auckland, wrote a paper for Magnetochemistry, a peer-reviewed journal published by MDPI, earlier this year, exploring outfits like the ICNIRP, concluding that “politicians in the Western world should stop accepting soothing reports from individuals with blatant conflicts of interest and start taking the health and safety of their communities seriously.” The paper has since been retracted, according to Retraction Watch, after its editorial board “found that it contains no scientific contribution and that Magnetochemistry is not the appropriate forum for this kind of “opinion” publication.”

Pockett accused the publication of “political interference in the normal processes of science. The paper was nobbled, by one of the many large entities (governments, regulatory agencies, Big Wireless) who would have found the facts it states inconvenient.” (It’s not clear who complained about the piece, and Pockett provides no evidence for her claims. Retraction Watch points to Pockett using some questionable instrumentation for gathering data used in her paper.)