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Each day, more and more people go thru their lives with their head tilted downward and their thumb manipulating a handheld computer. This is not class-based behaviour: these expensive machines and/or the data plans that govern them are being accessed as readily by the cashier at Burger King as the corporate CEO or suburban soccer mom. The prevalence of these devices and the addictive behaviour that governs them infects people of all ages, professions, and places in society. In the process, we walk, drive, eat and talk while maintaining the familiar head tilted downward and thumb dancing feverishly that signifies our participation. Indeed, if "Seinfeld" were a modern show, we must assume there would be an episode featuring George Costanza attempting to use his personal computing device while "pleasuring" his befuddled girlfriend-of-the-moment.

This "always on" use of our handheld computers occurs in parallel with an increasing realization that our large and primary computers are undermining productivity and concentration. The perpetual "ding" of new email, new Twitter posts, and Facebook notifications is chopping up our workdays into a distracted, unfocused, chaotic mess. More articles, processes and even coaches are engaging us and attempting to find the proper balance between making the most of the marvelous technology while avoiding a tumble into the attention-sucking abyss. The early adopters of the connected technologies are already well into employing corrective behaviours, while these mitigating efforts are more slowly spreading to others.

At the same time, governments are attempting to regulate the use of handheld computers in dangerous situations, particularly while driving. Increasingly, states are making the use of handheld computers while behind the wheel illegal. At some point issues of sanitation will be addressed as well: I was somewhat horrified today to see the person preparing my food alternately put my order together while using his smartphone. Of course the social experience was somewhat horrifying as well, as all four employees at this tiny restaurant at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport were frantically using their devices. The cashier entered my order with one hand while looking at her device and tapping in messages with the other! Call me old-fashioned, but it made me feel pretty much irrelevant for these "service professionals" to be focused on far-flung people as opposed to me, their customer, three feet away from them. What, exactly, are we paying them for?

There is a hue-and-cry that this situation is only going to get progressively worse, not better. I think this analysis is wrong-minded. As we are learning how destructive "always on" computing is to our performance and productivity in the workplace, so are we learning that being disconnected from our physical environments in service of our handheld bits and bytes has deleterious impacts on our quality of life. Far beyond the obvious "if you text and drive, you will eventually crash", we are learning about impacts on our personal psychology and broader society. Never being present for the people we interact with not only promotes potentially sociopathic mindsets and behaviours, it makes the quality of our lives worse.

I suspect the evolution of the use of these devices will come to resemble the presence of other addictive and potentially damaging cultural forces like alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking. Over time, these highly addictive and immediately gratifying behaviours have decreased. It took time, education and awareness for this to happen. They persist in certain segments of society - particularly among the poor and poorly educated - but the average person has struck a balance with the object in their lives. A beer or glass of wine becomes the routine, but drinking too much is reduced to being only a periodic behaviour or being symptomatic of the culturally excluded. These devices are a part of our lives and, over time, will find their proper level. As such they will better service us as opposed to the current trend where it increasingly seems that it is we which are in service of them.

Remember when Spam was just meat in a can? I'm not quite sure when "spam" became a daily and often painful reality of my life - sometime after 1994 but before 2000 - but if it wasn't for spam filters I suspect email as an online tool would already be obsolete. If you create something good, that people pay attention to, and can make money, it is inevitable that the parasites, crooks and "capitalists" will soon follow to piss in the once-pristine pool.

One of the best new software ideas of the past few years is Kickstarter. The pioneering crowd funding platform may not have been first with the idea, but they certainly were the first (and to this point, only) such product to break thru into the mainstream consciousness, boasting mindshare among various other software titans. As a consumer I love Kickstarter because it puts me closer to creators, and lets me help fund interesting creative products without greasing an otherwise-pointless middleman. As a creator I love Kickstarter because it puts me closer to customers and allows me to be more richly compensated for my creations.

But alas, the unsightly stream of urine is beginning to show in this particular pool.

For those who are not Kickstarter creators, Kickstarter has a closed messaging system. You can only message to people with whom you have a creator-customer relationship (or vice-versa). In theory this should prevent unwanted communications, and certainly of the anonymous/spammy kind. So it was that I took a deep breath and crinkled my face upon receiving this from a past customer of my product; I've (redacted) any personally identifying information for them:

Dear Dear Sir / Madam!

My name is (redacted), I develop a new web based online game called (redacted) (http://(redacted).net).

(redacted) is a virtual world that puts players into the role of an up-and-coming criminal with missions ranging all over the seedy underbelly of society. Players can choose to take a more physical route by getting into bloody gang fights, or use a more cerebral approach by closing deals. The release of the game is currently being advertised on major game website.

Our ‘Pro Level’ team of web developers are searching for competitive partners willing to take part in the development of our project. The project is currently in the development stage, therefore should you be interested, in return for your investment we offer the following opportunities:

1) A share of game’s profit
2) Your brand name appearing on game’s items
2) Your brand name will appear in all game’s published material

Please support our project on http://www.indiegogo.com/(redacted)

Should you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact us by email or follow the development of the game on Twitter @(redacted)

Looking forward to hearing from you.
Kind Regards,
(redacted)

There's a lot of things not to like about this note: the "blast" nature of it (despite it being only and singly sent to my personal Kickstarter account, which can't be spammed); mis-spellings (including the comical "Dear Dear" to kick things off); the whiff of desperation radiating from the whole thing; the fact that it is pointing to a campaign at a Kickstarter competitor. It is just unseemly.

This is not the first such note I've gotten on Kickstarter, albeit the one I found the most distasteful. And it certainly will not be the last. Even knowing that this is an inevitable byproduct of something becoming popular and profitable, I cannot help but to bemoan seeing the decay of this latest good product in my life.

The age of information is upon us, and much has been made of the great improvements to communication, collaboration, and business process efficiency as we transform from an industrial- to a knowledge-based economy. However, despite all the rapid technological changes of the past 20 years, we are still at the very beginnings of the knowledge work era. At the dawn of the industrial age, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, society underwent a similar set of changes. The agrarian life was upended, as the industrial life took hold, and people flocked from the countryside to the booming cities looking for work in newly created factories. These people were faced with whole new ways of working, new expectations, new dangers, and the new tensions as working class and management sorted out the methods for engagement and production that would eventually take hold and slowly evolve over the next 200+ years. In many ways, we are at a similar inflection point in our societal and economic transformation. What this means, at the most basic level, is that we're still figuring out how to work together in an environment that is newly defined, and spans both the virtual and physical worlds. And while there have been many discussions about how best to relate to each other virtually, and manage the tactical aspects of technology — from e-mail to instant messaging to video conferencing to cloud software — there is less discussion about how we structure our agreements, how we collaborate in a larger, strategic sense.

Freelance Nation
For designers and engineers and other innovators, perhaps the first step on this path to the new virtual knowledge work, was exemplified by the birth of freelance nation, which was well-documented by author Daniel Pink in his groundbreaking 2002 book "Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself". Knowledge work can be done anywhere and, freed from the confines of geography and the purview of one employer, we may work with anyone we please. And so, the permanent employee model has has been relegated to one possible working arrangement out of many. Now, there are new ways to engage, and knowledge workers are experimenting with, and discovering these — from the "The Hollywood Model" of pure project-based collaboration to other, more long-term methods of partnering. We are no longer beholden to the industrial age forms of working, so why should we be constrained by the business structures that have evolved to make that type of work happen? We shouldn't. But it will, no doubt, take time to get there.

Designing Entrepreneurship
This interest in new ways of working was apparent at the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) 2012 International Conference last week in Boston, where the design of business engagements, and design entrepreneurship in general, were hot topics. Among the keynotes, Stefan Andrén, the CEO of Krown Lab, delivered a presentation, "From Employee to Entrepreneur - A Designer’s Leap", in which he described the unique avenues he has pursued in creating business agreements for long-term collaborative benefit. Formerly the design director for the popular Nike+ system, Andrén set out on his own in 2008, founding a manufacturing firm that creates high-end, custom sliding-door hardware, and partnering with start-up companies to design and build new products. These partnerships include royalty-based strategic collaborations Andrén has established with brands such as Atomic Floyd and Phosphor, where he and his team serve as the outsource design department. Such an approach requires an initial upfront investment of time and capital, in contrast to the more typical services model for design consulting, says Andrén. However, the long-term benefits can be substantial. When considering such partnership arrangements, Andrén suggests that it's key to find companies that have long product cycles, and relatively low initial capital investment needed, which can reduce the pressure of time to market.

Robert Brunner, the founder of product design and brand experience studio Ammunition, spoke about his experience partnering with rap pioneer and producer Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, Chairman of Interscope-Geffen-A&M on the category dominating Beats audio headphones. In his talk, "Brand Domination through Partnering: The Beats by Dr. Dre Story" Brunner described how he was able to drive brand and design excellence for Beats through partnering, rather than a typical designer / client relationship. Being considered a partner from the very start of the project enabled Brunner to take on both the risk and reward of the endeavor. According to Brunner, the contracts for such a deal can be complex and the arrangement requires quite a lot of trust on all sides. Still, in this case, the outcome speaks for itself: Beats audio is the number one headphone line in the world, shipping $1B worth of product this year.

MIT Meeting

How do we want to work together?

Rethinking Work (Together)
In a previous blog post, "Rethinking Work", I examined some of the management and collaboration techniques that forward-thinking companies are using to drive their organizations. Designing company culture so that independence, responsibility, and drive are core values means less hierarchy and more shared decision-making. A staff of people who sincerely care about what they do, don’t have to be managed in a traditional way. This kind of loose knit, highly collaborative, yet autonomous work is receiving marketplace validation. Companies like game developer Valve Software and source code hosting service GitHub adhere to aspects of this organizational model. Establish the end goal, and let the workers choose the path to get there; Each person is a business unit of one. In this manner, an organization can move quickly, as individuals are responsible for their own management. This is not an industrial age company structure, by any means.

Now imagine this mindset applied to agreements between companies, and we can see how the future of knowledge work might evolve — independent entities striving for a common goal and sharing in the rewards of success. So often as designers, engineers, and innovators, we find ourselves in situations where we uncover problems that are completely unrelated to the project for which we're hired. Now perhaps we can imagine agreements with the freedom to allow us to work within organizations where we're most needed. In the end, as Brunner noted in his talk, the legal and contractual details involved in making these engagements work will be complicated. We face the challenge of framing these new business collaborations properly as we forge ahead building new ways of working together. Despite all of the intricacies, however, the opportunity seems limited only by the value that we can bring.

One of the great challenges of knowledge work is in understanding how to integrate virtual tools into the oftentimes tricky realm of human communication and relationships. We take for granted that the constantly evolving toolset available to us is ultimately helpful to our productivity and ability to complete our day-to-day tasks. How did work ever get done without mobile phones and the constant stream of e-mail? But the techniques for binding it all together — the ways to manage our time and our attention in order to best take advantage of the digital without becoming a slave to it — are still largely undefined. How do we incorporate the oftentimes virtual, and sometimes real world interactions that now make up business and professional relationships? We may work far away from our colleagues, then have face-to-face meetings, then go back to working at a distance. Sometimes it feels like we've been thrust into the virtual world with no rules. Increasingly, it seems like it is the duty of knowledge workers to figure out just how we should relate to our digital workplace, and each other.

Within this chaotic sea of digital tools that we incorporate into our work lives, perhaps one of the more interesting ones is our professional social graph. With a virtual professional network, you can stay connected to business contacts over time, and potentially build these relationships for mutual benefit. The professional social graph is our virtual map of our career contacts and reflects our work lives through the relationships we've developed. LinkedIn, of course, is the most popular and prominent business network in the US, with roughly 90 million members, although others like Viadeo and XING have significant traction internationally.

Dunbar's Number and Ambient Awareness
Of course, your relationship with your virtual professional network can vary drastically depending on how many members it contains — at 10 or even 100 you may know everyone fairly well and be able to keep up with all their activities. But with 500 or 1,000 people, this becomes nearly impossible. Research by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, conducted during the 1990s, suggests that humans have an upper limit to the number of people with whom they can maintain stable social relationships. Dunbar's number is 150, which seems to indicate that a massive virtual professional network may not be as valuable as we think. After all, if we're not really paying attention to one another, what's the point in being in contact at all? But Dunbar's number does not necessarily include all the lighter-weight connections that humans are capable of maintaining; those relationships that may not be persistent, but are still valuable — like the colleague we worked with two jobs ago or the client we haven't seen in a few years. In a large professional network, we may not be able to track the activities of these lighter-weight contacts in an active fashion, but we can piece together bits of info from the status updates we do see and have time to read. This peripheral understanding of ongoing activity in the network has been termed "ambient awareness" by some social scientists.

Visualizing Our Virtual Network
While having a limited view into the lives of those people with whom we have loose network connections might be valuable, the inverse might be equally so. Rather than a piecemeal understanding of individual activity, a broad view of our professional network of relationships and its ongoing evolution, can provide us with potential insights. It is with this thought in mind, that LinkedIn Labs created InMaps, a mapping software tool that allows you to see a beautiful visualization of your entire network and the connections that drive it. After you generate an InMap, within the universe of color-coded connections, you can begin to make out patterns of categories and sub-networks based on the relationship groupings that your professional connections have with each other. What insights can you gain from this relationship map beyond the sheer beauty and interest of the info visualization itself? If you've been a part of LinkedIn for awhile, and have a significant number of connections, each cluster represents a distinct time period in your professional history, the total picture in many ways representing the entirety of your work life.

MIT Meeting

InMap allows you to visualize your LinkedIn network connections.

The value of your extended virtual professional network — besides the more obvious opportunities for professional advice or assistance when it comes to finding a new job or gig — may very well be found in a new kind of connectedness that we're still in the midst of defining. Ambient awareness of your contacts activities, as well as the insights that come from a broad visualization of your network are just two manifestations of this. It's not hard to see how such understanding and awareness could result in a deeper appreciation of your own work life path. As we define our digital relationships and connections, we're also figuring out the way to better understand ourselves, a byproduct perhaps that we never would have expected.

The university system is critical to the Innovation Economy in Boston. Not only do schools supply the region with well-trained creative class workers in fields like engineering, science, design, and architecture; they also serve as R&D labs, generating new technology research; and as catalysts for the marketplace of ideas that fuels entrepreneurialism and a growing ecosystem of start-up companies. In addition, universities provide a place for that all important cross-pollination of ideas across industries and practices, which drives ongoing and sometimes unexpected innovation.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at events like "Tech, Drugs and Rock n' Roll" presented by Boston University's Office of Technology Development last week — a great example of the power of the university as catalyst. The TDRR event brought together academic scientists, industry representatives, investors, service providers, and students in a relaxed setting that showcased impressive technologies from the Fraunhofer Institute, and BU's Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Photonics departments.

From this event and others like it, we can see how the university is rising in importance as a potential "third place" for the creative class — a organization that drives community, that people can rally around, interact with, support, and contribute to in an informal way. While this aspect of the university is far from the barbershop or bowling leagues that urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg referred to in his ground-breaking work on community interaction and democratic engagement "The Great Good Place", this type of gathering ends up serving a similar purpose. Because, while the event headline is focused on technology, the event itself is about community.

As other community and civic organizations decline in membership, it's apparent that the creative class needs new ways to drive engagement. And while the higher education system in the US is by no means a new institution, its place in society is evolving to become a cornerstone of intellectual and entrepreneurial activity. And, like the local bar or cafe, the university can represent a "home away from home" where community can flourish. This evolution of creative community is widespread. In a similar fashion other organizations, such as tech incubators, shared worked spaces, innovation centers, and open studios leverage academic style collegial atmosphere and a desire for research and experimentation, and fuse it with business savvy and entrepreneurial mentorship.

The increasing importance of the university as intellectual community hub has helped to attract research and development labs from major technology corporations such as Google and Microsoft to the Boston area. A recent headline from the Boston Globe, "For Pfizer, Boston's medical labs a lure: Drug giant seeks academia's help" says it all. Pfizer is building the worldwide headquarters of its Centers for Therapeutic Innovation in Boston's Longwood Medical Area to operate in close proximity to the teaching hospitals there.

At Involution, we've long believed that a deep involvement with the higher education system is key to the long-term success of our company. Our engagement with the university system begins with active recruitment of designers and engineers from local and regional schools. Our co-op and apprenticeship programs bring students and recent grads to the studio to work side-by-side with our software team. Juhan Sonin, Involution's Creative Director, teaches product design at MIT. And our open office hours every Thursday, are a way for us to foster the open discussion and cross-pollination of ideas with start-ups and companies of all sizes.

MIT Meeting

The final presentations for MIT's product design course attracts a crowd.

There's no doubt that Boston's Innovation Economy is strengthening the bonds between academic research and the private sector in ways that not many could have predicted just a few years ago. As we transform, bit by bit, from an industrial to a knowledge economy, the mills and factories of yesterday give way to the studios and labs of today, and the civic organizations of the past make way for a future closely tied to the university and the community surrounding it.

Energy is the industry that IT forgot — or at least until recently. While sectors as varied as finance and healthcare, entertainment and communications have roared ahead with digitization, automation, and analytics, the energy industry has not evolved as rapidly. Despite this fact, it's clear that the future of energy lies in software. In both conservation and sustainability, software offers great possibilities for innovation — enabling companies to understand consumption trends, make better decisions about energy usage, and improve efficiency and performance over time.

Last week, at the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council seminar "New Tools for the Energy Challenge", panelists discussed the opportunities and challenges facing the fledgling energy software space. The panel, moderated by Gabe Cole, SVP Transformation Services at technology consulting firm Telwares, included: Badri Raghaven, CTO of FirstFuel; Ganesan Ravishanker, CIO of Wellesley College; Lillian Smith, Principal User Experience Designer at Autodesk; and Kevin Johnson, CEO of Outsmart Power Systems.

The panelist discussion revealed an industry undergoing deep and sometimes difficult transformation. When it comes to energy, there is little in the way of open data standards regarding consumption, and public utility companies act as gatekeepers to that information. As a result, a large part of the challenge of analyzing and optimizing energy consumption, comes in finding the right data. And there's no doubt that access to emerging data resources will be a major part of addressing energy issues in the future.

OutSmart Power Systems — an energy analytics company based in Natick, Massachusetts — solves the data problem by measuring energy consumption at the individual piece of equipment level. The company's specialized sensors can turn a building's existing breakers into smart nodes and transform the electrical wiring infrastructure into a power management network. Sensor data transmitted from each electrical panel is stored in the cloud, where it can be accessed and analyzed. The company's software enables building managers to measure and visualize equipment performance, electrical infrastructure, and energy costs by providing detailed information about where and how much electricity is being used, in real time. With this type of information, managers can baseline their performance and make appropriate changes. In the grocery and food vertical, for instance, OutSmart's aggregated data about refrigerator compressors is being used by facilities managers to benchmark and validate performance based on manufacturer's specifications.

While OutSmart provides circuit and individual equipment detail for energy consumption analysis, FirstFuel approaches power usage assessment at the commercial building level. FirstFuel's platform is designed to scales across entire portfolios, providing building owners and managers with insights into energy consumption trends and opportunities for immediate savings in their properties. For this analysis, FirstFuel's inputs include electrical consumption data from the utility, local weather, and GIS building information. The analytics software distills the raw data into weather and occupancy related loads, end-use consumption, and daily usage profiles which are incorporated into a Remote Building Assessment revealing how efficiently energy is used in each building. FirstFuel benchmarks end-use energy performance, provide customized operational and retrofit recommendations, and monitors and verifies savings over time.

While OutSmart and FirstFuel use consumption data to provide energy analytics for benchmarking and optimization of buildings and equipment as they are currently configured, Project Vasari, a software technology preview from Autodesk Labs, simulates energy saving components in a building's design phase. Project Vasari is a design tool for creating building concepts with integrated energy modeling and analysis features, providing architects with insight into opportunities for optimizing energy consumption.

It's clear that the design, monitoring, and analysis of energy usage across commercial buildings and facilities is still in its nascent stages. From data access to interoperability to standards, the sector has a long way to go. But the opportunities for software technology to make an impact on the energy sector, especially in the area of sustainability and conservation, are tremendous.

Involution has designed and prototyped information visualizations for Stanford University's sustainability initiatives, and we anticipate that the need for software design and development in the energy sector will only grow, as we come to the conclusion that our planet's resources, no matter how generous, are not infinite.

Stanford University Analytics Visualization

Energy use and green technology are integral to the future of business and society. Involution created this prototype to help an energy customer envision a powerful new software service.

Yesterday, at the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council's Mobile Summit, panelists and audience members eagerly discussed and debated developing for the often volatile ecosystem of mobile. The summit general session, "Content is King" featured panelists Phil Costa, Director of Product Management at Brightcove; Jeff Moriarty, VP of Digital Products at the Boston Globe; and Sanjay Vakil, Director of Mobile Product at TripAdvisor. The panel — which was moderated by Phuc Truong, Managing Director of Mobext, US — tackled questions on everything from the death of QR codes to the importance and difficulty of making mobile content findable to the developers' dilemma of native applications vs. HTML5.

Dealing with Mobile Platform Fragmentation
It's clear that the current divergence of mobile devices and operating systems is only just the beginning. While iOS has perhaps 8 different flavors of device / OS combinations in use, Android has hundreds; and, if you'd like to add Windows Phone to the mix, the total picture becomes chaotic quickly. There's no doubt that a certain amount of agility and flexibility is required to operate as a mobile content provider in this environment.

According to Jeff Moriarty, when the Boston Globe built its new Web site from the ground up in 2010-11, it decided to push boundaries, implementing the relatively new technique of responsive design to allow the site to scale across a broad range of devices and browsers. Responsive design — which uses a combination fluid proportion-based grids and flexible images from one code base to generate adaptable layouts — is gaining in popularity now, but, at the time, was far from the standard fare.

TripAdvisor, similarly, is highly concerned with fragmentation of the mobile platform, and has assembled some guiding principals to deal with it. "I don't want to ride 8 horses into battle," says Sanjay Vikal, "I'd rather ride one." This means that TripAdvisor reuses as much as possible from their Web site, while always making sure that the content is appropriate for the context. For instance, when mobile users view hotel reviews on TripAdvisor, they may first see a summary of the post, while a Web user with a desktop or laptop may immediately see longer form content. The tricky part, says Vikal, is in making sure the TripAdvisor experience remains the same across platforms.

For Brightcove, the answer to providing the right content in a mobile context may be careful curation. "Require people to make fewer decisions," says Phil Costa, "and they will follow a path."

The Death of QR Codes
Of course, as new mobile technologies come to life, others must surely die; And the panel was united in its disdain for QR codes. The pixelated jumbles of black and white boxes of course, have been wildly popular, used by advertisers to store URLs and send consumers off to marketing Web sites. But, the unwieldy codes have seen their peak, the panel agreed. One panelist shared a story, describing his mock horror at seeing a QR code on a Heinz ketchup bottle at a restaurant. "Do they expect me to scan this while I'm eating? You know when QR codes appear on ketchup bottles, it's over."

But, while QR codes may have had their day, image sensors will continue to be key elements for mobile interaction. Jeff Moriarty described technology that would allow you to take a picture of a print newspaper story and automatically take you to the online version, so you could share it with friends.

The Developers' Dilemma: Native apps vs. HTML5
There was no hotter topic at the summit than the native app vs. HTML5 debate. Should your company build a mobile Web site or a mobile app? For many companies, the answer to that question can depend on where they are in the customer acquisition cycle. An established company with existing products may have a much different answer to that question than a startup. Apps of course, cannot be found via search engine optimization or through casual linking from social engagement. And while native apps can still deliver more compelling experiences, HTML5 is closing the gap. If you can create that magical experience using HTML5, then you can reach a much larger audience, says Sanjay Vikal. And that, may be the most important factor of all.

Today, Microsoft fired a significant salvo in the war for a Unified User Experience, with the debut of its Surface tablet. Taking a page from the Apple playbook, Microsoft is creating both the hardware and software for the Surface, a strategy it once executed successfully, with the Xbox 360 gaming console; and twice not so successfully, with the Zune MP3 player and Kin smart phone going down in flames.

Last February, when Apple announced OS X 10.8, Mountain Lion, software industry thought leader Jean-Louis Gassée coined the phrase Grand Unified User Experience to describe what he saw in Apple's multi-platform operating systems that crossed mobile, desktop, and tablet and shared common foundational design elements. The essential idea was that no matter what the device, the user experience would feel the same, behave the same, and draw on similar patterns. Apple's Mountain Lion, of course, brings UX elements from iOS back to the desktop experience, completing a cycle of OS behavior.

Just as interesting is Microsoft's push into Unified UX, with its cross-platform operating systems consisting of Windows 8 and Windows Phone. Windows 8 — the "new Windows for new devices" — will run on tablets, laptops, and high definition all-in-ones; following a similar design structure and architecture. Fluid design tiles, plenty of gestural interactions, and a host of cloud-connected apps form the core of the Windows 8 experience.

The Microsoft Surface tablet

The Microsoft Surface tablet, running Windows 8, is a significant step forward in Redmond's Unified UX strategy.

Within this Unified UX, be it Microsoft or Apple, the user will expect their devices to synchronize, not only data, but workflow. Start a conversation on your tablet and finish it on your laptop or phone. Write a document on the laptop and edit it on the way to work on your mobile device. While some of this is certainly possible now, the new Unified UX will further integrate the separate device experiences to make them seem like they fit together naturally.

In the coming war then, for a Unified User Experience, on one side we’ll have Google with its Android / Chrome OS, on another Windows 8 / Windows Phone, and, in the strategically enviable forward position, at least for the moment, of course Apple and OS X / iOS. With its reveal of the Surface tablets, Microsoft took a significant step forward today. How soon will Apple start feeling the heat? And how soon will Google step up its game?

Last year, Internet luminary and entrepreneur Marc Andreessen wrote a significant essay in the Wall Street Journal, outlining the many ways in which software has become absolutely vital to our world. Software allows us to extend our reach even further than we did before, automating processes, accelerating the rate of change, and providing the sinews between people and data. It seems only natural then, that software has come to the forefront of business technology.

There few places more interesting to observe this shift to digital than in the tumult and promise of the cable television industry. If software is the new frontier — providing the critical guts and infrastructure, tools and products of the 21st century — then cable television needs to continue digitizing on just about every level. How this happens and how quickly, who dominates the next wave and who gets left behind, are open questions.

At the recent Cable Show in Boston, it was apparent just how intertwined the software and television entertainment industries have become. The theme for the conference, "From cloud to screen and everything in between" aptly demonstrates this new reality. Software and user experience design, in particular are critical to the nascent "Television Anywhere" revolution. On the show floor, this was most evident as cloud television platform companies and custom UX design firms shared space with more traditional players like HBO, AMC, Cisco, and Comcast. And, in the Imagine Park area of the expo, the Cable Show hosted an App Challenge for developers to "take an idea from the drawing board to a functioning, original app that leverages the power of broadband, mobile devices and connected communities" in just 48 hours.

Cable television is desperate not to suffer the same fate as the music industry, caught unawares by the rapid ascent of software technology. But, here too, the entrenched industry giants must find a way to move forward quickly or be rendered obsolete. No company epitomizes this sea change more than Netflix; once an upstart DVD by mail rental company, it is now a leading contender for the streaming video on demand business. The new and old guard mixed together a little uneasily on a conference panel where, Ted Sarandos, Netflix Chief Content Officer joined executives from organizations like Time Warner, News Corp, and Cox Communication. As Piers Morgan interviewed the panelists, it was clear that, while the screen that programming shows up on — from wide screen home theater to tablet — shouldn't matter in theory, in practice, it matters quite a bit. The number of US household without a television set is rising and the ultimate question of "Whose user is it?" is yet to be determined. If the HBO GO and Netflix iPad apps are any indication of where television entertainment is headed, even more splintered audiences are in the offing.

For the cable industry, its future business may very well be defined by the choices it makes regarding software. More so than at any time in the past, software truly is strategic. The new age of software is upon us; as Andreessen puts it, “In short, software is eating the world.”

Conan O'Brien at The Cable Show

"My attitude over the past two years was 'adapt or die'," said Conan O'Brien, discussing software and technology at The Cable Show in Boston.

In a general session one-on-one, Piers Morgan interviewed comedian and new media darling Conan O'Brien about how software applications and content intersect. Conan has used Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, to build up strong relationships with the grassroots fans of his TBS late night show. "My attitude over the past two years was 'adapt or die'," said O'Brien. "People are viewing television in a vastly different way. The technology is going to change. You need to embrace it." As in so many sectors, leveraging great software is not only becoming necessary to compete, but may be needed to even survive.

We're at the very beginnings of a significant evolution in the way we work — not just in from a technical perspective, although that's a significant driver — but in the culture and nature of work and organizational relationships. The way we work today is markedly different from the way our parents worked, and even more distant from the way their parents worked. The shift is so pronounced in part because knowledge work requires that we manipulate digital objects — be they words, videos, designs, figures, models, or code — rather than physical ones, and that these digital objects represent our production. However, for knowledge workers — designers, engineers, architects, scientists, writers, etc. — while the tools of the trade may have become digital decades ago, the process of working with others, the structure and the framework of engagement, is still catching up. And all the while, the technology continues to race forward.

While digital communication and production tools have made it possible that we no longer need be in the same physical location to collaborate, from a human interaction perspective, it still helps to meet face-to-face, read body language around the table, and share a meal. So, now we exist in a hybrid space where colleagues from across the world can meet up to kick off a project, and then continue working separately, only to meet again at critical moments in the process. Into this new digital world of possibilities, we step with the baggage of the industrial age, whether it's organizational structure, or contract language, or work culture. We're still finding our way and inventing new ways to work together to produce new things.

In our most recent Digital Life podcast episode, Erik Dahl of Involution Studios interviewed Nathan Martin, the CEO of Deeplocal about design and work innovation. Deeplocal, which began as a start-up out of Carnegie Mellon in mapping software, has shifted as an organization several times during its existence. For Martin, "It's not about having no direction. It's about having every direction". The work at Deeplocal today defies easy categorization, but has been described as "post-digital" design — projects that incorporate and integrate the digital life into the physical world. Deeplocal is best known for its work on the Nike Chalkbot, a robot which wrote messages of hope and inspiration from the Livestrong Foundation on the route of the Tour de France in 2009. Those messages were delivered via Twitter, SMS, and the Livestrong Web site, from numerous participants across the world to the robot in France.

Nike Chalkbot

The Nike Chalkbot, a robot designed by Deeplocal, wrote messages of hope and inspiration from the Livestrong Foundation on the route of the Tour de France in 2009

Building a culture of innovation, has sent Deeplocal down some non-traditional paths. The shop regularly works with artists in residence who help to infuse the value of art and creative thinking into the company culture. As Martin views it, the designer is the entrepreneurial disruptor. With that in mind, it's important to him that Deeplocal not mimic the aspects of older company models that are not successful or appropriate anymore. For Martin, independence, responsibility, and drive are key elements of the work culture. "If I have a staff of people who sincerely care about what they do, I don't have to manage them in a traditional way," says Martin. Deeplocal is a collective that does the work that needs to get done with a minimum of management, which ultimately means less hierarchy and more shared decision-making.

This kind of loose knit, highly collaborative, yet autonomous work is receiving validation beyond the entrepreneurial disruptors. Companies like game developer Valve Software and source code hosting service GitHub adhere to aspects of this organizational model. Establish the end goal, and let the workers choose the path to get there; Each person is a business unit of one. In this manner, an organization can move quickly, as individuals are responsible for their own management. This is not your father or mother's company structure, by any means.

This self-motivated, hierarchy-less model may be optimized for small teams to produce value at great speed, but large organizations can benefit from this thinking too. Imagine a small consultancy that is hired, not for a specific project by a large company, but to find out where the consultancy's skills are most needed, and then to complete work in that area. For example, software design firms frequently discover that, had they been able to help out a client company significantly earlier in a product cycle, their work would have yielded much more powerful results. And, all too often the opportunity for that kind of work is long past. An earlier engagement that enables discovery of that opportunity would be ideal both from a design and ROI perspective, all the while injecting a larger organization with some of the passion and speed that drives start-ups. In this way it may be beneficial for a large organization to allow nimble strategic partners to look at the big picture, find a problem to solve, and fit in where they're most needed.

In health care, another field impacted greatly by knowledge work and the democratization of information, the current shift to a more preventative and holistic approach to health and wellness, shares some of these very same elements — a patient centered health system flattens the hierarchy, and focuses on outcomes. It's much more effective for a health care professional to help a person lead a healthy lifestyle than it is to reactively fix problems that could and should have been anticipated.

The kind of change in organizational and corporate thinking that such working models demand, isn't likely to happen overnight, but the seeds are planted. It's clear that there is ample opportunity, as we shift work to the digital realm, to rethink the way we work together. The future of knowledge work will be less structured and more ambiguous, built around independence, but reliant on the team. Is your company ready?

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