Short and long-term innovation

It’s the mobile innovation season again. Apple launched the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the latest operating system iOS 8, announced the much-anticipated Apple Watch and last week launched new iPads. Google unveiled plans for the new Nexus 6 phablet and the Nexus 9 tablet and a new Android operating system, Lollipop.

But what does this innovation actually amount to? Our phones are now bigger and even thinner – so much so that they bend if we accidentally sit on them.

Apple-Watch-logo-main1Apple is very focussed on getting all their technology to work “seamlessly” together. After Yosemite we should be able to start a Keynote presentation on our iPhone, pick up on our iPad, finish off on our Mac and then show it on our Apple TV, controlled by our Apple Watch. It’s clear that Apple’s future growth is going to come from getting us to buy more things and updating those we already have on a regular cycle.

Google, to some extent, is on the same merry-go-round. It too has watch software, a desktop (Chrome), phones, tablets and a TV streaming device, the Chromecast.

But Google also has Glass – a product still not ready for prime-time which has come in for increasing criticism after the initial burst of enthusiasm wore off. This Guardian review sums up the ambivalence well. What Glass does point to is a different interpretation of the way things will develop in the future.

The thing that makes Glass work is the voice interface and that is an area Google has been investing a lot of time and effort in – and with striking results.

Research by Stone Temple Consulting set out to compare results from Google Now, Siri and Cortana from Microsoft. And Google came our firmly on top – the chart here summarises those results.


Stone Temple summarise their findings like this:

So there you have it. As of October 4, Google Now has a clear lead in terms of the sheer volume of queries addressed, and more complete accuracy with its queries than either Siri or Cortana. All three parties will keep investing in this type of technology, but the cold hard facts are that Google is progressing the fastest on all fronts.

Google has been taking the whole artificial intelligence space more seriously than any other technology company. They have bought some serious talent like Demis Hassabis, the founder and chief executive of Deep Mind, the artificial intelligence business bought by Google for £400m at the start of the year.

On a visit to Microsoft way back in the 1990s I heard the head of Microsoft Research say that consumers already knew what they wanted – it was the Star Trek computer. This means a universal interface which is largely neutral about the actual device it is using at a particular moment in time.

Apple’s business model I think largely rules it out as a contender. It is too invested in creating physical devices and it is telling that it already let the Siri team depart when their work is clearly not done. (They have founded their own business called Viv aimed at delivering their version of the Star Trek computer.)

But with its heavy focus on understanding and organising knowledge, and its commitment to the development of powerful AI, my money is on Google to finally deliver the vision. And whether we access that through Glass, or through an Android-powered watch, or for that matter on the iOS platform, I’m not sure they particularly care.

The end of the German Economic Miracle?

There was an interesting article in The Observer today which argued that the German Economic Miracle maybe coming to an end. The argument was that the obsession with balanced budget had resulted in years of underinvestment in infrastructure and innovation and that the country was therefore unprepared for the challenges of it’s changing demography.

The Observer quoted Christian Democrat politician Jens Spahn saying:

“While we have been enjoying our success, we’ve been falling behind in key areas such as the digital economy. Today people across the world may be buying BMWs and Mercedes cars because of their quality engineering, but tomorrow we may be choosing one car over the next because it has superior software.”

I must say I agree with him on the car front – German cars definitely don’t prioritise software and to my mind it is unquestionable that software functionality will become more and more important for car buyers – to the point that it may indeed become a deal-breaker.

At the same time I’m not sure I really buy the picture of German industry starving for investment in advanced technologies. I have recently (and co-incidentally) been very struck by the number of times it has been a German firm behind innovative precision engineering products which have popped up in various TV programmes. In Grand Designs, for instance, any really innovative module systems seem to be built in Germany and then shipped in on the back of lorries to some forlorn plot in rainy England. And I seem to recall the huge tunnel boring machines which are cutting Crossrail tunnels under London are – you guesses it – German. And I seem to remember that the dramatic lattice work for the roof of the new Canary Wharf Crossrail station is also German.

I realise this is all rather anecdotal – but still…. it makes me wonder if the article is writing off German industry a bit too soon….