The future of computing? It’s Minority Report: Gartner

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peter sondergaard

Gartner is pretty good at predicting the future. In the first part of our interview with the company’s head of research, Peter Sondergaard, we tackled a few predictions but mostly we chatted to him about Apple, Facebook and the current state of innovation.

Gartner is a New York Exchange-listed information technology research and advisory firm based in United States. Gartner knows everything. It has predicted the future of pretty much all devices and all web experiences. So we decided it was worthwhile to ask Sondergaard to gaze into Gartner’s crystal ball and give us some inside information. Sondergaard is responsible for the management and direction of the global research organisation, which includes Hardware and Semiconductors, as well as Software and Communications.

In short he knows what’s what. Sondergaard is of the opinion that the future will look a little like Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report where a sheet of glass is a computer. He reckons the next big thing in the tech revolution will see physical devices, such tables and chairs, connected to the internet.

The Gartner boss also spoke about where some of Gartner’s predictions are today and how many times the company has been wrong. According to Sondergaard, “somewhere between 75 and 80% of the predictions that are generally accurate”.

Sondergaard believes that our web experience in 10 years time will be more 3D oriented, “something that has wearable technology and different metaphors of navigation” and more visual.

Memeburn: How do geo-fenced and mobile payment technologies affect business and how do you see these themes playing out in the future?
PS: I think we, right now, are in a massive battle of mobile payment systems and alternative transaction systems for money. I think you’re seeing it with what’s happening with the credit card companies who are actually trying to work together with the telecom operators and establish partnerships for this. I think you’re seeing it with Square, with Google [Wallet] and PayPal, creating alternative networks.

I think the fascinating part of this is that it starts to rock the foundation of our financial services system. You can imagine that there could be a place in the future in which what happened with Iran six months ago (which is you shut down the SWIFT system access to Iran), that might not be possible anymore. Because if you have a multitude of different payment systems that operate in alternative manners, you now have complete democratisation and with that also comes the unfortunate situation that you can’t control things as well as you have in the past.

I think there are always good and bad things that come out of this, but we are in a massive competitive battle over how the transaction flows of the money are going to happen in the future. The forefront of that battle is what’s happening on mobile payment systems on mobile platforms.

But in the back-end, you also have alternative methods of creating money – I’m an economist – so that just starts to question whether our calculations for GDP is correct. Because if you have barter networks and networks that create other sources and definitions of money that I can trade with, or I can trade with other people, then how do you assess the size of an economy? This is a fascinating space.

MB: We’ve seen seismic shifts on the web: the search revolution, the web 2.0 revolution, then the social revolution, and now the mobile and tablet revolution – each changing our online experience fundamentally. What is the next seismic shift in your opinion and where will it come from?

PS: The next thing – and this is not going to be a surprise – the next thing is actually the connection of physical devices to the internet (well, physical assets). So basically, table chairs, cars, airline engines, medical equipment, everything that has been using computers but in an isolated and closed environment will be connected to the internet and this is what will generate an unprecedented amount of data. I don’t think people can fathom the amount of data that will be created once it is such that every airplane that lands has every one of the two or four engines connected to the internet and we continually generate data from those engines when it’s up in the air.

So the internet of things is really the next step, then you have the internet of everything, because everything is connected. It’s this next phase that is fascinating because it actually generates whole new opportunities for revenue stream, because I can create different products. I can create value add on top of my product set because I can give you information that you never had that may be able to optimise what you’re doing. So that is really the next step.

Once we have that, then you start to integrate with the data, and what happens then is more on the software architectures on top of this, which is when you get to things like augmented reality, gamification in the systems, because you’re now talking about ‘how can I use the systems and how can I operate differently in the environment?’

MB: Gartner predicted that more Fortune 500 companies will opt for gamification apps by 2014. Do you have any stats on which companies have successfully done this?
PS: I don’t – you’ll need to talk to some of the analysts on this, because there are a series of companies. There’s the linear evolution of gamification that happens on people’s websites as they’re trying to get the consumer to use the device differently. That’s wave one of gamification: implementing it in how consumers use my products and you see this in the integration with social networks. This is what companies like Starbucks do in terms of integration between the social network presence that Starbucks has and the in-store experience. So it tends to happen sort of in the retail space.

You could argue that this is also what has initially spun off things like Groupon, although it’s not gamification, it is ‘we’re trying to get you to buy something and we’re creating a different experience.’ The next wave, which I haven’t heard any of the analysts have examples of yet, is where we redesign our enterprise systems because [of] the way we want to have people operate (instead of paying people more salary, because this could be the way). They have people play games. It’s the one thing people can do for free and they’ll even pay for it, even though they know they won’t win anything. That’s where we think the next wave is but that hasn’t happened a lot yet.

MB: Gartner predicted that context will determine who wins in the tech industry. Who do you think is winning the battle of context-aware computing?
PS: It’s too early. We’re still trying to establish how we can use location-based information and how to do that in an efficient manner that allows you also to be cognizant of the privacy rules that exist. That’s also why there isn’t a global market for things like this, because privacy rules vary across the globe. There is no leader in this space. The only thing that’s clear is that the large providers are lagging behind what are sort of smaller startups. IBM doesn’t have a mobile strategy, so IBM is not a leader when it comes to context-aware computing in any way or form.

MB: Given that it is so easy to publish and distribute content online, is media a good business anymore?
PS: Trust and integrity is the most important thing, and it’s something you can break. There are millions of people who will read magazines (that they all know are false) about what happens with celebrities… but I do think that trust that is created in the media industry around a brand is valuable because people will flock to areas that they trust and areas that develop and that have demonstrated integrity.

It’s funny, when I arrived, one of the other analysts and I were talking about CNN. CNN uses YouTube so they have no clue who actually filmed it… so anybody can actually be a journalist. But the question is do you trust it? I think therefore trust which can be embodied in a brand is still incredibly important, and likely even goes greater in importance over the next number of years.

Educating children on critiquing sources of information is actually increasingly important. The education system is structured around the fact that we use books that we know the people who wrote the book. But if you look at education today it’s done using the web and kids go out and search for things. We don’t actually teach them. I spend a lot of time with my son going ‘where did you get it from? Do you trust them? Do you think that this sounds plausible, that it could be right?’ I think that we need education and that will help the media as well.

MB: Given that the app experience is richer, faster and people are now bypassing the web for their “internet media experience”, is the web in decline? How will the web evolve?
PS: I think if you don’t have a presence on mobile-based devices you will likely not have presence for long. I think it’s that simple, because people consume things and they’re going to consume them on the go. That does not mean that we won’t actually then sit back at some stage and it may involve a big screen and have a more immersed experience. But we will always have to have the experience available on a device like these, and if it’s not there, then certainly the more sophisticated experience is not likely valuable.

It’s interesting, because I was in Silicon Valley a few weeks ago, and I met with a couple of the large game companies (Electronic Arts and Ubisoft) and it was fascinating because they were both saying that they have about four years to dismantle half of their business. Because half of the business – the number of people who work there – are all looking at how you distribute CDs to game consoles. And they know it is dead. Who wants to do that when you can play games [online]?

But the other important thing which is really complex for them is that they build a game platform experience that runs from that one to that one to your large screen. You can’t only have the large screen; you have to be present here [on mobile] as well. The sophistication of the games is now that you need to determine which part of the game you play here [on mobile] versus which part of the same game you play on large screens. That’s the forefront of design in games because you have to be present here [on mobile] but people also want to play on large screens and that’s really complex.

That’s a fascinating world because it also demonstrates the forefront of where we are, because large companies need to think the same way. Because in essence, this is how the people who will be employed by large companies in the future will think.

MB: What will the web look like in ten years’ time?
PS: I think the sort of tectonic plate evolution of the foundations of what we use means that there are some things that won’t be very different. They were not either 20 years ago. We had large enterprise systems and they were really slow. But I think the web is going to be something that is available to us everywhere. The usage metaphor is going to be very close to what we have experienced as kids in science fiction movies. It will be more 3D oriented, it will be something that has wearable technology and different metaphors of navigation and it will be very much driven around a visual experience of walking in an information-based environment.

I think with what you’re seeing with wearable technology and what we can do with that already today, you extrapolate out 10 years… I think it will be amazing. The forefront of what we can do today is determined by what we have in gaming environments, and if you look at what you’re doing on the Microsoft Kinect… what you’re doing there from a navigation-metaphor perspective, if you extrapolate that out with different devices that are now connected. That’s the usage experience that you will have – the web will be simple. The web needs to continue to be simple. It needs to be intuitive and it needs to be simple for the user, but it will hide the complexity of what sits in the back-end. And that’s been the strength of the web.

The last thing is that the connection of things that we have – every physical asset – ten years from now, any product that would cost US $500, would be connected to the internet. Any new product we could buy a couple of years out would start to get connected to the internet. So the experience of the internet changes completely when that happens.

MB: Should media companies be worried about basing their business model on banner advertising? Will it fade out in the future?
PS: I think that certain aspects of banner advertising will be viable over the next couple of years. I just think we evolve in sophistication in terms of how we advertise and integrate the whole aspect of promotional activities into whatever we do from a media perspective. The fascinating thing that will happen with marketing is the complete digitisation of marketing. Because once it’s digitised, you can measure it.

You can assume that there is some impact of a TV commercial in terms of people buying stuff. When it is such that it is completely digitised, we can measure whether or not it is effective. So what will happen is that organisations will grow more and more sophisticated in terms of what works and what doesn’t work. So right now we only have rudimentary tools to actually figure out whether banner advertising works, but as we start to get the contextual environments more and more mature, we will be able to look at the derived impact of things.

So this digitisation of marketing will revolutionise things, so it could question whether or not certain forms of marketing (like using banners) is as effective as other things like product placement inside an article, which you then need to decide whether that’s a good thing to do.

MB: Are we in the post-PC era and what will computers look like in ten years’ time?
PS: If you define ‘the PC’ as being a clunky piece of equipment of which part of it is under the table and part of it is on the table and part of it is a big clunky screen, then yes, we are in the post-PC era. We have disconnected the actual computational and storage aspect of things from the screen and the sheet of glass is now expandable or collapsible in the sense that it can be either a smartphone or a tablet or a screen that may not in fact look like the kind of screen we have. It could be your TV, we have shareable large screens. So in that sense we are in the post-PC era, and I think we will continue to evolve more sophisticated metaphors of interacting with that computational device and the screen.

Also, we will start to see how this moves from the two-dimensional to the three-dimensional capability of navigation, which you start to see in some aspects of how organisations are using it. We’re not far from what you see in movies where people can move things around. I mean in essence you can do that today.

If you look at Minority Report, in essence you can take that screen and I could have an air mouse, and the screen would be a real sheet of glass. It will be very close to what you see in Minority Report. You can do even more sophisticated 3D based environments. We’ve seen that in some of the projection systems that exist today where you can project people in a 3D perspective in on a stage.

MB: Have you ever made any predictions that went wrong?

PS: A couple of times throughout the last 10 to 15 years, we have tried to do a snapshot. Keep in mind, it’s not that easy. You have to go back in a certain time frame and then you have to look forward (because most of them are forward-looking) and you have to determine what is accuracy. A prediction includes a period of time and a statement of what we believe will happen and some of the details around what that is.

Is it incorrect if you get it wrong by one year? I don’t know. What is the definition of something being correct? On average, it’s somewhere between 75 and 80% of the predictions that are generally accurate. However, you could even then start to parse down the definition of a prediction. The statement about Windows 8: one, you base it on a lot of historic information and you base it on a lot of well-known information on what the behaviour of companies is. The time frame is very short — it’s not like you’re stating something about Windows 8 in 2018, it’s now. You can also look at predictions that are short-term, predictions that are based on something that is 2017 or 2018 (something short-term) to likely narrow the likelihood of you hitting that prediction.

Bottom line: 75 to 85% is what we feel comfortable with, and is sort of in-line. It would be utterly wrong if they were all correct. I would stay if they were all correct then you’re predicting the known, and therefore there has to be something that could be incorrect.

Number two, the way we work with our clients is that they are continuously our clients, and therefore you can take something that we say that’s far-reaching, and then over time you can see how things narrow down into becoming accurate. When you take a snapshot in time, you’re looking at something that may have started here. Everything that we talk about with context-aware computing, six or seven years ago, was very far-reaching and the predictions then were not accurate. But I think that we would all agree that context-aware computing is here and happening and there are several phases of it.

Image: Axel Bührmann

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