Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Month: December 2010

Predictions for 2011 and beyond

It’s that time of year. Everyone is at it. As any reader of the Black Swan knows, predictions are a fools game. The real interest is in showing what we think now, not really saying “told you so” in 2012.

But there are two tipping points coming in 2011-12, which will have huge ramifications for media and technology.

The first is when mobiles overtake desktop as the main access point to the Internet. This is due in the next 18 months or so. The second is when most content online goes from being free to paid-for, and the “link” economy starts to die. They are related – the app-culture of the iPad and forthcoming competitors will make it easier for publishers to charge for content, but these apps are increasingly going to be walled gardens.

The wake-up call in media will be startling. Newspapers are only just getting the difference between regular readers / subscribers, and people who just glance at your content in passing online. As the web splinters into a smaller and smaller set of content aggregators who try to circumvent paywalls and content publishers who move to a mixture of paid-for delivery methods, linking and search will become more and more passé (with implications for Google). Expect more law suits over copyright online.

The tech market changes will be profound too. As Google’s desktop search becomes less important, Facebook and other network-based recommendations fill the gap. This isn’t a new idea, but the next 1-2 years will see it happen. As the mobile internet overtakes desktop, the devices become more crucial. Nokia will lose more ground in smartphones, and will either have to squeeze every last drop out of the emerging markets, or come up with a new idea. Someone will push hard at the basic phone market, attracting tech-phobic people who want a simple, cheap, non-Internet phone that does calls and text and little else. Nokia will miss a trick and won’t do it. Apple and Google will continue to dominate mobiles.

Google is by no means finished, but its main business of desktop search advertising will start to decline. Its services (gmail etc) will still be hugely popular, but the replacing the revenue from web searches with mobile search and other services will be tricky.

So, key years for content providers, Google and Nokia. But obviously something else will come along utterly unexpected.

My stand-off with the Boris bikes people

I’m a big fan and user of the Barclays Boris bike scheme. But a recent incident has left me pretty hacked off with their customer service.

One evening this week, at around 8.30pm, I found a Boris bike key in a docking station. I took it home, making sure that the bike it was next to was properly docked. When I got home, I called the number on the key to report it lost, anticipating that the bike people would deactivate it, and send a new one to the registered user. What a good citizen. Job done.

Instead, the woman on the phone told me to take it to a police station. I said this wasn’t practical, and they should just reissue a new key and I would throw the one I found away. She made a note of the key number, and that was it.

Then the following morning I get a call on the phone. At 9am. This is less than 12 hours after I called the night before. A man from the Barclays Cycle scheme asks me at which police station I have dropped the key in. As if it was my top pre-breakfast priority of the day. I said I didn’t have time. He said that I “had to”. Really? I have to go to the police with a lost bike key? Yes, he said, otherwise the owner might incur a £1.50 charge for a new key.

Now I was angry. I want to be a good citizen and all, but:

  1. I didn’t give the cycle people permission to use my phone number, or even give them my number at all – they have used caller ID, but I’m not too happy about that. Why should they call and pester me?
  2. More importantly, why should I go to my local police station and queue for ages to explain this simple issue? I don’t even know where my local police station is.
  3. Even more importantly, why the hell are the police being used as a lost property office? They already deal with thousands of lost mobiles. I’d rather they solved crimes than acted as a drop-and-pick for bits of kit from TfL.
  4. £1.50 is nothing compared to the charges a malicious person could have racked up by grabbing a bike, and dumping it or running around town with it – there’s a £150 late return charge and £300 for losing a bike. It’s less than the price of a coffee.

So I hung up on him. I still have the key. It’s number 5129215. If someone wants to claim it, they can get in touch with me. Just let me know which bike docking point you left it in, and which night.

How skiing is missing a trick

Disclaimer: I’m skiing this week.

Skiing is an expensive sport. There’s the clothes, equipment hire, the ski pass, and the travel to and from the resort. And that’s before you see the prices on the restaurant menus.

Skiing is also quite a high-tech sport. The equipment and technology changes almost every year, with different types of ski, cleverer glasses and goggles. I’ve seen Russians wearing what looks like kevlar body armour, skis of all shapes, all sorts of clever kit.

But one area where the whole experience is failing to keep up is in data and mapping. There are two things that are just screaming out for a bit more thinking. If these exist, I’ve not seen them.

First – congestion maps. In every ski resort, there are big boards with a map of the area, showing lifts and runs that are open and closed. Would it be so hard to also show which runs or lifts have the most people on? Queuing at lifts is a pain. Why not show the congested parts of the resort, so that skiers as a group can regulate their movements? If you can do it for cars, you can do it for ski resorts.

Second – give skiers their own data. Every resort now issues ski passes that contains a chip to get through the gates and on to the lifts. For a small surcharge, why not give skiers the option to download which lifts they have been on in their holiday, and map them to show where they have skied?

This would be a fantastic addition to any holiday for competitive skiers. How many miles did you ski? How far did you get? You could share maps, create groups and league tables – the possibilities are vast. It’s such a missed opportunity.

The technology is in place, all it would take is just making the data available to the user. Each pass has an ID number, and each issuer has a record of who bought it  – just make it available online. A ski pass costs anything from 30 to 70 euros per day – and a week pass is almost always in three figures. Just add on 15 euros for the data administration – or build it into the price. Everyone would love it.

The only argument I’ve heard against it is that anyone who cares can map their runs using GPS on their iPhone or similar. Except – who wants to incur mobile phone data roaming charges abroad? They can run into the thousands.

Give us our ski data! I know, I know. I’m sure there won’t be a big campaign for ski data transparency, but if there is, let’s say it started here.

Zuckerberg vs Hirst

Sounds good, doesn’t it? The billionaire geek of Facebook vs the once bad-boy of BritArt.

But in what context? What are you on about, I hear you ask. It’s simple really. What actually counts in this world: ideas, or execution?

Yesterday I saw an ad on the train for the Judge Institute in Cambridge (my home town) quoting Alfred North Whitehead:

The vitality of thought is an adventure. Ideas won’t keep. Something must be done about them.

That was in the 1880s. So what has this got to do with Zuckerberg or Hirst?

A lot, in fact. If you think the idea is all important, and don’t care about execution, then Hirst is your man. You can “own a Hirst” which has never been touched by Damien. Who cares about the execution? It’s the idea. Hirst gets the credit, the money, the process is immaterial. This was recently discussed in the FT’s arts podcast – the artist as businessman.

But if it’s all about execution, then you’re in the Facebook camp. It wasn’t the first social network, or the second. Facebook, if you believe the movie, wasn’t even Zuckerberg’s idea. It was brain child of the Winkelvoss twins. But, as the character says in the film, “if you were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.” Even if Zuckerberg didn’t come up with Facebook, he executed it. It’s his. He is the one worth x billion, rather than with the $65m settlement.

If you are a Zuckerbergist, then Hirst should be worthless – he just has an idea of the art. Someone else puts it together. Where’s the execution? It’s just mindless reproduction.

Somehow in this world both Zuckerberg and Hirst are very very rich. One is richer than the other, by a big factor, but that’s not the point. Both models seem to co-exist. Maybe this is to misrepresent Hirst. Perhaps his big idea is about the endless reproduction, about pushing art as a brand, and in so doing retains both the idea and the execution of the idea, even by not using his own hand. What does he do? The idea is to market the idea. It’s a meta-economy.

Or perhaps we were all moving that way. Martin Wolf, my colleague and the world’s most influential financial journalist, summed it up in 2007:

Neoclassical economics analysed economic growth in terms of capital, labour and technical progress. But, I now think, it is more enlightening to view the fundamental drivers as energy and ideas. Institutions and incentives provide the framework within which the development and application of useful knowledge transforms the fossilised sunlight on which we depend into the stream of goods and services we enjoy.

If you have an idea, it’s worthless. If you execute that idea, you’ll make money (assuming it’s a good one). But if you can sell that idea over and over again, and yet retain the rights – well, that’s priceless.

The Bric games

With Russia winning in its bid to host the 2018 World Cup, all four Bric countries are now cemented on the sporting stage. From China hosting the Olympics in 2008, to Russia in 2018, there is a defined 10 years where these four countries are moving from being an global economic story to centre stage of global sport.

In between, we have will have had India’s commonwealth games in Delhi this year, and Brazil with the task of hosting the World Cup and Olympics just two years apart, in 2014 and 2016 respectively.

Fifa and the IOC have clearly grasped the developing world concept. Beijing beat three developed world cities to the Olympics back in 2001 (Toronto, Paris and Osaka – the other was Istanbul). Delhi was chosen over Hamilton, Canada. Brazil was the only bid for 2014, but Rio won the 2016 Olympics over Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago. Russia beat a trio of “old Europe” bids – the UK, Spain/Portugal and Holland/Belgium.

So developing is in. Established is out. Throw South Africa 2010 and Qatar 2022 into the mix, and you have a clear indication of the way these sporting events are being allocated. London 2012 might be the last of its kind for a long time.

Going back to the four Brics, what can we expect? So far, the interesting thing is not the similarity, but the differences. China’s ruthlessly efficient Olympics in Beijing was in utter contrast to the chaos in the build up to Delhi, where the accommodation and infrastructure were barely adequate.

Brazil’s build up will be fascinating. Can a country hosting these two giant events so close find any meaningful overlap in the building work? A few airports and rail links aside, not really. A world cup needs 8 or so big (40,000 plus) stadiums dotted around the country. An Olympics needs to be based in one city, and cover (in Rio’s case), 28 sports.

A world cup hosts 704 (22*32) players. Rio’s Olympics needs to house around 12,500 athletes. The needs are quite different. This has only happened twice before: the World Cup in the US in 1994 and Olympics in Atlanta in 1996; and the Olympics in Mexico in 1968 with the football arriving two years later. The fully-blown modern version will be a very different challenge to those events. For the ’94 World Cup, the US had most of the infrastructure in terms of stadiums and airports already in place. Atlanta was a damp squib of an Olympics. In terms of competitors alone, Rio’s Olympics will be more than twice the size of Mexico City’s, with nearly 100 more countries taking part.

And so to Russia. Whether or not it is a mafia state, the rebuilding and logistics will be quite staggering. Then again, the Qatar has promised to build cooled stadiums to counter the 40-degree heat. At least they have the extra four years to get it right.

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