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Thinking ahead of the times

Jobs' approach to products: Prophet & Loss


Technology companies use the art of future-casting to explore - and in some cases predict - consumer trends.

In a note titled 'Legacy' in his recently published biography, Steve Jobs looks back at his life as the CEO at Apple. And one thing particularly grabs attention - Jobs' approach to products. "Some people say, 'Give the customers what they want. ' But that's not my approach, " he said. "Our job is to figure out what they're going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, 'If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, a faster horse!' People don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's why I never rely on market research."

This was the approach that helped Jobs shape the future and made him as good a futurist as any. In the early '80s, he was talking of a computer that could be folded like a book years before laptops arrived. In 1997, he was talking about cloud computing and connected devices that are becoming the norm only now.

Jobs wasn't the only visionary in the world of personal technology. For most technology CEOs, thinking ahead of the times is not only a way of life but also the only sure shot to survive and make money.

Take for example Jen-Hsun Huang, co-founder and CEO of Nvidia. The company designs graphics cards that allow gamers to enjoy rich 3D games on their computers. But in the beginning of the last decade, Huang decided to explore new areas and pushed to make graphics cards more open so that developers can better utilise their extremely powerful parallel computing features.

"Graphics cards as we know them today are incredibly powerful parallel processors which are extremely efficient in handling massively complex computing problems. Scientists are now experimenting with using these processors for dealing with nongraphics tasks like medical research, oil and gas discovery and financial analysis. Few people would have predicted a processor originally conceived for gaming would end up powering some of the world's top supercomputers, " says Vishal Dhupar, MD at Nvidia (Southeast Asia). Of course, not only did someone predict that graphics cards will be used to power supercomputers but also made sure it happened. Since Silicon Valley became a household name in the early '70s, companies dealing with personal technology have defined our future. Nowadays, almost all major tech companies like Intel, Nvidia and Microsoft have separate departments and senior executives - sometimes given fancy titles like that of chief futurist - whose job is to think of what could be the future and come up services and products that make use of complex technologies but are very simple and easy to use. Amit Singhal, a Google Fellow and the man who is directly responsible for the quality of search that the web giant offers, is one such person. Currently, we have this set-up where a user types in or - in case he is using a smartphone - says the search query aloud. But Singhal's vision, which he spelled out to TOI-Crest last year, involves 'search without searching'. He gave an example. "You want to buy a cricket bat and you put it on your todo list. So, your phone knows about it. It also knows which route you take to commute to from office to home because you use GPS navigation built into it. Using local business listings, it knows that several shops on the route sell cricket bats. I imagine a future when you will get a prompt from your phone telling you to buy the bat just when you are near the concerned shop, " he says. "No need to do a search. Information is available whenever you need it. "

Of course, that was last year. This year, Apple already has something similar in its iPhone. It is still not what Singhal imagined, but it is a start. By making use of GPS in iPhone, users can set up locationaware reminders like "remind me to buy milk when I reach the supermarket".

At Microsoft, meanwhile, researchers are busy devising the new ways in which people will be interacting with their environment. The company is preoccupied with what it calls 'natural user interface'. The grand vision is that of an interface similar to what was shown in sci-fi flick Minority Report where Tom Cruise used his hands to manipulate and sift through data on the screen. In some ways Kinect, which allows gamers utilizing Xbox to just wave their hands to control their virtual character on the screen, already offers some of that functionality.

Microsoft believes it is just the beginning. Now, its researchers, led by Craig Mundie, are toying with technology prototypes where holographic objects can be felt and manipulated with bare hands.

Unlike scientists and independent researchers, technological companies are not entirely egalitarian when they work to shape the future. They have their own motives. Like profit and survival. Fortunately for mankind, these motives have been strong enough to push these firms to innovate and, at times, pick very complex technologies and turn them into viable services and products that can be used by the masses.

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