Technology inflection points are great times for entrepreneurs. When a new set of technologies is making its way through the world, innovators and bold thinkers who can apply the new technologies to solve old and new problems benefit tremendously.
Think back to the industrial revolution of the 1800s , which was arguably the first technology-led revolution. Entrepreneurs thought of all kinds of contraptions - from steam engines to new mining machines to railways - and created enormous amounts of wealth for themselves and for society.
The last two big shifts in technology -The desktop-PC era of the 1980s and the Internet era of the last decade or so have created enormous opportunities that ambitious entrepreneurs jumped upon. Microsoft, Oracle, Intel etc... benefited from the PC era and Yahoo, Google, Facebook and millions of others created wealth in the internet era.
And here we are today, going through another technological shift that has thrown up millions of new opportunities - The arrival of smart mobile devices - SmartPhones and Tablets means there is now room for a new breed of entrepreneurs that can solve problems in new and interesting ways.
Smartphones and tablets have applications nearly everywhere, and I’m particularly interested in one area - The enterprise market. In yesterday’s column I talked about this a little bit, and I want to explore the opportunities available in this space. I firmly believe that there is a lot that can be done to help the 100s of millions of office workers become more productive.
I don’t think we’ve seen the tablet in its final form. Tablets today are great for consuming content, but not so much for creating it, which in many ways is what office workers actually do. Can something be done here? When you’re holding a tablet with your two hands, your thumbs are front, but the four fingers on each hand are behind the device. Can we put some sort of trackpad or buttons here? PS3 and XBOX owners will recognize this design from the controllers – The L1/L2/R1/R2 buttons are on the front side of the controller, where your index and middle fingers are. Can we use these additional buttons to make it easier to type or navigate on a tablet?
These additional buttons could be very powerful when combined with 3D displays on tablets. You should be able to interact with the tablet using buttons on both the front and the back, and since the display is 3D, objects on the screen can go deeper or closer, and the interaction model will be quite natural.
Another area where office workers spend lots of time are spreadsheets. Spreadsheets were originally laid out in tabular form because of the text-based screens that made it easy to navigate with the arrow keys. This no longer holds on tablets. Clicking, zooming and panning are the easiest operations on a tablet, and I think we can design spreadsheets for that paradigm. Instead of cells that are locked in rows and columns, maybe we can have them floating around. Cells can then be dragged and snapped into their places, allowing the user much more control over the spreadsheet. And when you want to enter formulas, you can drag a line between cells to connect them. The spreadsheet now looks more like a group of cells interconnected by lines, which will make them significantly easier to understand as well as create.
Combine it with a 3D interface that we discussed earlier - And now you have cells that can be interconnected in multiple dimensions, making them easier to navigate. “Drilling down” can now be done literally - If you have a cell called “Interest Income” that you want to understand better, you should be able to zoom into it, and view how it is connected underneath the cell. Once you are satisfied, zoom out into the big picture.
And finally there is the presentation software. Actually, I’m not even a fan of the current presentation formats – PPTs invariably put me to sleep. A presentation should be a story-telling aid, but more often than not PPTs look like a jumble of ideas that no one can make neither head nor tail out of.
There’s a format that tells a story in a series of slides with remarkable success - Comic books. Can we create a presentation tool that is an aid to tell a story than a fancy box-drawing tool? I’m thinking of a cross between Prezi, Google Maps and a comic book strip. You can zoom in and out of the presentation, like exploring a map. And when you see an idea that you want to explore more, you can change layers to see various forms of the idea, while employing the traditional slides to describe the idea in more detail. When you zoom out, you can see how the ideas are connected (This aspect of a presentation is almost always missed out) and how they work together.
I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible, and you can certainly think of 100s of better ideas. We’re lucky to be witnessing this phase of evolution, and to be participating in it. Now is the opportunity to focus on a problem and an idea that you think will work in the current mobile-devices era and building the next great company that solves the problem.