The best days of the digital world still lie ahead: David Moschella, author, ‘Seeing Digital’
Bestselling author David Moschella joins us in an interview on digital trends, startup opportunities, and implications for India.
David Moschella is the author of Seeing Digital: A Visual Guide to the Industries, Organisations and Careers of the 2020s (see my book review here). He is a Research Fellow at the Leading Edge Forum, the thought leadership arm of DXC Technology. His earlier books are Waves of Power and Customer-Driven IT.
The 200-page book provides a well-designed combination of trend analysis, checklists and worksheets for professionals to visualise and harness digital shifts. It charts the wave of change in the post-PC, post-smartphone, and post-cloud era.
In a chat with YourStory, David Moschella talks about digital transformation, voice applications, geopolitical dimension of the tech sector, and outlook for India as a third industry centre of gravity.
Edited excerpts of the interview below:
YourStory: In the time since your book was published, what are some notable new tech changes you have come across?
David Moschella: The main change has been the growing and worrisome strength of today’s tech backlash in the US and Europe. While the book clearly saw this coming, its severity is now obvious to all.
In general, the leading tech companies have not managed public and media concerns about privacy, job losses, monopoly power, AI, and societal polarisation nearly as well as they could have. They’ve lost control of the narrative, and getting back control and rebuilding public trust is proving difficult.
YS: How was your book received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions you got?
DM: One of my hopes for the book was to demonstrate a different way writing. The most obvious aspect of this effort was the picture per page format. But I also strove to make each chapter, and even each page, a standalone source of value.
It’s been very gratifying that so many people have noticed this, and that this visual and componentised way of writing has proved especially popular with readers for whom English is a second, or third, language. As one reader said: ”It’s great that I can open up to any chapter or any page, and just start using it.”
YS: As we enter 2020, what are the top tech and business trends that will have a notable impact?
DM: Clearly, the rising tensions between the US and China in terms of technology, trade, geopolitics, and political/economic models is the single biggest competitiveness change, and this will likely be the biggest tech story of the 2020s. As the book predicted, many countries are now following China’s lead taking back control of both their national internet and digital usage overall.
Like it or not, the vision of a global internet is clearly in retreat, as China challenges western technology leadership as never before. A great many companies all around the world are unsure how to respond to these bi-polar pressures.
YS: What are your findings with respect to tech startups, in terms of trends and opportunities?
DM: I like to think about waves of technology industry change in terms of the customer interface. During the PC era, applications were all redesigned for Microsoft Windows and the browser, just as in the mobile phase, everything revolved around apps and the touch screen.
Looking ahead, voice interfaces seem certain to play a very similar role, as Alexa and other services become an ever-more powerful new way to engage with a vast array of digital and analog systems. We are in the very early years of this transition, but by the end of the 2020s, the physical computer device will have all but disappeared in many areas of IT usage. As in previous eras, the startup opportunities will go far beyond our initial imaginations.
YS: What are some changes you observe in the venture capital industry? What new technologies are they betting on, and what do you think they may be missing?
DM: Much of the venture industry would like to find new industry-specific innovations that replicate the success of Netflix in video, Uber in transportation, Spotify in music, PayPal in finance, and so on. But repeating this success in, for example, media, healthcare, education, publishing, and public services has proven challenging.
In terms of what VCs might be missing, I think the biggest challenge for the US VCs is to see the vast world outside of Silicon Valley. No one can really keep check on what is going on in China, India, Korea, Israel, Sweden, and so many other innovative nations. Global VC alliances would seem to make a lot sense going forward, but they are not easy to manage, so most VC activity remains country by country.
YS: How should innovators evaluate weak signals and anecdotal evidence that seem to contradict quantitative market trends?
DM: While there is no easy answer to this question, it is a very important one, as using both hard data and weak signals is essential. But I think the difference between these two approaches is not as great as it initially appears. Accurate weak signals are actually a form of hard data, especially when machine learning is involved.
YS: How should innovators strike that delicate balance between ‘stick to your vision’ and ‘adapt to a changed world’?
DM: My advice is always to stay close to what real customers are doing. This must include traditional customers who are happy with what your traditional vision enables, but also entirely new customers who may not use your current products at all.
Microsoft is a great example in that it is now first and foremost a cloud computing company, while still enhancing its older Windows and Office software heritage. Most importantly, the company has given its traditional customers a clear path between its earlier vision and today’s emerging cloud-centric world. It’s a tremendous transformation story.
YS: How would frameworks of frugal innovation and lean startup connect with your frameworks of tech cycles and disruption?
DM: This is a very perceptive question. Companies need to realise that one size does not fit all. For example, agile methods are very useful in the early stages of development, but Six Sigma thinking is much more appropriate once one needs to operate at billion-user scale.
We like to stress that successful organisations need both agile Pioneers and reliable Town Planners, and a culture that values both equally.
YS: You mention that China has not produced many global brands in IT – but how about Huawei, Xiaomi, Lenovo?
DM: In the last year or two, China has made major progress in this area, but it still has a long way to go match the global brand presence of, for example, the leading Japanese or Korean industrial firms, let alone the US tech giants. Of course, Lenovo successfully jump-started its brand by taking over IBM’s PC business, and Xiaomi has made important gains in many developing markets, positioning it well for the future.
But it wasn’t until 2019 that Huawei became China’s first recognised global IT brand leader. This is clearly a major national accomplishment of great strategic importance, as the resulting resistance within the US suggests.
China’s challenge is to repeat this success in other areas such as AI, speech/facial recognition, payments, and so on, and significant progress seems likely. The explosive growth of TikTok is a good example of how quickly this can happen.
YS: You have rightly pointed out India’s strengths in services and analytics – what are some of your new findings with respect to the emerging startup wave in India?
DM: I will leave specific comments to people closer to the India market, but I think that since the earliest days of computing, India has debated to what extent it should leverage the leading global, mostly US, technology firms, and to what extent it should seek to be more self-sufficient in the way that China has clearly chosen.
Given its close integration with western firms in computer services, and the enormous influence of Indian technologists in Silicon Valley, academia, and elsewhere, I think India has the potential to create a unique strategic position that takes advantage of both the US and Chinese approaches, perhaps becoming a third industry centre of gravity. The possibilities are fascinating.
YS: What are the top three success factors for governments and the industry to work together and grow tech innovation in their countries?
DM: As discussed at length in the book, this is a critical digital challenge. So many of the most important opportunities and challenges of the 2020s – identification, digital currencies, smart cities/grids, voting, drones, autonomous vehicles, cyber security and more – will require successful public and private sector cooperation.
I believe governments can help in three main ways: building public support for digital usage, helping set standards in emerging areas; and being a digital leader in its own IT usage.
YS: How can social entrepreneurs and non-profit organisations make use of your tech frameworks? Are there some examples you can cite in this regard?
DM: The answer here builds off the public sector comments above. There are fantastic opportunities for social entrepreneurs in health care, education, legal services, consumer and environmental protection, transportation, care for the elderly, job training, and countless other societal needs.
A good example is hospitals and other care providers that are now leveraging Uber, food delivery services, Amazon e-commerce, and Skype to greatly enhance home-based services for the infirm. Non-profits need advanced digital usage just as much as for-profits do, maybe more given their often tight budgets.
YS: What are some ways in which people can awaken their inner creativity, and find new ways to harness tech for professional and personal purpose?
DM: I always stress that individuals don’t have to learn to program or code, but just about everyone will benefit if they make technology part of their work and life. Whether one is a teacher, an accountant, a marketing professional, and engineer, a farmer, a customer service agent, or a machine operator, knowing how to leverage digital capabilities will enhance your creativity and give you a competitive advantage, as more and more careers are re-invented.
We call people who know both their job and the relevant technologies 'double-deep'. They will be in great demand for the foreseeable future.
YS: What are some challenges and opportunities for academics and educational institutes in terms of researching IT trends, and preparing students for the workforce of the future?
DM: While there is always room for improvement, I think our leading schools do a pretty good job teaching computer science. Where they must do better is in applying digital technology to every other educational field – be it science, math, history, literature, government, or the social sciences.
Building digital into just about every form of training is the best way for societies to broadly prepare for the future.
YS: What is your next book going to be about?
DM: No plans yet, but if there is one topic I am considering, it would fall under the heading of Defending Digital – that is the need to push back against today’s Techlash by showing why digital technology will continue to do vastly more good than harm.
YS: What is your parting message to the tech startups and aspiring innovators in our audience?
DM: Don’t believe the naysayers who say that all the great innovations have been made, that you can’t compete against the tech giants, and that AI will make human ingenuity irrelevant.
The skeptics have always been there, and they’ve always been wrong. The best days of the digital world still lie ahead.