Go Better Stripes

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21 July 2016 | 0

There was a time when most young people (well, mainly fellas) understood the importance and value of go faster stripes on bikes and cars, scooters and skateboards. Clearly those forward facing arrows and tapers and other smart patterns added streamlining and therefore speed over the ground to any set of wheels. Aerodynamics was not a generally understood science but in the case of those go faster stripes it was clear that they eased the airflow past the vehicle body so that resistance was reduced and it could achieve greater velocity.

The science of branding — Ferrari, Maserati, McLaren, Harley-Davidson — and colour schemes was less obvious but clearly the experts had an edge worth emulating. There was debate of course about original paintwork versus plastic decals, with the superiority of full bonding generally acknowledged, but retrofitted stripes were of great value when carefully chosen and skilfully applied.

“In many respects, what the Internet, data centres and the resulting clouds offer is the power and the functionality is inside, the interface for the individual user or end point is separate and needs only the essential functionality for authentication and access”

In consumer gadget design we are much more advanced today but the principles are still universal. For example, there is almost global agreement that white and black are the high performance body colours for smart phones and tablets. It is also recognised that curved screen displays are superior, but should our laptops and tablets be bendy or should the curvature be engineered into the device at manufacture?

There is much room for debate and engineering argument in the field of input devices. Touch typing on touch screens? Maybe, if your fingertips are not too big and the screen’s virtual keyboard is the right size and you have some mechanism to hold the device firmly. Trouble is that seems to lead us to the laptop, which we should really regard as an antique. On the other hand, finger tapping on tablets seems to work quite well for commands and short text while a stylus can overcome any digital (finger-like) disproportion with a smart phone. It is very like a pen, funnily enough, and most children are still taught how to use them even today.

ICT today ranges from smart watches and other wearables to Google and Amazon data centres in steel containers in the deserts of America. The ones gathered round the skirts of Dublin are prettier, of course. But all of those often ugly data centres are the power generating stations of the Internet Age, without the tall chimneys to give the occasional glimpse of architectural beauty. Another way to view them is as giant industrial engine rooms but with a low electric hum to replace the deep bass reverberations of the past.

The point, as always, is to separate form and function, performance from appearance. Consumers love tech, especially in gadget and easy app form. That has translated into business and scientific and government ICT in an almost spectacular way in the last few decades. It began really with the Web, colour screens and WYSIWYG. Employers, HR departments and certainly CIOs today know better than to insist on supplying corporate clunkers. It is 100% Bring Your Own or certainly Choose Your Own.

Why is ‘shadow IT’ lurking anywhere? It is a reaction to bureaucratic insistence on conformity — accompanied by sloth and reluctance in giving users what they want or need. Note that shadow IT has never been accused of motivation like malice or corruption or embezzlement. It arises so that people and teams and even whole departments can perform better. Good staff want to work hard and do well. So give them the tech they want to use. Make it easy. The other kind of employee will want the fancy stuff anyway, so either way ‘standard issue corporate kit’ is a 20th century hangover.

On the other hand, standardisation and control is essential for any organisation. The key is to separate the core functions and permissions and privileges from the inessential and superficial. One of the obviously superior solutions, until something better comes along, is the software-defined separation of corporate functionality and data from the user’s personal stuff. Technology offers multiple paths to do that securely, from soft profiles/containers to dual SIMs, memory cards and encryption and multi-factor authentication.

On portable devices, form and function are attached but separate, easily managed but capable of transition from one to the other in seconds. Perhaps one to another may be next? Certainly most parents would welcome a three-profile smart device: business, personal and shared family. Anyone who has seen a sub-three-year-old master a tablet will know why.

In employment and business, this is the way of the smart present and inevitable future. In many respects, that is what the Internet, data centres and the resulting clouds offer — the power and the functionality is inside, the interface for the individual user or end point is separate and needs only the essential functionality for authentication and access. The human user needs a display screen and some form of input device. Other growing forms of digital linking include organisation to organisation, system to system or Internet of Things where the end points may be intelligent independent devices or relatively dumb sensors and data loggers like SCADA.

Personal and domestic devices, including the coming era of autonomous vehicles, will continue to marry style and performance more closely. Our self-driving cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships, drones in the air and under water, not to mention our home and industrial robots, will continue to be the market battlegrounds of designers. We will certainly want our domestic robots to be aesthetically pleasing as well as high-performance—maybe not at the level of Eva in Ex Machina, but perhaps R2D2 or even Aibo. The Roomba, on the other hand, could do with some go faster stripes.

But it will still be what is inside that counts in almost all high tech devices. That in turn may be split in functional terms. Obviously, the individual device must have enough functionality, even intelligence as AI is distributed like an operating system, to perform its tasks and role. But in most cases there will also be a central resource of data and ‘experience’ to complement the autonomous elements. We can assume that smart house robots will take new counter top gadgets in their stride, like a future equivalent of the Nutribullet. Besides, they will be able to consult the manual wirelessly, one of the many local manifestations of the IoT. On the other hand, your home distillery or brewery, involving as it will organic and variable raw materials, may trigger consultation with the relevant Master Brewer resource to ensure the perfect pint.

In work it will be similar, something that is already an inexorable trend. Your mobile or desktop device just does not need to be much more than a smart terminal. The serious applications and computing, data storage and certainly security can be at the corporate head end. The device you use has to have the connectivity and interface capability, but anything on top of that is either for personal use and convenience or for specialist tasks. The field sales person may need a presentation screen or projector, for example, but the content can come through the smart phone or tablet. A field inspector or technician may have a full ‘helmet’ style device, allowing two-way video or even VR communications while allowing hands-free operation of tools or other local devices.

So the development of devices will and should continue apace, in engineering, aesthetics and market appeal. The range of specialist choices will also expand hugely and it is probably that all users will be multi-device. The screen of choice for the task or activity will continue to be the principal deciding factor. But the salient point is that for the foreseeable future, cloud is just the current metaphor for the centralisation of the compute power and data storage. Local devices for the most part already need just the connectivity — and of course those go faster stripes for performance.

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