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Eye on the future

Eye on the future

They say that many of the primary school children today will be working, as adults, in jobs that haven't yet been invented. And that, even in five years, rapidly advancing technology will have created employment opportunities that we simply haven't yet dreamt about.

The phenomenon is not new. Just look back at the many redundant careers that have faded into history; blacksmiths, telex operators, camera film developers, light house keepers, typewriter repairers, night soil collectors, silent movie actors, Latin speakers, town criers...and many more. Even at the end of the 20th century, who would have known what a 'blogger' or a 'podcast' was?

Surprisingly, however, it can be argued that many modern day innovations were originally conceived centuries ago.

Brilliant painter and Renaissance inventor Leonardo Da Vinci invented the parachute, hang glider, submarine, battle tank and helicopter, in the 15th and 16th centuries, hundreds of years before they actually came to pass. He was so far ahead of his time that some people even have wild theories about him having time-travelled from the future.

Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone in 1876, didn't set out to help people talk to one other over long distances. He was aiming for a way to share radio programs without wires (perhaps anticipating the invention of the iPod and the iTunes store, about 100 years early).

American pop artist icon Andy Warhol forecast, in the late 1960s, the way the media was going: 'In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.' This was decades before the awesome popularity of the World Wide Web, 'invented' by UK-born US citizen Timothy Berners-Lee in 1989 (the first website was online in 1991), and social networking sites such as YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Xanga, Reunion.com and Flickr.

Another irony is that the web grew from the cold-war nuclear apocalypse fears of the late 20th century. It was originally devised as a method to diversify military communications, so that individual nuclear strikes would not cut communication links.

Everybody is fascinated with the future and the way technology is rapidly changing our world.

On this topic, some of the biggest global names from television, gaming and technology industries recently joined discussion panels, on the CNN Future Summit: Virtual Worlds program, hosted by Kristie Lu Stout and airing on CNN throughout June, July and August, to discuss their vision of how technology will change our future. (To join the debate, or for more information and replay times, log on to www.cnn.com/futuresummit.)

CIO Asia took the opportunity to garner the thoughts of some of these prominent technology players, about the world to come.

Mobile contacts

Early video game business pioneer, Trip Hawkins, who founded EA and 3DO, is now head of Digital Chocolate, a leading developer of games and applications for mobile phones.

Based in San Mateo, California, US, Digital Chocolate offers many of the world's most popular games, including Tower Bloxx, MLSN Sports Picks, Scarlotti's Mafia Wars 2, Mobile League WordJong, Bubble Ducky and Johnny Crash.

Hawkins is credited with having introduced the use of celebrities and athletes in video games. His achievements include award-winning bestsellers such as John Madden Football, Army Men, M.U.L.E, Doctor J and Larry Bird Go One on One, and High Heat Baseball.

Early in his career, he played a key role in defining the personal computer at Apple, and Hawkins says the games for mobile phones industry has a huge potential market.

"This is coming from a tremendous unmet social need that people are experiencing in modern urban settings, because they don't live in a little village anymore where they had a perfect social life," he says. "They may live in a high-rise apartment and they don't know their neighbors, they spend too much time watching television alone.

"I think we are now in the era of social computing. We're at a tipping point where the world is rapidly growing to an audience of three billion consumers with a mobile phone and the handsets are now second or third generation data phones, with color displays and much larger memory capacity and faster processing," he says. "It's happening very, very rapidly, there's really never been anything that's grown this fast.

"If you're now older than 70 years, you might be one of the last people on earth who never has a mobile phone. I think that everybody younger than 50 has one and as the years go by, the penetration will get even closer to 100 per cent."

Hawkins is not deterred by the current gap in the level and sophistication of technologies between computers and mobile phones.

"So the phones are not as powerful as PCs, but they are as powerful as PCs may have been 25 years ago, and the networks aren't as fabulous as broadband is today, but they're as good as it was 10 years ago, so we actually have a lot of technology to work with," he says.

"We want the public to think of the mobile phone as a great platform for content like games which is just as relevant to them as any other platform, and not thinking of it as being a second-rate gaming console, or a second-rate television, or a second-rate music box.

We think that is eminently feasible. It just requires more original thinking about what the mobile phone is best in the world at doing."

Mobility and social interaction are key reasons why the mobile phone is so popular and Hawkins says it will continue evolving.

"We have a slogan 'seize the minute' because we know that people are very busy in the modern lifestyle and are very mobile," he says. "Knowing they have a game platform on their mobile phones that they're always carrying around with them, we can help them use that extra minute, whether it's just to have some fun for themselves, or actually competing with others and sharing some sense of community around it.

"Using one of these applications can be a theme for meeting new people and having that actually lead to a reality in their social life, not just a virtual social experience."

But, Hawkins says the mobile phone games business is based on much more than just having fun.

"The very big opportunity is for mobile applications to be a way for people to stay in touch and to have themed activities together and to meet new people, so the game play is not so much about killing time and being amused, it's more about having a context for contact," he says. "People attribute a tremendous value to social contact, much more so than what they're willing to pay just to be amused by themselves."

Hawkins says Digital Chocolate was now introducing what they called 'mobile games 2.0'. This was a business model to elevate mobile content to be more like the internet and to have viral spread and have internet-style cross promotion and also Web 2.0-style social community features with user-generated content. "We think this is going to be a very important step forward for mobile content that will enable the market to kind of get unlocked and grow a lot faster," he says.

Another new Digital Chocolate development is an application called brain juice, which is a 'brain training' game.

"Neuro scientists have finally proven that you are always growing more brain cells and that there are things you can do to keep your mind sharp," Hawkins says. "It's just a great opportunity if you have a typical mobile lifestyle. At times when you're in public and you're waiting, if you can do things that can keep your brain sharp, that's the beautiful thing."

From a business perspective, Hawkins says the use of email and SMS has 'spread like wildfire' and he expects using increasing use of phone technology to supervise staff and develop productivity.

"We're only just beginning to see the use of OBS or GPS information about location and I think that has a lot of value in business," he says, "particularly if you have a lot of employees who are out in the field and you're trying to figure out who should respond to a particular opportunity and who's closest to it and that sort of thing."

Social networking

Another stellar performer in web business, this time social networking, is the three-year-old company WangYou, based in Beijing, which already has some nine million users, with increasing numbers logging in daily.

WangYou founder, Buddy Yee, has more than 10 years' experience in founding, leading and managing start-up companies in China's new media and technology sector.

He is not happy when people describe his enterprise as a combination of services like those provided by MySpace and YouTube, preferring to call it "a Chinese youth-oriented networking place".

"We are promoting Chinese self-expression and provide everything for it," Yee says.

"We are an internet property, an internet platform that people from 15 to 25 years of age can use to express themselves through user-generated content like video, audio, personal journals, photo albums, radio talk shows, home movies, flash animation, cartoons, blogs and podcasts.

"Our users, on average, spend between 20 and 40 minutes within the site every day, to make their own songs or film their video clips, or write their blogs and upload them. They also participate in community competitions by rating other people's products.

"Previously they didn't have the opportunity to entertain themselves, but today they do."

Two years ago, WangYou launched China's first user-generated-content (UGC) entertainment radio program, The WangYou UGC Happy Hour, through its extensive partnership with more than 60 radio stations across the country. It expects that an average 300 million Chinese people across 25 provinces will be listening to the program, with users creating and publishing all the music and comedy content.

Registered users vote for the most popular songs, which are packaged and distributed weekly to radio stations across the country. Via its strategic partnership with the two largest mobile operators in China, WangYou also allows its users to join this activity through their mobile phones.

The WangYou UGC Happy Hour provides Chinese living in remote areas a rare chance to demonstrate their singing ability and to potentially get discovered by millions of listeners across the country. Strict dormitory restrictions imposed by universities make radio programs especially popular with college students because radio is one of the only media always accessible throughout the evening.

WangYou has also released a widely distributed CD containing a selection of the most popular music created by its users.

Yee says there are about 140 million internet users in China, more than half of them younger than 26 years, and some 20 million blogs, but, within five years, he believes web technology will be "nearly universal".

China is already the world's second largest web market.

"Mature people in China are also very aggressively developing their computer and internet skills because they want to catch up with the younger cultural trends," he says.

Due to the progress of China's economy and the rapid advancement of technology, Yee says it is becoming easier for Chinese youth to socially network through cheap mobile phones, digital cameras, camcorders and webcams.

"They can spend about US$300 to buy a computer, set it up at home, and buy a webcam for about US$100 and be able to record and upload their videos. They can tell the world 'who I am', 'why I am special' and 'why you should talk to me and make me your friend'."

And Yee says the evidence disputes any view that social networking by computer leads to more isolation for young people. "What we see in our community is that every person is very real, most of our users are using their real names," he says.

"The users want to tell their peers that 'there is a real me' and to share things about their lives. They also self-organize many off-line events; they physically meet quite often."

In May this year, the Chinese government backed away from a plan to require bloggers to use their real names when they registered weblogs, after an outcry from the internet industry.

Beijing instead decided to promote a 'self-discipline code' that would encourage, but not mandate, bloggers to register under their own names.

Yee says China's infrastructure is extremely complicated, with three or four government-owned internet backbone companies, all working apart from each other. This has meant a big internal effort by WangYou to develop the technology to coordinate and provide its services.

But Yee says the social networking phenomenon was a symptom of the changing culture of young Chinese.

"The culture of this generation of Chinese people means they are very open and dynamic," he says.

"They want to talk about things, to write things and to reach out to the world. So that's how we came up with the WangYou idea, by combining the demand for self-expression with the ready availability of digital devices."

Yee believes a good social networking internet property has "a lot of commercial value".

WangYou generates revenue from wireless data messaging, service subscriptions, online and offline advertising, sponsorships, program downloads/uploads, and the syndication of user-generated amateur entertainment content to traditional media channels.

"Ours is the most dynamic demographic in China and every consumer brand wants to sell to them," he says.

"Also, if your community role is very significant to the users and becomes part of their daily lives, you could easily upgrade them to premium service membership.

"In China, we have a lot of mobile phone users, so we incorporate quite a few mobile wireless products into our internet property which enables our users to talk to each other with higher inter-activity, so we also generate cash flow through wireless products."

Looking into his crystal ball, Yee sees an exciting future for technological interaction.

"We believe there will be continuing media convergence," he says. "It is very possible there could be a combined platform which would allow the audience to participate in digital entertainment events through the screen on their mobile phone, or television, or on the computer.

"Continual re-innovation is the only way to bring satisfaction to our users, who are young, dynamic and incredibly creative."

Live on CNN

Kristie Lu Stout, CNN's host for the CNN Future Summit: Virtual Worlds program, and also a regular host of CNN Today, is a good example of a contemporary information professional, now using 21st century technology that has transformed journalism.

Having previously worked in China's internet industry, Lu Stout was originally noticed by CNN when she was invited to be a guest on a show. This lead to her becoming the network's and CNN.com's technology correspondent, then being promoted to general news anchor about four years ago.

She says CNN International is extremely dependent on technology, and runs like a truly globally distributed organization.

"The first few morning shows I did on CNN Today, we had producers and writers based in Hong Kong, London and Atlanta," Lu Stout says.

"We have to rely on technology like IT telephony or collaborative software, to get our ideas down and to create a rundown, to create scripts, create a show and to get it out on air. And of course, we rely on technology for news gathering, collecting elements for the story, editing them, putting them together before getting the story out by whatever means, whether satellite or broadband.

"We have a great team of engineers who just make technology seem so invisible."

Proto-wiki

Lu Stout says one key technology used by CNN is an internal collaborative software system called I-News.

"It really is something of a proto-wiki and has been used by CNN for years," she says.

"It's a system that allows editors and writers to go into a rundown for a show, create scripts and create the show. You can log on to get it to create your script.

"Someone else can see that you are in there, wait for you to exit to make changes, and there is a record of who made the last change.

"I-News is basically a wiki that has been around longer than Wikipedia itself. So it's not only about being mindful of the use of technology in the way we collect stories, but also in the way we distribute stories.

"There is the same push for CNN, for CNN.com, CNN Pipeline, which is a broadband service, CNN available on mobile phones, CNN available on handsets as well. And so, that's the current 'big push' as we call it."

Visual news gathering

Lu Stout recalls one assignment when technology really delivered. "I was doing a political live report in Tokyo when the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was visiting, speaking in Japan for the first time in years," she says.

"We basically sat down at the balcony of a hotel room, with the Tokyo tower behind me and I just gave my report to the camera, via broadband, to iMap Book Pro; that's how we got the report down.

"On air, it seemed like a satellite connection because the resolution was so high and it looked beautiful. We call that 'visual news gathering' and it worked.

"There are a lot of stories edited on the fly, using iMap Book Pro, and then sent out by FTP. When they go on-air, they look clean, they look professionally done, and it's done much more quickly now."

Lu Stout says news consumers want to find out what is happening right now, and they want to see it in an engaging way that can be easily understood. "So whatever technology is needed to do that work, we will make that investment," she says.

"Consumers of media are now also creators of media. Especially with websites like YouTube and Flickr and, of course, CNN's I-Report. These destinations democratize media production so everyone can be a journalist, but the question is, who is the best journalist?

"The standards required to be a better news organization remain the same.

"There's much more competition, but people will always go back to the news organization or the news producer, that is accurate, effective and fast."

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