What multi-billion dollar techno-baby might be birthed if James Cameron and Steve Jobs had a passionate collaborative affair? No, not a “Titanic Tablet.” But how about an “Appatar”? Sometime in the next two years, appatars will emerge as perhaps the most innovative, and productive, way for people to get value from The Cloud.
I’m not quite kidding. Cameron’s brilliantly conceived conceit in Avatar is that technology can and should be a vessel empowering people to experience reality through the mind and senses of another. You get to be yourself even as you’re someone, or something, else. It’s a great way to get to know the natives—and yourself — better.
Jobs’ creatively comprehensive “there’s an app for that” online emporium persuasively argues that a mobile device can have more utility than a Swiss Army knife on psychotropic drugs could have ever imagined. If you need to get something done, you can find something in the App Store that can let you do it. Features are its functionality; functionality its feature.
In the Jobsosphere, you have applications without personality. In the Cameroniverse, you have personality prized over application. When you look at the creative trajectory of cloud computing, it’s clear that these different digital design sensibilities must merge. Yes, we want “avatars” that allow us to entertain different experiences — but we also want the utility of concrete accomplishment. Yes, we need “apps” to make us more productive—but we also want emotional resonance. After all, it’s transcendentally human to anthropomorphize the toys and tools we play and work with, e.g., “I love driving my BMW almost as much as I love googling on my iPhone.”
That’s why “appatars” are inevitable. They reflect the desire and destiny to marry the functionality we need to employ with the personality we like to express. An “appatar” is designed to give users both kinds of value: effective and affective. This goes beyond customizing or personalizing an object, such as putting decals on cars or selecting ringtones for phone numbers. “Appatars” will be about integrating what you wish to accomplish with who you really are — and having the option to share that sensibility with others.
What does that look, and feel, like? With apologies to Cameronian calls for direct neural connectivity, my bet is on Amazonian and Apple-esque “recommendation engines.” Here you have software that contextually examines both individual behavior and social context in order to recommend an action. That offers a terrific platform for appatarian innovation. So here’s an “appatar” or three I’d like:
“Nice Michael.” This appatar examines all my gmail, Facebook, and mobile phone interactions, and drafts sms texts, wall posts, and email to send to people who I have somehow neglected. This appatar is semantically attuned to how I express myself when I am being “nice” and “friendly”—as opposed to my usual state of abruptness. Based on how well “Nice Michael” does at communicating the better part of me, I let it send these missives off automatically—cc:ingme, of course—let me know how nice I’m being. When “Nice Michael” really impresses me, I’ll link it to Amazon so it can start recommending gifts.
“On-Top-of-It Michael.” This appatar reviews every single Google, Bing, and JSTOR search I’ve done in a professional context and cross-references it with my professional correspondence in both my gmail and MIT accounts. At day’s end, OTOIM has identified colleagues and rivals I need to send papers or comments to on various projects. When linked to Facebook, OTOIM, has me introducing people and facilitating collaborations with people who should be working with one another.
“Mischievous Michael.” This appatar draws upon my sense of humor and desire to....On second thought, perhaps this isn’t the best place to discuss that aspect of my professional personality.
Avatarian purists will quibble that I’ve left out the Second Life, Halo and World of Warcraft virtual world dimensions. But that misses the larger point: Purism will matter less than hybridization in this multiverse of appatarian opportunity. The essential takeaway is that tomorrow’s virtual workplaces, just like today’s physical ones, will be dominated by technologies with personality and personalities with technology. Managing people is important. Managing apps is important. Managing appatars, however, will soon become essential to business success. There will, in fact, be an appatar for that.
Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, is the author of Serious Play and the forthcoming Getting Beyond Ideas.
This article was first published on www.hbr.org (http://blogs.hbr.org/schrage/2010/01/the-future-of-steve-jobs-here.html) on Janurary 28, 2010.
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