I just finished watching the video for RedLaser, a real-time bar code (or UPC code) scanner that works on the iPhone. Just hold the camera eye over the UPC code and get ready for results to show up from Google Product Search or Amazon; then begin reading customer reviews and comparing prices right there in the store.
This has huge implications for the future of how we design and market products. Why? The clue to reading the future is to watch the trend line, not the snapshot. RedLaser may be a bit clunky and it may reach a limited audience right now, but that is the snapshot. Here is the trend line: We are becoming accustomed to using our phones in-the-moment to answer all manner of questions (from nearby movie times to the name of the last Steven Soderbergh film). This small behavioral change has enormous consequences as more and more of our physical world finds its "data-doppleganger" online:
--How long before we can scan any food product and know more about its ingredients than the misleading label tells us?
--How long before every in-store customer seamlessly moves online to the vast Internet marketplace to find the rock-bottom price and bargain with the store manager?
--How long before every product will disclose to us not only the things the manufacturer would like us to know but also all the things they may not like us to know, such as how the device was manufactured (toxic materials?), by whom (child labor?), where (mostly offshore) and so on?
This referencing need not be through UPC codes. Just as your computer can access the Gracenote database to identify the artist, tracks and times of a random music CD that you put into your drive, we are heading into a time when any experience will likely be passively cataloged for later reference. Movies you are watching, music you are listening to and so on.
Here are some predictions based on the trend line:
1. These technologies will likely accelerate a race to the bottom on pricing as ever more shoppers with a mobile device conduct product and price comparison at the point of sale in the store.
2. Service and experience-based products will become even more critical to a retailer's success as products get commoditized.
3. Product (or service) quality will increasingly trump crafty advertising as the only sustainable advantage once customers have instant access to more reviews and information.
4. Environmental and other cause issues will be of increased importance as consumers will find it easier to live out their values in their product purchases.
5. Personal data. Your location, way-finding through the mall, product searches and even your exposure to ambient types of advertising (did you watch that commercial?) will be captured via your mobile device and sent back to advertising data-marts to help profile you for future advertising. This is already happening in simple form via IMMI, for those willing to get a free mobile device in exchange for being tracked 24/7.
Overall, I believe that these technologies will empower people by giving them more access to valuable, peer-created information. However, these last predictions (or rather, observations on the growth of what is already taking place) should cause a healthy amount of anxiety about personal privacy. I have committed a fair amount of time writing about these on O'Reilly Radar. Like all powerful technology, the benefits need to be framed within a structure that protects our ability to act as free agents in the world.