From Starfish to the Zozosuit, the importance of objects in a digital era

Object-oriented programming is an approach that treats both logic and data as content that can be morphed, shared, and inherit attributes almost organically from ancestor objects. The concept has been around for decades but arguably it took the explosion in data and processing power of the 1990s for it to really take off.

Philippe Kahn is a little known, but important, figure in the evolution of objects that are emerging today as the foundation of many business opportunities. Kahn was a founder of Borland in the 1980s which became a big name in programming languages including bringing object-oriented approaches to a mass market of developers.

In the 1990s, he left Borland and began a new enterprise called Starfish to create small lightweight software that ran as part of the desktop or on mobile devices. Today, this seems obvious in an app market estimated to be approaching US$200 billion, but back then it was anything but. His technology is now at the core of synchronisation that we use in many of our phones. But at its heart, Starfish leveraged the integrated operating system platforms of the time to build and monetise objects rather than applications.

As the mobility revolution took hold, particularly after the release of the iPhone, online, integrated app stores became increasingly important. Initially, these stores sold Starfish-like light software which integrated as objects within the rich operating system of the handsets. Increasingly, cloud has become as integral to the mobile experience as the operating system allowing entertainment and information content to become as important as the software itself. As the cloud and operating systems combine, digital commercial models are becoming much more object-oriented. Today we enjoy the combination of logic and data in everything from news through to games and photo albums rather than the click, pay and download model of the first app and content stores.

Of course, these operating systems run more than laptops as Volkswagen’s recent announcement of self-driving as an optional extra by the hour demonstrates. Not only is this a dig at Tesla (who charge some US$10,000 for the same option) but also a clear statement that the cloud of data that powers self-driving is itself a service not a product that you buy once. Over time, we can expect that the data for autonomous vehicles will be personalised and the logic of driving requirements and data of preferences will become objects that can be mixed and matched across platforms.

The integration across platform vendors is important. When the telephone was invented the first networks were private, typically between rich individuals and their industrial interests. Pretty quickly, though, people wanted to be able to talk to each other without the need to worry about multiple networks and, of course, we regard this as a basic requirement of any modern telephony solution.

Today, cloud users are trying to find their new models which are increasingly connected. While it is easy to move between cloud mapping services, translation services and other capabilities, it is only in recent years that payment, logistics and mapping providers are realising the power of packaging their capabilities up as objects to be included in the products of others.

We’ve seen public transport authorities around the world embrace the likes of Google Maps to support users navigating unfamiliar cities (integrating timetable and real time data). However, it won’t be long before the overwhelmingly expensive transport ticketing systems with all their customer service headaches will give way to a more integrated approach. Rather than sell tickets direct to the public, we can expect operators to make trips on their vehicles available wholesale to Uber, Grab, Lyft and other rideshare companies who have the technology to manage the customer relationship and billing.

These object-oriented business models are increasingly tracking our real-world selves creating digital twins.

Zozotown is a Japanese online fashion retailer who has invented the Zozosuit to create a digital twin of their customers. Rather than guess their sizing, customers receive a dot-covered, tight fitting outfit and pair it with a smartphone app which converts the markings into an accurate body measurement. From there, the customer can buy clothes confident in their fit as they are measured against their digital twin. The logic of shape and the data of measurements are combined into a digital twin object which inherits details of gender and fashion preferences.

These object-oriented business models can even extend to the food we eat. While we’ve wondered for years about the role of internet-enabled fridges, just maybe the use cases are starting to emerge.

Food manufacturers have long had to pay supermarkets for the privilege of stocking their shelves. With each individual item able to be digitally tracked and twinned, as consumers we may benefit from also being paid to stock our fridge with the real-world foodstuff and its associated digital twin. Operating like a hotel minibar, payment would be via our Internet fridge when we choose to consume the produce and irrelevant if we dispose of the item at the end of its shelf life.

The only thing we know for sure is that objects are infinitely flexible and businesses prospects are unlimited, but most opportunities haven’t even been invented yet!

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