10 signals and trends

Gleaned from recent press reports and other sources:

These are boom times for U.S. makers of unmanned military aircraft (drones).

Sample Lab Ltd. opened a  “marketing cafe” in Tokyo that lets trend-setting women see and test new products.

With the recession crimping legal budgets, some big companies are insisting on flat-fee payments instead of law firms’ long-standing practice of the “billable hour.”

City “water cops” are handing out citations to people caught wasting water resources in drought-stricken areas.

Lumber mills that produce woods for hardwood floors and maple cabinets have been devastated by the U.S. recession’s double whammy: the housing bust and unavailable credit.

Some hospitals find that owning up to medical errors reduces litigation and helps them learn from their mistakes.

Despite a 25-year effort to improve U.S. education, the latest high-school SAT exam scores are disappointing. Asian-American students are thriving but the SAT gap for blacks and Hispanics widens.

More than half of Somalia’s population needs humanitarian aid, the U.N. says.

Software makers are scrambling to develop cell phone safety applications that prevent texting while driving.

Inexpensive mini-reactors may be an alternative to building giant nuclear powerplants, though there are technical, financial and regulatory hurdles.

New safety hazard: Heads-down ‘texting’

We know about cell-phone-addled drivers, and wireless headset users who appear to be talking loudly to no one in particular. Now we have people typing furiously into their cellphones, BlackBerries and iPhones — heads down — and smacking right into poles or walls or other people.

Update: Forecaster Paul Saffo calls them “pedtextrians.”

A Chicago emergency room sees victims of texting incidents nearly every day, according to a Wall Street Journal article (25 July 2008). The fallen texters are prone to facial injuries, because they tend to hold the devices so close to their faces that their hands are less likely to break their fall. The common result: scraped chins, noses and foreheads (and broken glasses).

In London, some lamposts were outfitted with padded bumpers to cut down on injuries to errant texters (though it was a publicity stunt).

A sudden downturn in consumer gadget mania

The latest consumer spending survey from ChangeWave Research shows “a sudden, huge pullback in U.S. consumer retail spending on electronics — the largest decline since 2002.” The survey of 4,427 consumers, conducted February 18-25, looked at discretionary spending on a range of popular electronic devices, including video game consoles, digital cameras and iPods.

In an unprecedented sign of weakness, only 19% of survey respondents say they’ll spend more on electronics over the next 90 days, compared to 33% who will spend less.

“These results clearly show that the consumer electronics sector is getting whacked,” said Tobin Smith, founder of ChangeWave Research and editor of ChangeWave Investing.

Hardest-hit stores: Best Buy and Circuit City. (But Costco and Wal-Mart will be OK.)

Hardest-hit products: LCD TVs, digital cameras, cell phones and iPods.

Bright spots: The Nintendo Wii, Blu-ray HD DVD players and GPS devices.

And there was little evidence that consumers will be spending their “economic stimulus” tax rebate checks on consumer electronics.

“Rather, our findings point to an increasingly preoccupied American consumer who has fallen out of love with gadgets — at least temporarily,” Smith said. 

Revenge by gadget, or annoyance-tech

People are inventing novel technologies to deal with life’s everyday annoyances. For example, MIT graduate students — who designed a “no-contact jacket” that delivers a jolt of electricity to anyone who touches it, such as subway gropers — call it “annoyancetech.”

In “Revenge by Gadget,” Jennifer Saranow of The Wall Street Journal (17 August 2007) describes some common annoyances and the commercially available products available to deal with them:

Lousy drivers? There’s a luminescent screen for the rear window of cars that allows the driver to flash one of five messages to other drivers, e.g., happy face, sad face, “Back Off,” “Idiot.” (My suggestion, in the interests of civility: When you know you’ve made a bad move, it would be nice to be able to flash “Sorry!”) Naturally, some folks have suggested images of offensive hand gestures.

Neighbor’s dog barking all night? Get an outdoor “bark control” device that shuts up other people’s dogs by answering their barks with an ultrasonic squeal that humans can’t hear. (The device is disguised as a birdhouse so the neighbors don’t know. No word on what the birds think.)

Boss or spouse tracking your whereabouts via cell phone? There’s an “excuse box” that plays one-minute sounds — such as police sirens or airport announcements — in the background to help explain to callers why you’re late or convince them you’re someplace other than where you really are.

Blaring TV at the car-repair shop? There’s a universal remote-control handset that allows people to shut off loud TVs in public places. But the zappers can be zapped: Some business owners have removed the infrared receivers from TVs in public places so the zappers won’t work.)

And, of course…

“Though illegal in the U.S., cell phone jammers have been floating around for nearly as long as cell phones.”

Historically, many inventions have dealt with life’s annoyances. The TV remote control — back in 1950 — allowed people to skip commercials. But inventions today benefit from the minitaurization of electronics and cheap production in China.

‘Alpha-earning moms’ and stay-at-home dads may change household purchasing habits

If current demographic shifts continue, within a generation women may be the primary breadwinners in half of America’s households, notes Social Technologies LLC futurist John Cashman. These “alpha-earning moms” — along with the increasing number of stay-at-home dads — are growing market segments that will merit business attention, Cashman says.

  • Household duties will continue to realign. More men will carry primary responsibility for purchasing food, clothing, and other household items.
  • Men will be more involved in childcare and in purchasing products and services for their children.
  • As they explore these new gender roles, men’s preferences will be expressed in the types of products they buy. These could include more gadgetry and high-tech appliances for the home.

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Related: “Stay-at-Home Dads Forge New Identities, Roles,” The Washington Post, 17 June 2007