Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

When watching old movies about the future, it's amazing that the most pervasive aspect of everyday life in 2015 was never imagined: our attachment to hand-held devices.

The devices themselves exist in the imagined future of the past. The crew of the Starship Enterprise had tricorders and flip-open communication devices and computers that recognized voices, but they were only employed when a situation demanded information or communication to solve an immediate problem.

Today, in the absence of immediate problems, our devices provide us with one: How do I get past level 95 on Candy Crush?

In the imagined future, humans still walked city streets looking forward, not down.

They paid attention to what was being said in meetings, without compulsively checking email.

It's fascinating that such now-obvious parts of human nature -- our addiction to information and entertainment, our need to network and connect -- weren't creatively applied to conceivable technology to reveal the defining behavior of the present.

And perhaps the most surprising omission of all is that our instincts for commerce and our talents for advertising on any available surface or medium went largely unacknowledged.

Had science fiction writers been able to truly see the future, they might have imagined the real-life, present-day company Urban Airship, a firm that consults with companies ranging from Starbucks to Starwood to monetize society's mobile technology behavior.

Its chief mobile evangelist, Brent Hieggelke, was a keynote speaker at Travel Weekly's Hawaii Leadership Forum, held at the Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki earlier this month, and he shared some insights and trends that might provide a few clues about the not-too-distant future.

Hieggelke said that on average, we check our phones about 200 times per day, and that number is expected to rise to 500 times when we're all wearing interactive watches. About 80% of that time is spent in an app environment.

Urban Airship's strategies center on push messaging, those notifications you've permitted to linger on your screen before you even key in your password. They might alert you to a gate change as you head to the airport (as notifications from his client Alaska Airlines do). Or if you're in the vacation-rental business, Airbnb (another client) might send you a notification as soon as someone views your property's profile.

(Virgin Atlantic, Las Vegas Sands and the Cosmopolitan are other Urban Airship customers in the travel space.)

"Push notifications are the most powerful [communication] device ever invented," Hieggelke said, but he also cautioned that they work because the consumer has allowed notifications to appear; there must be value in what is being pushed. Coke delivered more than a billion notifications in just a few weeks, not overtly saying "drink Coke," but rather delivering score alerts during the Olympics.

He described push as "unadvertising."

"Advertising was based on interruption," Hieggelke said. "Now, it's based on invitation. It was broadcasting; it's now precision targeting. It was reach and frequency; now it's the moments that matter. Before, it was one screen; now it's multiple screens. Before, it was paid media; now it's 'owned' media."

It was brand controlled, he continued; now it's consumer controlled. It was "prime time;" now it's "my time." Location used to be a place; now it's a profile. Ads in the past drove toward a transaction, but today they build a relationship.

"People don't want banner ads," Hieggelke said. "They want magic. Push a button and a taxi picks you up. Refill your Walgreens prescription from your phone. Starbucks is experimenting with ordering through an app, and you'll just walk in and pick up your drink. One day you'll laugh that you had to stand in line for coffee. Lines are for suckers."

In a world with magical expectations, devices are the remote controls of our lives. "We need to internalize that," he said.

One technology that's enhancing our ability to target messages is beaconing, which makes notifications visible only to people in a specific location such as a stadium or even a room.

Hieggelke believes push notifications and the sharing economy go hand in hand. He cited a New Zealand company, CampInMyGarden.com, which connects people who are willing to let other people set up a tent in their backyards with those who might want to do so.

(This comment inspired me. As he spoke, I checked to see if the URL "UseMyBathroom.com" was available, but someone already is, um, squatting on it.)

Listening to Hieggelke, I kept in mind that the word "evangelist" is part of his title and that he works for a company that's in the business of selling push notification strategies.

And also that, in general, humans have a poor record of accurately predicting the future.

The author Milan Kundera, whose fiction often looks backward rather than forward, wrote in a 1995 essay about uncertainty in a somewhat different context. Looking backward, he observed, everything is crystal clear, and progress seems to have taken an obvious path. But the present, never mind the future, is shrouded in fog, with no one knowing what even the next moment might bring.

Kundera was urging writers and readers to bear this in mind as they create or judge characters in fiction, but it seems to have relevance when looking at the impact of technology on business today.

Will, as Hieggelke suggests, "unadvertising" and push notifications become the dominant form of marketing and promotion in the future? Will the sharing economy become larger than the traditional economy in 12 years, as he predicts?

The specifics are impossible to predict, but his underlying message is truer today than ever, and I believe it's likely to become increasingly important: Consumers will say yes if you give them a reason to.

Technology today expands the possibilities of what those reasons could be.

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