Ah, thanksgiving. That time of the year when everyone gets their ‘cheat day’ and we watch football from Wednesday to Monday… magical.
This year I had the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving with my in-laws just outside of Dallas in a town called Cleburne. Let’s just say my sister-in-law has two horses, a miniature goat and three dogs that live outside in the “backyard” of their property. So it’s that kinda town. The extended family (my sister-in-law and her boyfriend, plus my twin four-year-old niece and nephew and their sorta-step-by-boyfriend brother who is 12, as well as my wife’s early sixties parents Steve and Julie) all got to spend a long weekend together, including watching the Redskins whip up on the Cowboys live at Cowboys Stadium.
No less than five hours after arriving in Dallas while watching RGIII rifle a 60 yard pass for a touchdown, I turned to Blaine, the twelve year old, seventh grader and asked, “Is that an iPhone you’ve got?” He looked surprised and said, “Yeah, but it’s just an iPhone 3. It takes like 30 seconds to call someone.”
Let me reiterate. He’s twelve. And has an iPhone. Maybe I’m out of touch and maybe I don’t spend enough time with middle-schoolers, but I was surprised to learn that it’s normal for kids his age and younger (he tells me) to have fully functioning smart phones.
Mind. Blown. 
So while the trip, the family and the food were all great and well worth the travel all by themselves, after witnessing the spread of technology to our pre-teens, I was fascinated to watch how “normal” America uses technology this holiday weekend.
Here’s eight other anecdotes, lessons and learnings I got from spending time in the great state of Texas and watching my extended family this past Thanksgiving.
Mobile has way crossed the chasm. Maybe it’s the fact I spend all my time in major U.S. cities on the coasts, but I kinda envisioned that smart phone adoption wasn’t intense outside of the tech bubbles. I was dead wrong. Turns out every single person above the age of 5 in this family has an iPhone or Android (and it’s just my mother-in-law who has the Android and can’t wait for the contract to expire so she can “upgrade,” she said). And looking around Cowboys stadium, nearly everyone had a device in their hand at some point (which reminds me – there are some major opportunities for technology in stadiums, but not until they figure out how to get data accessible to an audience of 90,000+).
Apps Rule. Mobile Web is awkward. My father-in-law is a lifetime blackberry user and only two-weeks ago got his iPhone. Watching him use the phone to find a restaurant with Open Table, driving directions with something called Telnet, sports scores on ESPN Scoreboard app and more I realized that Apps have won. When I asked him about using the mobile web on his phone, it was like I was speaking another language… ‘Using the web on my phone isn’t good,’ he said. But watch my family use apps was as natural as talking or texting. Simple and clear use and usability wins.
Apps spread via Word-of-Mouth. The fact that apps are so common and the platforms are so consistent (iOS and Android) makes the spread of useful or well-done apps often occur with word-of-mouth. Maybe that seems obvious, but when you need to find a restaurant, everyone takes out their phones and suddenly you realize that OpenTable, Yelp and Google are all apps you can use – and each of these apps have fans. It’s a way that one family member learns about the “best” apps out there while all of us try to most quickly solve the problem at hand (ie. we are ‘starving, mom’). I have underestimated how crucial an amazing experience was around a specific problem point in the spread of apps.
The Next Generation will have computers implanted in their brains. Okay, that might be a slight over-dramatization, but whoa are kids growing up in a world with technology at their fingertips. My four-year-old niece Reagan snagged Grandpa Steve’s iPad, unlocked it, scrolled until she found Netflix, opened it and was streaming the My Little Pony movie before any of knew what was happening. She’s a pro at Angry Birds and already knows how to download apps. Plus seeing that eleven year olds have iPhones… let’s face it America, we are long past putting the breaks on the technologization (I think I made up that word) of our youth.
iPads may be the best child-occupation-device (ie. babysitter) ever created. iPads are expensive devices but man, my sister-in-law loves that it’ll occupy her four-year olds for a couple hours. It may in fact be the best $700 investment one could make for your sanity. I was skeptical thinking, ‘Why would little kids need an iPad’ until spending an hour in the car with Reagan and realizing the value of some quiet time. iPad growth is long from over…
Zuck made the right call acquiring Instagram. Facebook isn’t seen as a mobile platform – it’s mobile app is an extension of their website, but my family was much more willing to say, “Hold on, let me post this photo on Instagram.” I am more convinced that we’ll see a set of apps that have a dominant position on your smart phone that will be a different set of tools that dominate on tablet or on your PC. This one still has a lot of shaking out to do, but mobile-first or mobile-only makes way more sense seeing my family use apps on their devices. Landscape is just beginning to be created.
People Drive a Lot. We drove more in a 24 hour period than I’d probably driven in the prior six months. Turns out Allison and I were not the norm in that respect – people drive a lot when you get outside of the city centers. Google’s investment in self-driving cars and other big-innovation in transportation and the transportation eco-system are going to be important. It’s a different world for folks that live outside of the urban centers of America and there will be opportunities for major technology disruption in cars, travel and transportation. Plus, I’m tired of driving… a lot (and yes, I’m in the car typing as we drive right now!)
Online/Mobile has won, but boy still amazing amounts of opportunity offline. Driving around suburban and rural Texas you realize how big the opportunity is to crack that proverbial local commerce nut. It’s still a world of small businesses that are still largely dependent on a physical location, a good relationship in the community and that friendly face at the counter. While it is easy to assume technology has won, I was amazed to see the diversity and depth of small businesses that power our economy. Technology that can help these hardworking people make more and continue to do what they love will win. But disrupting this fabric of small-town economies – I just don’t see it. People like working with people it turns out.
SIDE NOTE: Today (Saturday, November 24th) is Small Business Saturday. Get out there and support your small businesses people – turns out 45 cents of each dollar spent with a small business stays in the local economy.
The one slightly troubling thing about all of this is how our time was sometimes interrupted by one of the grownups saying (to everyone including the other grownups), “Let’s put down our toys and be present people.” The slight over-dramatization of this moment on television commercials is based on reality. As we plug into our devices – especially at younger and younger ages – we do risk detaching from the real world.
In the end, the best part of Thanksgiving was spending time with family. You realize when you are around people who are just being themselves you can learn an awful lot about what life is really like.
Oh and the final personal insight for me is to take time to get out of my own personal bubble and observe. You might learn a thing or two (or eight). Now I’m turning off my laptop, going to Airplane mode and handing my iPad to the kids – let’s go throw the football around. G'day.
 My wife (the accounting professor) attributes this to my limited sample size of twelve year olds, but what is an PhD in accounting going to say? ;-)