Monday, October 31, 2011

IP Everything

A few weeks ago, I noticed (barely) that the New York public radio station, WNYC, now has it’s own iPhone App.  Listeners now have the option of hearing a live stream of the station online, and podcasts of recent shows.  This is such a “me-too” story that it barely qualifies as news.  I’m still not sure why I took the time to read it.  Everything is already podcasted these days, isn’t it?

Still though, it made me stop and think a bit.

What exactly is radio?  The World English Dictionary (as available at defines it as “an electronic device designed to receive, demodulate, and amplify radio signals from sound broadcasting stations”.  If you’re listening to it over IP instead of over radio signals, is it still really radio?  Or is it a podcast?

A pedantic and pointless question.  At least if we leave it at that.

Suppose your transcribe it and put it online.  Is that a web page (or blog)?  Or is it still radio?

Suppose you have a speech to text program, and you automatically put your radio program online.  Now suppose you have a text reader for your website.  Are you reading a radio program, or listening to your website?

Suppose you have an electronic book.  It’s a legal rather than a technical limitation whether your kindle can read that book to you aloud.  What is the difference between your book and a radio podcast?  And what if your book includes multimedia such as sound and video, as is slowly starting to happen.  Is it still a book?  Or has it become a movie, or TV show, with lots of text?  Or a radio show with visual augmentation?

There used to be very clear lines drawn between movies, TV shows, books, newspapers, and radio.  Maybe a small amount of blurring of the lines, such as when somebody published a newspaper in book format to make a point, but it was usually pretty clear what you were talking about.  But as everything goes online, all our previous classifications of media are going to merge into an indistinguishable mass.  We might keep some conventions about timing and primary format due to historical considerations, but we’ll have a really hard time explaining to our kids what the point of those conventions were.  And so much of our language is going to have to evolve as media becomes fluid and interchangeable.  There’s a certain subset of the population that gets  upset when people say they’ve “read” an audiobook.  Am I allowed to call Felicia Day a TV star?  Or must I refer to her as a star of online media?  Perhaps at some point we won’t even know what the original source of media was, because we’ll so seamlessly move back and forth from audio to visual in multiple formats.

We live in interesting times.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Feature Creep, or Sour Grapes?

Last week, Andy Rubin, Senior Vice President of Google’s Mobile division aimed some criticism at Apple’s new Siri software, stating “I don’t believe your phone should be an assistant.  Your phone is a tool for communicating.  You shouldn’t be communicating with the phone; you should be communicating with somebody on the other side of the phone.”  Is this a legitimate criticism, or just an attempt to fling mud at Android’s chief competitor?

Mr. Rubin does have a point that is often valid.  Products often get worse as you add things to them, instead of better.  If you’ve spent any time on the Long Island Sound, you may have seen a hybrid vessel that is half sailboat, half motorboat.  I am not alone in the opinion that they combine the worst attributes of each, and the advantages of neither.  Fred Brooks in his landmark book The Mythical Man-Month shares the observation that great architecture comes not from adding feature upon feature, but sticking to a spare elegance.  Bruce Lee expressed similar sentiments when he developed the core principles of Jeet Kune Do.

Mr. Rubin adds emotional depth to his argument when he points out the proper recipient of communication is not the device itself, but people through the device.  This conjures up images of armies of socially isolated users, using their phones as a pathetic stand-in for real human interaction, presumably because they have no friends and can’t get a date.  Most of us know some people for whom this image has some resonance.  The idea that it might spread like wildfire to all iPhone customers is chilling.

Does his point make sense here?

In order to analyze this more objectively, we need to take a closer look at what Siri actually does, and figure out if those are truly features that belong on our smartphones, or if they are examples of inappropriate feature creep.  Siri is versatile, so it’s difficult to pin down the features with any level of precision.  However, we can get a reasonable view by taking a look at the examples that Apple provided in the “Introducing Siri” video that was released with the iPhone 4S (  In this video, we see people:
-Checking messages
-Sending texts/emails
-Setting a reminder
-Playing music
-Checking traffic
-Checking weather
-Looking up basic facts
-Setting a timer

In almost every case, this is functionality which already existed in the iPhone, via the Operating system or the browser.  They also exist in Android.  The counter-examples might be the reminder feature, which is a recent addition to iOS 5, and the timer.  However, there has been a thriving market for personal organization software for iOS for quite some time – it’s the main reason I bought my iPad, so the reminder feature is really nothing new.  I’ll go out on a limb and say that neither is the timer.  So I feel justified in saying that Siri doesn’t really add any new functionality to the iPhone.  What it adds is a new interface.  The video also points out that this new interface makes the iPhone much more usable to the visually impaired.

So Mr. Rubin is really criticizing is the addition of a new interface to existing functionality.  It’s hard to make a serious case that this detracts from the elegance or usability of the phone.  There are certainly times when it won’t be of use, especially in areas with high background noise, or where speaking aloud is socially unacceptable.  But there are also numerous times when a user’s hands are otherwise occupied, and this becomes a way to use the iPhone when it would not have otherwise been usable.

So sorry Andy, I’m not buying it.  Adding a new, optional interface to my device doesn’t mean I’m spending all my time talking to my phone, it means I’m accomplishing the same tasks I was before in a more convenient way.  Now if only Apple would release Siri for my iPad…

Monday, October 17, 2011

And then what?

On October 10th, the hacker group Anonymous failed to take down the NYSE website.  Whether they ever made a serious go at it is unknown.  While there are some advantages to being a fully decentralized organization, it's limits include a lack of ability for anybody, including itself, to ever know its full agenda or action plan.  Insofar as it ever existed, the planned attack was apparently an attempt to show solidarity for the "Occupy Wall Street" protesters.

I will confess that I remain confused over the ultimate aims of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, and especially about how anybody (including themselves) will know if they've "won".  But I'm especially confused about the purpose and presumed benefits of executing a denial of service attack on the NYSE website.  What, exactly, is the point?  If it succeeded, NYSE might be forced to buy a couple extra servers to beef up their capacity.  Maybe they'll dream up some additional security measures, although there's really not too much you can do against this type of attack.  Some system administrators would be mildly inconvenienced (although they'd also gain some additional job security), and life would go on.

I'm not opposed to protests and revolutions.  But I'm a big picture guy, and a systems thinker to boot.  I'm wildly unpopular at cocktail parties, because I refuse to concede that the ills of the world can be accurately summarized in a few sweeping generalities.  If you knock down an existing system or institution, that immediately raises the question "And then what?"   If you believe that our country is being compromised by a network of good ole boys in a system of "crony capitalism", then I can appreciate that.  But if you think that you can change that system by taking down the website of the NYSE, then that's pathetic.  What you need is to have a deep understanding of the economic, social and psychological factors that have created that system.  Certainly there is much that might be done by addressing legal issues such as corporate governance, director accountability, accounting standards, capitalization ratios, and financial transparency.  You might choose to tinker with the minimum wage, or campaign finance law.  But a denial of service attack?  Come on.

The American revolution was won on the battlefield.  But it's a critical mistake to believe that victory in war created a new nation.  The nation was born in the painstaking hours of drudgery spent in Philadelphia and elsewhere as delegates from across the colonies argued complex points of philosophy, law and history to create the compromise that became the legal framework of the United States of America.

So tell me your manifesto, what you think the problem is, and prove to me that you understand the complex system that has created it and perpetuates it.  I may or may not join you.  But I'm not going to believe youre worth joining unless you can, at a minimum, answer the question "And then what?"

Monday, October 10, 2011

Everybody wants to be Apple

Like many others, I was deeply saddened to read of the death of Steve Jobs this last week, even though I don't consider myself a hard-core Apple fan.  I love my iPad and my iPod, but I get frustrated by the simple things they are unable to do.  For example, I can't get my iPod to list all the titles of my Audiobooks, or my iPad to put all my martial arts documents (books and videos) in a single folder.  And I haven't used an Apple computer since I finally, and reluctantly, gave up on my Apple IIe sometime around 1990.  But I have enormous respect for what Apple, and Steve Jobs, has done and become in the last 14 years or so.  And it's interesting to see how Apple’s business model is being emulated by some very different players in the technology Industry.  Two that I'd like to call specific attention to are Oracle and Amazon.

It’s worth asking what makes Apple so special.  There's no single factor - they do an awful lot of things very well, and a misstep in any of them would dilute many of the others.  Most people say that Apple's secret is to make insanely great products.  This is true, but hardly sufficient.  The Flip was an insanely great product, for many of the same reasons that Apple products are great.  It ignored conventional wisdom about how to make a video camera (pack in loads of features).  Instead it focused on delivering the core features that people wanted, and packaging it in a small, elegant, easy to use package.  It was tremendously successful, but not successful enough - for reasons known only to themselves, Cisco pulled the plug, and stopped making them.  I'm not sure what I'm going to do when I need to replace mine.

Apple's real secret sauce is that it doesn't limit itself to making a single product in isolation.  It asks what experience it is trying to deliver.  Then it builds a product to create that experience.  But products don't deliver experiences by themselves - what else do you need?  Apple figures that out, and makes sure that those pieces are in place as well, either by building them, or controlling the delivery.  Ipods aren't nearly as useful without iTunes software to manage the library, or the iTunes store to sell media.  The Mac and iPad both work well because Apple doesn't look at hardware or software in isolation, but makes sure it owns both sides and integrates them seamlessly.

This isn't happening in a vacuum.  In one of the biggest non-Apple product releases in recent years, recently announced what may be the first serious competitor to the iPad, the Kindle Fire.  The naysayers point out that this new Kindle is doomed because it is both physically smaller and less capable than the iPad.  This is true, but it misses the point that these are the exact same reasons people used to claim the iPad would fail when it first launched.  Netbooks were available that were also small, and had much greater power and flexibility.  These critics failed to realize that many purchasers and would-be purchasers of netbooks had little interest in running all the Windows software a Netbook will run.  They wanted something light, easy to turn on, that would allow them to browse the web, read email, and perhaps use some applications.  IPad met the bill, and sales have been explosive.  Time will tell whether there is a similar niche at the lower end of the tablet market that Amazon will be able to dominate with an inexpensive competitor.

The Kindle Fire makes great use of the Amazon store, allowing it to be a seamless portable platform for consuming books, music and movies.  But Amazon's great conceptual leap lies in the leveraging of their cloud technology to seamlessly accelerate the performance of their new web browser, Silk.  Amazon has been one of the top players in the new Cloud marketplace, selling unused computing power from their massive server farms for low, hourly rates.  Now, harnessing that same horsepower will allow Kindle users to view the complicated web sites that proliferate these days much faster than would otherwise be possible with the hardware available at the Kindle’s price point.  Amazon cleverly made this an optional optimization, so people don't have to feel tied to Amazon's infrastructure if they want to browse the web directly, albeit at a slower speed.  I personally have no interest in the Kindle (the screen is too small for my needs), but I applaud Amazon for realizing that the web surfing experience doesn't need to be constrained to a single device, and figuring out creative new ways to solve the problem.  And although privacy advocates will howl, it certainly doesn't hurt Amazon's marketing analysts to gain a portal into the full web browsing experience of Kindle Fire users.  My guess is that most people will gladly trade privacy for convenience, as we've already seen in many areas of online life.

The other interesting innovator we've seen recently is Oracle.  When the number one database company purchased Sun Microsystems in 2009, the common speculation was that Oracle was after Java, MySQL, and Sun’s patent library, and would basically milk the hardware business dry.  But lately, Larry Ellison has been talking all about the hardware, crowing about how a tight integration between hardware and software will provide unprecedented levels of performance.  Sound familiar?

The funny thing is, what we now call the Apple strategy wasn't invented by Apple.  Not even close.  That award probably goes to IBM.  They wrote their own operating systems and software to run on their mainframes because they were the only game in town.  Only gradually did it occur to people that you might get greater flexibility by adopting a “best-of-breed” model.  At the time, this multi-vendor approach was considered a huge leap forward, mostly because IBM and the IT departments that bought from them had grown sluggish and inward focused.  Now we seem to be coming full circle.  IBM has moved on to selling software and services (and doing basic research, as they are happy to periodically demonstrate against the Chess and Jeopardy champions of the world) while Apple leads the charge back to the world of fully integrated solutions that just work.

Farewell, Mr. Jobs.  May your greatest legacy be not the products you invented, but the path you blazed which will lead Apple and many other companies into the future.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Anarchists, Lunatics, and … Politicians?

It is not an original observation that the Internet is a chaotic place.  With the ability for people to express outlandish opinions in relative anonymity, and find other like minded people who might share these opinions, we’ve seen the emergence of all sorts of new types of social structures emerge, ranging from dating sites specifically geared Ayn Rand fans, to flash mobs that come together to dance in silent unison in the London Underground.
The question is, why haven’t we seen this taken the next logical step?  Now that everybody can find their own group, no matter how unusual it may be, why don’t we see this spilling over into real world power structures?  Sure, we’ve seen some politicians start to harness the power of the web in basic ways, but where’s the real fringe candidate or party coming to power based on a collection of eccentrics bound together by an online interest?
Answer: Germany
It finally happened – not only did a group of hackers form an organization called the Chaos Computing Club (not so unusual), they then leveraged that to form a political party, which they called the “Pirate Party” just so everybody would know exactly how serious they were (a bit more unusual).  Then they went and won 8.5% of the vote in the Berlin State elections (ok, now THAT’s unusual).  Their platform is all about intellectual property: reforming patent law, strengthening individual privacy rights, and increasing the transparency of state administration.
If this happened in the US, that would give them some headlines, and maybe a few politicians would say a few empty words about being more inclusive and working to address their legitimate concerns.  And then promptly ignore them.  In Germany, their voting results were enough to give them 15 seats in the legislature – maybe not enough to take over the government, but enough make everybody sit up and take notice.
So what happens now?  Is this a one time fringe event to be recorded in the history of oddball politics?  Or does this represent a first step in a fundamental reshaping of the political map world-wide, as new voices and new power structures start to emerge?
And does this have you excited, or terrified beyond belief?  Or maybe just a little bit of both?
Whenever I see things appear to go off the rails, I reflect that some of the earliest writing we have is from Ancient Egypt, circa 2000 BC, complaining that civilization is going completely to the dogs, and everything was so much better a few decades ago.
I also remember that no matter how often they are wrong, someday the doomsayers will be right, and civilization will really come to an end.