Posts tagged: tech

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On having been InOCULated

Today Oculus is being acquired by Facebook in a fantastic deal that not only validates the team's vision and hard work but one that will also accelerate their ability to bring an unprecedented VR experience to all of us. There is no way to describe just how amazing the journey has been thus far, but it is fitting to borrow a line from Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash, a book I read 15 years ago in order to be ready for the day Oculus crossed my path:

“See, the world is full of things more powerful than us. But if you know how to catch a ride, you can go places.”

There is no doubt that this has always been the team to solve VR: from the days of Palmer's garage exploits with rubber bands and duct tape to the additions of the legendary John Carmack and supremely talented Atman Binstock— not to mention dozens of other super hackers, PhDs, and game industry veterans along the way. There has always been a ridiculously deep bench to pursue this opportunity. Factor in a CEO who has been fanatical and crystal clear about the product experience he wants to deliver to the market and it’s obvious that these are the folks who will dent the universe.

Timing has also been on Oculus’ side. Leveraging what Chris Anderson, ex-Wired editor, called the "peace dividend of the smartphone wars," with respect to the displays, electronics, and sheer manufacturing capacity available for high quality consumer devices at affordable prices, this exceptional team has come together to make something amazing. There have been other attempts at VR in the past, but only with all of these pieces in place has its time finally come. The fact that the company's DK1, which provides a mere shadow of the experiences yet to come, could sell more units than all other VR headsets combined motivated developers big and small to bet big on what Oculus is planning to deliver.

Most importantly though, and what I've never seen before in my career in the tech industry, is the sheer passion and commitment of the Oculus community. You can see their fervor on the Oculus developer site where questions are asked and answered with a proficiency and passion that belies how early it remains for VR experience creation, to Reddit and HackerNews where support for what the guys are doing borders on rabid. It has inspired employees, developers, and investors alike.

Living online with this level of passion reminds me on a daily basis of Brendan's visit to Cambridge when he was raising his first round of funding. Lugging a huge rolley suitcase with a monster PC and a pair of DK1 goggles that had traveled the length of the country with him, it took all of 3 minutes for me to decide Matrix had to be involved with the project. As Brendan and I walked out into Kendall Square, I happened to look down a side street where another entrepreneur, Edwin Land, started the Polaroid Corporation with a simple guiding principle— one that the entire Oculus team lives by on a daily basis. I have no doubt they share this principle with their new parent:

“Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.”

Congratulations Oculus, now get me my metaverse!

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Last week the Echo Nest got bought by Spotify, the largest music service outside of iTunes while at the same time Apple launched "CarPlay" to support replacing the mess of antiquated electronics integrated into most cars with one that supposedly widens the moat competitors of iOS will have to cross in order to be relevant. I doubt it will really work, and not only because of how few CarPlay enabled cars there will be over the next 2-5 years compared to the numbers that are relevant in the smartphone platforms (only about 10M new cars in total are shipped world wide each year compared to close to 1 billion smartphones) but because attempts such as these to widen the moats of post PC operating systems are being nullified by the type of success Spotify and other best of breed cross platform apps represent.

Just as there is no doubt that there was a time when the iTunes music experience represented a huge platform advantage, it has since been rendered irrelevant by a number of competitors like Spotify. These experiences are so far superior to that of creakily purchasing songs and the associated pseudo-streaming offering that the iTunes app often ends of buried in a folder on a back page labeled something like "Apple Junk."

And this pattern is not unique to music: Dropbox has replaced iCloud, Evernote the main Notes app, and others have eaten away at the calendar, the address book, the maps, etc. In fact for almost any first party app, there are a number of quite credible alternatives. And in the most lethal of cases (when it comes to the aforementioned platform moat), these alternatives have achieved cross platform parity with their Android versions and deliver most of their value through a cloud service which holds the canonical copy of a user's data on servers not operated by the platform owner.

Combined with Bluetooth 4.0, Wifi and other hardware independent means of connectivity, I find that today's leading platforms appear much less "sticky" than those in the PC era were and all of this talk of ecosystems and lock-in feels somewhat anachronistic. Back to CarPlay: connecting to cars, televisions, or health tracking devices may provide some of this in the short-term but I suspect just as the software/service vendors emerged with best of breed solutions and a cross platform mandate, new device makers without a dog in the iOS/Android race will do the same over time. Samsung may not make its Galaxy Gear or televisions for iOS (and even that is in doubt) but LG will as will Sony and a host of other competitors.

And the guys with the real lock-in over this next phase? The cloud-backed service providers who have fought with a better user experience for that first-screen real estate (Evernote, Dropbox, Spotify), a business model (freemium) which supports an independent path, and enough scale to matter on their own.

And this is a good thing for startups overall.

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Christmas is Programming

Over the years, I've tried all sorts of ways to get my kids into programming: from the watered down artificial environments with loads of pedagogical pedigree to over-hyped tiger mom summer camps. And until this past week they've all resulted in blank looks from the kids who wonder why I think it is so important for them to learn to master giving instructions to a machine. Even when the programming exercise involves their beloved Minecraft (I will have a blog post on that adventure coming).

This week I found a project that seemed to work though, at least for this pair of 11 and 8 year old boys: a programmable Christmas tree. As of becoming semi sentient, it knows when to turn on an off based on the time of day but also warns us of impending snow by blinking rapidly for 30 seconds every 30 minutes. The project, implemented with a Raspberry Pi, a relay, a small amount of Python and two little boys has been a smashing success in the sheer amount of delight elicited. I've been thinking about it, especially in the context of our last attempt to write a LOVE-based video game earlier this year, and I think its success has to do with the following reasons: - it is physical in nature. Programming the world is a lot more interesting than building software that ends up looking crappier than what they can get on the AppStore for free - it feels like magic to see something in the real world react to inputs without human intervention. The tree has only blinked one for impending snow but one would have thought Santa came shooting out our fireplace with his ass on fire based on their reaction - it provided just the right level of abstraction for an 11-year old. Web scraping on one side and calling a REST interface on the other. And to boot, having permissions to stick wires in outlets is an 8 year old's fantasy!

Finally, I've done hardware projects with them before but it turns out that the key was doing one which could become a permanent part of the house infrastructure as crappy robots tend to suffer the same fate in the face of real toys that beginner games do with AppStore high gloss alternatives.

This was also my first foray into the Raspberry Pi which is a wonderful device (admittedly still suffering from production/yield problems) due to the fact that it is a full computer in a small little box with just enough input/output to control the physical world. Am looking forward to more of these.

Go check it out— the RPi infused programmable Christmas tree.

Postscript: I owe Avi Flombaum a big thanks for being the inspiration for this project. He not only gave me the idea of making webscraping a core part of the curriculum but opened my eyes to how much of what gets put in front of kids in the name of programming pedagogy is abstractly condescending at counterproductive when it comes to sparking the flame for this stuff.

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Today is the second anniversary of Steve Jobs's death and while I am not planning on joining the Apple has Lost Its Way chorus, it is somewhat sobering to look back at my favorite piece of technology speaking ever, a 1997 pre-heyday WWDC Jobs Q&A where he is not only amazingly lucid about the strategy he would go on to implement for the next 14 years, but where he is incredibly straight forward and direct in his communication style.

If you are a student of superb public speaking, go and check it out. Compared to the ridiculously over-emphasized style of Cook and the other Apple execs of today (all of which are weirdly trying to channel a cargo cult version of the Steve keynotes), it is a particularly stark reminder of what the company lost two years ago.

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When Microsoft shipped XmlHttpRequest and the web browser became a runtime for interactive apps the most wonderful thing about the whole thing was how quickly developers could iterate their entire applications and get new bits running in the hands of users. This more than "ubiquitous access" is what gave birth to agility that ushered in Web 2.0 with Google Maps and Flickr leading the way.

Imagine then how disappointing it was for developers to realize that the platform shift to mobile required putting a giant pause button in the middle of the iterative process— defined by days/weeks of AppStore review followed by the much more indeterminate amount of time required for a user to remember to open the AppStore app to the "updates" nav element to pull down 1-60 "updates" to apps developers wanted to have upgraded.

On new iOS 7 devices the default mode is to pull down app upgrades without user intervention which is a huge step forward in the iterative development process that came with the web. While it still leaves the huge speed bump that is app review process, automatic upgrades may be the most important thing to hit iOS since background processing.

Why no hoopla? Potentially because Android has had it for such a long time. Having said that, the fact that it has finally come to iOS is a big deal for every startup that I see as they all seem to start on iOS (still to this day) and move over to Android once they understand what it is that they are building.

Now if Apple would only fix the 1-2 weeks of sitting is a stupid review queue, we might actually be back to parity with what developers had back in 2005...

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