Posts tagged: tech

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The Unbundling of stickiness

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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Us at MeadhallA few years ago I wrote about a book that I had found by a self-published author with a weird name, Leinad Zaurus, called Daemon which combined the best parts of what was possible with the most dramatic elements of the near future as defined by science fiction. The entire book was a metaphor for the lack of control that comes from automating too much and living far too close to the limit of what any part in a complex interconnected system can sustain in the face of even the smallest of Black Swans.

I was so taken by Daemon (and the palindromically named Leinad) that I cold emailed him to ask if we could get together and chat about me optioning his book for a movie. I knew nothing about what any of the words in that phrase meant but I'd seen it on Entourage and hey, I was recently feeling like a Master of the Universe after selling my company.

Daniel, true to self, let me down gently by telling me that someone else had already thought of that (a small shop called Dreamworks) but thanking me profusely for being a fan thus sparking the kind of authentic author/fan relationship that is becoming more and more common as the Interent eliminates layers of indirection ("distribution") between creators and their fans. I've since gotten ARC (advanced copies) of all of his subsequent novels and reveled in how as an author he truly encompasses the Steve Jobs mantra of living at the intersection of engineering and liberal arts with his work on big themes dressed as thrillers with narrow AI, drones, and augmented reality as its villians and heroes.

It was a treat to see Daniel again in the flesh this week as he trolled the hallways of MIT for inspiration and gushed about the advances of private space flight, the maker movement, and VR. Get him going with just one beer and he'll give you positive proof that the sculptor Brancusi was right when he wrote about artists: "When we are no longer children, we might as well be dead."

Postnote: Daniel will be stopping by at our Oculus Rift "Celebrating Hardware Innovation" event tomorrow night so come and see two pieces of the future together in one place.

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