Monday, November 14, 2011

iTunes Match: The Curve Jumping Cloud For Consumers

Apple launched iTunes Match, today. They were shooting for an October release, but they missed it by two weeks. I didn't really think about iTunes Match features until just now, when I tried it out.

I downloaded the iTunes 10.5.1 update and let iTunes Match run while I cooked dinner. It took about 45 minutes – I wasn't really paying attention. During that time, it scanned my iTunes library to determine which of the 2,400 songs it had on its servers. Then, iTunes Match took the songs that it didn't have on its servers and uploaded them. Fortunately, I have a blazing fast ISP, so uploading about 400 songs took less time than the entire iTunes music library scan.

I Get It
Once iTunes Match was done processing my library, I "tuned it in" on my Apple TV. I didn't really know what to expect, but there on my Apple TV were all my songs nicely arranged into my playlists.

I created a new iTunes playlist on my computer and copied some songs into it. In the time it took me to move my hands from my computer keyboard to the Apple TV remote, I noticed that the TV screen flickered and the new playlist that I just created showed up on my Apple TV. Ok, now I get it.

Prior to iTunes Match, it was a bit inconvenient to push my music from my iPhone or iPad to my Apple TV; and it was also a minor hassle to keep iTunes open on my laptop so that the Apple TV could "see" my music and playlists.

Missing In Action
Some songs, though, seem to be missing and I'm not sure why. I have some voice memos that I've recored which obviously shouldn't be uploaded, aka, "This item is not eligible for iCloud."

But, I also have some songs, such as a store bought Tchaikovsky CD that I imported into iTunes 10 years ago, that weren't uploaded. The song titles show up on the Apple TV, but they're grayed out. In iTunes, next to the track name, it displays an iCloud icon with an exclamation point indicating, "This item was not added to iCloud because an error occurred." The songs are on my computer, but it's not in iCloud. I'll have to investigate some more.

Update: A former coworker from Apple just read this blog post and tweeted me the solution to my problem: "Set view options to show iCloud status column. Sort by status. Select all 'Error'. Right click to reupload." Sure enough, that did it. I now see my missing songs in iCloud and on my Apple TV.

Piracy Big Brother?
So, does Apple and the RIAA now know which of their users have pirated songs? No, it's not that simple. Nearly all of my iTunes library is either composed of songs that I bought from the iTunes store or imported from my CD collection. In the case of CD imports, iTunes Match has no way to know if the CD import was from music that I owned or "borrowed" from a friend. Of course, Apple could listen to songs that are uploaded, which aren't recognized, and determine that, perhaps, they're a concert bootleg; but that would surprise me. It would be the equivalent of Gmail reading the e-mail on their servers to gather business intelligence.

Cloud Computing
"Cloud" has become the hot buzzword in tech since 2006 when Amazon launched their Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) which allowed users to turn on a computer with the click of a mouse (ok, technically, they're not turning on a physical computer, rather, they're launching a virtual machine but it does the exact same thing as a computer and it's indistinguishable).

Amazon's EC2, along with a handful of competitors, are true cloud computing systems. Other systems, like iCloud or Amazon's Simple Storage Service (S3) are actually cloud storage systems - there's no real computing going on. But, that doesn't mean that they're not useful. On the contrary, they're tremendously useful.

So, what is the cloud? Simple: cloud, quite literally, means Internet, as in you're reaching out over the Internet for computing power or storage or fundamental web services such as DNS. And, you're reaching out via an API, which means that other computers can talk to and access these services without human intervention.

Abstraction: The Cloud For Consumers
Since modern computing first began during WW II, with the Mark I, layers of abstraction have been added, one on top of the other, in order to manage and reduce complexity. Each layer allows more "everyday" users to access computing power without requiring a detailed technical understanding.

Many times, when a new layer of abstraction is added, there's some resistance from hard core programmers since each layer removes some control that they once had.

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was one of the first programmers to encounter this resistance when she took her library of software routines and bundled them into the first compiler. The compiler ran slower and it was less efficient than writing pure machine code. Claims of code execution inefficiencies were a somewhat valid claim since computing power was not cheap 60 years ago. However, the true expense, since then, hasn't been CPU power, but, rather brain cycles. It's much better for a computer to step through some inefficient code than to have a human take a chance at creating bugs. As my former boss at Apple used to say, "Code you don't write is code you don't have to debug."

Rather then just create another cloud storage solution, Apple has completely removed the ambiguity of the file system just as it did with iTunes and iPhoto. When you import media into Apple's "iApps", you don't need to concern yourself with where, on the file system, the file actually resides. There's no need to know if your files are located under ~/ghopper/Music/iTunes... or c:\Program Files\... With iCloud, you don't have to know which folder your content is located in, iCloud handles that for you.

There are incremental improvements and then there are revolutionary improvements. The latter are improvements that's aren't just twice as good, rather they're ten times better which usually involves a paradigm shift.

The ice trade is a perfect example of revolutionary technological improvements. In the late 1700s, only the rich had ice since it had to be harvested in the winter and then shipped like granite or marble and stored with a short shelf life. Frederic Tudor was Boston's "Ice King" and he made his fortune by harvesting and shipping ice to places that would not have otherwise had it such as the Caribbean and India.

Innovation during Ice 1.0 revolved around making sharper saws to cut the ice and inventing insulation, other than hay, to keep the ice from melting. But, if you worked in the ice business in the late 1800s, you needed to pay attention when refrigeration technology came along.

With the advent of electricity, ice harvesting was no longer necessary. In Ice 2.0, warehouses could make ice during the summer and send it out for local delivery. This is, in its truest sense, a curve jumping disruptive technology. If you were still sharpening your saw while ice was being made using refrigeration then you would have missed the boat.

Looking back, it isn't hard to realize that Ice 3.0 was the invention of the personal ice maker, aka, our home refrigerator. If warehouse refrigeration companies didn't start making home refrigerators in the first half of the 20th Century then they were probably left behind.

Technology & Innovation
So, how in the world does the ice trade tie in with Apple? Both involved clear, revolutionary, jumps in technologies, i.e. a 10x improvement over the previous way of doing business. Instead of harvesting ice, we make it at home. Instead of entering cryptic commands into a text editor, we use a mouse to drag and drop icons.

After all, what is technology? The answer is relative. Do we think of the wheel as technology? You could say that technology is anything that was invented after you were born. You can think of it as a synonym for magic and, nowadays, when it breaks, you have to throw it away and get a new one because it can't be fixed. (I'm paraphrasing Strong Bad.) As Grace Hopper once said, "Life was simple before World War II. After that, we had systems."

Think Apple
At Apple, we philosophically thought of innovation as the intersection of imagination and reality. But, more pragmatically, we believed that innovation was anything new that reduced the cost of a transaction, either in terms of time or money.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Brady's Life With Duchenne Muscular Dystorphy

Brady Sherman's one of Jerry's Kids, he was born with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. He's an exceptionally bright kid who loves all things mechanical and military, especially aviation.

I've known Brady since before he was born. His mother is my wife's best friend and college roommate.

Brady was diagnosed with DMD when he was a toddler so we all had an inkling for his life ahead which averages late teens to early 20s.

Personal Memories
One Christmas, when Brady was about five or six, he got his first two-wheeler bicycle. We worried that he might hurt himself. When Brady was ridding his new bike he, like all kids learning to ride, fell over. As the bicycle rested on top him, he made it very clear that he was uninjured. With his arms outstretched, lying face down, he professed, "I'm O-K!" We got a good laugh out of the fact that he issued this decleration with the force and effect of MacArthur's, "I shall return."

We took Brady for a flight in my plane this past summer. Since he's been in a wheelchair for the past few years, it took two attempts to get him into my Cessna. The first attempt was with his mother and I trying to lift him into the front copilot seat. Brady was a little anxious about the thought of being lifted into the plane so we tried again, about a week later, with his father and me.

When you have no use of your legs and suffer from muscle degeneration, falling is a big deal. A very big deal.

Fortunately, his dad and I were able to lift him into the plane and we went up for a flight. He got a thrill out of flying the plane when I let him take the controls. But, he only flew the plane for a few minutes. Like most people who take the controls for the first time, including me, we don't really know what to do and a short time is more than enough.

Joking Around
Brady loved a good joke, even when the joke was on him. Several years ago, my wife, Laura, and I were over the Sherman's house for a Christmas Eve party. The party was still going strong well past 11 p.m. Brady was getting very upset as he kept trying to end the party and throw everyone out. As we all know, Santa Claus will skip your house unless everyone's asleep. Years later, I still teased him about that and he always smiled and chuckled.

I taught Brady how to stick one finger in your nose while licking the other finger and then touch the licked finger to someone's face. "Watch how wigged out they'll get," I told him. We all got a big kick out of it when it tried it on his dad a few minutes later. (Well, maybe all of us except dad.)

Wishes Granted
Brady's wish was granted a couple years ago by the Make-A-Wish Foundation when he and his parents were flown to Normandy, France for a battle field tour. That's a memory to last a lifetime.

My first paid journalism article was about Brady and the training he and his family went through when they got their yellow lab companion dog. I was amazed at how well trained that dog was and how much assistance he gave to Brady.

This Morning
Yesterday, Brady fell as he was being lifted out of his wheelchair and broke his leg. He was treated and he went home with his parents. His dad slept next to him last night. This morning, Brady's breathing was very shallow and his parents couldn't wake him. Laura called me at work and told me that Brady was dying as he was being rushed to the hospital while CPR was being performed in the ambulance.

The doctors were unable to to resuscitate him.

Brady passed away this morning aged 14 and a freshman in high school.

We all thought that this moment was still years away. None of us can process this. It just doesn't seem real. He was just a kid.

While I, like most everyone, worked hard to get where I am; I too often forget that I did nothing to be born. I didn't earn being born – it quite literally befell me.

I need to be reminded that I won the birth lottery on many different levels... where and when I was born, my good health, and so on. Steve aptly described it: Life is fragile.

Last Shots
I clearly remember the last time I saw Brady. It was Saturday, September 3, when I snapped this photo of him watching Black Hawk Down. Brady loved the military and he knew more about it than any other kid I know.

Raw Emotions
Tragedies like this leave emotions very raw as waves of grief come and go, followed by anger and then laughter at fond memories.

Brady's mother best expressed one of these extremes, tonight, on Facebook, "Fuck you Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy."

Brady's final life experience was in his own bed, in his own home, under the same roof with two parents that loved him with every fiber of their existence.

But, as comforting as that sounds, at this point, I can't cry hard enough.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

SMS is Dying, Viva SMS!

My love affair with text messaging started when I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya in May 2005. I was amazed that the wireless carriers in East Africa were so much more advanced than in the U.S. What I found particularly useful was that they could text money to each other using SMS - no apps required. As soon as I returned to the U.S., I created a proof of concept, using a GSM modem, and partnered with an angel investor as we tried to raise funding from Tech Coast Angels for the now defunct Acasero.

This morning, I was very pleased to see that Amazon announced a new web service which allows anyone to send text messages from a short code. Sending an SMS from a short code, which is a five or six digit phone number, is not an inexpensive proposition. It will cost a company at least $1,000/month not including the metered costs of sending each text message. I've covered the details in this white paper that I wrote a few years ago. But, with today’s announcement from Amazon, that cost is literally reduced to pennies.

SMS is Dying
The wireless carriers' approach to marketing SMS is what I call "bad." RIM has gotten around it, for years, by allowing direct messaging from Blackberry to Blackberry. Now, Apple's iOS 5 has done something similar by allowing text messages to be sent over the data portion of device's payment plan vice the SMS portion. The wireless carriers have priced themselves out of the market when you consider that it would cost about $6,000 to download a 4 MB song if wireless data cost as much as SMS.

Viva SMS
Yet, even though SMS is dying, it's still very useful in both developed and developing countries. It will continue to serve a niche for many years to come. The key strength of SMS is that it's a push (event driven) messaging system compared to e-mail which generally has to poll a server (even with "push" e-mail utilizing the IDLE command, it's still not a responsive as SMS).

So, now that SMS is available to the masses via a short code, what are some of the possibilities? I can think of a few, very marketable, ideas.