Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Future of Tech: The Web's Not Dead (it's just not sexy, anymore)

Technology can be thought of as anything invented after you were born. As it matures, it fades into the background and it's taken for granted. One of the most prolific inventions of the 20th Century was the automobile – entire cities are designed around this invention – but it's no longer cutting edge technology.

The Web has reached this level. It's hard to find cutting edge Web sites. I saw the writing on the wall when I left the Apple Online Store in 2007. At the time, the Apple Store was headed up by Eddy Cue as part of Apple's engineering department. Engineering, at Apple, is the talent. I could see there were no revolutions on the horizon. E-commerce on the Web hasn't changed much since I left the store. It's not dead, it's just mature. Buying online, today, is the same as it was 10 or 15 years ago.

Blogs (Web logs) are another mature technology – they haven't changed in the eight years since the invention of Twitter as a micro-blogging platform. Dave Winer described it best, yesterday, in his interview with The Guardian on the 20th anniversary of the blog when he said that some of the spark is gone.

A couple of years ago, in Two Ships Crashing in the Night, I wrongly predicted that the next big thing would be random video chat for social media. Today, I see that the Web, social media, blogs, e-commerce, e-mail, etc, have plateaued. None of these technologies behave much differently, today, than five or ten years ago. I used to implement cutting edge entrepreneurial ideas enabled by the Web such as SMS payments and classified ads, URL shorteners with revenue models, race photo distribution before the proliferation of RFID, etc. These technologies aren't dead, rather their growth is dead.

So, what's the next big thing?

The Future of High Tech

Without a doubt, the future is in wearable technologies. Eyeglasses have been around since the late 13th Century so it's only natural to incorporate a heads-up display into them now that networked computer displays can scale down and be (almost) fashionable. The ubiquitous smartwatch isn't far away. GPS in shoes isn't just for endurance athletes – Alzheimer patients won't remember their phone and they may forget where they put their shoes, but they're not going to forget to wear their shoes – it's self-prioritizing. Silver alerts will become a thing of the past.

Entrepreneurs looking for the next big thing on the Web will be challenged. It's hard to be revolutionary in a mature industry. Instead, entrepreneurs should to growing markets in technology. The longer a technology market moves sideways on its plateau, the harder it will be to make a difference since small, incremental changes aren't sexy. It's like adding a catalytic converter to the internal combustion engine. Sure, it's great for the environment, but a typical consumer could care less.

If you want to put a dent in the universe, you'll need a hockey stick, curve jumping idea in a growing market.

Revolutionary Innovation: Hockey Stick, Curve Jumping Ideas

Innovation is anything that reduces the cost of a transaction. Revolutionary innovation is a curve jumping idea that looks like a hockey stick graph in a growing market. 

There are incremental improvements and then there are revolutionary improvements. The latter are improvements that aren't only twice as good, rather they're ten times better. It's a paradigm shift that disrupts markets. 

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" who 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 it from melting.

With the advent of electricity, ice harvesting was no longer necessary. In Ice 2.0, warehouses could make ice anytime and send it out for local delivery. This is, in its truest sense, a curve jumping disruptive technology. If you worked in the ice business in the late 1800s you needed to pay attention when refrigeration technology came along otherwise you'd be left out in the cold. 

Looking back, it's obvious that Ice 3.0 was the invention of the personal ice maker, AKA: our home refrigerator. If warehouse refrigeration and ice delivery companies didn't start making home refrigerators in the first half of the 20th Century then they were left behind.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Laundering Money with Bitcoin

My Bitcoin address
Bitcoin is quickly becoming a way to generate (mine) and transfer funds over the Internet. Anyone can download the Bitcoin ledger detailing every payment ever made since day one, but who actually sent and received the funds is anonymous. It's literally the equivalent of digital cash. Each dollar bill I spend in the real world may be serialized, but I usually don't know the identity of the person I give it to and they don't know my identity – plus, there's no identifiable audit trail.

With the anonymity of Bitcoin comes problems similar to dealing with cash, such as losing it or money laundering. Entrepreneurs are setting up Bitcoin exchanges so people can convert Bitcoin to traditional currency and vice versa. This is how Bitcoin users get money into and out of the system. The big danger for entrepreneurs who run a Bitcoin exchange is that they may end up getting arrested if they do business with a known money launderer which is exactly what happened this week.

At lunch, today, I was discussing Bitcoin with some fellow technologists. Specifically, we talked about a college student who made over $24,000, last month, simply by waving a sign on TV with his Bitcoin address. As we discussed this we realized that this is a perfect way to launder money. Since each Bitcoin address is anonymous it makes it easier to launder money. Here's how it would work if you have a large amount of money to launder.

1. Deposit your funds, in relatively small amounts, across multiple Bitcoin accounts (you can generate an unlimited number of Bitcoin accounts). Perhaps one Bitcoin account for each transaction.

2. Advertise your Bitcoin address anywhere popular (online, in the newspaper, on TV, etc).

3. Send all of the funds in your multiple Bitcoin accounts to a single Bitcoin address.

4. Withdraw your bitcoins as cash and claim they were all anonymous donations, but don't forget to pay your taxes.

Can simply advertising your Bitcoin address result in strangers sending you Bitcoin? It did for that college student I mentioned above and it worked for me when I tweeted out my Bitcoin address and a stranger sent me 0.0001 Bitcoin (worth about 8¢).

For the record, this is my Bitcoin address:

Also, you can send me a Bitcoin using this QR code:

Bitcoin address requesting 1 BTC.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Metrics for the Best Possible User Experience

In the past, I've written about creating the best possible user experience (BPUX) and it's worth revisiting. Simply put, the basic metric for BPUX is how many clicks and how long it takes to accomplish a task. While you may be able to accomplish a task faster in ten clicks that takes me longer in three clicks, that's still not the BPUX. The reason you're so much faster is probably due to the fact you've memorized the click path and it's become second nature to you.

As Steve says below (52:14)...
You've got to start with the customer [user] experience and work backwards to the technology. You can't start with the technology and try to figure out where you're going to try to sell it. And I've made this mistake probably more than anyone else in this room and I've got the scar tissue to prove it.


Saturday, January 25, 2014

APIs for Government Services

I recently befriended a guy who used to work in the mayor's office. During his tenure he oversaw several key transportation initiatives related to making the city more green and efficient. After speaking with him an idea came to mind regarding the importance of opening up government data to third parties via APIs. This is, by no means, a new idea, but it became obvious to me what can be gained once that happens.

Currently, if I want to access my DMV information, I have to visit a website developed by the government. Government websites are notorious for their poor design. Yesterday, I visited an FAA website to make an affirmation and this is what I saw...

Click to enlarge

I spent a couple minutes looking up and down the webpage wondering where to click to register my affirmation. I finally discovered that the entire green shaded area was a "button" to click on for affirmation. Although spelling out "click here" is usually a poor design choice, this is clearly a case where that would have been helpful. Even better would have been a simple button reading "I Affirm." If you look closer at the screen shot, you'll see there's actually a second button (the mauve shaded area) below the green one.

Data Wants to be Free

The reason I harp on poorly designed government websites is it would be simpler for governments to mind the data and let third parties design the websites and apps to disseminate it. Much of this data should be in the public domain, such as where a bus, train, or letter carrier is at any given time. Private government data, like my DMV information, can just as easily be accessed without compromise in much the same way that third parties access your Facebook or Twitter account.

The private company, Car2Go, does a great job at sharing data. Car2Go has their own free app and they publish their car data APIs for third parties to access and develop against. Car2Go doesn't make any more or less money if a customer uses their app or a third party app. Third parties are incentivized since they can sell their apps. Car2Go makes their money on the car rentals while third parties make their money selling their own apps.

The next time you find yourself on a marginal government website think about how great it would be if a professional web design firm got a hold of it.

Geotagging Privacy

Flickr keeps your geotagging data, but lets you hide it from the public.
I recently heard two parents of preteens commenting on privacy concerns when their kids posted photos to social media. They obviously were not aware that most smartphones embed EXIF metadata in photos. Most of this data is related to the photo and camera details such as the type of camera used, focal length, exposure time, f-stop, etc.

In addition to camera data, photos are sometimes geotagged with the coordinates where the photo is snapped. This geotagging feature can be turned on or off in the settings configuration depending on the user's settings. On iOS 7, it can be very handy for finding photos that you took months ago while on vacation since you can drill down into a map to find what you're looking for.

Obviously, geotagging can be a big concern for parents since some may not understand the implications of snapping a seemingly benign photo. Many social media websites automatically strip out this metadata. When tweeting a photo or posting it to Facebook, users have the explicit option to include their current location, regardless if a geotag is in the photo. The legal issue of geotagging is a bit more complex since it's very simple to change this data – just like changing a document filename or the name of a song in iTunes. Regardless, though, people, especially parents, need to be aware of it.

Timeshares: The good and the bad

A timeshare is fractional ownership in a vacation property. They get a bad reputation because of the high pressure, hard sell, salespeople peddling them. But are they
really that bad?

The salespeople usually dangle free opportunities from discounted tours to free dinners and vacations. The gotcha is that you have to listen to a sales presentation which is going to take saying, "No," many times before you can leave without purchasing a timeshare to claim your gift. About a dozen years ago, my mother, father, wife, and I purchased a timeshare and we very quickly learned the ins-and-outs. (Actually, it was my late father who handled the details which was then taken over by my wife.)

There are different types of timeshare deals such as a 30-year lease or permanent deeded ownership for a fixed week or floating week time period. While timeshare specifics vary, one thing is certain: if timeshares are not a good fit for your family then it will cause more problems and stress than assembling furniture from Ikea. ☺

Who Are Timeshares Good For?

Before harping on the negatives of timeshare ownership, let me point out that they make good sense for retirees and large families – or anyone else who can plan a vacation a year out. They say that planning as long as a year or as short as a week out is the optimal timeframe. I'm not sure about the latter, but long term planning is definitely the key. Another nice aspect of owning a timeshare is that you can swap it (referred to as banking which adds more fees to the cost of ownership) with other timeshare owners to stay most anywhere in the world. By banking our timeshare, my family and I have reserved units in Carlsbad, Spain, Puerto Vallarta, and Kenya.

A timeshare is a yearly use-it-or-lose-it proposition. If you need a gentle push to plan a vacation, then a timeshare can give you that motivation. Once you've purchased a timeshare, you'll have to pay annual fees for taxes and maintenance much like owning a home with an HOA. Once these fees are paid, your vacation stay is virtually paid for. (Sometimes there's a trivial tax at check-in. Last time my wife and I used a timeshare, we paid about $20 in taxes for the entire week). Of course, you still have to pay for your transportation to and from the timeshare location.

Timeshare Costs

Our timeshare is a two-week, every year, two-bedroom unit in Hawaii that can sleep at least six people. It's ideal for a large family. The downside is that our two weeks costs just over $2,000/year in fees. So, after purchasing the timeshare we're still paying about $1,000/week. Unfortunately, we haven't used our timeshare more years than we have, leading to our strong desire to sell it. About five years ago I visited a timeshare resale office. The broker looked up our timeshare and after factoring in the 50% sales commission [sic], I learned that we'd pocket less than 10% of our original purchase price. Granted, it was during the recession caused by the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, but a 90% loss for real property is a bad deal no matter how you look at it, and it's not much better today.

Not an Investment

Timeshares should never be bought as an investment, but rather as something to improve your quality of life. True investments are easy to spot: They're anything you can purchase today and sell tomorrow for the same price, less any small commissions and fees. Well known good investments are things like houses and stocks. They're speculative, but you can sell it the next day for about the same price. USPS Forever Stamps are a great investment – almost pure arbitrage. Today, a first class stamp costs 46¢, tomorrow (Jan. 26, 2014) the price will be 49¢. You could easily buy Forever stamps, today, and sell them at a profit, next week.

Before buying a timeshare, look at your vacation habits and find out what you can resell it for on the open market. There's no rush to buy one today – even if you have a caring sales person like ours – because you're going to have to live with it for a long time.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Is it Safe to Drive with Google Glass?

Wearable technology Q&A on Google Glass at Qualcomm.
Driving while talking on the phone is distracting and texting is worse. So, what about driving while wearing Google Glass?

Google Glass is a heads-up display (HUD) for consumers. HUDs were invented for military fighter planes since flying requires intense focus and concentration in a distracting environment. Surprisingly, a large amount of today's computer science design best practices related to size, distance, and grouping U/I controls originated in the airplane cockpit.

Some user interface decisions seem obvious such as not putting the ejection button right next to the landing lights switch or not placing small, related, buttons far apart on a web page. But how do you figure out what's best? Paul Fitts, an Air Force Officer, modeled the theory behind human movement in a mathematical fashion. Based on his work, human machine interfaces have been refined leading to the development of technologies like the HUD. Technology should enhance an experience, not interfere with it.

Is it safe?

The plain English description of the HUD (heads-up) tells all. It's much safer to drive when Google Glass displays your speed and GPS directions than it is to look away from the road to find this information on your dashboard. Of course, it can be equally distracting if you're viewing videos and surfing the Web with Google Glass while driving. This issue has become relevant when a woman was ticketed, in San Diego, for merely wearing Google Glass this past October. Last week, the case was dismissed because the judge decided there wasn't enough evidence to prove the device was on. That still leaves the legal issue of driving while Google Glass is turned on to be answered.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tesla, Model S

A single moving part: the rotor, compared to hundreds in a typical engine.
You can't unsee a Tesla once you've seen it – it's simply beautiful and elegant.

The Model S has a single moving part: the rotor, which is a powertrain tucked between the rear wheels. There are no belts, carburetors, catalytic converters, radiators, etc. With no engine to take up space, that frees up storage both under the hood and in the trunk.

The entire front panel is a touch screen with Internet access sans video.
The Model S starts at $70,000 and the one I sat in topped out around $114,000. The interior is simple in true minimalistic style. The dashboard has a single button to open the glove compartment and the rest of the controls are handled through a touch screen with Internet access.

The car can be fully recharged at home in about eight hours using a standard 240 volt outlet that powers a washer or dryer. A big selling point is that you can fully recharge your Tesla in about 45 minutes or less, for free – yes, free fuel for life – at any of the public Supercharger charging stations.

The battery is the vehicle's only Achilles heel. All batteries are expensive and heavy for the power they deliver. As a Marine supply and fiscal officer for an infantry battalion, the single biggest expense I'd budget for field exercises (maneuvers) were our batteries.

Nearly the entire chassis of the Tesla houses the battery and it has an eight year unlimited warranty (even if you brick it). It's nice that a full charge can take you more than 250 miles but batteries deteriorate over time. Even if a Tesla's battery lasts a dozen years, it'll have to eventually be replaced to the tune of $12,000. So, a Tesla's TCO isn't really saving money over a traditional internal combustion engine when looking at these detailed cost calculations, but it really helps the environment.

Until a more efficient source of mobile electricity is developed, electric cars will remain a premium luxury.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Amazon Product Management

Click to enlarge
Amazon has a very distinctive technique for bringing a new product to market. Instead of throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks, they begin new product development with a notional press release followed by a first cut at the product's FAQ. Keep in mind that the press release will never be published in its original form – rather, it's a guide to keep the business, product, and engineering teams on the same sheet of music. I think of the press release as the high level, 30,000', strategic view of the product and the FAQ as the operational, 10,000', view.

Once the press release and FAQ are created the marketing team can layout their vision which is then passed to the product department to document the functional specifications, wire diagrams, and technical requirements for the engineering team to develop and the QA team to test against.

At the end of the day, though, it's a company's corporate culture that drives the success of their products. At Amazon, their corporate culture focuses on what the customer wants. This "the customer is always right" mentality may seem obvious, but it really does depend on each company's DNA. When I worked at Apple, our priority was to provide the best possible user experience (UX) and customer experience (CX).

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Naval Science & Etiquette

Catching up with friends from the USNA Alumni Association in La Jolla
Last week I spoke with a former US Navy officer who graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, Long Island. The goal of the Academy is to graduate merchant marine officers, although some choose to be commissioned in the military such as the Navy or Marine Corps. My fellow former naval officer made an interesting observation about the differences between Kings Point and Annapolis. Although he could turn a large ship on a dime, and give you nine cents change, he didn't get much training on naval science and etiquette. He knew the procedure for boarding a ship (salute the American flag and then ask permission to come aboard) but he didn't have a deep indoctrination on naval science and etiquette.

Etiquette is a funny thing – it seems very basic once you're taught it, but until that happens you seem rude. The first etiquette I was taught at Annapolis was to put my napkin on my lap and to always pass the pepper along with the salt. The most important etiquette tip I learned during plebe summer, that still serves me well, is to mail out thank you notes within 48 hours. In today's world of everything electronic, a hand written thank you note, sent through the mail, stands out.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Getting Rid of Things

Eight devices in one.
The key purpose of consumer technology is to get rid of things. If new product D does nothing to get rid of products A, B, and C, then it won't gain a lot of traction.

The iPhone replaced the phone, still and video camera, music and video player, photo album, game console, GPS nav system, laptop, stop watch, alarm clock, book library, calculator, e-mail client, web browser, word processor, day planner etc. While it's not a perfect replacement, it's good enough.

Before bringing a new product to the consumer, first ask, "What will this get rid of?" and "Is it simple?" because there's little that's more frustrating than when technology doesn't work as expected. And never forget that innovation is anything which reduces the cost of a transaction.

Stump the Apple Genius With iOS E-mail Issues

I stumped an Apple Genius with an iOS 7 e-mail issue. Simply put, the e-mails I sent from different accounts on my iPad disappeared. I'd click send and the Mail app didn't even appear to try to send out my e-mail – it was as if I had hit delete instead of send. The e-mails neither appeared in my drafts folder nor did they end up in my sent folder and they certainly weren't delivered to the recipient.

A quick search of the Web revealed this is an issue that hasn't been addressed by Apple. I was able to easily reproduce the bug for the Apple Genius and we tried several different things such as resetting my iPad followed by deleting and re-adding the e-mail accounts without any luck. The e-mails simply vanished when clicking send.

At this point, it's hard for me to figure out how long this has been an issue. Next up, I'll try resetting my iPad back to factory settings to see if that fixes the problem.