Thursday, September 19, 2013

I Wish Those Who Ignored History Would be a Little More Doomed, Already

Every day I see three stupid tech bloggers, often for the Verge or Wired or someone formerly serious, totally ignore everything more than 18 months old. Here's a typical sort of comment:
Who would have predicted a decade ago that (smart)phones would offer constant access to the Web, to social networks and broadcast platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and to hundreds of specialized apps? Who could have anticipated the power of our everyday devices to capture our every moment and movement? Cameras, GPS tracking, sensors—a phone is no longer just a phone; it is a powerful personal computing device loaded with access to interactive services that you carry with you everywhere you go.
But what annoys me, is that this is from an ACM publication. A serious journal, where there is a long edit cycle and presumably reviewers and editors.

So, we've formally entirely forgotten that in 2003 there were phones that browsed the web, and I was improving the design of things like an app store that we'd had out for a while. Or that these phones had cameras, location (conflating GPS and location is a serious error in itself), etc. etc.

But no. Apple invented the smartphone. Unequivocally. No caveats that all others vaguely sucked despite Symbian being the largest smartphone platform for another 5 years. Forget that. Everything before iPhone was a "dumbphone" and just made phone calls. Apple won the mindshare war for all people who write.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

M2M is Nice, but Don't Forget E2M

Or: "Your Favorite Pundit is Wrong: Moving Towards Hyper Toothpaste"

Every single article I have seen that talks about the sorta newly-announced Apple iBeacon is getting the point totally wrong. The continued lack of NFC, coupled with this "new" technology leads everyone to the conclusion that they are competitors, and Apple has made their stake.


iBeacons are, at their heart, based on BLE. That stands for Bluetooth Low Energy, and before we get any further "BTLE" doesn't stand for anything at all, so stop using the wrong abbreviation, right now. It's a standard, and indeed is an extension of the Bluetooth we all know and used all the time. Many devices support BLE, and have for a while. Not all phones, unlike what some stupid articles are reporting. But many, and more all the time. 

BLE is derived from Bluetooth which was the winner of a series of technologies called PANs, for Personal Area Networks. Like your connection to the internet is Wide Area, and your home or office has a Local Area Network, this is even smaller. Originally, just to get radio from the phone in your pocket to devices on your head or other pockets, or people you stand next to. 

They are most useful and designed as M2M or machine to machine networks, where your thermostat will send this very low-power, occasional, tiny bit of data to whatever device needs to know. Apple, and PayPal and soon even more, are trying to use these to end run location based services, so stores (for example) can discover (about) where you are as you walk around, or synch payment based on location. I expect much button pushing, and most data still goes over the mobile network (or WiFi), not over the BLE. That's just for handshake, discovery, and validation. 

For more, Matthew Lewis wrote the one and only explanation of iBeacon that isn't totally misinformed and misguided. 

These are supposed to kill NFC. That stands for Near Field Communications, and is a subset concerned with putting RFID technology into devices like phones. You have used RFID, if you have just waved a card at a pad by a door to get access to work, at a turnstile to get on the train, or at a payment terminal to, well, pay for things. 

And that explains why it's useful. What if you could stop carrying an ID badge, subway pass and credit card and just use your phone for that? Oh, and you can in some places, with significant limits. Nothing about the technology limits this, at all. In the US, contactless payment has been held back by... um, I forget. Some bullshit with banks and mobile operators and everyone else fighting over standards. 

When talking about mobiles, there is still button pushing or something else to validate it's you. The mobile network is used to transmit the data, and the NFC is just used to get this tiny amount of information, basically just a serial number (though other things like email addresses and http addresses can be embedded). The clever part to me is that (almost) any active NFC device can read passive devices. Once your phone replaces a credit card, it also can read stickers and posters and anything else a dirt cheap unpowered chip is embedded in. 

NFC is short, short, short range. Supposed to be millimeters or inches, and this is true aside from some hacking with directional antennas. Discovery is via stickers and so forth. You have to be told to tap your card/phone to activate it. Think of this in the same vein as barcodes, including QR codes. Passive, short range, limited in data. 

BLE is derived from Bluetooth which was the winner of a series of technologies called PANs, for Personal Area Networks. Like your connection to the internet is Wide Area, and your home or office has a Local Area Network, this is even smaller. Originally, just to get radio from the phone in your pocket to devices on your head or other pockets, or people you stand next to. Discovery of this is by the radio itself, which can be set to broadcast and discovery modes. BLE is active, longer range (small buildings, street corners), and supports very dynamic data. 

BLE connects the many little digital devices with intelligence and something to say. Over time, everything with power (your car, your thermostat, etc.) will be expected to get little computers, and little radios, so they can talk to each other and we can control them. 

NFC gives a voice to the remaining vast, vast number of passive, stupid objects the world is filled with. No tube of toothpaste is ever going to have a power source, radio, and sensors to tell you how much is left. But it can have an NFC tag which makes it hyper toothpaste. It becomes connected to digital products and the internet. 

You can conceive of an NFC reader in the medicine cabinet which knows what is in it, then that is part of the home automation and talks to a server somewhere via BLE to your phone to keep track of use rates and times, so it can tell if the kids brushed their teeth. Think of this as the real Internet of Things. NFC supports E2M, the Everything to Machine network of the future. 

The moral of this is that BLE and NFC are not competitors. Regardless of the choices Apple makes, and what the tech press is making of it, the world needs both of these types of standards.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Smart Watch Roundup and Some Thoughts

Boy there are a lot of smart watches and related connected devices finally coming out. No, I haven't used the majority of these. Partly as some are merely announced, and otherwise I mostly still have to buy my stuff instead of being cool enough to get things sent to me.

I have played with lots of other crazy devices over the years, and even some very old attempts to be smart watches so still claim to get the gist, though.

  • Samsung - It's practically a mini phone in itself, with the ability to install what seem to be fairly free-standing apps, a camera, voice input, and of course a fairly serious color touchscreen. 
  • Qualcomm - The Toq, which also seems to have an accompanying earpiece, uses a "new" display technology, and is trying to strike a more useful middle ground in the touchscreen control area, with much larger inputs. That might help, but it looks even huger than the others still. 
  • Sony - Rather similar in UI scale to the Qualcomm, if you are following links in order, and still too big a device. Proud of having gestures, like swipe to perform some actions. 
  • Smart Devices - Really not much about this, but it looks again to be a full color touchscreen with tediously tiny controls. 

Of course, most folks are comparing these to the Pebble. And not just the tech writers. Sales doubled on announcement of the Samsung device.

Despite my previous glowing review, it's not a perfect device. It's not ePaper despite their claims. I do wish it would shake to dismiss items, and was a little more clever about what it sent to the watch (most emails are useless, as the body is all this header info...), and i can just imagine having a few crazy features like a speakerphone so I can answer calls sometimes, but that is probably a step too far.

Overall, I have trouble like many commenters on why you'd want a smart watch, but only when I look at those with full color screens, touch targets that are far too small, and maybe as much as 1 day of battery life. Pebble, while in no way perfect, is the trend I still see winning, and maybe even the way these shiny, touchscreen watches will be used: as remotes for your mobile, pushing notices, giving almost-ambient information on weather and status and position and maybe even time. I don't see a lot of photos, note taking, voice response or gaming going on with your wrist.

Which brings me really to the last smart... thingy. Embrace + is a kickstarter I backed as I love, love, love the idea. It's a bracelet (okay, I won't wear it, but my wife might) that just glows and blinks. Truly ambient, very simple and unobtrusive, one-way only information.

Scott Jenson over the weekend said that "people are deconstructing the computer/phone into alternative configurations," which is a great way to say it. These device manufacturers are creating a new way for mobiles to work, and allowing customer choice again in an ocean of flat, fragile slabs of glass. But in a really interesting way, for the interactivity. You used to have the candybar vs. flip choice, with the rare pen/touch nerd, but now there is beginning to be the promise of making your mobile as intrusive, or not, as you want and as two way or not as you need at any moment.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

On Greek Yogurt, Into Darkness, and Platform Choice

I like yogurt. Especially with cereal. There wasn't a lot I could eat as a child, so I grew up on Dannon vanilla and Grape Nuts. Later and over time I have learned how bad 80s yogurt was, and for a while have been happy with much of the local, organic and otherwise real food trends. The health section at the local HyVee spoils me for choice.

Except, now things aren't always so rosy. The Greek yogurt craze has gotten entirely out of hand. When I travel, or try to get my old favorites at Costco, there is no normal yogurt. Nothing but Greek yogurt.

Oh, did I forget to mention I hate Greek yogurt?

See, this is why I consider the "well, just don't use/watch it if you hate it" comments to be the ultimate trolling. Greek yogurt is trying to ruin yogurt for me.

And J.J. Abrams has ruined Star Trek. Sure, I can just not go see the new films. But the way that works, there are (essentially) no new competing products in that universe. So my hate is not for the new, terribly property but that it eliminates something better from existing.

Or, to bring it back onto my day job, when you read a forum or posting that complains about some app only being on one platform it's a legitimate complaint. If I want to use the Fuel band then why do I have to buy an iPhone? Sure, there's some sector competition, like UP or FitBit, but why do I have to shop around for compatibility?

Sure there's other Sci Fi (for now!), and other food, but why do I have to change?

There's a larger point here, which maybe I'll work out sometime.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Gesture Deathmatch: Leap Motion vs… Galaxy S4?

Kinesthetics is awareness of the movement of your limbs, or learning based on physical movement. It is also coming to mean gestures that are not those you touch and swipe across the screen of your mobile phone. 

It’s no coincidence that one of the first kinesthetic gesture devices you used, the Microsoft Xbox Kinect is spelled that way. Yeah, the Wii also does this, but senses in a different way.

This is one of those technologies that is a bit like voice; it’s been the next big thing for a decade or two. Except that it’s also been sneaking up on us. Sensors have, for years now, been waking up your phone when you pick it up, or locking the touchscreen when it thinks you are putting it up to your head to talk.

But now, these sorts of gestures are becoming a bit more mainstream and general. You can consciously use them on, or with, several new devices.

Leap Motion

If you didn’t know, Leap is one of those popular but somewhat delayed Kickstarter products. I got mine the first few days they were shipping, and have been evaluating it for a couple weeks now.
It’s a tiny box that plugs into your computer via USB and then watches for movement. You set the box in front of your monitor somewhere, then when you wave your hands in front of the computer, it sees them. In some detail, when you run the demos at least, though real-world responsiveness is just okay.

Not that I use it much. Other reviews have complained about not having a consistent gesture library, for example. That didn’t stop touchscreen phones when they came out. It was a gripe, but one you could get over pretty easily.

When I ordered the Leap, and even when I saw other demos, I had visions of how it would work for me. Quite specific ones. I wanted to keep my right hand on my pen tablet (which has been my primary input method since 1993) and then be able to just put my left hand in front of the screen to manipulate the drawing area; open palm to scoot the screen area around, say, or pinch to zoom.

It doesn’t do that. At all. Not that it couldn’t I suppose, but they have gone far, far too much into the app store model. Software is piled on software and linked to websites. You have to install zillions of little apps and plugins. Many are paid. Almost all are very freestanding. Essentially nothing allows you to control an existing application with the Leap directly.

I don’t intend to change my whole way of working by having the one computer with a Leap using special Leap software. So 90% of the use has been me getting the kids out of my hair playing games and doing very cool looking educational, exploring things. It’s very cool, and the hardware is promising, but the integration fails me entirely.

Samsung Galaxy S4

Yes, the contender for today’s purposes is a completely-different device. Not a dongle to complete with the Leap on desktop, but a single, free-standing smartphone.

For a few generations now, Samsung has been adding human-facing sensors, and doing interesting things with them. Many of these have been somewhat secret. Not evil, just not very obvious, with the end goal being not very annoying. Their devices are a bit better at detecting when you are looking at them during a call for example. Yes, others (notably Apple) have a decent assortment of sensors also, but Samsung has really embraced this.

I've been trying out the Verizon version of their newest flagship model, the Galaxy S4, for a few weeks also. It has a few more sensors than the S3, I think, but most of all is using them more directly and is making it all quite obvious to the end user now.

There are a whole series of settings that turn on various UI features based on you waving at the phone, tilting it, or even just looking at it.

When I say they are being obvious, I mean that these features are front and center in their TV advertising. 
I should mention that while the sensing isn’t better than Leap, or sometimes really very good at all even, it’s quite good at mentioning when it sees you. My favorite is the eyeball scanner. It shows a little icon (oddly in the middle of the screen) which indicates it can see you, and where it thinks you are looking.
This feedback means you can adjust yourself. I think that’s one reason Leap fails. When in demo mode you are looking at your hands directly, and it’s amazing but when using it for what we have to consider real work, you have no feedback.

Building an Environment

Aside from niggling details of the UI and interaction, the biggest difference between the two, by far, is the way they work.

The Leap Motion has brilliant technology, and the concept of bringing kinesthetic gesture to the desktop is great, but is such an add on that it is of essentially no value to me. And actually, the kids have even gotten bored with it. They want to do much the same as me, and finger paint in my professional drawing tools, or use it to navigate the computer. Which it doesn’t really do.

Whereas the Galaxy S4 totally does this. The technology is not as flashy, and is actually maybe less reliable than the Leap. The eye tracker doesn’t work with glasses, for example. But what works, works in most every app. And pretty seamlessly. If you leave on the gesture scroll, then as soon as you aren’t confused by it, the page you are viewing just scrolls as you naturally want it to.

And this proves out actually using the devices. As I said, no one much uses the Leap Motion, but it’s hard to keep the kids away from the Galaxy S4. It’s not just the big, shiny, new phone in my collection. But also the one that has the features that automatically make it work easily.

I like to talk about how it’s our job to use the sensors and connections of the phone to create ecosystems, or environments that support the way the user works. This is another extension to that. And you don’t even have to spend the usual time to get used to it and set it up your way. Turn everything on and just let it try to automatically create an information environment around you, and for you.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Developers Misguided on App Platform Targeting

That could be the alternative headline for this article from TechCrunch. Let's look at a bit:
Forrester found that more than a third (35%) of respondents target iPhones as their first priority device vs less than a third (27%) who target Android phones first... ...For the time being, iOS continues to punch above its weight by being the platform developers tend to choose to launch apps on first. 
Um... sure. That's not at all biased. It's not "has closed to just a 7 point difference" or anything.   But I have another issue.

I speak not as the anti Apple fanboi, but from my experience working for a couple clients. In the last year I have worked on (if nothing slips my mind) five mobile apps. Some are multi-platform. ONE was first built on iOS. And that because... the app developer the client picked (before I got there) was comfortable on iOS. Insisted stuff that they wanted couldn't be done in Android "as easily." Stuff like connecting to Bluetooth devices. Sure. (They also decided design was hard so just sorta ignored what I got paid to do, and built something else.)

If we go back the previous year, I did another half dozen apps or app projects. 2/3rds of those did start on iOS. Here, again, because of the developers. They had a write-once (hybrid, apparently) platform and decided [a poorly conceived] iOS version was the baseline.

When marketing gets involved, without any whiny developers, they look at the actual data and pick platforms their target audience uses. And more often than not this actual data is right. They are happy, to have spent money on the most result first.

In all cases where multiple platforms were launched... it depends. Android was not always the clear winner. Sometime BlackBerry had surprising use rates (over 20% in some user groups*). The lesson is:

  1. Do some research, check your Web analytics, and target what your audience really uses and wants to use. 
  2. Stop asking developers what they prefer.
* Yeah, that was last year. BBOS has dropped off to nothing in most cases now. 

Back to School Technology

We have, for now, kids in Middle and High Schools, and the past week has included Back to School days for both of them. I'll try not to harp too much on the appalling school branding (now up to 13 different eagle "icons" for the one school) or terrible writing skills of the staff and teachers when they send us forms and emails.

And I know that none of this is truly new. I've seen at least some of it, in some form, for quite a while. But I think we've reached a sort of tipping point where the result is noticeable.

There's plenty of old technology about. There are printed books. eBooks aren't even on the horizon. The kids have to take notes on paper (computers are unheard of for the students, not a one, not a question), and there are lots and lots of photocopied handouts. There seem to be a lot of families with no computers, and maybe no smartphones. Some teachers referred to getting even high school kids "used to technology" and of course they offer use of computers at school. So some of this may be

They even have phones. Like, wireline phones! The teachers never use the wireline phone in the room, but these seem telling.

There are projectors in every room. This seems great because it encourages the instructors to make everything digital. Document cameras are one of the new technologies this year in most rooms, and this is a bit sad. Too much stuff from the book publishers is only on paper, and the teachers are absolutely prevented from making copies out of the book. So, this nice technology is sort of a step backwards as it encourages old-school technology.

Most rooms are issued, and many teachers use, this:

It's a Wacom wireless Graphire, just sold through (and integrated with I assume) the SmartBoards. The teachers then walk around the room not just advancing slides, but drawing, typing and scooting items around the screen. I am a lover of the pen tablet so this excites me.

A few rooms had this:

This is that technology where the kids can vote or otherwise provide near-real-time digital responses to things on screen. Yup, all are at least a little broken (see the tape) and the Beyond Question devices are specifically oddly shaped and not designed for the environment. They are less rugged than my home TV remote. It is IR, and so there's lots of pointing oddly to get to the receiver, and the questions have to be set up by the teacher through some custom software.

The computer class was all but Sponsored by Microsoft. Not just all of Office, but also a few weeks on Access is in the curriculum. I wouldn't mind if they spent some time on database principles, but fear it'll not cover that at all. Oh, well.

Many teachers want you to sign up for one or another type of SMS and/or email reminder.

And every teacher is pretty much required (they said so) to tell us all to regularly monitor their Web Back Pack (or, Backpack... they aren't consistent). They post their curriculum, current status, homework, and so on up there. Think of each teacher like a department in your company, and their Back Pack page as their intranet page. Yup, just a flood of text and random images and lots and lots of Word or Powerpoint downloads.

And there are another half dozen cloud services we're supposed to use as well. Which brings me to my complaint that this is all terrible. It's not a thing, but a zillion things. It's controlled by the district, so the teachers can only use certain tools, but there are too many. And they aren't coordinated.

For example, to use the Back Pack, I go to the district website, then pick the school from an alphabetical list. Of all of them, not ordered by type or area, so a very long list. Then I pick the teacher. By first name no less.

Or what about fallback technology? One of the teachers is technically a sub. For the whole year, sure, but the district considers her a sub. So, no access to any of the district digital tools. Therefore, she hands out paper, and makes the students write things in their notebooks in a common format.

This all violates basic principles I talk about all the time. My student gets a single schedule, for example. They don't arrange to attend school with each teacher, but with the district. They know who we are, so should be able to figure out we have two kids in school. I should be able to enter my basic info (eliminating giving my email to each teacher), and then click straight into the classes for each of my children.

And while I am there, even if things like signup for all those SMS reminder systems (even if they have to be separate services) should be linked. And only one per family or student, with checkboxes per class. A separate signup per class is insane.

This is why I gripe about technology all the time. More boxes, wires and software won't solve our problems. Like we tell kids to stop and think before they talk, we need to stop and think before we buy or build more of this. How can we integrate, improve existing products and be intelligent with the data we have already?