Another lucid flurry of Apple thinking it through – unlike everyone else

Apple Watch Home Screen

This happens every time Apple announce a new product category. Audience reaction, and the press, rush off to praise or condemn the new product without standing back and joining the dots. The Kevin Lynch presentation at the Keynote also didn’t have a precursor of a short video on-ramp to help people understand the full impact of what they were being told. With that, the full impact is a little hidden. It’s a lot more than having Facebook, Twitter, Email and notifications on your wrist when you have your phone handset in your pocket.

There were a lot of folks focussing on it’s looks and comparisons to the likely future of the Swiss watch industry. For me, the most balanced summary of the luxury esthetics from someone who’s immersed in that industry can be found at:  http://www.hodinkee.com/blog/hodinkee-apple-watch-review

Having re-watched the keynote, and seen all the lame Androidware, Samsung, LG and Moto 360 comparisons, there are three examples that explode almost all of the “meh” reactions in my view. The story is hidden my what’s on that S1 circuit board inside the watch, and the limited number of admissions of what it can already do. Three scenarios:

1. Returning home at the end of a working day (a lot of people do this).

First thing I do after I come indoors is to place my mobile phone on top of the cookery books in our kitchen. Then for the next few hours i’m usually elsewhere in the house or in the garden. Talking around, that behaviour is typical. Not least as it happens in the office too, where if i’m in a meeting, i’d normally leave my handset on silent on my desk.

With every Android or Tizen Smart Watch I know, the watch loses the connection as soon as I go out of Bluetooth range – around 6-10 meters away from the handset. That smart watch is a timepiece from that point on.

Now, who forgot to notice that the Apple Watch has got b/g WiFi integrated on their S1 module? Or that it it can not only tell me of an incoming call, but allow me to answer it, listen and talk – and indeed to hand control back to my phone handset when I return to it’s current proximity?

2. Sensors

There are a plethora of Low Energy Bluetooth sensors around – and being introduced with great regularity – for virtually every bodily function you can think of. Besides putting your own fitness tracking sensors on at home, there are probably many more that can be used in a hospital setting. With that, a person could be quite a walking network of sensors and wander to different wards or labs during their day, or indeed even be released to recuperate at home.

Apple already has some sensors (heart rate, and probably some more capabilities to be announced in time, using the infrared related ones on the skin side of the Apple watch), but can act as a hub to any collection of external bluetooth sensors at the same time. Or in smart pills you can swallow. Low Energy Bluetooth is already there on the Apple Watch. That, in combination with the processing power, storage and b/g WiFi makes the watch a complete devices hub, virtually out of the box.

If your iPhone is on the same WiFi, everything syncs up with the Health app there and the iCloud based database already – which you can (at your option) permit an external third party to have access to. Now, tell me about the equivalent on any other device or service you can think of.

3. Paying for things.

The iPhone 5S, 6 and 6 Plus all have integrated finger print scanners. Apple have put some functionality into iOS 8 where, if you’re within Bluetooth range (6-10 meters of your handset), you can authenticate (with your fingerprint) the fact your watch is already on your wrist. If the sensors on the back have any suspicion that the watch leaves your wrist, it immediately invalidates the authentication.

So, walk up to a contactless till, see the payment amount appear on the watch display, one press of the watch pays the bill. Done. Now try to do that with any other device you know.

Developers, developers, developers.

There are probably a million other applications that developers will think of, once folks realise there is a full UNIX computer on that SoC (System on a Chip). With WiFi. With Bluetooth. With a Taptic feedback mechanism that feels like someone is tapping your wrist (not loudly vibrating across the table, or flashing LED lights at you). With a GPU driving a high quality, touch sensitive display. Able to not only act as a remote control for your iTunes music collection on another device, but to play it locally when untethered too (you can always add bluetooth earbuds to keep your listening private). I suspect some of the capabilities Apple have shown (like the ability to stream your heartbeat to another Apple Watch user) will evolve into potential remote health visit applications that can work Internet wide.

Meanwhile, the tech press and the discussion boards are full of people lamenting the fact that there is no GPS sensor in the watch itself (like every other Smart Watch I should add – GPS location sensing is something that eats battery power for breakfast; better to rely on what’s in the phone handset, or to wear a dedicated bluetooth GPS band on the other wrist if you really need it).

Don’t be distracted; with the electronics already in the device, the Apple Watch is truly only the beginning. We’re now waiting for the full details of the WatchKit APIs to unleash that ecosystem with full force.

iOS devices, PreSchool Kids and lessons from Africa

Ruby Jane Waring

This is Ruby, our two and a half year old Granddaughter and owner of her own iPad Mini (she is also probably the youngest Apple shareholder out there, as part of her Junior ISA). She was fairly adept with her parents iPhones and iPads around the house months before she was two, albeit curious as to why there was no “Skip Ad” option on the TV at home (try as she did).

Her staple diet is YouTube (primarily Peppa Pig, Ben & Holly’s Magic Kingdom, and more recently Thomas the Tank Engine and Alphablocks). This weekend, there was a section on BBC Click that showed some primary school kids in Malawi, each armed with iPads and green headphones, engrossed doing maths exercises. The focus then moved to a Primary School in Nottingham, using the same application built for the kids in Malawi, translated to English but with the similarly (and silently) engrossed.

I found the associated apps (search for author “onebillion” and you should see five of them) and installed each on her iPad Mini:

  • Count to 10
  • Count to 20
  • Maths, age 3-5
  • Maths, age 4-6
  • 2, 5 and 10 (multiplication)

The icons look like this, red to the left of the diagonal and with a white tick mark, orange background on the rest; the Malawi versions have more green in them in place of orange.

Countto10icon

We put her onto the English version of “Count to 10″, tapped in her name, then handed it over to her.

Instructions Count to 10

Tapped on the rabbit waving to her, and off. Add frogs the the island (one tap for each):

Count to 10 Add Frogs

Then told to tap one to remove it, then click the arrow:

Leave one frog on IslandDing! Instant feedback that seemed to please her. She smiled, gave us a thumbs up, then clicked the arrow for the next exercise:

Add birds to the wire

which was to add three birds to the wire. Press the arrow, ding! Smile and thumbs up, and she just kept doing exercise after exercise on her own bat.

A bit later on, the exercise was telling her to put a certain number of objects in each box – with the number to place specified as a number above the box. Unprompted, she was getting all those correct. Even when a box had ‘0’ above it, and she duly left that box empty. And then the next exercise, when she was asked to count the number of trees, and drag one of the numbers “0”, “1”, “2”, “3” or “4” to a box before pressing the arrow. Much to our surprise (more like chins on the floor), she was correctly associating each digit with the number of objects. Unprompted.

I had to email her Mum at that stage to ask if she’d been taught to recognise numbers already by the character shapes. Her Mum blamed it on her Cbeebies consumption alone.

When we returned her home after her weekend stay, the first thing she insisted on showing both her Mother and her Father was how good she was at this game. Fired it up herself, and showed them both independently.

So, Kudos to the authors of this app. Not only teaching kids in Malawi, but very appealing to kids here too. Having been one of the contributors to its Kickstarter funding, I just wonder how long it will be before she starts building programs in ScratchJr (though that’s aimed at budding programmers aged 5-7). It’s there on her iPad already when she wants to try it – and has her Scratch literate (and Minecraft guru) 10 year old brother on hand to assist if needed.

I think buying her her own iPad Mini (largely because when she stayed weekends, I never got my own one back) was a great investment. I hope it continues to provide an outlet for her wonder of the world around her in the years ahead.

 

Yo! Minimalist Notifications, API and the Internet of Things

Yo LogoThought it was a joke, but having 4 hours of code resulting in $1m of VC funding, at an estimated $10M company valuation, raised quite a few eyebrows. The Yo! project team have now released their API, and with it some possibilities – over and above the initial ability to just say “Yo!” to a friend. At the time he provided some of the funds, John Borthwick of Betaworks said that there is a future of delivering binary status updates, or even commands to objects to throw an on/off switch remotely (blog post here). The first green shoots are now appearing.

The main enhancement is the ability to carry a payload with the Yo!, such as a URL. Hence your Yo!, when received, can be used to invoke an application or web page with a bookmark already put in place. That facilitates a notification, which is effectively guaranteed to have arrived, to say “look at this”. Probably extensible to all sorts of other tasks.

The other big change is the provision of an API, which allows anyone to create a Yo! list of people to notify against a defined name. So, in theory, I could create a virtual user called “IANWARING-SIMPLICITY-SELLS”, and to publicise that to my blog audience. If any user wants to subscribe, they just send a “Yo!” to that user, and bingo, they are subscribed and it is listed (as another contact) on their phone handset. If I then release a new blog post, I can use a couple of lines of Javascript or PHP to send the notification to the whole subscriber base, carrying the URL of the new post; one key press to view. If anyone wants to unsubscribe, they just drop the username on their handset, and the subscriber list updates.

Other applications described include:

  • Getting a Yo! when a FedEx package is on it’s way
  • Getting a Yo! when your favourite sports team scores – “Yo us at ASTONVILLA and we’ll Yo when we score a goal!
  • Getting a Yo! when someone famous you follow tweets or posts to Instagram
  • Breaking News from a trusted source
  • Tell me when this product comes into stock at my local retailer
  • To see if there are rental bicycles available near to you (it can Yo! you back)
  • You receive a payment on PayPal
  • To be told when it starts raining in a specific town
  • Your stocks positions go up or down by a specific percentage
  • Tell me when my wife arrives safely at work, or our kids at their travel destination

but I guess there are other “Internet of Things” applications to switch on home lights, open garage doors, switch on (or turn off) the oven. Or to Yo! you if your front door has opened unexpectedly (carrying a link to the picture of who’s there?). Simple one click subscriptions. So, an extra way to operate Apple HomeKit (which today controls home appliance networks only through Siri voice control).

Early users are showing simple Restful URLs and http GET/POSTs to trigger events to the Yo! API. I’ve also seen someone say that it will work with CoPA (Constrained Application Protocol), a lightweight protocol stack suitable for use within simple electronic devices.

Hence, notifications that are implemented easily and over which you have total control. Something Apple appear to be anal about, particularly in a future world where you’ll be walking past low energy bluetooth beacons in retail settings every few yards. Your appetite to be handed notifications will degrade quickly with volumes if there are virtual attention beggars every few paces. Apple have been locking down access to their iBeacon licensees to limit the chance of this happening.

With the Yo! API, the first of many notification services (alongside Google Now, and Apples own notification services), and a simple one at that. One that can be mixed with IFTTT (if this, then that), a simple web based logic and task action system also produced by Betaworks. And which may well be accessible directly from embedded electronics around us.

The one remaining puzzle is how the authors will be able to monetise their work (their main asset is an idea of the type and frequency of notifications you welcome receiving, and that you seek). Still a bit short of Google’s core business (which historically was to monetise purchase intentions) at this stage in Yo!’s development. So, suggestions in the case of Yo! most welcome.

 

Microbiomes and a glimpse to doctors becoming a small niche

Microbiomes, Gut and Spot the Salmonella

When I get up in the morning, I normally follow a path on my iPad through email, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, Feedly (for my RSS feeds) and Downcast (to update my Podcasts for later listening). This morning, Kevin Kelly served up a comment on Google+ that piqued my interest, and that led to a long voyage of discovery. Much to my wifes disgust as I quoted gory details about digestive systems at the same time she was trying to eat her breakfast. He said:

There are 2 reasons this great Quantified Self experiment is so great. One, it shows how important your microbial ecosystem is. Two, it shows how significant DAILY genome sequencing will be.

He then gave a pointer to an article about Microbiomes here.

The Diet Journey

I’ve largely built models based on innocent attempts to lose weight, dating back to late 2000 when I tried the Atkins diet. That largely stalled after 3 weeks and one stone loss. Then fairly liberated in 2002 by a regime at my local gym, when I got introduced (as part of a six week program) to the website of Weight Loss Resources. This got me in the habit of recording my food intake and exercise very precisely, which translated branded foods and weights into daily intake of carbs, protein and fat. That gave me my calorie consumption and nutritional balance, and kept track alongside weekly weight readings. I’ve kept that data flowing now for over 12 years, which continues to this day.

Things i’ve learnt along the way are:

  • Weight loss is heavily dependent on me consuming less calories than my Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), and at the same time keeping energy deduced from carbs, protein and fat at a specific balance (50% from Carbs, 20% Protein, 30% fat)
  • 1g of protein is circa 4.0 Kcals, 1g of carbs around 3.75 Kcals, and fat around 9.0 Kcals.
  • Muscle weighs 2x as much as fat
  • There is a current fixation at gyms with upping your muscle content at first, nominally to increase your energy burn rate (even at rest)
  • The digestive system is largely first in, first out; protein is largely processed in acidic conditions, and carbs later down the path in alkaline equivalents. Fat is used as part of both processes.
  • There are a wide variety of symbiotic (opposite of parasite!) organisms that assist the digestive process from beginning to end
  • Weight loss is both heat and exhaust. Probably other forms of radiation too, given we are all like a light bulb in the infrared spectrum (I always wonder how the SAS manage to deploy small teams in foreign territory and remain, for the most part, undetected)

I’ve always harboured a suspicion that taking antibiotics have an indiscriminate bombing effect on the population of microbiomes there to assist you. Likewise the effect of what used to be my habit of drinking (very acidic) Diet Coke. But never seen anyone classify the variety and numbers of Microbiomes, and to track this over time.

The two subjects had the laboratory resources to examine samples of their own saliva, and their own stool samples, and map things over time. Fascinating to see what happened when one of them suffered Salmonella (the green in the above picture), and the other got “Delhi Belly” during a trip abroad.

The links around the article led to other articles in National Geographic, including one where the author reported much wider analysis of the Microbiomes found in 60 different peoples belly buttons (here) – he had a zoo of 58 different ones in his own. And then to another article where the existence of certain microbiome mutations in the bloodstream were an excellent leading indicator of the presence of cancerous tumours in the individual (here).

Further dips into various Wikipedia articles cited examples of microbiome populations showing up in people suffering from various dilapidating illnesses such as ME, Fibromyalgia and Lyme disease, in some instances having a direct effect on driving imbalances to cause depression. Separately, that what you ate often had quite an effect in altering the relative sizes of parts of the Microbiome population in short order.

There was another article that suggested new research was going to study the Microbiome Zoo present in people’s armpits, but I thought that an appropriate time to do an exit stage left on my reading. Ugh.

Brain starts to wander again

Later on, I reflected for a while on how I could supply some skills i’ve got to build up data resources – at least should suitable sensors be able to measure, sample and sequence microbiomes systematically every day. I have the mobile phone programming, NoSQL database deployment and analytics skills. But what if we had sensors that everyone could have on them 24/7 that could track the microbiome zoo that is you (internally – and I guess externally too)? Load the data resources centrally, and I suspect the Wardley Map of what is currently the NHS would change fundamentally.

I also suspect that age-old Chinese Medicine will demonstrate it’s positive effects on further analysis. It was about the only thing that solved my wifes psoriasis on her hands and feet; she was told about the need to balance yin/yan and remove heat put things back to normal, which was achieved by consumption of various herbs and vegetation. It would have been fascinating to see how the profile of her microbiomes changed during that process.

Sensors

I guess the missing piece is the ability to have sensors that can help both identify and count types microbiomes on a continuous basis. It looks like a laboratory job at the moment. I wonder if there are other characteristics or conditions that could short cut the process. Health apps about to appear from Apple and Google initiatives tend to be effective at monitoring steps, heart rate. There looks to be provision for sensing blood glucose levels non-invasively by shining infrared light on certain parts of the skin (inner elbow is a favourite); meanwhile Google have patented contact lenses that can measure glucose levels in the blood vessels in the wearers eyes.

The local gym has a Boditrax machine that fires an electrical up one foot and senses the signal received back in the other, and can relate body water, muscle and fat content. Not yet small enough for a mobile phone. And Withings produce scales that can report back weight to the users handset over bluetooth (I sometimes wonder if the jarring of the body as you tread could let a handset sensors deduce approximate weight, but that’s for another day).

So, the mission is to see if anyone can produce sensors (or an edible, communicating pill) that can effectively work, in concert with someones phone and the interwebs, to reliably count and identify biome mixes and to store these for future analysis, research or notification purposes. Current research appears to be in monitoring biome populations in:

  1. Oral Cavity
  2. Nasal
  3. Gastrointestinal Organs
  4. Vaginal
  5. Skin

each with their own challenges for providing a representative sample surface sufficient to be able to provide regular, consistent and accurate readings. If indeed we can miniaturize or simplify the lab process reliably. The real progress will come when we can do this and large populations can be sampled – and cross referenced with any medical conditions that become apparent in the data provider(s). Skin and the large intestine appear to have the most interesting microbiome profiles to look at.

Long term future

The end result – if done thoroughly – is that the skills and error rates of GP provided treatment would become largely relegated, just as it was for farm workers in the 19th century (which went from 98% of the population working the land to less than 2% within 100 years).

With that, I think Kevin Kelly is 100% correct in his assessment – that the article shows how significant DAILY genome sequencing will be. So, what do we need to do to automate the process, and make the fruits of its discoveries available to everyone 24/7?

Footnote: there look to be many people attempting to automate subsets of the DNA/RNA identification process. One example highlighted by MIT Review today being this.

How that iPhone handset knows where I am

Treasure Island MapI’ve done a little bit of research to see how an Apple iPhone tracks my location – at least when i’ll be running iOS 8 later this autumn. It looks like it picks clues up from lots of places as you go:

  1. The signal from your local cell tower. If you switch your iPhone on after a flight, that’s probably the first thing it sees. This is what the handset uses to set your timezone and adjust your clock immediately.
  2. WiFi signals. As with Google, there is a location database accessed that translates WiFi router Mac addresses into an approximate geographic location where they’ve been sensed before. At least for the static ones.
  3. The Global Positioning System sensors, that work with both the US and Russian GPS satellite networks.  If you can stand in a field and see the horizon all around you, then your phone should have up to 14 satellites visible. Operationally, if it can see 2, you can get your x and y co-ordinates to within a meter or two. If it can see 3, then you get x, y and z co-ordinates – enough to give your elevation above sea level as well.
  4. Magnetometer and Gyroscope. The iPhone has an electronic compass and some form of gyroscope inside, so the system software can sense the direction, orientation (in 3D space) and movement. So, when you move from outdoors to an indoor location (like a shopping centre or building), the iPhone can remember the last known accurate GPS fix, and deduce (based on direction and speed as you move since that last sampling) your current position.

The system software on iOS 8 just returns your location and an indication of error scale based on all of the above. For some reason, the indoor positioning with the gyroscope is of high resolution for your x and y position, but returns the z position as a floor number only (0 being the ground floor, -1 one down from there, 1..top level above).

In doing all the above, if it senses you’ve moved indoors, then it shuts down the GPS sensor – as it is relatively power hungry and saves the battery at a time when the sensor would be unusable anyway.

Beacons

There are a number of applications where it would be nice to sense your proximity to a specific location indoors, and to do something clever in an application. For example, when you turn up in front of a Starbucks outlet, for Apple Passport to put your loyalty/payment card onto the lock screen for immediate access; same with a Virgin Atlantic check-in desk, where Passport could bring up your Boarding Pass in the same way.

One of the ways of doing this is to deploy low energy bluetooth beacons. These normally have two numbers associated with them; the first 64-bits is a licensee specific number (such as “Starbucks”), the second 64-bit number a specific identifier for that licensee only. This may be a specific outlet on their own applications database, or an indicator of a department location in a department store. It is up to the company deploying the Low Energy Bluetooth Beacons to encode this for their own iPhone applications (and to reflect the positions of the beacons in their app if they redesign their store or location layouts).

Your iPhone can sense beacons around it to four levels:

  1. I can’t hear a beacon
  2. I can sense one, but i’m not close to it yet
  3. I can sense one, and i’m within 3 meters (10 feet) of it right now
  4. I can sense one, and my iPhone is immediately adjacent to the beacon

Case (4) being for things like cash register applications. (2) and (3) are probably good enough for your store specific application to get fired up when you’re approaching.

There are some practical limitations, as low energy bluetooth uses the same 2.4Ghz spectrum that WiFi does, and hence suffers the same restrictions. That frequency agitates water (like a Microwave), hence the reason it was picked for inside applications; things like rain, moisture in walls and indeed human beings standing in the signal path tend to arrest the signal strength quite dramatically.

The iPhone 5S itself has an inbuilt Low Energy Bluetooth Beacon, but in line with the way Apple protect your privacy, it is not enabled by default. Until it is explicitly switched on by the user (who is always given an ability to decline the location sharing when any app requests this), hardware in store cannot track you personally.

Apple appear to have restricted licensees to using iBeacons for their own applications only, so only users of Apple iOS devices can benefit. There is an alternative “Open Beacon” effort in place, designed to enable applications that run across multiple vendor devices (see here for further details).

The Smart Watch Future

With the recent announcement and availability of various Android watches from Samsung, LG and Motorola, it’s notable that they all appear to have the compass, gyroscope but no current implementation of a GPS (i’ve got to guess for reasons of limited battery power and the sensors power appetite). Hence I expect that any direction sensing Smartwatch applications will need to talk to an application talking to the mobile phone handset in the users pocket – over low energy bluetooth. Once established, the app on the watch will know the devices orientation in 3D space and the direction it is headed; probably enough to keep pointing you towards a destination correctly as you walk along.

The only thing we don’t yet know is whether Apple’s own rumoured iWatch will break the mould, or like it’s Android equivalents, act as a peripheral to the network hub that is the users phone handset. We should know that later on this year.

In the meantime, it’s good to see that Apple’s model is to protect the users privacy unless they explicitly allow a vendor app to track their location, which they can agree to or decline at any time. I suspect a lot of vendors would like to track you, but Apple have picked a very “its up to the iPhone user and no-one else” approach – for each and every application, one by one.

Footnote: Having thought about it, I think I missed two things.

One is that I recall reading somewhere that if the handset battery is running low, the handset will bleat it’s current location to the cloud. Hence if you dropped your handset and it was lost in vegetation somewhere, it would at least log it’s last known geographic location for the “Find my iPhone” service to be able to pinpoint it as best it could.

Two is that there is a visit history stored in the phone, so your iPhones travels (locations, timestamps, length of time stationary) are logged as a series of move vectors between stops. These are GPS type locations, and not mapped to any physical location name or store identifier (or even position in stores!). The user has got to give specific permission for this data to be exposed to a requesting app. Besides use for remembering distances for expenses, I can think of few user-centric applications where you would want to know precisely where you’ve travelled in the last few days. Maybe a bit better as a version of the “secret” app available for MacBooks, where if you mark your device on a cloud service as having been stolen, you can get specific feedback on its movements since.

The one thing that often bugs me is people putting out calls on Facebook to help find their stolen or mislaid phones. Every iPhone should have “Find my iPhone” enabled (which is offered at iOS install customisation time) or the equivalent for Android (Android Device Manager) activated likewise. These devices should be difficult to steal.

ScratchJr released: teach 5-7 year olds to program!

ScratchJr Graphic

Great news received this morning:

Project Update #6: ScratchJr ready for launch!

For backers only Posted by Mitchel Resnick ♥ Like

As backers of our ScratchJr Kickstarter campaign, we wanted you to be the first to know: We’re officially releasing ScratchJr tomorrow (July 30)!

You can download the free iPad app from the Apple App Store. Also, check out the updated ScratchJr website.

Thank you for your support of ScratchJr. We hope you enjoy it!

(We’re now working on an Android version, for release later this year.)

– The ScratchJr Team

Thunderbirds are go!

The simplest leading indicators of future performance

Crystal Ball Future

I saw a note from one of my ex-colleagues from my 17 years at DEC in a long line of the mutual hatred of who became known as “GQ Bob”, aka Bob Palmer. Palmer presided over losses in 5 years that exceeded the total profits of the company in the preceding 35 years, before selling what was left to Compaq, who in turn sold out to HP. The note struck a chord with me:

I worked for a number of years in “The Mill”, the ancestral home of Digital Equipment Corporation. Each day, I’d walk up the hill from the lower Thompson Street parking lot and into the Thompson Street lobby, past the very-near-to-the-door visitor parking area (“Blue Pass Required!”). Each day, I’d see a white Porsche 911 parked in visitor parking. After months of this, my interest had been piqued, so I asked Security who was the visitor that parked their Porsche here day after day. “Oh, that’s no visitor; that’s Bob Palmer’s car. He’s VP of manufacturing. “Isn’t that *VISITORS ONLY* parking?” I asked?” I just got a shrug back. So I figured out where his office was in the Mill and took a walk down there. “Palatial” is the word that came to my mind; with huge office areas and practically no people. I formed my opinion of Bob Palmer that day, and it never changed the rest of the years I was at Digital.

When I was in the UK PC Dealer team back in 83-84, one of our account managers (David Bedding) visiting prospective resellers always did one piece of due diligence, and would walk away from anyone who violated it. He would measure the distance from the nearest visitor car parking space to the front door, and the nearest space reserved for employees (and especially so a Director) to that same door. If the visitor spot wasn’t closer, he wouldn’t sign them up on principle. He’d just report back that he was “underwhelmed” at the prospect of recruiting them and declined to waste his time doing so.

It was simply the best leading indicator of attitude to customers that no business plan could mask.

With hindsight, the other leading (negative) indicator was the owner having a goal to be bought out and to drive the business with that objective above all other considerations; the road was littered with the remains of those outfits.

Meanwhile, the ones that obsessed over their service to their customers, above all else, did far better. But that’s obvious, isn’t it?

The madness that is Hodor and Yo. Or is it?

Yo LogoOne constant source of bemusement – well, really horror – is the inefficiency of social media to deliver a message to it’s intended recipients. In any company setting, saying “I didn’t receive your message” is the management equivalent of “the dog ate my homework” excuse at school; it is considered a very rare occurrence and the excuse a poor attempt to seek forgiveness.

Sending bulk (but personalised) email to a long list of people who know you is just the start. Routinely, 30% of what you send will end up finishing short of your destination; no matter how many campaigns i’ve seen from anyone, none get higher than 70% delivery to the intended recipients. In practice, the number routinely read by the recipient normally bests at 20-30% of the number sent. Spam filters often over-zealous too. With practice, you get to find out that sending email to arrive in the recipients in-tray at 3:00pm on a Thursday afternoon local time is 7x more likely to be read than the same one sent at 6:00am on a Sunday morning. And that mentioning the recipients name, an indication of what it’s about and what they’ll see when the email is opened – all hooked together in the subject line -vastly improves open rates. But most people are still facing 70-80% wastage rates. I’ve done some work on this, but that experience is available to my consulting clients!

So, thank god for Facebook. Except that the visibility of status updates routinely only gets seen by 16% of your friends on average (the range is 2%-47% depending on all sorts of factors, but 16% is the average). The two ways to improve this is to make your own list that others can subscribe to, and if they remember to access that list name, then they’ll see the works. But few remember to do this. The other method is to pay Facebook for delivery, where you can push your update (or invite to an interest list, aka ‘likes’) to a defined set of demographics in specific geographic areas. But few guarantees that you’ll get >50% viewership even then.

So, thank god for Twitter. Except the chance of some of your followers actually seeing your tweets drops into the sub-1% range; the norm is that you’ll need to be watching your stream as the update is posted. So you’re down to using something like Tweetdeck to follow individual people in their own column, or a specific hashtag in another. You very quickly run out of screen real estate to see everything you actually want to see. This is a particular frustration to me, as I quite often find myself in the middle of a Tweet storm (where a notable person, like @pmarca – Marc Andreessen – will routinely run off 8-12 numbered tweets); the end result is like listening to a group of experts discussing interesting things around a virtual water cooler, and that is fascinating to be part of. The main gotcha is that I get to see his stuff early on a Saturday morning in the UK only because he tweets before folks on the west coast of the USA are headed to bed – otherwise i’d never catch it.

Some of the modern messaging apps (like SnapChat) at least tell you when that picture has been received and read by the recipient(s) you sent it too – and duly deleted on sight. But we’re well short of an application where you can intelligently follow Twitter scale dialogues reliably for people you really want to follow. Twitter themselves just appear happy to keep suggesting all sorts of people for me to follow, probably unconscious that routine acceptance would do little other than further polluting my stream with useless trash.

Parking all this, I saw one company produce a spoof Android custom keyboard, where the only key provided just says “Hodor”. Or if you press it down for longer, it gives you “Hodor” in bold. You can probably imagine the content of the reviews of it on the Google Play Store (mainly long missives that just keep repeating the word).

Then the next madness. Someone writing an application that just lists your friends names, and if you press their name, it just sends through a message to them saying “Yo!”.

Yo! Screenshot

Just like the Facebook Pokes of old. A team of three programmers wrote it in a couple of days, and it’s already been downloaded many thousands of times from the Apple App Store. It did sound to me like a modern variation of the Budweiser “Whats Up” habit a few years back, so I largely shook my head and carried on with other work.

The disbelief set in when I found out that this app had been subject to a $1.5 million VC funding round, which valued the company (this is their only “significant” app) at a $10m valuation. Then found out one of the lead investors was none other than a very respected John Borthwick (who runs Betaworks, an application Studio housed in the old Meat Packing area of New York).

His thing seems to be that this application ushers in a new world, where we quite often want to throw a yes/go-ahead/binary notification reliably to another entity. That may be a person (to say i’ve left work, or i’ve arrived at the restaurant, etc) or indeed a device (say ‘Yo’ to the coffee maker as you approach work, or to turn on the TV). So, there may indeed be some logic in the upcoming world of the “Internet of Things”, hyped to death as it may be.

John’s announcement of his funding can be found here. The challenge will no doubt be to see whether his investment is as prescient as many of his other ones (IFTTT, Bit.lyDots, Digg Deeper, etc) have been to date. In the meantime, back to code my own app – which is slightly more ambitious than that now famous one.

On the unusability of internal systems. Ugh!

Enterprise Apps - Notes Needed

 

Saw this picture alongside an excellent blog post today. Does this look familiar?

The company have probably spent many millions buying software to automate their business processes or to fulfil all manner of other objectives. But the User Interface and Operating Nuances are so involved, the poor user has to keep a notebook to hand to help navigate around the mess served to them. And they have to interact with their ultimate customers with a smile on their face, protecting them from the mess behind the scenes.

If that was served up on a phone handset, no consumer would touch it with the longest bargepole known to man. One of the things that plays on my mind is how to disrupt these vendors. Or the companies whose directors decide to buy this stuff and inflict this (and the associated costs) to their downstream customers.

Jon Barrett had a lot of the glue to sort this phenomenon with Digital’s Jabberwocky project back in the early 1990’s, with what amounted to be an Enterprise Software Bus with some basic screen scraping functionality. At least pilot users could string together some business process interactions atop those disparate applications that behaved in a way that today’s mobile phone users might have found a bit more palatable. It’s been a long time since, and little apparent progress.

In the meantime, the blog post by Leisa Reichelt is here. Well worth a read.

Footnote: within 12 hours of posting this, I read an excellent article here on the failure of a “Choose and Book” system on which over £300m was spent. Reading the drains up, it looks like a set of top level objectives were being pursued, but with no appreciation of the unwanted constraints being placed on the users of the resulting service, so the whole thing fell into disrepute. Like the old dutch proverb: “a ship on a beach is a lighthouse to the sea”.

Nadella: Heard what he said, knew what he meant

Satya Nadella

That’s a variation of an old “Two Ronnies” song in the guise of “Jehosaphat & Jones” entitled “I heard what she said, but knew what she meant” (words or three minutes into this video). Having read Satya Nadella’s Open Letter to employees issued at the start of Microsoft’s new fiscal year, I did think it was long. However, the real delight was reading Jean-Louis Gassee – previously the CTO of Apple – not only pulling it apart, but then having a crack at showing how it should have been written:

Team,

This is the beginning of our new FY 2015 – and of a new era at Microsoft. I have good news and bad news.The bad news is the old Devices and Services mantra won’t work. For example: I’ve determined we’ll never make money in tablets or smartphones.

So, do we continue to pretend we’re “all in” or do we face reality and make the painful decision to pull out so we can use our resources – including our integrity – to fight winnable battles? With the support of the Microsoft Board, I’ve chosen the latter.

We’ll do our utmost to minimize the pain that will naturally arise from this change. Specifically, we’ll offer generous transitions arrangements in and out of the company to concerned Microsoftians and former Nokians.

The good news is we have immense resources to be a major player in the new world of Cloud services and Native Apps for mobile devices.

We let the first innings of that game go by, but the sting energizes us. An example of such commitment is the rapid spread of Office applications – and related Cloud services – on any and all mobile devices. All Microsoft Enterprise and Consumer products/services will follow, including Xbox properties.

I realize this will disrupt the status quo and apologize for the pain to come. We have a choice: change or be changed.

Stay tuned.

Satya.

Jean-Louis Gassee’s  full take-home on the original is provided here. Satya Nadella should hire him.