Mar 14

Considering CarPlay

Late last week, some buzz began building that Apple, alongside automaker partners, would formally reveal the first results of their “iOS in the Car” initiative. Much as rumors had suspected, the end result, now dubbed CarPlay, was demonstrated (or at least shown in a promo video) by initial partners Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo. If you only have time to watch one of them, watch the video of the Ferrari. Though it is an ad-hoc demo, the Ferrari video isn’t painfully overproduced as the Mercedes-Benz video unfortunately is, and isn’t just a concept video as the Volvo is.

The three that were shown are interesting for a variety of reasons (though it is also notable that all three are premium brands). The Ferrari and Volvo videos demonstrate touch-based navigation, and the Mercedes-Benz video uses what (I believe) is their knob-based COMAND system. While CarPlay is navigable using all of them, using the COMAND knob to control the iOS-based experience feels somewhat contrived or forced; like using an old iPod click wheel to navigate a modern iPhone). It just looks painful (to me that’s a M-B issue, not an Apple issue).

Outside of the initial three auto manufacturers, Apple has said that Honda, Hyundai, and Jaguar will also have models in 2014 with CarPlay functionality.

So what exactly is CarPlay?

As I initially looked at CarPlay, it looked like a distinct animal in the Apple ecosystem. But the more I thought about it, the more familiar it looked. Apple pushing their UX out into a new realm, on a device that they don’t own the final interface of… It’s sort of Apple TV, for the car. In fact, pondering what the infrastructure might look like, I kept getting flashbacks to Windows Media Center Extenders, which are remote thin clients that rendered a Windows Media Center UI over a wired or wireless connection.

Apple’s  CarPlay involves a cable-based connection (this seems to be a requirement at this point, I’ll talk about it a bit later) which is used to remotely display several key functions of your compatible iPhone (5s, 5c, 5) on the head unit of your car. That is, the display is that of your auto head unit – but for CarPlay features, your iPhone looks to be what’s actually running the app, and the head unit is simply a dumb terminal rendering it. All data is transmitted through your phone, not some in-car LTE/4G connection, and all of the apps reside, and are updated on your phone, not on the head unit. CarPlay seems to be navigable regardless of the type of touch support your screen has (if it has touch), but also works with buttons, and again, works with knob-based navigation like COMAND.

Apple seems to be requiring two key triggers for CarPlay – 1) a voice command button on the steering wheel, and 2) an entry point into CarPlay itself, generally a button on the head unit (quite easy to see if you watch the Ferrari video, labeled APPLE CARPLAY). Of course these touches are in addition to integrating in the required Apple Lightning cable to tether it all together.

In short, Apple hasn’t done a complete end around of the OEM – the automaker can still have their own UI for their own in-car functions, and then Apple’s distinct CarPlay UI (very familiar to anyone who has used iOS 7) is there when you’re “in CarPlay”, if you will. It seems to me that CarPlay can best be thought of as a remote display for your iPhone, designed to fit the display of your car’s entertainment system. Some have said that “CarPlay systems” are running QNX – perhaps some are. The head unit manufacturer doesn’t really appear to be important here. The main point of all of this is it appears the OEM doesn’t have to do massive work to make it functional, it really looks to primarily be integrating in the remote display functionality and the I/O to the phone. In fact, the UI of the Ferrari as demonstrated doesn’t look to be that different from head units in previous versions of the FF (from what I can see). Also, if you watch the Apple employee towards the end, you can see her press the FF “app”, exiting out to the FF’s own user interface, which is distinctly different from the CarPlay UI. The CarPlay UI, in contrast, is remarkably consistent across the three examples shown so far. While the automakers all have their own unique touches, and controls for the rest of the vehicle, these distinct things that the phone is, frankly, better at, are done through the CarPlay UI.

The built-in iPhone apps supported with CarPlay at this point appear to be:

  • Phone
  • Messages
  • Maps
  • Music
  • Podcasts

The obvious scenarios here are making/receiving phone calls or sending/receiving SMS/iMessages with your phone’s native contact list, and navigation. Quick tasks. Not surfing or searching the Web while you’re driving. Yay! The Maps app has an interesting touch that the Apple employee chose to highlight in the Ferrari video, where maps you’ve been sent in messages are displayed in the list of potential destinations you can choose from. Obviously the CarPlay solution enables Apple’s turn-by-turn maps. If you’re an Apple Maps fan, that’s great news (I’m quite happy with them at this point, personally). If you like using Google Maps or another mapping/messaging or VOIP solution, it looks like you’re out of luck at this point.

In addition to touch, button, or knob-based navigation, Siri is omnipresent in CarPlay, and the system can use voice as your primary input mechanism (triggered through a voice command button on the steering wheel), and is used for reading text messages out loud to you, and responding to them. I use that Siri feature pretty often, myself.

The Music and Podcasts seem like obvious apps to make available, especially now that iTunes Radio is available (although most people either either love or hate the Podcasts app). Just as importantly, Apple is making a handful of third-party applications at this point. Notably:

  • Spotify
  • iHeartRadio
  • Stitcher

Though Apple’s CarPlay site does call out the Beats Music app as well, I noticed it was missing in the Ferrari demo.

Overall, I like Apple’s direction with this. Of course, as I said on Twitter, I’m so vested in the walled garden, I don’t necessarily care that it doesn’t integrate in with handsets from other platforms. That said, I do think most OEMs will be looking at alternatives and implementing one or more of them simultaneously (hopefully implementing all of them that they choose to in a somewhat consistent manner).

Personally, I see quite a few positives to CarPlay:

  • If you have an iPhone, it takes advantage of the device that is already your personal  hub, instead of trying to reinvent it
  • It isolates the things the manufacturer may either be good at or may want to control, and the CarPlay UX. In short, Apple gets their own UX, presented reliably
  • It uses your existing data connection, not yet another one for the car
  • It uses one cable connection. No WiFi or BLE connectivity, and charges while it works
  • I trust Apple to build a lower-distraction (Siri-centric) UI than most automakers
  • It can be updated by Apple, independent of the car head unit
  • Apple can push new apps to it independent of the manufacturer
  • Apple Maps may suck in some people’s perspective (not mine), but it isn’t nearly as bad as some in-dash nav systems (watch some of Brian’s car reviews if you don’t believe me), and doesn’t require shelling out for shiny-media based updates!

Of course, there are some criticisms I or others have already mentioned on Twitter or in reviews:

  • It requires, and uses, iOS 7. Don’t like the iOS 7 UI? You’re probably not going to be a fan
  • It requires a cable connection. Not WiFi or BLE. This is a good/bad thing. I think in time, we’ll see considerate design of integrated phone slots or the like – push the phone in, flat, to dock it. The cables look hacky, but likely enable the security, performance, low latency, and integrated charging that are a better experience overall (also discourages you from picking the phone up while driving)
  • Apple Maps. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. I do, but lots of people still seem to like deriding it
  • It is yet another Apple walled garden (like Apple TV, or iOS as a whole). Apple controls the UI of CarPlay, how it works, and what apps and content are or are not available. Just like Apple TV is at present. The fact that it is not an open platform or open spec also bothers some.

Overall, I really am excited by what CarPlay represents. I’ve never seen an in-car entertainment system I really loved. While I don’t think I really love any of the three head units I’ve seen so far, I do relish the idea of being able to use the device I like to use already, and having an app experience I’m already familiar with. Now I just need to have it hit some lower-priced vehicles I actually want to buy.

Speaking of that; Apple has said that, beyond the makers above, the following manufacturers have also signed on to work with CarPlay:

BMW Group (which includes Mini and Rolls-Royce), Chevrolet, Ford, Kia, Land Rover, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Opel PSA Peugeot Citroen, Subaru, Suzuki, and Toyota.

As a VW fan, I was disheartened to not see VW on the list. Frankly I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see a higher-end VW marque opt into it before too long (Porsche, Audi, or Bentley seem like obvious ones to me – but we’ll see). Also absent? Tesla. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see that show up in time as well.

It’s an interesting start. I look forward to seeing how Google, Microsoft, and others continue to evolve their own automotive stories over the coming years – but I think one thing is for sure; the beginning of the phone as the hub of the car (and beyond) is just beginning.

Jan 14

What did I learn from Nest?

So today Google announced that they will pay US$3.2B for Nest Labs. Surely the intention here is to have the staff of Nest help Google with home automation, the larger Internet of Things (IoT) direction, and user interfaces. All three of these are, frankly, trouble spots for Google, and if they nurture the Nest team and let them thrive, it’ll be a good addition to Google. Otherwise, they will have wound up paying a premium to buy out a good company and lose the employees as soon as they can run.

In 2012, just after I received it, I wrote about my experience with the first generation Nest thermostat. As I said on Monday evening when asked how I liked my Nest, I said:

It hasn’t exactly changed my life, but it has saved on energy costs, and it’s not hideous like most thermostats.

As I noted on Twitter as well, today’s news makes me sad. I bought Nest because it felt like they truly cared about thoughtful design. I also got the genuine feeling from the beginning that they cared genuinely about privacy.

Last year, I wrote the following about the dangers in relying on software (and hardware) that relies upon subscriptions:

Google exemplifies another side of this, where you can’t really be certain how long they will continue to offer a service. Whether it’s discontinuing consumer-grade services like Reader, or discontinuing the free level of Apps for Business, before subscribing to Google’s services an organization should generally not only raise questions around privacy and security, but just consider the long-term viability of the service. “Will Google keep this service alive in the future?” Perhaps that sounds cynical – but I believe it’s a legitimate concern. If you’re moving yourself or your business to a subscription service (heck, even a free one), you owe it to yourself to try and ascertain how long you’ve got before you can’t even count on that service anymore.

Unfortunately, my words feel prophetic now. If I’d known two years ago what I know today, maybe I’d have wavered more and decided against the Nest. Maybe not.

As I look back at Nest, it helps me frame the logic I’ll personally use when considering future IoT purchases. Ideally from now on, I’d like to consider instead:

  1. Buying devices with open APIs or open firmware. If the APIs or firmware of Nest were opened up, the devices could have had alternative apps built against them by the open-source community (to generally poor, but possible, effect). This is about as likely to happen now as Nest sharing their windfall with early adopters like myself.
  2. Buying devices with standards-based I/O (Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi) and apps that can work without a Web point of contact. While a thermostat is a unique device that does clamor for a display, I think that most devices on the IoT should really have a limited, if any, display and rely on Web or smart phone apps over Wi-Fi or BT 4.0 in order to be configurable. Much like point 1, this would mean some way out if the company shutters its Web API.
  3. Buying devices from larger companies. Most of the major thermostat manufacturers are making smarter thermostats now, although aesthetically, most are still crap.
  4. Buying “dumb” alternatives. A minimalist programmable or simple non-programmable thermostat again.

In short, it’ll probably be a while before I spend money – especially premium money – on another IoT device.

Peter Bright wrote a great piece the other day on why “smart devices” were a disaster waiting to happen. Long story short, hardware purveyors suck at creating devices that stand any sort of chance of being updated. In many ways, the unfortunate practice we’ve seen with Android phones will likely become the norm with lots of embedded devices (in cars or major appliances). What seems so cool and awesome the day we buy a new piece of technology will become frustrating as all hell when it won’t work with your new phone or requires a paid subscription but used to be free.

In talking with a colleague today, I found myself taking almost a Luddite’s perspective on smart devices and the IoT. It isn’t that these devices, done right, can’t make our lives easier. It’s that we always must be wary of who we’re buying them from, whether they truly make our life easier or not, and what future they have. I’ve never been a huge believer in smart devices, but if designed considerately, I think they can be beneficial. As for me, I think the main thing I learned from Nest is to always consider the worst possible outcome of the startup I buy hardware from (yes, to me, Google was just shy of the worst possible outcome, which would have been seeing it shut down).

While I had hopes that Apple would buy Nest, as I noted on Twitter, that idea probably never really made sense. Nest made custom hardware and custom (non Apple, of course) software that had far more to do with Google’s software realm than Apple’s. I also think that while the thermostat is a use case that lots of people “just get”, I’m not sure that the device fits well in Apple’s world. While the simple UI of the Nest is very Apple-like, it doesn’t seem like a war Apple would choose to fight. I think when it comes to home automation, Apple will be standing back and letting Bluetooth 4.0 interconnected home devices take the helm in the smart home, but having iOS play the role of conductor. I also had hopes that Nest could try to be bold and push the envelope of home automation beyond the hacky do-it-yourself approaches that have been around for years before the Nest arrived, but I’m fearful whether the Nest team will succeed with that at Google. I guess time will tell. It pains me to see Nest become part of Google, but I have to congratulate the Nest team on pushing the envelope as they did, and I hope for their sake and Google’s that they can continue to push that envelope successfully from within Google.

Jan 14

Bimodal tablets (Windows and Android). Remember them when they’re gone. Again.

I hope these rumors are wrong, but for some odd reason, the Web is full of rumors that this year’s CES will bring a glut of bimodal tablets; devices that are designed to run Windows 8.1, but also feature an integrated instance of Android. But why?

For years, Microsoft and Intel were seemingly the best of partners. While Microsoft had fleeting dalliances with other processor architectures, they always came back to Intel. There were clear lines in the sand;

  1. Intel made processors
  2. Microsoft made software
  3. Their mutual partners (ODMs and OEMs) made complete systems.

When Microsoft announced the Surface tablets, they crossed a line. Their partners (Intel and the device manufactures) were stuck in an odd place. Continue partnering just with Microsoft (now a competitor to manufacturers, and a direct purveyor of consumer devices with ARM processors), or find alternative counterpoints to ensure that they weren’t stuck in the event that Microsoft harmed their market.

For device manufacturers, this has meant what we might have thought unthinkable 3 years ago, with key manufacturers (now believing that their former partner is now also a competitor) building Android and Chrome OS devices. For Intel, it has meant looking even more broadly at what other operating systems they should ensure compatibility with, and evangelization of (predominantly Android).

While the Windows Store has grown in terms of app count, there are still some holes, and there isn’t really a gravitational pull of apps leading users to the platform. Yet.

So some OEMs, and seemingly Intel, have collaborated on this effort to glue together Windows 8.1 and Android on a single device, with the hopes that the two OSs combined in some way equate to “consumer value”. However, there’s really no clear sign that the consumer benefits from this approach, and in fact they really lose, as they’ve now got a Windows device with precious storage space consumed by an Android install of dubious value. If the consumer really wanted an Android device, they’re in the opposite conundrum.

Really, the OEMs and Intel have to be going into this strategy without any concern for consumers. It’s just about moving devices, and trying to ensure an ecosystem is there when they can’t (or don’t want to) bet on one platform exclusively. The end result is a device that instead of doing task A well, or task B well, does a really middling job with both of them, and results in a device that the user regrets buying (or worse, regrets being given).

BIOS manufacturers and OEMs have gone down this road several times before, usually trying to put Linux either in firmware or on disk as a rapid-boot dual use environment to “get online faster” or watch movies without waiting for Windows to boot/unhibernate. To my knowledge most devices that ever had these modes provided by the OEM were rarely actually used. Users hate rebooting, they get confused by where their Web bookmarks are (or aren’t) when they need them, etc.

These kinds of approaches rarely solve problems for users; in fact, they usually create problems instead, and are a huge nightmare in terms of management. Non-technical users are generally horrible about maintaining one OS. Give them two on a single device? This will turn out quite well, don’t you think? In the end, these devices, unless executed flawlessly, are damaging to both the Windows and Android ecosystems, the OEMs, and Intel. Any bad experiences will likely result in returns, or exchanges for iPads.

Dec 13

My predictions for wearables in 2014

It’s the season for predictions, so I thought I’d offer you my predictions about wearables in 2014.

  1. Wearables will continue to be nerd porn in 2014 (in other words, when you say “wearable devices”, most normal people will respond, “what?”)
  2. Many wearable devices will be proposed by vendors.
  3. Too many of those will actually make it to market.
  4. A few of those will be useful.
  5. A handful of those will be aesthetically pleasing.
  6. A minute number (possibly 0) of those will actually be usable.

Dec 13

Goodbye, Facebook

As I posted on Facebook earlier today. Don’t worry, FB, I’m still not using G+ either, as you two rapidly collide into each other.

I’m not going to make this complicated, Facebook. It’s not me, it’s you.

I liked it when we first met, I thought it was cool how you’d help me find friends, family, co-workers I hadn’t talked to for years, even some people I’ve known since preschool. That was nice, and you didn’t try to grab my wallet every time a friend would join, like some of the “social networks” did before you came along (looking at you, Classmates).

But over the years, you’ve gotten a little bit creepy, and you rarely tell me anything new or important anymore. In fact, in terms of a “social network”, you don’t really do much for me in terms of telling me what family and friends are really up to. Instead, my wall isn’t about what is important to me, it’s ads, links from Upworthy, ThinkProgress, and other sites that have learned how to game the social graph to become front and center. Now your content is just as worthless as when Google let Demand Media and others game SEO to backfill the Web with crap content.

I’m not exactly sure what demographic you’re trying to tune Facebook for, and it sure seems like you may not know either.

So with that, Facebook, I’m gonna have to let you go. I’ve downloaded my archive (man, we did have some good times), and I’m going to have to let you go. Tomorrow afternoon, I’m pulling the plug. If you ever need to find me, I’m easy enough to find on the Web, email, and Twitter.

Take care, Facebook. I hope you figure out what the heck you want to be when you grow up.

Wes Miller

Nov 13

Resistance is Futile or: GenTriFicatiOn

The vocal minority. You’ve heard of them, but who are they?

Companies often seek to change their status quo by modifying how they do business. Generally, this is a nice way of saying just they want more. More what, you ask? Traditionally, it would have meant they simply want more money, as in raising the cost of the goods they are selling (or lowering the cost that they will pay to suppliers or partners). These of course are done to increase revenue, or decrease operating expenses, respectively.

In today’s world, personally identifiable information (PII) isn’t just data, but instead is a currency which is invaluable to advertisers. While Google was the first to really succeed in this economy (of sorts), Facebook, Adobe, Microsoft, and anybody else with skin in the Internet advertising or analytics game is in the same position today. For these companies, their ask is an ever increasing cross-section of your identity. In exchange, they offer you “free” services. However, like any other business, they want an ever-increasing amount of your personal information in order to continue delivering that service. We’ve seen it with Facebook and their PII land grabs really beginning in earnest in 2010, and we’re seeing it at the current time with the encroachment of Google+ across Google sites where legacy communities aren’t very welcoming to the G+ GenTriFicatiOn.

Whether you’re talking about raising costs (reducing expenses) or asking for increasingly accurate PII, these price uplifts (or gazumps) are often not greeted warmly. In fact, there’s usually a vocal minority that quite often speak out and fight the change.

On Twitter yesterday, Taylor Buley asked if the uproar due to YouTube’s shift to Google+ could generate enough momentum for a real YouTube competitor.

I responded to Taylor at the time that I didn’t think it could. Back in 2010, when Facebook made their (at that time) largest shift in privacy policy, there was a rather large outcry by people bothered by the changes. The alternative network Diaspora was launched (and failed) out of this outcry.

There comes a certain point where these outcries cause an opinion to turn into a degree of a PR problem. But this PR problem is usually short lived. In the end, only two things can happen:

  1. The change is reversed (unlikely, as it causes a strategic retreat and a tactical reassessment)
  2. The turbulence subsides, the majority of users are retained, and some of the vocal minority are lost.

I consciously chose the term GenTriFicatiOn when I was describing Google+ earlier. Google is trying to build a community of happy PII sharers. But a lot of Google’s legacy community citizens don’t fit that mold. Google’s services are provided “free” in exchange for the price that they (Google) deems adequate. If you don’t want to pay that price, Google seems happy to see you exit the community.

Google today, like Facebook several years ago, is in the position of the chef with a frog in a pot. Slowly turning the heat up, and actually trying to excommunicate users who aren’t going to be willing participants in the Google of Tomorrow. Facebook most likely flushed the vocal privacy critics several years ago. Consider this Google Trends chart on the query “Facebook privacy”. While there is a regular churn on the topic, high water mark event H aligns nicely with the most contentious (to that date) privacy changes Facebook made, back in 2010.


When Google shut down Google Reader last year, there was a huge outcry. However, Google obviously knew the value that Google Reader users provided in terms of PII sharing before it shut down the site. (Answer? Not much.) As a result? A huge outcry followed by a deafening thud. Google didn’t lose much of what they were after, which is those data sharing, Google loving users. See the Google Trends chart of the Google Reader outcry below. Towards the right we can see the initial outcry, followed most likely by discussion of alternatives/replacements and… resignation.


When these sites increase their PII cost to end users (let’s call these end users producers, not consumers), they’re taking a conscious gamble. The sites are hoping that the number of users who won’t care about their privacy exceeds the number of users who do. In general, they’re likely right, especially if they carefully, consciously execute these steps one by one, and are aware of which ones will be the largest minefields. Of those Google properties remaining to be “Plussed”, Google Voice is likely the most contentious, although YouTube was also pretty likely to generate pushback, as it did. Again, those vocal users not happy with the changes aren’t going to be good Google+ users, so if Google+ is where Google believes their future lies, it’s in their best interest to churn those users out anyway.

Nov 13

Mutually Assured Distraction

Have you recently updated an app your computer or your smartphone (or accessed your favorite Web app), and been faced with the arrival of:

  1. New features out of the blue
  2. Changed behavior for existing features
  3. A release that removes or breaks a feature you frequently use
  4. A user interface change that completely modifies the way the app works?

If so, you might be a victim of mutually assured distraction (MAD). MAD can also alternatively be referred to as competitive cheese moving. 

Once upon a time, software companies released software on semi-predictable schedules, with a modicum of cheese moving. User interface elements might have been moved, but users familiar with the application (or sibling applications) could find their way around with some degree of ease.

However, with the arrival of milestone-driven and Web-based software, we increasingly find ourselves facing a world where applications we are comfortable with and used to are rapidly, somewhat inexplicably, shifting on us (quick apps?). Faced with increasing competition and the agile software approaches used by competitors, more and more (and larger and larger) software companies are pushing out software that’s sort of done, sort of usable, and sort of documented.

Mutually assured distraction allows company A to volley out a marketing message when they hit their milestone and release, only to be responded to when company B (and company C, D, ad nauseum) releases it’s own milestone months or weeks later – and the process repeats. With each milestone burp of a release, little nuanced changes in the software arrive, and it is up to the end user of the software to figure out what changed, if the implementation of their favorite checkbox feature from company B works better than the implementation of checkbox feature from company A did a month and a half ago. Or if it’s still even there.

The problem with MAD is the position it puts end users in (not to mention the organizations/employers that still support them, as these applications still often have to be used for collaboration between two or more employees – that is, people have to get work done).

Adding “value” all the time may seem like a boon for the end user. But it really isn’t. It makes understanding the features of the application as it exists today hard enough, and the reality is that no end user has the neurons available (or desire) to keep track of all the changes coming in the application. They just want to get things done and use software and hardware that just works.

It’s one thing when you add a completely new feature that doesn’t really shift the way the app works for end users. It’s something else entirely when you remove or modify functionality that users depend upon and are comfortable using. When you do that, you’re violating a cardinal rule of building software:

Don’t shit on your end user’s desk.

Yes, it seems simple enough. People don’t like surprise. They don’t like it when you move things around just so you can say, “Look! We changed things! We improved it! LOOK AT THE VALUE YOU’RE GETTING!!!”

If you’re going to make your development milestones visible to end users, you darn well better give them some clue about what features you plan to add back (and ideally, some timeframe for when you plan to do so). For me, I think that this increasingly industry-wide move to faster and faster releases of key software applications creates an unsustainable cadence where users can never be fully productive with the application, and anyone responsible for supporting, deploying, or licensing applications for them is in for just as much pain, or more.

Sep 13

No, that new application you’re hearing about won’t replace Microsoft Office.

For two weeks straight, I’ve seen prognostications that <application> from <competitor> will replace Microsoft Office.

No. Nothing will ever replace Microsoft Office – at least for the time being for a huge chunk of business users. I know, I know… strong words – but let me explain.

While a single user who needs to simply compose their thoughts for personal use, or sometimes share them with one or two other users might be able to do so with a third-party Office document editor. Whether they save or export as an Office document, or insist that the recipients simply read it in a proprietary format (including OpenDocument), as soon as you have multiple users exchanging documents, embedding additional Office documents, using reviewing/track changes, or other complex Office features, these documents begin to fray and fall apart at the seams.

I typically see three use cases for Microsoft Office in a multiuser office setting:

  1. Simple Office document exchange between two or more users.
  2. Complex Office document exchange (use of “deep features” in Office).
  3. Custom Office document workflow between two or more users.

Even I have said in the press that the lack of Microsoft Office on the iPad has created an opportunity. However, that opportunity isn’t explicitly an opportunity for competitors. More often than not, it’s created an opportunity for the user in the sense that they haven’t had Office for the entire time they’ve had an iPad, so either they’ve simply “gone without” Office, or found alternative tools (most likely either a Web-based productivity suite or a productivity suite for their device that doesn’t include feature parity with Office for Windows or the Mac).

The users who have likely had the most “success” (using the term loosely) with replacing Office are likely the individual users I mentioned early on who are simply using Office documents as containers, not using any Office specific features to much depth, and can likely survive just using the document export features in Google Docs, iWork, or any other Web/mobile productivity suite not from Microsoft. Admittedly, Microsoft surely sees this scenario, and as such has made the Office Web Apps for consumers freely available and interconnected with SkyDrive.

For users who are simply throwing documents back and forth, but not relying either on deep features in Office document formats or the Office applications, there’s a possibility that they can switch to Google Docs, iWork, or another Office suite. But if an organization has been using Office for some time, odds are there are documents and document templates they rely upon that require actual Microsoft Office applications or even require applications that interoperate with Office, but have no direct competitor on non-Windows platforms or the Web (see Access, Visio, or InfoPath).

You’ll often hear “document fidelity” discussed when the topic of Microsoft Office comes up. This is an important thing to understand. If I give you a complex Word format document (doc or docx) to edit, and ask you to use track changes to send it back, I’m going to be a bit upset if you a) send it back to me with the changes inline because your alternative word processor doesn’t support track changes, b) mangle the document because some formatting I had wasn’t understood by your alternative word processor or c) send it back to me in a .garble document or some other document format that Word doesn’t understand. Microsoft Office documents – both the original formats and the new xml-based documents – are the lingua franca of office productivity. Third-party tools may be able to open them. What they do with them from that point on is anybody’s guess.

Surely at some point, you’ve found a Web page that was interesting to you but was in a foreign language. If you translated it using Bing or Google, you got a result that was close to, but not an exact match for, the actual translated text as a human would have performed. More importantly, if you translate the result back to the source language, the result isn’t the same as the source text was to begin with. This is the same thing that happens with Microsoft Office documents (or WordPerfect documents among some professional fields – even today). If you want to tick people off or annoy them to the point of generating passive-aggressive behavior from them, screw up the formatting or the document type of an Office document that you’re supposed to look at and hand back to them.

For many organizations today, Office isn’t something they can just swap out – they depend on features and formatting capabilities buried in the Office applications – features that sometimes it even seems like Microsoft forgets are there (like Word outlining). When you must send Office documents back and forth between users and have the formatting and document type remain consistent, there are few choices other than… Office. I’ve tried numerous third party Web and mobile Office suites, and not really found one that doesn’t break documents here or there (often in undetectable ways), or only support <feature x> if you convert it into some other proprietary format.

The final scenario for Office users is that third case. In this case, you’re talking actual server-side code (SharePoint or other) or custom Office code that reads the Office document and could actually break if a document is incorrectly formatted or submitted as the wrong document type. Much like a user who is expecting a well-formatted document to be returned from review, applications centered around client or server-side consumption of Office documents don’t handle bad formatting or incorrect documents types well (though they respond logically, rather than emotionally as many users would).

I think Office, like Windows, is at an interesting inflection point. While some consumers and a smaller percentage of businesses may want to consider (and a small amount may actually be able to consider) not using Microsoft Office, their ability to do so will be directly in relation to how broadly they use Office documents today, and how deeply into the document format and type the features they depend upon are. In addition, many Web-apps are a no-op for truly mobile users as they need the ability to work completely offline – something that Office 365, being a streamed, but completely installed version of Office 2013, can do quite well. For most organizations, replacing Office with <application> is about as likely in the short term as replacing Windows with a Mac, an iPad, or a Chromebook. It’s possible, but you may be looking at ripping out deeply embedded line-of-business applications the organization has depended upon for years just to say you got rid of Office. You’re also usually then buying into someone else’s locked in hardware ecosystem or subscription-based software ecosystem.

I think there is opportunity for someone to do an Office suite better. But I don’t think most vendors so far are focused on that. Instead, most seem to be largely aping Office with locally installed or mobile apps, or aping Office with light-featured Web apps. Nobody is really pushing the boundaries, and making collaboration better – they’re largely reimagining what we’ve been working with for 20 years. So what eventually replaces Office? I’m not sure yet – but I don’t think it looks like envelopes of text sent from one user to another, or individual silos stored in a proprietary collaboration storage bin.

Jul 13

The iWatch – boom or bust?

In my wife’s family, there is a term used to describe how many people can comfortably work in a kitchen at the same time. The measurement is described in “butts”, as in “this is a one-butt kitchen”, or the common, but not very helpful “1.5 butt kitchen”. Most American kitchens aren’t more than 2 butts. But I digress.

I bring this up for the following reason. There is a certain level of utility that you can exploit in a kitchen as it exists, and no more. You cannot take the typical American kitchen and shove 4 grown adults in it and expect them to be productive simultaneously. You also cannot take a single oven, with two racks or not, and roast two turkeys – it just doesn’t work.

It’s my firm belief that this idea – the idea of a “canvas size” applies to almost any work surface we come across. From a kitchen or appliances therein, and beyond. But there is one place that I find it applies incredibly well – to modern digital devices.

The other day, I took out four of my Apple devices, and sat them side-by-side in increasing size order, and pondered a bit.

  • First was my old-school Nano; the older square design without a click-wheel that everyone loved the idea of making a watch out of.
  • Second was my iPhone 5.
  • Third, my iPad 2.
  • Finally, My 13″ Retina Macbook Pro.

It’s really fascinating when you stop to look at tactile surfaces sorted like this. While the MacBook Pro has a massively larger screen than the iPhone 5, the touch-surface of the TrackPad is only marginally larger than that of the iPhone. I’ve discussed touch and digits before, but the recent discussion of the “iWatch” has me pondering this yet again.

While many people are bullish on Google Glass (disregarding the high-end price that is sure to come down someday) or see the appeal of an Apple “iWatch”, I’m not so sure at this point. For some reason, the idea of a smart watch (aside from as a token peripheral), or an augmented reality headset like Glass doesn’t fly for me.

That generation iPod Nano was a neat device, and worked alright – but not great – as a watch. Among the key problems the original iOS Nano had when strapped down as a watch?

  1. It was huge – in the same ungainly manner as Microsoft’s SPOT watches, Suunto watches, or (the king of schlock), Swatch Pop watches.
  2. It had no WiFi or Bluetooth, so couldn’t easily be synched to any other media collection.

Outside of use as a watch, for as huge as it was, the UI was hamstrung in terms of touch. I believe navigation of this model was unintuitive and clumsy – one of the reasons I think Apple went back to a larger display on the current Nano.

I feel like many people who get excited about Google Glass or the “iWatch” are in love with the idea of wearables, without thinking about the state of technology and – more importantly, simple physical limitations. Let’s discard Google Glass for a bit, and focus on the iWatch.

I mentioned how the Nano model used as a watch was big, for its size (stay with me). But simply because of screen real-estate, it was limited to one-finger input. Navigating the UI of this model can get rather frustrating, so it’s handy that it doesn’t matter which finger you use. <rimshot/>

Because of their physical canvas size available for touch, each of the devices I mentioned above has different bounds of what kinds of gestures it can support:

  • iPod Nano – Single finger (generally index, while holding with other index/thumb)
  • iPhone 5 – Two fingers (generally index and thumb, while holding with other hand)
  • iPad 2 – Up to five fingers for gesturing, up to 8/10 for typing if your hands are small enough.
  • MacBook Pro – Up to five fingers for gesturing (though the 5-finger “pinch” gesture works with only 4 as well).

I don’t have an iPad Mini, but for a long time I was cynical about the device for anything but an e-reader due to the fact that it can’t be used with two-hands for typing. Apparently there are enough people just using it as an e-reader or typing with thumbs that they don’t mind the limitations.

So if we look at the size constraints of the Nano and ponder an “iWatch”, just what kind of I/O could it even offer? The tiny Nano wasn’t designed first as a watch – so the bezel was overly large, it featured a clip on the back, it needed a 30-pin connector and headphone jack… You could eliminate all of those with work – though the headphone jack would likely need to stay for now. But even with a slightly larger display, an “iWatch” would still be limited to the following types of input:

  1. A single finger (or a stylus – not likely from Apple).
  2. Voice (both through a direct microphone and through the phone, like Glass).

Though it could support other Bluetooth peripherals, I expect that they’ll pair to the iPhone or iPod Touch, rather than the watch itself – and the input would be monitoring, not keyboard/mouse/touchpad. The idea of watching someone try to type significant text on a smart watch screen with an Apple Bluetooth keyboard is rather amusing, frankly. Even more critically, I imagine that an “iWatch” would use Bluetooth Low Energy in order to not require charging every single day. It’d limit what it could connect to, but that’s pretty much a required tradeoff in my book.

In terms of output, it would again be limited to a screen about the same size as the old Nano, or smaller. AirPlay in or out isn’t likely.

My cynicism about the “iWatch” is based primarily around the limited utility I see for the device. In many ways if Apple makes the device, I see it being largely limited to a status indicator for the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad that it is “paired” with. Likely serving to provide push notifications for mail/messaging/phone calls, or very simple I/O control for certain apps on the phone. For example, taking Siri commands, play/pause/forward for Pandora or Spotify, tracking your calendar, tasks, or mapping directions, etc. But as I’ve discussed before, and above, the “iWatch” would likely be a poor candidate for either long-form text entry whether typed or dictated. (Dictate a blog post or book through Siri? I’ll poke my eyes with a sharp stick instead, thanks.) For some reason, some people are fascinated by the Dick Tracy approach of issuing commands to your watch (or your glasses, or your shoe phone). But the small screen of the “iWatch” means it will be good for very narrow input, and very limited output. I like Siri a lot, and use it for some very specific tasks. But it will be a while before it or any other voice command is suitable for anything but short-form command-response tasks. Looking back at Glass, Google’s voice command in Glass may be nominally better, but again, will likely be most useful as an augmented reality heads-up-display/recorder.

Perhaps the low interest I have in the “iWatch”, Pebble Watch, or Google Glass can be traced back to my post discussing live tiles a few weeks ago. While I think there is some value to be had with an interconnected watch – or smartphone command peripherals like this, I think people are so in love with the idea that they’re not necessarily seeing how constrained the utility actually will be. One finger. Voice command. Perhaps a couple of buttons – but not many. Possibly pulse and pedometer. It’s not a smartphone on your wrist, it’s a remote control (and a constrained remote display) for your phone. I believe it’ll be handy for some scenarios, but it certainly won’t replace smartphones themselves anytime soon, nor will it become a device used by the general populace – not unless it comes free in the box with each iPhone (it won’t).

I think we’re in the early dawn of how we interact with devices and the world around us. I’m not trying to be overly cynical – I think we’ll see massive innovation over time, and see computing become more ubiquitous and spread throughout a network of devices around and on us.

For now, I don’t believe that any “iWatch” will be a stellar success – at least in the short run – but it could as it evolves over time to provide interfaces we can’t fathom today.

May 13

Beware of strangers bearing subscriptions

Stop for a second and think about everything you subscribe to. These are things that you pay monthly or annually for, that if you didn’t pay for, some service would discontinue.

The list probably includes everything from utilities to reading material, and most likely a streaming or media service like Netflix or Hulu, or a subscription to Amazon Prime, Xbox Live or iTunes Match.

I’ve been noticing a tendency for seemingly everything to move towards subscriptions. Frankly, it irritates me and I’m not really excited about the idea.

I understand and accept that natural gas, electricity, waste management, and (ick) even insurance need to be paid for regularly so we can maintain a certain lifestyle. But the tendency to treat software as a utility, while somewhat logical, isn’t necessarily a win for the consumer or the business (it depends on the package being offered, and how often you would upgrade if you weren’t being offered a subscription).

That puzzle, of course, depends on the consumer or business to not bother to do the math and just assume it’s a better deal (or get befuddled trying to decode the comparison), and just subscribing. Consumers, and frankly many businesses, are not great at doing that math. Many subscriptions are also – literally – incomparable with any peer perpetual license. Trying to compare Office 365 and Office 2013 for consumers is actually relatively easy. Even comparing simple business licensing of Office 365 vs. on-premises isn’t that hard. Trying to do it in a large business, where it can intertwine with an Enterprise Agreement (enterprise-wide licensing agreement), is horribly complex and hard to compare.

Most subscriptions are offered in the hope that they will become an evergreen – something that automatically renews on a monthly or annual basis. Most of these are, frankly, awful, in my opinion. Let me explain why.

Recall the label on the outside of many packaged foods in the US. You know the one. Think about the serving size. This is the soda bottle or bag of chips where it says 2.5 servings, though most consumers will drink or eat the whole thing at one sitting. Consumers (and again, many non-IT business decision makers) are not really great about doing the long-term accounting here. A little Hulu here. A little Amazon Prime there. An iTunes Match subscription. Add on Office 365… Eventually, all these little numbers add up to big numbers. But like calorie counting, people often lose track of the sunk costs they’re signing up for. We wonder why America has a debt problem? Because we eat consumer services like there’s no bill at the end of the meal.

You don’t need to count every calorie – but man, you need to be aware before you have a problem.

I’ve become a big fan over the last several years of Willard Cochrane, an economist who spent most of his life analyzing and writing about the American family farm. Cochrane created an eponym, “Cochrane’s Treadmill”, which describes the never-ending treadmill that farmers are forced into. Simplistically, Cochrane’s Treadmill can be described as follows.

Farm A buys a new technology that gives them a higher yield, it forces down the market price of the commodity they produce. Farm B is then forced to buy that new technology in order to improve their yield in order to  even maintain the income they had before farm A bought that technology.

By acquiring the technology, Farm A starts an unwinnable race, where he (economically) is pitted against farmer B in trying to make more money, generally from the same amount of land. Effectively, it is mutually assured destruction. Work harder, pay more, earn less.

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently trying to simplify my life. I’ve been working to remove software, hardware, and services that add complexity, rather than simplicity, to my life. As humans, we often buy things on a whim thinking (incorrectly), “this new <thing> will dramatically improve my life”. After all, the commercial told you it would! Often this isn’t the case.

Without getting off on an environmentalist hippie trip here, I’d like to circle back to farming for a second. Agricultural giants like Monsanto have inserted themselves into the farming input cycle in a very aggressive way. If we go back 100 years, farmers didn’t pay an industrial concern every year for pesticides, and they most certainly didn’t pay them an annual license fee for seeds (farmers are forbidden to save licensed genetically modified seeds every year, as they have done for millennia). As a result, farmers are not only creating a genetic monoculture that is likely more susceptible to disease, but they are subscribing to annual licensure of the seed and most likely an ever-increasing dosage of pesticides in order to defend against plants, insects, or other pests that have developed defenses against them. It is Cochrane’s Treadmill defined. Even worse, if a farmer wanted to discontinue use of the licensed seed, it’s unclear to me if they actually could. Monsanto has aggressively gone after farmers who may have even accidentally planted their seeds due to contamination. Can a farmer actually quit using licensed seed and not pay for it next year? I don’t know the answer.

I bring this up because I believe that it exemplifies the risks of subscriptions in general. Rather than a perpetual use right (farmers saving seed every year), farmers are licensing an annual subscription with no escape hatch. Imagine subscribing to a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offering and never being able to quit it? Whether in the form of carrots – “sweeteners” of sorts added to many subscriptions (such as the much more liberal 5 device use rights of Office 365), or sticks (virtualization or license reassignment rights only available with Microsoft Software Assurance), there are explicit risks of jumping into using almost any piece of software without carefully examining both the short-term use rights and long-term availability rights. It may appear I’m picking on Microsoft here. I’m not doing so intentionally – I’m just intimately, painfully, aware of how they license software. This could apply to Adobe, Oracle, or likely any ISV… and even some IHVs.

Google exemplifies another side of this, where you can’t really be certain how long they will continue to offer a service. Whether it’s discontinuing consumer-grade services like Reader, or discontinuing the free level of Apps for Business, before subscribing to Google’s services an organization should generally not only raise questions around privacy and security, but just consider the long-term viability of the service. “Will Google keep this service alive in the future?” Perhaps that sounds cynical – but I believe it’s a legitimate concern. If you’re moving yourself or your business to a subscription service (heck, even a free one), you owe it to yourself to try and ascertain how long you’ve got before you can’t even count on that service anymore.

While I may be an Apple fan, and Apple doesn’t seem to be as bullish on subscriptions, one can point to the hardware upgrade gravy train that they have created and see that it’s really just a hardware subscription. If you want the latest software and services from Apple, you have to buy a new phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop within Apple’s set intervals or be left behind. Businesses that are increasing their use of Apple technology – whether they pay for it or leave it to the employee to pay for – should be careful too. Staying up-to-date, including staying secure, with Apple generally means staying relatively up-to-date with hardware.

In The Development of American Agriculture, Cochrane reasoned that <profits> “will be captured by the business firm in financial control”, and would no longer go to farmers. Where initially the farm ecosystem consisted of supplier (farmer) and consumer, industrial agriculture giants have inserted themselves into the process of commodity creation – more and more industrialists demanding a growing annual cut from the income of (already struggling) American farmers.

Whether we’re talking seeds/pesticides, software, utilities, or any other subscription, there is a risk and a benefit that should be clearly understood. But I believe that even more than “this year”, where the immediate gratification is like consuming the 2.5 servings I mentioned earlier, both consumers and especially businesses need to think long-term; “Where will this service be in 3 years?”, “Will we be paying more and getting less?”, “If we go there, can we get out? How?”

When you subscribe to anything, you’re not taking on a product, you’re taking on a partner. Your ability to take on that partner depends upon your current financial position and your obligations to that partner, both now and in the future. While many businesses can surely find the risk/benefit analysis of a given subscription works out in the subscriber’s benefit (if they are really using the service regularly, and it provides an invaluable function that can’t be built internally or completed by perpetually licensed technology), I believe that companies should be cautious about taking on “subscription weight” without sufficiently examining and understanding 1) how much they really need the services offered by that subscription, 2) what the the short-term benefits and long-term costs of the subscription really are, 3) the risks of subscriptions (cost increase and service volatility among them), and 4) how that subscription compares in terms of use rights, costs, and risks, with any custom developed or perpetually licensed offering that can perform similar tasks.

If it seems like I’m anti-subscription, I guess you could say I am. If you want a cut of my income, earn it. Most evergreen subscriptions aren’t worth it to me. I think too many consumers and businesses fall prey to the fact that “just subscribing” rather than building and owning a solution, or buying a perpetually licensed one, sounds easier, so they go that route – and wind up stuck there.