14
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.


05
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.


29
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.

20
Dec 13

Security and Usability – Yes, you read that right.

I want you to think for a second about the key you use most. Whether it’s for your house, your apartment, your car, or your office, just think about it for a moment.

Now, this key you’re thinking of is going to have a few basic properties. It consists of metal, has a blade extending out of it that has grooves along one or both sides, and either a single set of teeth cut into the bottom, or two sets of identical teeth cut into both the top and bottom.

If it is a car key, it might be slightly different; as car theft has increased, car keys have gotten more complex, so you might be thinking about a car key that is just a wireless fob that unlocks and or starts the car based on proximity, or it might be an inner-cut key as is common with many Asian and European cars today.

Aside from the description I just gave you, when was the last time you thought about that key? When did you actually last look at the ridges on it?

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? That’s because that key and the lock it works with provide the level of security you feel that you need to protect that place or car, yet it doesn’t get in your way, as long as the key and the lock are behaving properly.

Earlier this week, I was on a chat on Twitter, and we were discussing aspects of security as they relate to mobile devices. In particular, the question was asked, “Why do users elect to not put a pin/passcode/password on their mobile devices?” While I’ve mocked the idea of considering security and usability in the same sentence, let alone the same train of thought while developing technology, I was wrong. Yes, I said it. I was wrong. Truth be told, Apple’s Touch ID is what finally schooled me on it. Security and usability should be peers today.

When Apple shipped the iPhone 5s and added the Touch ID fingerprint sensor, it was derided by some as not secure enough, not well designed, not a 100% replacement for the passcode, or simply too easy to defeat. But Touch ID does what it needs to do. It works with the user’s existing passcode – which Apple wisely tries to coax users into setting up on iOS 7, regardless of whether they have a 5s or not – to make day to day use of the device easier while living with a modicum of security, and a better approach to securing the data, the device, and the credentials stored in it and iCloud in a better way than most users had prior to their 5s.

That last part is important. When we shipped Windows XP, I like to think we tried to build security into it to begin with. But the reality is, security wasn’t pervasive. It took setting aside a lot of dedicated time (two solid months of security training, threat modeling, and standing down on new feature work) for the Windows Security Push. We had to completely shift our internal mindset to think about security from end to end. Unlike the way we had lived before, security wasn’t to be a checkbox, it wasn’t a developer saying, “I used the latest cryptographic APIs”, and it wasn’t something added on at the last minute.

Security is like yeast in bread. If you add it when you’re done, you simply don’t have bread – well, at least you don’t have leavened bread. So it took us shipping Windows XP SP2 – an OS update so big and so significant many people said it should have been called a new OS release – before we ever shipped a Windows release where security was baked in from the beginning of the project, across the entirety of the project.

When it comes to design, I’ve mentioned this video before, but I think two of Jonathan Ives’ quotes in it are really important to have in your mind here. Firstly:

“A lot of what we seem to be doing in a product like that (the iPhone) is getting design out of the way.”

and secondarily:

“It’s really important in a product to have a sense of the hierarchy of what’s important and what’s not important by removing those things that are all vying for your attention.”

I believe that this model of thought is critical to have in mind when considering usability, and in particular where security runs smack dab into usability (or more often, un-usability). I’ve said for a long time that solutions like two-factor security won’t take off until they’re approachable by, and effectively invisible to, normal people. Heck, too much of the world didn’t set ever set their VCR clocks for the better part of a decade because it was too hard, and it was a pain in the ass to do it again every time the power went out. You really don’t understand why they don’t set a good pin, let alone a good passcode, on their phone?

What I’m about to say isn’t meant to infer that usability isn’t important to many companies, including Microsoft, but I believe many companies run, and many software, hardware or technology projects are started, run, and finished, where usability is still just a checkbox. As security is today at Microsoft, usability should be embraced, taught, and rewarded across the organization.

One can imagine an alternate universe where a software project the world uses was stopped in it’s tracks for months, redesigned, and updated around the world because a user interface element was so poorly designed for mortals that they made a bad security decision. But this alternate universe is just that, an alternate universe. As you’re reading the above, it sounds wacky to you – but it shouldn’t! As technologists, it is our duty to build hardware, software, and devices where the experience, including the approach to security, works with the user, not against them. Any move that takes the status quo of “security that users self-select to opt into” and moves it forward a notch is a positive move. But any move here also has to just work. You can’t implement nerd porn like facial recognition if it doesn’t work all of the time or provide an alternative for when it fails.

Projects that build innovative solutions where usability and security intersect should be rewarded by technologists. Sure, they should be critiqued and criticized, especially if designing in a usable approach really compromises the security fundamentals of the – ideally threat-modeled – implementation. But critics should also understand where their criticism falls down in light of the practical security choices most end users make in daily life.

Touch ID,  with as much poking, prodding, questioning, and hacking as it received when it was announced, is a very good thing. It’s not perfect, and I’m sure it’ll get better in future iterations of the software and hardware, and perhaps as competitors come up with alternatives or better implementations, Apple will have to make it ever more reliable. But a solution that allows that bar to be moved forward, from a place where most users don’t elect to set a pin or passcode to a place where they do? That’s a net positive, in my book.

As Internet-borne exploits continue to grow in both intensity and severity, it is so critical that we all start taking the usability of security implementations by normal people seriously. If you make bad design decisions about the intersection where security and usability collide, your end users will find their own desire path through the mayhem, likely making the easiest, and not usually the best, security decisions.

 


17
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


15
Dec 13

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Eli Whitney Regarding the Cotton Gin

Jefferson, Thomas
Nov. 16. 1793
Germantown
Eli Whitney
Whitney, Eli
TO ELI WHITNEY J. MSS.

Germantown,
Nov. 16. 1793.

Sir, —
Your favor of Oct. 15. inclosing a drawing of your cotton gin, was received on the 6th inst. The only requisite of the law now uncomplied with is the forwarding a model, which being received your patent may be made out delivered to your order immediately.

As the state of Virginia, of which I am, carries on household manufactures of cotton to a great extent, as I also do myself, and one of our great embarrassments is the clearing the cotton of the seed, I feel a considerable interest in the success of your invention, for family use. Permit me therefore to ask information from you on these points. Has the machine been thoroughly tried in the ginning of cotton, or is it as yet but a machine of theory? What quantity of cotton has it cleaned on an average of several days, worked by hand, by how many hands? What will be the cost of one of them made to be worked by hand? Favorable answers to these questions would induce me to engage one of them to be forwarded to Richmond for me. Wishing to hear from you on the subject I am c.

P.S. Is this the machine advertised the last year by Pearce at the Patterson manufactory?

Thomas Jefferson

Excerpt From The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 8.


09
Dec 13

Thomas Jefferson on congressional conflict of interest

“I said that the two great complaints were that the national debt was unnecessarily increased, that it had furnished the means of corrupting both branches of the legislature. That he must know everybody knew there was a considerable squadron in both whose votes were devoted to the paper stock-jobbing interest, that the names of a weighty number were known several others suspected on good grounds. That on examining the votes of these men they would be found uniformly for every treasury measure, that as most of these measures had been carried by small majorities they were carried by these very votes. That therefore it was a cause of just uneasiness when we saw a legislature legislating for their own interests in opposition to those of the people”

Excerpt From The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 1.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.


08
Dec 13

Siri, Topsy, and the Web – Context is everything

Last night, my youngest child and I were talking, and I wound up telling her about the scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey where the HAL 9000 computer, as he is being disassembled, sings the old song Daisy to Dave Bowman. My child loves music, and didn’t see the irony in immediately asking me, “How does the song go?” So I taught her – she hadn’t ever heard it before. At the time I didn’t get the irony in doing that either – not until I woke up this morning.

Think about that line right before Dave tells HAL to sing him the song:

“My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.”

Topsy is Siri’s Mr. Langley.

A little over two years ago I wrote about how Siri was the start of Apple escaping the Web, and escaping Google search. In that piece, I discussed how important context was for Siri. Over the last few years, Siri has been improved as Apple has connected it to (often very contextually specific) sources, such as sports and movie information, and demonstrated them at WWDC.

However, Siri had, and continues to have, rather large holes in her knowledge set. What we think of as very simple questions, Siri cannot answer. The child of mine I mentioned earlier is fascinated with technology, and Siri in particular. Periodically, she will come up with random obscure queries and throw them at Siri. While the Siri system often can’t answer them, sometimes it can.

Twitter is amazing because it can provide insight into the zeitgeist (the Web’s short-term memory), but it also has such knowledge of long-term events along a timeline as they happened. In many ways, Twitter is a bit of a knowledge mechanical turk, where Twitter users mine the Web and real-time events and surface their knowledge in discrete snippets of information. Topsy was uniquely situated to surface Twitter’s knowledge in an API-driven way, and is ideally situated for Apple to integrate into Siri (since Siri doesn’t really learn anything, it just connects into other systems.

Many people have said Topsy was acquired to enhance advertising or iTunes content. Both are tangentially right. But ads have never appeared to be a primary focus for Apple – which makes sense, because the customer they build their hardware, software, and services for usually isn’t a fan of ads. That said, the analytics from Topsy Pro could well wind up integrated into iAds. We’ll see in time. As for content discovery? Sure, that’ll happen too, and people will buy content as a result of their searches. But I don’t believe that this is what this acquisition was about.

People expect Siri to be able to answer their queries, and if it can’t, they disengage from the service, and potentially from Apple’s platform, if they don’t find that it just works the way they expect. That’s why I believe Topsy has everything to do with Siri, and that’s where the team will end up, and how we’ll see the technology demonstrated at WWDC next summer.

A few pundits have also made the association to Siri, but most analysis I’ve seen seems to focus on real-time search, not mentioning the (relative) long-term knowledge that Topsy surfaces from Twitter, and how that can only grow over time. Just as importantly, as I understood it Topsy had created an algorithm that enabled tweets to be sorted geographically. This is invaluable to Apple, as it then gives Siri location-based context, and will let the system help users find resources near you that others are discussing in near real-time through the Twitter firehose. I think the acquisition of Topsy by Apple is good news for Apple and their customers, as well as Twitter itself and Twitter users. I think it’s really bad news for Google.


03
Dec 13

Walter Chrysler on Troubled Companies

“The first thing I do when I start to look into the affairs of a failing company is to study the personnel of the organization and the individuality of the men. I am concerned first of all with executives, because if their principles are not right it is useless to look for results from the men. When I have measured up in my own mind the capacity of the executives, I get out into the operation of the plant and watch the men. I look around to see how many of them are standing still and how many of them are moving around the plant. Highly paid workmen should be busy with accomplishment, not useless motion. If there is a lot of movement I know the plant is being badly operated.

I do not believe in idle machines or idle men. Outside of the idle investment involved, it is bad policy. If a man is working next to an idle machine it not only has a bad effect on him mentally, but he takes less care of his own machine because he thinks he has a ready substitute. I believe in keeping people out of temptation, for many of them cannot resist it.” – Walter Chrysler – Excerpt From Automotive Giants of America (iBooks)

Even though the above advice is almost a century old, I believe it is still quite relevant. Too many companies today waste far too much time on meetings, bureaucracy, and busywork.


02
Dec 13

Jeff Bezos on Disruption

In general, the 60 Minutes interview of Jeff Bezos felt largely like a marketing piece. But what Bezos says at 13:30 is great.

“Companies have short lifespans… And Amazon will be disrupted one day…
I don’t worry about it because I know it is inevitable. Companies come and go. And the companies that are the shiniest and most important of any era, you wait a few decades and they’re gone.” – Jeff Bezos on 60 Minutes, Dec. 1, 2013