Thursday, 10 September 2015

Comfortably numb: Apple hyperbole is boring

Last week Apple announced their Autumn 2015 line of hardware. I avoid the live events these days, as they're a bit too sycophantic for me. The triumphalist tone is fine for internal corporate event, but for a public event it's a bit crass. So, instead, I skim various reliable news sources for the gist. Usually, the famous Jobs "reality-distortion field" is pretty effective, even since his death, and much of the press gushes with as much hyperbole as Apple itself. Not this time.

The mainstream sites are rarely, if ever, damning of Apple, but the levels of praise were distinctly fainter this year. Sure, it's an 'S' year, which is usually just upgrades to existing kit, but the point is that the hyperbole was full force and, yes, unwarranted.

Don't get me wrong, I love their passion for their work. I know the guys at Apple are feverish about the details. But not everything they do deserves the "incredible" or "epic" labels. There are refinements this year, but there's nothing new. There's nothing 'epic' or 'incredible', and to claim so is to dilute the power and impact of those prior triumphs.You can find other versions of all this stuff from competitors. Yes, Apple tech is probably smoother and more integrated but it also costs 50% more.

The trick of Jobs' reality distortion was to suspend disbelief, to maintain that fragile bubble of attraction and interest without over-inflating it with hyperbole. When the stuff wasn't ground-breaking, he'd still delight in it but would use words like 'neat' and 'cool', and avoid vacuous, overblown words like 'epic', 'awesome' and 'incredible'. I get the sense that Cook, Schiller et al are trying to press the same buttons, but it's mimicry rather than feeling.

There have been quite a few mock Apple adverts out there, like the Ikea catalogue.

It's almost like nobody at Apple has seen them. Or they have, but just can't change the formula.

So keep the products rolling, Apple, but please show a bit more sensitivity with your tone.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Apple Watch: cracks showing?

From this story and similar it's easy to interpret that the honeymoon period of the new product category is over. Apple cynics proven right? Or markets just being fickle? A bit of both.

I'm an Apple sceptic: love their stuff, but not the reality distortion and unnecessary product lock-ins that often accompany it. Overall, they are a healthy part of the technosphere, which is not easy for a behemoth.

Something is clearly wrong with their Apple Watch sales. So they are below expectations, but why not publish them anyway? Apple's profit margins are normally huge on anything they sell, so even if the volumes are lower than expected, it's not like they'll have failed financially, is it? I think the absence of information, in this case, could work against them not just in the markets, as it has already shown, but in consumer confidence. In this internet age, consumers like to to make informed decisions, so any perception of withheld information fuels lack of confidence, and, arguably, is just as easy to exploit by a canny competitor.

But they had to do it. For Apple not to have a watch in this still-embryonic but burgeoning wearables market could have been perceived by the markets as leaving money on the table. And this first offering is pretty decent: all the buttery smooth and shiny user experience features are there. It's just not essential or different enough from the iPhone. I doubt anyone in late 19th or early 20th century had a pocket watch and a wrist watch.

This is the first step on a product journey, a marker. Remember, the first iPhone didn't even have copy & paste. But then Apple defined the category and were so far ahead of the competition they could take their time perfecting the product. This time, the category is already quite crowded and despite their behemoth status they didn't own it. Do they have the agility to evolve faster than rivals?

If you compare the pace of innovation in iOS versus Android, you'll see that since about 2013 Android has outpaced Apple. Android in 2015 is a lot better than Android in 2012, whereas iOS is a bit better. This isn't about which OS is better, but about which OS is improving the fastest.

But Apple is a hardware company. And I think the reasons the Apple Watch is not a giant success are hardware-based, from the basic: battery life; to the sublime Dick Tracy fantasy: a camera. These limitations are understandable to geeks: the science simply isn't there yet. But the average Apple consumer thinks it's all magic anyway, so will expect Apple to crack these things in version 2 or 3. Can they? I can't think when they've ever had this much competitive pressure in hardware. This should get interesting.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Algorithmic Big Brother

There's a lot of FUD about internet companies harvesting personal data.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a privacy advocate: you should have the right to be as private as you like, and whatever data that is held about you by a third party should be disclosed to you, and accessible on request.

But let's not put the tin hats on every time we hear that Tech Firm X is harvesting your data. I'm sure they are, but ask yourself why. Google and Facebook aren't interested in my secrets. They are interested in

  1. Selling my profile info to advertisers
  2. Providing me a better service so that I keep coming back and they can satisfy (1).
You'll agree that point 2 is innocent/benign enough. If you have a fundamental problem with entities selling info to advertisers then stop buying things and stop using 'free' services. If you're not the paying customer, you're the product. Get used to it.

The issue, and where the media like to blur and sensationalise, is the definition of 'my profile info'. What info are they collating & selling, and what are they doing with it? This is where things get shady. The quick answer these firms all give, when asked, is a variant of point 2 above: that the data is used to offer better-targeted advertising and services to you the cust- consumer.

Right, but what data, exactly? And how are you packaging it up to the advertisers to whom you're selling it? The answer, in most cases, is that they are not selling the information like a secret service dossier - a big brown file on you. They are simply categorising you. The advertisers then say what categories they want to target, which could be broad (all females between 18 and 30) or very specific (chess players and sci fi fans in New York city under the age of 24). These firms then ensure you get hit by those adverts that match your category. They then track which ones you click and which you don't, and that gets reported back to the advertisers. In fact, in the case of social networks, these firms track every unsecured page that you browse and refine your categorisations accordingly.

Point is, the advertisers don't get the specific info about you. They get aggregated category data. Heineken don't know which beer I drink unless I tell them (by 'liking' or '+ing' a page of theirs); they just know that I'm in several of their key categories.

The categorising tech firms are as interested in me as a lawnmower is in grass. They don't have time/resources to compile a dossier on you or me. They have algorithms that profile us automatically and constantly, but primarily in order to meet the 2 commercial imperatives above.

So if you're worried about Google or Facebook or Apple prying into your private life, only the algorithms are watching.

Government agencies?  Different story: why would they be harvesting your data? Again, it's mostly algorithms, but there's no commercial imperative. So it's definitely personal and potentially nefarious. 

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

CIO: caretaker or gamechanger?

I saw this article ("The era of IT-as-a-roadblock must come to an end right now", TechRepublic) and thought it worth sharing, as it reflects something bothering me for years about the role of IT in businesses.

I've led IT teams and departments, and, as a CTO selling software and services to clients, meet IT heads quite often. Some of them running IT for well known brand companies. You can tell a lot about a company by its attitude to IT. Even the job title of the head of IT is still varied and indicative: VP ICT, or Head of IS, or CIO, or more recently Head of Digital. Some are on the board/exec team, some report to the CFO or COO.

Then there's the small talk: get any team in the company in a room together for a day (as we often do at my consulting firm) and see whether a) an IT topic comes up, and b) it's a negative comment. I'd give a 75% chance of both.

Traditionally, I'd put this down to the struggle of IT: what other department of a company has to deal with the turmoil of its industry effectively reinventing itself every 3-5 years? Take Finance: the CFO is probably the best accountant in the firm - certainly the most experienced. General Ledgers don't really evolve and GAAPs evolve as carefully as prudent accountants and auditors would allow. The CIO, on the other hand, has probably never used the technologies they are responsible for. Sure, they'll likely know the principles and implications, but they are fully dependent on the knowledge and skills of younger staff in deploying and maintaining new technologies. Furthermore, nobody outside of IT could keep up: why must I trade in my Blackberry for an iPhone? Why so many passwords? In this context, it's little wonder that IT departments would often be as fretful, self-absorbed and moody as a teenager. They effectively were teenagers.

Then it all changed with the arrival of mobile apps and app stores. How many training courses have you been on to learn a mobile app? Me neither. Suddenly everyone was configuring their own personal computing device in their own way. And demanding the same ease of use for other software. That contact management software at work started to feel really clunky.

Developers, be they desktop, web or app software, suddenly had to focus carefully on user experience (UX). If they didn't, the results were there for all to see: poor app reviews and few downloads.

The IT department was now having to contend with consumer devices and apps on the corporate network because the users found them more useful, were going to use them anyway, and, well, it's all technology, innit? Would they step out from their server rooms and support desks and embrace the mobiles, the apps, the clouds? Or would they bridle at the users' initiative, and chafe with disdain at the cloud? 

The results so far appear mixed. There are certainly many IT departments showing fear, usually in the form of disdain for technology initiatives coming from users, security concerns, or "hidden" costs. They've finally got what they always wanted: an engaged audience. We're finally over the hump and now technology illiteracy is not cool, nor even quaint. If you don't have a smart phone, or know how to use one, you're a dinosaur. The world has realised IT is about the information, not the technology (thank you Apple!). Unfortunately, many IT departments haven't yet. 

Monday, 29 June 2015

It's Pebble Time: taking on the mighty Apple Watch

The best personal tech should be invisible. Not literally, that would be unhelpful. But it should fit into your life seamlessly, without significant adjustment to your life, unless it augments it. Smart phones are a brilliant example: you already had a mobile phone, but here's one with more sensors and downloadable apps. Super productivity or super distraction? Your choice, but either way you're ostensibly happier.
Henry Graves Supercomplication Pocket Watch
Remember pocket watches? No, I never wore one either, but I imagine they were the mobile phones of their day. Before them, you had to find or hear a clock somewhere, usually a church or a school or a station. Suddenly you had the power of time in your hand. 

Then, in 1968 Patek Phillipe made, arguably, the first wrist watch. It was intended as jewellery for ladies, who often didn't have pockets for a watch. As the technology improved and became more rugged, soldiers adopted them. The pocket watch didn't fade away, it just added features, culminating in the Henry Graves Supercomplication, made by Patek Phillipe in 1933 and still the most expensive watch in the world ($24m at last auction in November 2014).

Point is, the problem of conveniently telling the time was, effectively, solved with the wrist watch. But it has barely evolved since. Despite watchmakers' enduring ability to sell absurdly overpriced lumps of metal because they'd work on the moon, or at 10,000ft underwater, these lumps are functionally redundant, for the most part. Like handkerchiefs. Most millennials don't wear a watch because they have a smart phone with network/atomic accuracy.

So if you're selling a smart watch you're either trying to persuade a youngster to wear something useful on their wrist, or persuade an older person to replace their expensive birthday present for something more useful and equally elegant.

Smart watch?

The original Pebble was a great concept in 2013: a watch that listens to your phone (both Android and iOS!) and lasts a week. Biggest Kickstarter project ever at the time. And they delivered what they promised. Now, I'm a big watch fan, have about eight at any given time, but it didn't attract me because the screen was black and white only and the case was too big. It looked like a 90s Nintendo Gameboy for your wrist. Without the retro fun.
The original Pebble. Neat but ugly.
But earlier this year Pebble ran another Kickstarter campaign to build the Time: promising colour screen and slim form factor yet still the 5 day battery life. All the other smart watch makers are targeting looks and features, but these guys are sticking with their formula and refining it. Many people scoffed at the paltry 64 colours and lack of touchscreen, but those of us with some electronics knowledge realise that full colour touchscreens burn battery life, and what's the point of a watch you have to plug in every day? Might as well just use your phone. At $189 it's $100 cheaper than a Casio Pathfinder or Citizen Ecodrive. So why on earth not? I backed it.

Pebble Time!

It's very light - feels lighter than the strap - and pretty slim. The strap is smooth and soft, with a little stretch to it. One of the best I've worn in terms of chafing, which is no small thing for my hairy wrists. After 10 mins wearing it I pretty much forgot it was there, so big tick in the 'invisible' box.


Classic elegance... with weather
While the screen is a decent size, there's still a lot of real estate not used. No doubt Pebble sought to maximise screen size within technical constraints, but what about solar panels in the frame or that outer bezel? Even though a Pebble consumes about 5x the power of a solar watch, like a Pathfinder, solar top-up could still potentially increase battery life by 20%.

Outdoors... with stats
The screen is a bit dim in some light, needing a shake of the wrist to activate the backlight. Not a big issue (I know many lump of metal wearers who have their straps so loose they have to wiggle their wrists to haul the watch into view anyway), but there's currently no control of the backlight timer, so it may fade too quickly causing you to have to shake again. Frustrating, but easily rectified (please, Pebble!). Thankfully, there are loads of watchfaces, and many have colour configuration options, so it's easy to find one that is hi-viz.


It's a similar story for notifications: I can't control them as well as I'd like in two ways: first, being able to mute some apps. You can do it on the phone, but why not on the watch too? Secondly, there's just one buzz signal. I've seen pebble apps that offer multiple buzz combinations, and it would be great to make better use of these in notifications. I don't know if the Time buzz motor supports variable strengths, but that would be great too.

Buttons & gestures

The buttons are excellent, and the motion sensor is really well tuned to different movements, which some apps, like the OutDoorWatch app (above), use to great effect. Move your arm laterally, like throwing a frisbee, toggles the bottom section of the screen to switch displays between, say, a barometer graph and a compass. Shake your wrist side to side once slowly and the middle section changes. With the combination of buttons and wrist shakes I don't miss a touch screen.


Battery life is as advertised: 4-8 days depending on use. 4 days if you're mucking about with it all the time, and using watchfaces that update the weather every 20 mins.


The watch has a mic for voice control, but it's not well supported yet. This could be a brilliant addition to a beautifully simplistic watch, allowing you to literally call up all those voice-enhanced features of your smart phone from your wrist: voice memos, Siri or Google Now etc.


As you look through the Pebble App store you get the sense that developers are either waiting for the crowd's reaction, or being passively discouraged by the incumbent app store owners. Not only did Apple delay release of the Pebble Time app on the iOS AppStore (they relented after a social media campaign), but they have made some of the API functionality of iPhones exclusive to the Apple Watch, shutting out Pebble from offering some more enhanced features in the iOS version. No such apparent limitations on the Android version, so the Android version of the Pebble app has better app features available than the iOS version. Let's hope Apple play fair and open it up. There's plenty of room in this fledgling market, and no need for Kickstarter-backed David vs biggest market-cap in the world Goliath.

The trouble is that this sort of friction makes third party developers jittery. So while some of the main app contenders, like Evernote and RunKeeper have Pebble apps, some of their competitors, like Strava and OneNote don't.

In addition to their C-based development environment, Pebble have released a Javascript framework intended to attract non-hardcore developers to lash their mobile app APIs to a simple Pebble app. I haven't tried it, but the fact that I'm tempted says a lot for this little device. 

Smart Straps?

As you see from the picture above of the back of the Pebble, the strap has quick-release pins for so-called smart straps. These are add-ons that offer more hardware features, like more sensors or batteries, or both. This could be a killer feature, if you think about it. Some ideas here.


The Pebble Time is light and almost invisible, and has fitted into my life seamlessly: I'm not scurrying around to find charging points, nor am I stroking it every five minutes like a cat with ball of wool. The subtlety of wrist-based notifications is not to be under-estimated: a quick glance at your wrist is significantly less effort than hauling that buzzing widescreen out of your pocket only to find that you've received a spam text. The apps that I do have are also just right for the wrist: running app, music app, misfit app, authenticator app, travel app - those activities that you don't want to be digging out your phone for. 

So there's all that subtlety and convenience that Apple Watch reviewers have been raving about. Except this watch costs half an Apple. 

There's another Apple-beating convenience too: the biggest convenience factor in every watch since Patek Phillipe's in 1868: battery life. The only Apple watch reviews I've seen that have reported battery life to be 'fine' are by techies who probably already plug in five devices a day. Let's see if real consumers are just as glowing about one day of battery life after the novelty has worn off. I don't doubt that it's a beautiful piece of kit, but is it useful enough to warrant daily charging? Unless it replaces your phone completely, like the wrist watch did the pocket watch, it never will be.

My only concern with the Pebble Time is that its potential never gets fulfilled; that it gets crushed by less functional but more glamorous and wealthy competitors. In these days of social media and crowdsourcing they don't need much clout to hold their own and gather support, but they need to do it fast.

Show us some smart straps, get that damn mic working, sort out the notification buzzes and we could have a winner here!

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Occam's mobile

Mobile phones are making too many assumptions. I got an iPhone 6 back in October, and a refurbished iPad mini 2 for Christmas. So I've been pondering this for a while... In this age of miniaturisation it may have struck many people as odd that Apple increased the size of their latest iPhone version. The iPhone 5 had a 4" screen, and now the iPhone 6 has a 5" screen, with the iPhone 6 plus having an even larger screen. Whatever Apple's actual reasoning, it's evident that big, flat phones are selling, as shown by the popularity of the Samsung Galaxy range of phones, some of which border on comedic in size.

But why?

Mobile phones have always been about portability, which is a combination of size and weight. But smart phones add another, much more complex dimension: functionality. Fundamentally, this is about 'the potential to do more', and has always been a key aspect of computing. For years the attractiveness of personal computers was deemed, at least by PC and software marketing people, to be about functionality: just look at all the stuff you can do with this thing!

The fact that most of us didn't use most of these features (an oft-cited myth was that no individual used more than 10% of any given Microsoft Office app) didn't seem to matter. It was the potential.

It seems that those same marketing people have migrated to the mobile space and have opted to hit the same buttons: more speed, more functions, more, more, more.

Less, please.

My iPhone 6, for all its curvy, groovy, big-screen, slim, slick styling, is too big. It's too big for me to hold securely while my thumb touches the button at the bottom to unlock it. It's slightly too bulgey in my trouser pocket, looking either like an armour plate or a dislodged codpiece, depending on my self-esteem that particular day. Initially, I liked the larger screen: bigger than my iPhone 5, so easier on the eyes. A bit easier to read a book, type a decent length email, or watch a video longer than a couple of minutes. But only a bit.

I wasn't planning to get an iPad. I had an iPad 2 and found it too limited to be a laptop replacement, and too bulky to carry around with the laptop. But I saw a refurbed iPad mini going cheap, so bought it. Now the iPhone 6 screen feels too small. The iPad mini is roughly paperback book size. I've carried paperback books on my travels since I could read. "Always have a book". It was ingrained into me as much as brushing my teeth. The iPad is that book in multimedia form. What's more, I have found that I use it for tasks that I would previously have done on my phone. So I've removed those non-essential apps from my phone in favour of the iPad.

I've dumbed my smart phone down. Now the functionality of the device is much more aligned to its portability. Notifications, quick replies, handy utilities, like maps and calculator, small games - all fine on the phone. Anything else deemed worthy of delving into a bag for goes on the iPad mini.

So what's the point of that bigger screened iPhone 6? No point. I'm eying up my old iPhone 5 and contemplating switching back.

Cybersecurity: quis custodiet ipsos custodes

This article caught my eye this morning. The first clear example I've seen, beyond glib soundbytes, of a prominent politician opposing an increase in government monitoring powers. The article includes quotes from Boris Johnson (mayor of London) and David Cameron (UK Prime Minister) justifying reasons for increased govt monitoring of its population.

The phrase 'in principle' seems to abound in such discussions. With good reason. I don't think anyone opposes the notion that all terrorists should be monitored closely. The trouble, for the government security people, is that they don't know who all the terrorists are, and by the time they know it's usually too late: membership is typically indicated by the wearing of explosives and/or the bearing of automatic rifles. So the simplest solution advocated by government security people is to allow them to monitor all communication, even the encrypted stuff. Fine in principle (if you're not a terrorist), but it has some severe practical issues.

The most often cited issue is privacy.
"What right does the government have to spy on me?" says Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.
It's irrelevant.
If your neighbour was a terrorist then I'm sure that you'd advocate that they have every right, along with the right to hang them. In order to mitigate acts of terrorism government security people need the capability to intercept terrorist communications. So the issue is not the powers, it's the use of those powers or, more specifically, the potential for abuse of those powers.

Who watches the watchmen?
That's the translation of the latin in the title (taken from Juvenal's Satires). Evidently this is an issue as old as civilisation - arguably, a defining attribute of civilisation. By advocating such surveillance powers, a government is asking its demos, its populace, to trust it. It is implying that it is not interested in your personal life: your medical or financial history, your tax returns, your infidelities or predilections. Just your security. And, in principle, it may be right. But in practice, the government is nothing more than a body of individuals, with personal agendas, of whom significantly less than 10% are publicly elected. Who is to say that my information will categorically not be abused?

If democratic governments are serious about requiring the powers to intercept (even encrypted) communications, they need to demonstrate how they plan to protect those powers from abuse. So far, there seems to be a suspicious reluctance to do so.