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Of Apps and Men December 18, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms, Software tools.
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Fair warning – I am eventually going to say more about Uber. The apps business is an interesting one, and some historical context is necessary to understand just why. In the PC era, we typically paid hundreds of dollars for individual applications. As a result, we would buy only a few of them. And we would use those applications only when we were seated in front of our computers. The software business was the application, and selling it made the business.

In the smartphone/tablet era, however, apps are essentially free, or at worst cost only a few bucks. People are using more apps, and using them for longer periods of time than we ever did on the PC.

But that still doesn’t quite make the bottom line sing. I mention Uber above because of its recent valuation of $41 billion, at a time when the entire annual taxi revenue of the US is $11 billion. The standard line by the VCs is that it will transform all of surface transportation as more and more people use Uber, even rather than their own cars.

I don’t buy that argument, but that is a tale for another day. But the message, I think, is fundamentally correct. The message is that you don’t build a business on an app. You will never make money, at least not sustainable money, from the app. Rather, the app is the connection to your business. You use the app simply as another connection to your products or services, or as a connection to an entirely new type of business.

But today, you are not going to use and app to build a business that was the standard fare of the software industry only a few years ago.

The corollary, of course, is that almost every business will need its own app, sooner or later.  That represents a boon for developers.

Can Radio Shack Be Saved? August 6, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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Nothing that I can say or do will be the magic potion that rescues Radio Shack from oblivion. I certainly hold no influence over its financial or strategic direction, and of course any solution I might suggest could well be recognized by anyone else as pure hokey.

But I am sad to see the demise of an institution that represented its own brand of counterculture in my youth. That counterculture was embodied in the likes of Popular Science and other periodicals of the day that told us that the sky was the limit on our technological achievements. Radio Shack followed up that exhortation by telling us we could build it ourselves, and in many cases showing us how to do so.

If you walk into a Radio Shack today, you are bombarded with cell phones and subscriber plans that you can get in a dozen different stores within walking distance. The rest is a hodgepodge of electronic components, gadgets, and leftovers from a bygone era. My last purchase at a Radio Shack was a USB turntable, for which I had grandiose notions of using to convert my ancient LP trove into MP3s (the sound quality is terrible).

I wonder if it would be possible for Radio Shack to go back to its roots? What brings that to mind is my recent foray into Raspberry Pi, the small and inexpensive computer board that was developed and sold with the idea of promoting the teaching of computer science in schools. It’s probably marginally profitable (the Raspberry Pi Foundation is a non-profit), but for thought leadership it is pure gold.

But what if a small and focused engineering team at Radio Shack had developed something like this instead? And it was a headline promotion in every store? At one time there were people in Radio Shack who understood the technology sold by the company (Heath Kits, anyone?). Even the clerks were more nerds than sales people.

Granted, what I’m describing isn’t the enormous retail network that Radio Shack had become at its height. It’s not even clear that this could be a for-profit entity, at least in and of itself. But Radio Shack would once again stand for something, at least to get people in the door. It would certainly be no worse than anything else tried by the company over the last twenty years.

And products like this have the potential to excite the imagination of all people. We could build things with our own hands and understand how they work, rather than just take the technological complexity of our daily lives for granted. It may seem like a small thing, but people tend to better control that which they understand. And a little of that could benefit every one of us.

Just What is Silicon Valley Up To These Days? July 9, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I think a lot of us, both in and out of that geographical location and state of mind, wonder just the same thing. When we see fledging companies getting a million dollars or more to develop an app that lets you grab a parking space, or pay for an already-made restaurant reservation, something is clearly wrong.

The question is where is the innovation? The press seems to congregate around those startups that exploit an imaginative though trivial niche. And, to be fair, so do the venture capitalists.

Slate (I still don’t know why we pay any attention to these folks) claims that innovation is being done by established companies these days, rather than by the startups.

I seriously question large companies trying to encourage and fund true innovation. Google does moon shots; Intel throws billions of dollars at a next generation set of chips that may or may not succeed, true. But that’s what established companies do.

But there is little room for true, market-breaking innovation in Google, Intel, HP (especially!), and the rest. Established companies simply have too much invested in their existing products to enable an innovation that threatens a billion-dollar business. These companies did their innovation, and now they are just trying to hang on.

But the Slate article is completely wrong on several accounts. For example:

>> true startup companies like Apple and Microsoft, which lacked those ties to academia and government, innovated only in the consumer sector.

Um, no. That’s not how Apple and Microsoft succeeded. Both desperately pursued the business market, Apple with the LaserPrinter, and Microsoft with Office. Microsoft ultimately succeeded more, but at the expense of longer-term viability.

Academia has been irrelevant as an innovator for a long time. Those that see Xerox PARC as a part of academia are seriously mistaken; it was very much industry, without a way to commercialize. Same with AT&T (not the same AT&T today, you should be aware) Bell Labs.

I do believe that innovation occurs in waves. The fact that we see so many “me too” social interaction companies today says that we are in a period of consolidation, not innovation. Still, innovation will happen again, but the companies of today, even the leaders (are you listening, Facebook?) will not be the true innovators ten years from now.

Facebook and Foundations of Psychology Experimentation July 2, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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By now most of us are familiar with the study done by Facebook in 2012 in which about 700,000 users were unwittingly subject to more emotionally negative content in order to determine if that content had any influence on their moods (based on the published results, the answer seems to be “no”). This became public when Facebook published an academic paper on the topic, and the principal researcher expressed misgivings in a blog post.

One of the more notorious psychological experiments was conducted by Stanley Milgram, circa 1963. Milgram described it as a learning experiment in which purported subjects (actually confederates) were given fake electrical shocks by the actual subjects as punishment for incorrect answers. Under the urging of the experimenter, many of those administering the electric shock applied the maximum amount of voltage.

I would like to think I know something of psychology, with a couple of university degrees in the subject and my own (very modest) human experiments during that time. Many psychology studies use deception in order to measure aspects of behavior that the subject isn’t cognizant of. If subjects were aware of the true purpose of an experiment, that knowledge would almost certainly influence their behaviors, rendering any results useless.

But all subjects in all legitimate psychological studies are aware that they are part of an experiment with a defined beginning and end. That is truly where Facebook fell down. The catch-all Facebook terms of use is clearly inadequate in this regard; no one should expect that they can be an experimental subject at any time.

This means that at any time you are on Facebook, you are subject to being, well, a subject. Will that change how you interact with Facebook or other social media site? Well, maybe, and that could once again render any results useless.

Universities have ethics committees that evaluate prospective studies and determine whether or not they meet published ethics guidelines. While I won’t say that such committees make appropriate decisions in all cases, these processes are relatively transparent and well understood. It’s difficult to make the same case for any ethics decisions made by Facebook (my snark causes me to add “if any”).

Moreover, I have to ask what the purpose of such a study was. In academia (I was also a tenure-track academic for five years), researchers conduct experiments to generally advance the human body of knowledge (yes, and to get published, and obtain tenure, etc.). At Facebook, these studies must out of necessity be viewed with much more of a profit motive. Now there is truly an arresting thought.

Just what the heck is Facebook up to?

Google Glass My Ass June 29, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I think the onward march of wearable computers is both desirable and inevitable. And I love the idea of being able to find and research any bit of information, at any time. Almost two decades ago, Bill Gates introduced the concept of “information at your fingertips,”, but it was ultimately Google that delivered on the reality.

But, this article in Wall Street Journal describes the use of Google Glass as the essential tourist companion, able to let you research your activities ahead of time, and get information of any type as the need or desire strikes. Imagine being face to face with the Acropolis in Greece, wondering about a particular column design, and spending a minute or two on taking a photo and comparing images online to get a detailed background on the work.

But I think that the bad outweighs the good here. I caught the travel bug later in life, courtesy of my many conference speaking activities. I’ve been fortunate to mostly avoid the usual tourist hubs in favor of secondary but perhaps more colorful locales. I’ve done a few guided tours, and paid an extra few bucks once or twice for the self-guided audio tours.

The audio tours, which might be uncharitably compared to a poor man’s Google Glass, fall flat. They are mostly boring and difficult to sync up with what you are actually seeing. Guided tours are uneven; if the group is small and homogeneous, they can be fun and informative; large and diverse groups tend to be distracting.

But when you’re a tourist, what you really need to do is, well, talk to people. My collaborator Gerie Owen and I had just arrived in Tallinn, Estonia a few weeks ago, and after registering for our conference (Nordic Testing Days) went out to walk around. We happened to stumble up to Toompea Tower, adjacent to the Parliament Building, which just happened to be open to the public (35 people at a time, the old stone stairs were so narrow). While in line, we struck up a conversation with an older gentleman, who told us that he was last there on the day Estonia declared independence from the old Soviet Union. You can’t buy such an impromptu conversation for any price.

Experiencing new places involves a combination of seeing things, understanding what you are seeing, and integrating the cultural perspective. Google Glass can play a minor role in a part of that, but it also risks crowding out the actual experiences of being there. We might be too busy engaging searches for similar sites, or nearby restaurants, or just about anything other than where we are and what we are doing at the moment.

I think there is a heck of a lot of value in what Google Glass has to offer society in general. But I also think it will be far too easy to lose sight of the reason we are there.

And sorry about the title to this post; it was just too precious to pass up.

Can Our Shopping Cards Save Our Lives? March 17, 2013

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I’m a bit of a throwback when it comes to certain applications of technology.  In addition to not using Facebook, I don’t have supermarket rewards cards, or even use a credit or debit card at the supermarket.  My reasoning for the latter is simple – I would prefer not to have the supermarket chain know what I’m eating.  I realize that I may be giving up coupons or other special deals by not identifying myself, but I’m willing to accept that tradeoff.  It’s not a big deal either way, but it’s how I prefer to make that particular life decision.

But now there seems to be better reasons to use your supermarket reward card – according to this NBCNews.com article, it may save your life.  Really.

The story goes something like this.  When there is a known food contamination, health officials can see who bought that particular food, and approach those people individually, rather than send out vague alerts that not everyone sees or hears.

Count me as dubious.  This is really a sort of pie-in-the-sky application of Big Data that people can dream up when they picture the potential of the data itself.  It would take weeks to reach all of the buyers of a particular contaminated product, even if you could match all of the different systems and databases together somehow.  By then, the scare would have run its course.

The reality is that such data is stored in hundreds or thousands of different systems, without any means of pulling them together, let alone using it to query on a specific product across millions of purchases.

And then, of course, there are people like me, who still insist on dealing in cash, and remaining somewhat anonymous.  Although they could take my photo in the supermarket, and rather quickly match it up to my other identified photos on the Internet, where I am well known as a speaker and writer.

The idea is intriguing, but it falls into the same tradeoff as many other applications of technology in society today.  We can do things to make ourselves safer, but at the cost of providing more information.  Some don’t seem to have a problem with the latter, but I, in my doddering middle age, do.

My Cell Phone Becomes Useful February 24, 2013

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms.
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Since cell phones are actually computers these days, this title is slightly misleading.  But I am done having to work around the limitations of my old and flawed device.  This started a couple of days ago.  Actually, it started much longer ago.  My old HTC Merge, a US Cellular phone, had a very limited ability to actually make and receive calls at my home, in southern New Hampshire.  I generally couldn’t make calls from most places in the house, and when I could, it indicated that the phone was roaming.

But my problem was that the phone stopped making or accepting calls at all.  Instead, I got a message indicating that the phone was tethered to no network.  Almost three hours on technical support over two days with US Cellular led to a belief on their part that it was due to a switch on a nearby Sprint network.  I was asked on multiple occasions how long I had been outside of the local coverage area (not at all).

I finally hoped that a new phone would solve my problem.  The salesman at the local US Cellular store took one look at my Merge and said that it was a problem with the phone; specifically that the antenna wasn’t working properly.  I came away half an hour later with a new Motorola Electrify 2, running Ice Cream Sandwich.  It works so much better, it’s not even funny.

There are a few things that I learned here.  First, don’t trust technical support, even if they sound like they know what your problem is.  Try to confirm independently.  Had I not contacted a separate support group through Twitter who offered me different advice, it would not have occurred to me to get a new phone.

Second, if things with your gadget or software don’t seem right, they probably aren’t.  In retrospect, the old phone never worked properly within my local coverage area, and I should have recognized that.  I was fooled into thinking that roaming was my normal mode of operation, because it is when I travel, and even when at home I’m at the edge of the local coverage area.

Last, don’t accept substandard performance from your gadgets.  They are better than that today.

I May Need a Kindle February 15, 2013

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Software platforms.
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I don’t have anything against a Kindle.  Amazon is the world’s largest bookstore, the Kindles generally get decent reviews, and the company has released its ebook format so that others can adopt it.

The latter, of course, was my biggest concern about Kindle and Amazon, and it’s been over a year, and I’m seeing an increasing number of sites (I mean you, Gutenberg Project) making out-of-copyright books available in the format for free download.

I have a Barnes and Noble superstore down the street, and while I don’t browse that much anymore, there is a certain comfort in knowing that I still can.

But more and more interesting books are coming out in electronic, rather than paper form.  And more and more are coming out on the Kindle first, and ePub later, if at all.  I have already bought one book that is only available on a Kindle, and am considering two others.

I suppose I can get a tablet, and use the Kindle reader.  For the Kindle books I have bought so far, that’s what I do, on my laptop.  But I’m unready to commit to a tablet, wanting to see a little more maturity in the market before I make a selection (it probably won’t be an iPad; I just can’t see buying into the Apple ecosystem).

But I fear that this trend portends larger issues for Nook, and Barnes and Noble in general.  Authors are increasingly going to ebook formats only.  That’s a good thing, because it’s increasingly difficult to get a paper book published without going the self-publishing route.  There is nothing inherently wrong with self-publishing, but it does mean that authors are also their own marketers and publicists, which most would prefer not to do.

For those who are seeking an inexpensive way of getting interesting work out to a small audience, the ebook is a natural.  But there is a cost and time commitment to place an ebook in multiple formats on multiple reading platforms.  Some authors prefer supporting a single platform only.  Given that Amazon and Kindle have the majority of sales and readers (65 percent?  I’ve heard various figures that give about two-thirds to Amazon, slightly less than 30 percent to Nook, and a smattering elsewhere.), authors want their works to reach that majority.

As more individual authors make the decision to support the most popular platform, more readers will move to that platform.  There will always likely be a place for an alternative, but the best and most interesting work will appear on Kindle, and readers will follow them.

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