Technology is way ahead of interface designs

This post has taken a while to write. When I started we were on the cusp of Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference. If you’re interested in technology, but aren’t an Apple fan it still matters as it sets the agenda. Apple’s moves affect wearables, smartphones, tablets and OTT (over the top) TV services.
 
The New York Times published an interesting article Apple Piles On the Apps, and Users Say, ‘Enough!’.
 
Ignore the title of the article itself, which is a function of clickbait rather than content. Instead, it provides an good critique of interface design across platforms. It highlights:
  • The difficulty in finding and installing other apps inside Messages. Many users aren’t aware of the functionality. This is different to the ‘interface as oldster barrier’ that SnapChat had. DoorDash – a Deliveroo analogue dropped a support after a few months due to a lack of users. Apple took a second run at this with iOS 11 trying to improve discoverability
  • Apple 3D touch isn’t used to drive contextual features by app developers
  • The Apple Watch’s mix of crown, button and small touch screen made ‘lean in’ interactive apps hard. The Apple Watch interface isn’t learned by ‘playing’ in the same way that you can with a Mac or an iPhone. Apple’s forthcoming watchOS update looks to have Siri ‘guess’ what you want. It wants to provide contextual information to users (and reduce interactions)
If you ignore 3D touch for a moment, these problems are cross platform in nature. (Some vendors like Huawei have attempted a similar 3D touch feature in their own apps. They did not try to get developer adoption.)
 
Thinking about Messenger app developers struggle to integrate disparate features into the interface. The exceptions are:
  • LINE
  • WeChat – the take up of mini-apps in WeChat have been disappointing performers. Is this indicating a possible ceiling for functionality?
Wearables as a category looks thin, with Apple being one of the largest players. Pebble got acquired by Fitbit. Jawbone seems to be a dead company walking. Their blog was last updated in October 2016, Twitter in February. It’s ironic: their original BlueTooth headset business would now be a great opportunity.
 
I’ve tried Casio’s BlueTooth enabled G-Shock, four Nike Fuelbands and a Polar wearable. I am on my second Apple Watch and I still don’t know what the real compelling use case is for these devices.
 
So how does this stuff come about? I think its down to the process of creation, which affects analysis and critical analysis of the product. Creation in this case is essentially throwing stuff up against the wall until it sticks and then the process becomes reductive. As a case in point, look how smartphones have evolved to the slab form factor. 
 
Throwing stuff against the wall
 
I’ve worked enough times on digital products to understand the functionality is king. It’s the single most important thing. I’ve worked on products that wonderful functions but:
  • Consumers didn’t know they had a need, its hard to get consumers to build new habits. Forming habits can be hard
  • They were a bitch to sign up with. Yahoo!’s sign-up process killed products. It’s a fact. We’d get consumers hyped up, we’d deliver them to the relevant page and they wouldn’t convert. I didn’t blame them, if I wasn’t an employee or digital marketer I’d have done the same
That’s how products are now built. The focus is on speed of execution of the idea. It isn’t about thinking through the complete experience. Agile methodologies with their short sprints puts emphasis on function. Away from data to feed into big picture optimisation. A function focus means that you end up with ‘lean in’ interaction designs as default.
 
There aren’t many organisations that get it right. I’d argue that the early Flickr team and Slack ‘got it’. Though there are common factors:
  • Both Flickr and Slack had common key team members
  • Both products fell out of failure. Flickr came out of tools for Game Neverending. Slack began as a tool in the development of Glitch
Where are the ergonomists and futurists?
 
There are people who can provide the rigorous critique.
Back in the day organisations with large R&D functions like NASA and BT employed writers to envisage the future. Staring into the future became a career. People like Syd Mead provided a visual map of the future. Mead and others did a lot of work thinking about the context of technology to users. At the present time lots of criticism levelled at VR glasses is it being anti-social. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has read William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Social interaction is more likely to come glasses wearer to glasses wearer. It will happen in a virtual third space. Neal Stephenson explored this third space in Snow Crash. The Black Sun was a virtual night club.
 

Bill Moggridge, designer of the GRiD Compass computer – the world’s first laptop thought a lot about ergonomics. The laptop had a 11 degree slope from pop-out leg to the keypad. This is something that your MacBook Pro or Surface doesn’t have. There is a lack of depth in technology design compared to what Moggridge had. He brought in psychologists and studied human computer interaction. He eventually co-founded IDEO.

Whilst the elements that Moggridge looked at were well known the thinking doesn’t seep into product categories. We are very good at asking can a product be made. We are poor at asking what does the product really mean. Apple’s viewpoint on the tablet segment is a case in point.

The vast majority of tablets are used for lean back media consumption from watching films and reading books to reviewing emails. It can work as a productivity device in specific circumstances with custom built apps – say field sales or replacing a pilot’s flight paperwork. The keyboard and power of modern Macs (and PCs) provide a better tool for content creators; whether its analysing a spreadsheet or writing this blog post. 

Yet, since its launch by Steve Jobs, Apple has viewed the iPad as a new PC. The iPad Pro has been designed to try and catch up in features with the Mac. It is ironic that Microsoft has moved a slim ‘MacBook clamshell design’ analogue into its latest Surface range.  It is very different to the pragmatic design ethos of China’s ‘shanzhai’ gadget markers who came up with both laughable and smart solutions. Everything from the dual SIM phone to the phone / electric razor hybrid. Successes bloomed and oddities slipped into the night.

Jargon watch: black technology (黑科技)

An all-compassing phrase that I’ve heard being used by Chinese friends Hēi kējì in Pinyin or black technology. It’s been around for a couple of years but recently gained more currency among people that I know.

Microsoft Hololens 💥

It is used as a catchall for disruptive / cool innovative products. What constitutes ‘black technology’ is subjective in nature but generally Chinese would agree on some examples such as:

  • Magic Leap
  • Microsoft Holo Lens
  • Bleeding edge silicon chips with an extraordinary amount of memory or machine learning functionality built in
  • Tesla self-driving cars

The key aspect is that the product as ‘magical quality’ in the eyes of the user. Technology companies have tried to use it in marketing to describe the latest smartphone and app features like NFC, gesture sensitive cameras and video filters. Your average Chinese consumer would see this as cynical marketing hype. Xiaomi had been guilty of this over the past couple of years.

As technology develops, the bar for what represents black technology will be raised higher.

According to Baidu Baike (a Quora-like Q&A service / Wikipedia analogue) it is derived from the Japanese manga Full Metal Panic! (フルメタル·パニック! |Furumetaru Panikku!).

In the manga black technology is technology far more advanced than the real world. An example of this would be ‘Electronic Conceal System’ – active optical camouflage used on military helicopters and planes in the manga. It is created by the ‘Whispered’ – people who are extremely gifted polymaths who each specialise in a particular black technology.

In the manga they are frequently abducted and have their abilities tested by ‘bad organisations’ who support terrorism. Whispered also have a telepathic ability to communicate with each other. If they stay connected for too long there can be a risk of their personalities coalescing together.

More information
黑科技 (动漫中出现的词语)- Baidu Baike
Full Metal Panic – Amazon

The crowdfunded product problem with PopSlate as an unfortunate case study

I’ve go in involved in a few crowdfunded products and some of them have worked out but the majority haven’t. The latest example was the high profile e-ink phone cover PopSlate. PopSlate got over $1 million dollars of funding and was widely covered by the media.

“popSLATE 2 is E-Ink for your iPhone done right.” – Slashgear

“It’s an evolution, not merely refinement.” – Wired

Generally I’ve found that they tend to fail for three (non-criminal) reasons:

  • They underestimated the cost or complexity for batch manufacture of items. They have problems with getting tooling moulds to work and have to go through iterations that burn up cash
  • They get gazzumped; their product is sufficiently easy to make that Chinese manufacturers who go through Indiegogo and Kickstarter for ideas get the product into market faster
  • The engineering is just too hard. This seems to have been the problem for PopSlate who couldn’t innovate and get their product into market as fast as new phones came out

On the face of it its a great idea, bringing the kind of dual screen technology to the iPhone that had been in the Yota phone for a number of years. Huawei had a similar snap-on e-ink back available for the the P9 handset in limited quantities.

popSLATE – The smart second screen on the back of your phone

PopSlate had already launched a mark I version of their product.  With the mark II version of their product PopSlate tried to do too much: they tried to make it a battery case but still ridiculously thin.  The following email was sent out on Saturday morning UK time:

Critical Company Update

This update provides serious and unwelcome news.

Based upon your support, we have spent the last year continuing to develop our vision for “always-on” mobile solutions. Our goal was to solve three fundamental issues with today’s smartphones: we wanted to simplify access to information, increase battery performance, and improve readability. Unfortunately, the significant development hurdles that we have encountered have completely depleted our finances, and we have been unable to raise additional funds in the current market. As a result, popSLATE does not have a viable business path forward.

This marks the end of a 5-year journey for our team, which started with a seed of an idea in 2012 and led to our quitting our jobs to start the company. Although we are very disappointed by the ultimate outcome and its implications for you as our backers, we are proud of our team, who worked tirelessly over the years to commercialize the first plastic ePaper display, globally ship thousands of popSLATE 1 devices as a first-in-category product, and re-imagine & further extend the platform with the second generation product. Despite a strong vision, high hopes, and very hard work, we find ourselves at the end of the journey.

We are out of money at this juncture for two key reasons. First, we have spent heavily into extensive development and preparation for manufacturing;  as you are aware, we hit some critical issues that multiplied the required spend, as described in previous updates.

Most recently, we learned that the fix for the Apple OTA issues would involve more significant redesign. While we initially suspected that the Lightning circuit was the culprit, it turned out that it was a much more fundamental issue.  Namely, our housing material is not compatible with Apple OTA requirements. You may think, “Wait, isn’t it just plastic?  Why would that be a problem?” While the housing is indeed largely plastic, we used a very special custom blend of materials that included glass fibers. The glass fibers were used to solve two issues, both of which were related to making the device super-thin: a) they enabled uniform, non-distortional cooling of the housing mold around our metal stiffener plate (the key component that makes popSLATE 2 thin but very strong) and b) they added tensile strength to the very compact form factor. Unfortunately, we have concluded that these added fibers are attenuating the RF signal and that we would have to spend additional cycles to tune a new blend with required modifications to the tooling. This is an expensive and timely process.

Second, we have been unsuccessful at raising additional financing, despite having vigorously pursued all available avenues since the close of our March Indiegogo campaign (including angels, VCs, Shark Tank and equity crowdfunding, both in the US and abroad). Many in our network of fellow hardware innovators have encountered this difficult new reality. You may have also seen the very public financial struggles of big-name consumer hardware companies—GoPro, Fitbit, Pebble, Nest and others—as highlighted in this recent New York Times article [link]. The most dramatic example of this phenomenon is the recent and sudden shutting down of Pebble, paragon of past crowdfunding success.

There is no way to sugarcoat what this all means:

  • popSLATE has entered into the legal process for dissolution of the company
  • Your popSLATE 2 will not be fulfilled
  • There is no money available for refunds
  • This will be our final update

While this is a very tough moment professionally and emotionally for us, it is obviously extremely disappointing for all of you who had believed in the popSLATE vision. Many of you have been with us since the March campaign, and a smaller set helped found the popSLATE community back in 2012. To you—our family, friends, and other unwavering backers—we are incredibly grateful for your enthusiasm, ideas, and support throughout the years. Just as importantly,  we deeply regret letting you down and not being able to deliver on our promise to you. We truly wish there were a viable path forward for product fulfillment and the broader popSLATE vision, but sadly we have exhausted all available options.

Sincerely yours,
Yashar & Greg
Co-founders, popSLATE

The problem as a consumer you have for much of these gadget is this:

If a product can be easily made in Shenzhen, it will be so you should be able to get it cheaper on lightinthebox or similar sites

If it can’t be turned out in a reasonable time, it has a low likelihood of succeeding

There have been successes of more hobby based products; I have a replica of Roland’s TB-303 synthesiser. It’s the kind of product that can be assembled whilst not relying a China-based supply chain. It also is based on well understood technology and there weren’t issues of with designing for very tight places or Apple’s requirements (in the case of iPhone’s accessories).

What about the poster child of Pebble? Pebble managed to go for longer with a sophisticated product but couldn’t withstand the gravity of declining sales in the wearables sector.

Living with the Casio GWF -D1000 Frogman watch

When you typically look at reviews of products, there are usually reviewed over a short time when they are new-and-shiny. Often a products features and character come out over time – a symbiotic process between product and user.

I picked up a GWF-D1000 soon after it went on sale for considerably less than the £800 that it is the current street price. Up until I bought the GWF-D1000 (which I will call the D1000 through the rest of the copy for brevity), I had owned its predecessor the GWF-1000 (which I will call the 1000 from here on in).

So what is the GWF-D1000 anyway?

The D1000 is the latest in an a series of G-Shock watches aimed at scuba divers. The first Frogman came out in 1993. The overall design has largely been the same with an asymmetric case and a large display to make operation easier. The positioning of the watches and price points changed over time – some of the previous models had titanium cases and came under the Mr-G sub-brand. The last few models have a stainless steel core case with a DLC (diamond like coating) to protect the surface.

Over time it has picked up features as the technology improved. It became illuminated by a small green bulb, then electro-luminescent material. It moved from relying purely on battery power to having solar cells and a rechargeable battery. The watch became more accurate by picking up time signals via radio from six locations around the world that are calibrated with an atomic clock (precursors to the NTP services around the world that keep your computer and smartphone bang on time.)

The key technology gains over the 1000 include:

  • A dive computer rather than a dive timer (neither matter to me), it has the same basic functionality that dive computers used to have 20 years ago (minus PC connectivity). No big shakes until you remember that it is doing this all from a solar-powered rechargeable watch battery
  • Digital compass which is surprisingly handy, it is very forgiving of the way you hold it, expect this in other Casio watches soon.
  • Temperature reading (again more for the diver) or when you are running a bath
  • The display has been rearranged and a bit easier to read
  • Much better display light and crisper to read at night

The real benefits for me were in the build quality:

  • You get a sapphire crystal rather than the usual hardened mineral glass. This isn’t the first time that Casio has used a sapphire crystal on a watch, but they are harder to manufacture and more expensive than the usual mineral glass face
  • The manner in which the strap is secured to the case has been completely revised. There is are new Allen key screws and a carbon fibre rod to secure the strap to the case
  • The strap is made of polyurethane resin reinforced with carbon fibre. The loop that holds the excess strap length is now a section of stainless steel which has been bent around the strap

How do I use it?

It makes sense to tell a little bit around why I wear a Frogman. I want an accurate watch (who doesn’t?). I want a reliable watch (again, probably a hygiene factor for most people; but one that hints at why the G-Shock has replaced Rolex as the default watch I have seen on Hong Kongers over the past 10 years or so. G-Shock offers robustness that 20 years ago would have come from fine Swiss engineering – at a much lower price point.

I love my Swiss dive watches but there is a time and place for everything.  The knockabout case and its water resistance means that you can forget about the watch. You don’t have to coddle it or worry that it will pick up undue attention. You don’t have to worry if you get a bang on an elevator (lift) door, dropped on the bathroom floor or going for a swim.

The G-Shock is an everyman watch – unless its got a lurid colour scheme it isn’t likely to attract the attention of your average petty criminal. I’ve often taken it off in the office so that I can type in greater comfort and left it there by accident when going home. I’ve never had a G-Shock go missing.

It is relatively easy to use, despite the modal nature of its interface design. To change settings, use functions or see recorded information you have to cycle through a series of text menus – it has more in common with a 1980s vintage video cassette recorder or a DEC VAX. Quite how this goes down with consumers more used to iPads and SnapChat is interesting. Casio seems to do alright by attracting them with bright plastic cases reminiscent of Lego -based colour schemes.

I haven’t dived seriously in a long time, I took up scuba diving while working in the oil industry and have never got back into it since moving to London.  PADI diving at resorts is tame compared to British diving club scene I had been used to.

My work environment is creative which means that t-shirts, flannel shirts,  jeans and suede hiking boots make the G-Shock an ideal accessory. I work in the London office of an American digital marketing agency, owned by a French multinational and my clients are scattered in the different offices around the world of pharmaceutical companies. The functions I tend to use most are the world time, date/time and the night light. My iPhone is now my alarm clock.

The reality is that most of these watches will end up on the wrists of people like me rather than people who dive for a living.

What’s it like to live to live with the D1000

The D1000 is only incrementally heavier than the 1000, it felt a bit strange to wear for about 30 minutes after swapping over to the newer model. But in some ways the D1000 doesn’t yet feel like its my watch.

The 1000 strap became shiny in places over time and more pliable, it felt like it became adjusted to me. Give the D1000 a rub over and it still looks box fresh. The downside is that the strap feels stiff and I still feel its edges on occasion – this isn’t about discomfort, but about the watch not feeling like part of you. There are no shiny parts of wear – it feels less like a ‘personal item”. It lacks what a designer friend calls authenticity; unlike distressed jeans, customised flight jackets or combat Zippos.

Zippo Lighters

This sounds great for the resale value, but I feel that it provides a worse experience for the wearer of the watch.

The reinforced strap does have one bonus, it holds securely to the case. Look at these pictures of my two year old 1000

Casio GWF 1000 Frogman

You can see how the retaining screw that held the strap to the case came undone and disappeared over time. You don’t have these kind of problems with the D1000.

The screen on the D1000 uses its real estate in a different way to the 1000.

Here is the 1000

Casio GWF 1000 Frogman

Here is the D1000

Casio GWF D1000 Frogman

At first the differences aren’t obvious. If you look at the top right side of the screen, the tide and moon segments are replaced by a multi-use screen on the D1000. The small icons for alarms and hourly alerts are moved to the bottom and left of the screen on the D1000, the moon icon now moves to the left of the main screen down from the top right. This probably marginally increases the screen real estate and helps make legibility a bit clearer at night.

GWF 1000

The biggest 1000 feature that I miss is the ability to toggle with one press of the top left button from showing the date on the screen to showing a second time zone; it was extremely handy for work. And having come from the 1000 to the D1000 it was a real ‘what the fuck’ moment.

By comparison I have to press six times to get to the world time screen. Instead, it now toggles between a tide table and the day. Even giving it a two press option would be a better fix than what the D1000 currently has. It’s a small gripe, but it annoyed the heck out of me.

My work around has been to keep the watch in world time mode and if I need to know the day or date, I find myself reaching for my iPhone.

If you are really that worried about tide tables, you will be likely using a specialist service as they vary a good deal over relatively short distances.

If the D1000 still sounds like the kind of watch you want, you can get it here.

2017: just where is it all going?

We are entering a period of turbulence in much of the world and I suspect that there are going to be more changes over the coming years.

Smart watches still won’t be as big as fitness trackers. Fitness trackers will peak.

  • Smart watches are struggling for a reason to purchase. Apple’s Watch 2 was the product that they should have realised the first time around. It was fixing the bugs in the first version. But there is still no reason to purchase
  • Android Wear supporters seem to have laid off on development. Huawei Watches are now available for half the list price. Lenovo has laid its Android Wear ambitions aside.
  • Fitness trackers seem to have done a very good job at reaching health fanatics. However the market will soon become driven by replacement devices. There is a constant tension between buying a cheap device which requires low amounts of purchase consideration versus moderately expensive devices that competes agains the smartphone doing the job. It is interesting that Jawbone could not find a buyer and Pebble was sold to Fitbit

If there is a common content format and a rise in content (beyond brand marketing) then VR could take off (and hammer TV sales in the process – at least in single user situations. I still think that VR googles could act as a TV substitute for single person households, shared living and student dorms. When content is time-shifted or binge streamed you can get by without a TV tuner.

The key driver would be the high cost of housing. If you are a hipster living in a small bedsit, having a large TV is a waste of your precious space.

The ‘next billion’ smartphone users in the developing world won’t get their handsets as fast as everyone thinks. Why?

  • Much of the supply will come from small no-name brands. These brands currently are on razor thin margins. Smartphone manufacturers are being shaken out
  • Razor thin margins are crushing key component manufacturers, those that are left will prioritise big customers first
  • The Hanjin Shipping meltdown will hit small suppliers with valuable cashflow tied up in containers that can’t move. Hanjin is expected to precipitate failure in other shipping businesses as the industry still has massive over-capacity and financial institutions will be less interested in helping out distressed businesses. Mearsk’s acquisition of Hamburg Sud is a further sign of this
  • Increasing nationalism in key markets like Indonesia and India is requiring local investment in production lines and component sourcing. This will take the focus away from addressing other markets and likely temporarily rise manufacturing costs
  • Declining economic outlook in mature markets including China, the US and EU will affect the capital available to fund speedy expansion

Leaks about Uber’s finances and rising interest rates are likely to drive increased scrutiny of Silicon Valley businesses. Uber’s finances sound eerily like the investment money pits prevalent.

Media investment is going to pour into the Alt-Right at a VC level. Its been a void that they’ve left up to now. Given that many of the markets that they’ve tried to disrupt are going nowhere, expect Breitbart and Co. to start seeing VC funded competition.

China is making a product that Apple should have done

Trawling eBay gives access to a cottage industry of predominantly China-based suppliers. They take iPod Classics and remanufacture them. They get new cases and new batteries.

Real trick is in the new component put in the device. Out goes the Toshiba micro-hard drive of 120GB or 160GB and in goes a 256GB SSD. Apple had abandoned production of the iPod Classic because it couldn’t get the right parts any more. Technology had moved on and flash memory had replaced micro hard drive’s as storage technology of choice for portable consumer devices.
iPod ClassicSwapping out the hard drive for an SSD provides an iPod with a number of advantages:

  • Its a third lighter than Apple’s version of the iPod Classic. This changes dynamics in usage. It no longer has the same heft, you feel less conscious of it in a pocket or jacket
  • The battery lasts longer. I now get about 30 hours of listening from the iPod. By comparison I get 18 hours out of my smartphone. If I used the smartphone as a music player as well, that battery time would drop further. If I used a streaming service, that would sound worse, hammer the battery life and mobile phone bill even further
  • It holds more music. At 256GB up from 160GB in the last model of iPod Classic it makes the difference between being able to hold all of my music library with me or not. You don’t have Spotify when you have 15,000+ tracks to choose from
  • The same great iPod experience. iTunes still syncs with the device. It has a good quality DAC (digital-to-analogue convertor) chip. With the right headphones and a sufficiently high sample rate it is indistinguishable from CDs. Under normal circumstances it sounds better your typical smartphone – which is trying to do lots of job well
  • It is quieter than the original iPod Classic. There is no longer the noise of a hard drive spinning up and reading the music data from the disk
  • Vigorous movement is not a problem. Apple had done a good job with the original iPod Classic songs were cached in RAM to iron out temporary stoppages due to movement affecting the hard disk. An SSD had no moving parts so it isn’t an issue any more

What becomes apparent is that Apple wouldn’t have had to make that much effort to make the product itself, but for no known reason it didn’t want to.

I suspect that part of this is down to:

  • The law of big numbers. The iPod Classic revamped in this way would be a decent business for most companies, but just isn’t as big as Apple is used to
  • A modified iPod probably too simple a design solution. Apple likes to take a big step forward (even when it doesn’t) – there are no plaudits or design awards in an iPod Classic with a solid state drive

The reimagined iPod is a development in sharp contrast to Apple’s new product developments:

  • Loved products bought by key Apple advocates have not been updated or ignored: the Mac Pro and the Apple Display (which Apple has abandoned)
  • Moving out of entry level products. With the MacBook Pro and MacBook line-ups, the entry device is now a secondhand laptop rather than the 11″ MacBook Air or the non-Retina MacBook Pro
  • Big bets that aren’t resonating with the marketplace: the Apple Watch has been a best selling smart watch; but is in a category which lacks a compelling reason to purchase. The iPad is a passive content consumption device for most consumers. It has a replacement cycle that would be more familiar to television manufacturers than a computer company

 

The internet of hacking or WTF is happening with my smart home?

Mirai – is a bot network that is powered by a range of devices including infected home routers and remote camera systems. It took over these systems by using their default passwords. The network of compromised machines is then targeted to overload a target network or service. Last week the Dyn DNS service was targeted which restricted access to lots of other services for users on the east coast of the US.

DNS is like a telephone directory of internet destinations, if no one knows where to go it becomes a lot harder to get in touch.

DDoSing
Mirai didn’t spring miraculously out of thin air. It finds its history in passionate gamers who used distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to slow down or even kick opponents off online gaming platforms. Eventually the gaming companies got hip to it and went after the cheaters, not to be outdone the cheaters went after the gaming companies.

Taking a service offline using DDoS became a source of extortion against online banking and e-commerce services. Attacks can be used as a form of ‘digital hit’ to take out opponents or critics like online security commentator Brian Krebs.

Computing
Moore’s Law meant that computing power has become so small and plentiful that it is surprising what we often have in the palms of our hands. The first Cisco router was built on the circuit board of a Sun Microsystems workstation. Home routers now are basically small computers running Linux. A CCTV camera box or a DVR are both basic PCs complete with hard drives.

Back in 2007, BlackBerry co-founder Mike Lazaridis described the iPhone as

“They’ve put a Mac in this thing…”

The implication being that the power of a sophisticated PC was essentially in the palm of one’s hand. The downside of this is that your thermostat is dependent on a good broadband connection and Google based cloud services and your television can get malware in a similar manner to your PC.

Security
For a range of Chinese products that have been acknowledged as part of the botnet; the manufacturer acknowledged that they were secured with a default admin password. They fixed the problem in a later version of the firmware on the device. Resetting the default password is now part of the original device set-up the first time you use it.

The current best advice for internet of things security is protecting the network with a firewall at the edge. The reality is that most home networks have a firewall on the connected PCs if you were lucky. The average consumer doesn’t have a dedicated security appliance on the edge of the home network.

Modern enterprises no longer rely on only security at the edge, they have a ‘depth in defence’ approach that takes a layered approach to security.

That would be a range of technology including:

  • At least one firewall at the edge
  • Intrusion detection software as part of a network management suite
  • A firewall on each device
  • Profile based permissions across the system (if you work in HR, you have access to the HR systems, but not customer records
  • Decoy honey post systems
  • All file systems encrypted by default so if data is stolen it still can’t be read

Processes:

  • Updating software as soon as it becomes available
  • Hard passwords
  • Two-factor authentication

Depth in defence is complex in nature, which makes it hard to pull off for the average family. IoT products are usually made to a price point. These are products as appliances, so it is hard for manufacturers to have a security eco-system. The likelihood of anti-virus and firewall software for light bulbs or thermostats is probably small to non-existent.

The Shenzhen eco-system
Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong has been the centre of assembly for consumer electronics over the past 20 years. Although this is changing, for instance Apple devices are now assembled across China. Shenzhen has expanded into design, development and engineering. A key part of this process has been a unique open source development process. Specifications and designs are shared informally under legally ambiguous conditions – this shares development costs across manufacturers and allows for iterative improvements.

There is a thriving maker community that allows for blurring between hobbyists and engineers. A hobbyists passion can quickly become a prototype and then into production . Shenzhen manufacturers can go to market so fast that they harvest ideas from Kickstarter and can have them in market before the idea has been funded on the crowdsourcing platform.

All of these factors would seem to favour the ability to get good security technologies engineered directly into the products by sharing the load.

China
The European Union were reported to be looking at regulating security into the IoT eco-system, but in the past regulation hasn’t improved the security of related products such as DSL routers. Regulation is only likely to be effective if it is driven out of China. China does have a strong incentive to do this.

The government has a strong design to increase the value of Chinese manufacturing beyond low value assembly and have local products seen as being high quality. President Xi has expressed frustration that the way Chinese manufacturing appears to be sophisticated, yet cannot make a good ballpoint pen.

Insecurity in IoT products is rather like that pain point of poor quality pens. It is a win-win for both customers, the Chinese manufacturing sector and by extension the Party.

More Information
WSJ City – Massive Internet Attack Stemmed From Game Tactics
Your brilliant Kickstarter idea could be on sale in China before you’ve even finished funding it | Quartz
Asus lawsuit puts entire industry on notice over shoddy router security | Ars Technica
Europe to Push New Security Rules Amid IoT Mess — Krebs on Security
Why can’t China make a good ballpoint pen? | Marketplace.org

Thoughts on the Apple event of September 7

Style

  • The presentation was telling a hard story to an audience that were likely to be underwhelmed. Phil Schiller rather than Tim Cook carried the most difficult parts of the keynote.
  • The piano finish device was an obvious attempt to provide a style angle to the new iPhone and mask the aerial sections. However it is a class action waiting to happen as it will dull over time with micro-scratches
  • The story that the audience was told didn’t feel right. Lets talk about the headphone jack. The double camera only appears in the Plus, so the requirement for room isn’t a credible argument on its own, other vendors have managed to waterproof handsets with headphone jacks. I suspect that Apple isn’t sure that its backing the right horse. Its the least aggressive change they’ve made in a while. The inclusion of an adaptor shows that their user aggression still isn’t as high compared to when they got rid of: SCSI, Apple Desktop Bus (ADB), iPod 30 pin port (still pissed about that one), AppleTalk, floppy disks or optical disk playback and storage – I suspect that they are fearfully waiting to see what the pre-order numbers will be like and they should be. A straw poll of AdAge readers (core Apple user demographic) showed overwhelming disappointment
    AdAge readers on new iPhone
  • There is a lot of really nice features in iOS 10 – I’ve been using it for a while, why didn’t they make more of this and macOS Sierra?

Substance

  • Innovation in the smartphone category has flattened out. The iPhone 7 provides reasons for laggard iPhone users to upgrade, but nothing for 6 and 6S series users. There are few if any innovations for the likes of Huawei to ape in their new models
  • Innovation in smartwatches has plateaued. Apple is coalescing around fitness and dedicated products are much more cost effective for consumers. In China Xiaomi’s fitness band sells for about £15, for many consumers it would be enough. Fitbit is doing well – Apple’s wrist computer (alongside Samsung Gear etc) looks like a sledgehammer to crack a nut
  • Apple have done nothing to address the latent demand for new laptops amongst consumers (I am still happy with my 13″ Retina MacBook Pro). There was no replacement for the Cinema display (again, I am happy with my current set-up, but where is the pro-user love)
  • Apple abandoned its flirtation with luxury by discontinuing the gold Watch. They are still holding out to be viewed as stylish by doubling down with Hermes and a white ceramic device – it would work on the opposite wrist to a Chanel J12
  • It was curious that Apple moved away from talking about security and privacy; the collaborative document working using iWork which could be seen as a potential attack vector on to the desktop. The Air Pods that sync seamlessly with a device without visible security precautions.  iPhone security was addressed in the James Corden car karaoke skit at the beginning of the show rather than woven through the materials.
  • The speech about the app store was to try and bolster developer support, I suspect that services will shore up the Apple financial numbers over the next 12 months
  • The Nike branded Apple Watch was part of a broader move reposition the Apple Watch 2 as a fitness device.

Currently reading….

I have a couple of books on the go at the moment:

  • Smartphones and beyond: Lessons from the remarkable rise and fall of Symbian by David Wood. Wood was a senior executive at Psion and Symbian. A combination of an extensive email archive and electronic diary allowed him to produce a blow-by-blow account. Much of it is in the weeds, interesting, but tough to tease definitive answers out. I keep reading it in spurts and then going away. A more details review will come once I work my way through this.
  • The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin’s book has been applauded as a science fiction classic in both Chinese and Western circles. Liu has won a Hugo award for this book and is the recipient of the Galaxy award (China’s Hugo award, but with a better name) on nine occasions. I have just started on the book but it seems to have contrasting narratives, the first of which is a shocking portrayal of how intellectuals suffered during the cultural revolution. This is my go to book for commuting, expect a full review soon(ish).

WWDC – what did it all mean?

I watched the few hours of keynotes at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. I also read some of the resulting analysis and wondered if we’d been watching the same event.
Cómo ver la WWDC 2016 en vivo en iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple TV
So thought I would think about the event carefully and come up on my take of what it all meant. This is a bit later than I originally planned to publish it.

Firstly, there was no change in direction for Apple from a strategic point-of-view. Apple has been clear about its direction, it is the ‘how’ which is the mystery.

Over the past few years, Apple has focused on the integration of its devices. The reason why there isn’t one OS*, a la Windows 10, is that the different form factors have different contexts. Cross-pollination of services only takes place where it makes sense, which is why Siri has taken a while to roll out.

The first big thing is APFS – a new file system for all of Apple’s devices. This builds on upon a feature set of ZFS which was a file system developed by Sun Microsystems for its Solaris UNIX operating system. Solaris runs on large enterprise computers where the prevention of data corruption and handling a large amount of file changes simultaneously is very important. Like ZFS, APFS supports encryption, granular time stamping, fast file management and has improvements in data integrity. When it’s fully finished it should make encryption on devices easier to manage and provide the user with more control. It should also help with syncing data across devices and the cloud.

The interesting thing is how this technology will scale over time handling multiple devices and form factors working seamlessly from a common database. Like many of there other technologies this is an extension of Apple’s Continuity offering and future integration with a wider IoT offering.

When Steve Jobs launched Mac OSX 10.0 in 2001 he described it as being the OS for the next 15 years. At the time the original MacOS was showing its limits. The UI was colour but hadn’t really moved on that much since System 7.5. The operating system wasn’t multi-tasking. The internet felt kludgy even though it performed well on the hardware at that time. Looking at OSX / macOS now, the operating system it feels fresh. The tweaks and changes under the hood keep the performance hub and the features comparable with the rest of the Continuity eco-system. macOS also doesn’t seem to be seriously threatened by iOS ‘pro’ devices.

iOS 10 was important to me for its embrace of messenger-as-a-platform. Apple innovates within its own Messages apps with some UI gimmicks. More importantly, notification real estate that was once the exclusive preserve of the Apple dialer. This allows you to accept calls from the likes of Skype, WeChat or Slack from the lock screen. This follows Apple’s model of using it’s own apps to work things out and then open up the function once it is mature. Apple’s own Messages app includes a number of features including:

  • Simple chat bot-like functionality
  • Swipe to read on messages to prevent shoulder surfers from reading messages
  • Messages app takeover emotions
  • More emoji / sticker like icons

Apple Pay roll-out – continued geographic roll-out makes sense. Apple Pay isn’t about building a rival payment system a la PayPal. Instead, Apple is trying to build more touch points with the user. The level of usage doesn’t matter too much from that perspective. Geographic roll-out to Hong Kong and more European countries makes sense. The more exciting development is two-factor authentication for e-commerce payments on compatible sites using the Apple Pay infrastructure. This is big for shopping on both Mac and iOS-powered devices.

Thinking differently about intelligence. Unless you have been living under tech industry equivalent of a stone, you’ll be aware of cloud companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Google or Baidu using artificial intelligence techniques to drive device function. Apple hadn’t been as visible in this space up to WWDC. The reason for this is due their rigorous approach to user and device privacy.  There were two approaches to this:

Having the mobile devices GPU to perform relatively simple neural-network computing. This can learn user preferences or intent over time and be more helpful

Making Siri more intelligent by looking at the behaviour of users encrypted, salted with false data and aggregated up. Differential Security is the process of acquiring this data. In the second world war, the Allies cracked the cryptography derived from the Enigma machine. But that was only the first part of the challenge. In order for it to be useful the Enigma team used statistics to hide any usage of the intelligence hiding reactive activity in the midsts of statistically expected ‘normal’ behaviour.

Differential security is kind of similar to this. All the data is encrypted, the phone sends a mix of false data and real data. When Apple looks at aggregated data they can see the false data as being false, but can’t tell which users data is false at a given time.

Apple’s WatchOS 3 is interesting because of the performance boost it gives the wearable. The difference is really noticeable. The boost in performance is due to Apple having more memory to use than it had originally allowed for. This provides a more refined experience. Much of the UX enhancements were focused on fitness.

From a developer perspective there were a few things missing:

  • Apple had no new pro-level hardware announcements
  • Apple later walked away from Thunderbolt displays, saying that 3rd parties were now making great displays. This reminded me of when Apple stopped making printers, it felt permanent, though there is a lot of speculation about a forthcoming Apple 5K display – we’ll see
  • Apple still needs to do more work on integrating its Swift programming language throughout its OS’
  • Given Twitter’s peak in growth, Apple didn’t show how Siri would cope in a post-Twitter world

Finally the two-hour keynote was a love letter to China. At every opportunity Tim Cook mentioned the Chinese market, support for China-specific items like language and called out Chinese apps like WeChat.

* From a technical point-of-view; tvOS, iOS, and macOS all share underpinnings based on NetBSD and a Mach micro-kernel.

More information
Apple Pay supporting banks | Apple Support Documents
Apple finally opens Siri to third-party developers | TechCrunch
Apple rolls out privacy-sensitive artificial intelligence | MIT Technology Review
What is Differential Privacy? A Few Thoughts on Cryptographic Engineering
Digging into the dev documentation for APFS, Apple’s new file system | Ars Technica
Apple File System Guide | Apple Developer documentation
Mac & iOS Continuity | Apple

Throwback gadget: SnapperMail

At the end of 2001, I started to prepare of leaving my job at Edelman. This meant upgrading my home IT set up. I picked up an iBook. The iBook was Apple’s consumer-orientated laptop made from 1999 to 2006. Mine was a second generation ‘Snow’ laptop with a G3 processor, dual USB sockets and a combo drive which allowed me to watch DVDs and burn  CDs.

I used the move to go on the first version of OSX. The move also meant that I got a new email account, my default account to date. It had two key attributes:

No adverts, so it looked professional in comparison to having a Yahoo! or Hotmail email address and it wasn’t tied to an ISP.

IMAP support which allowed me to use my email account across different devices that all sync across the devices. POP3 downloads the  emails from the server to the device

My iBook was my only source of email access whilst I left Edelman and then eventually joined Pirate Communications. My first smartphone was a Nokia 6600, which I used alongside a Palm  PDA – l got this sometime around the end of 2003. The 6600 supported IMAP out of the gate, it was slow, but I was connected.

The 6600 was eclipsed by Palm’s Treo devices which were a better device. I moved from the 6600 and a Palm Tungsten T3 combo to a Treo 600 smartphone in January 2005.

The process wasn’t smooth. The Treo was sufficiently fragile that I got a translucent silicon jacket that worked surprisingly well with the keyboard and screen protector to look after the touchscreen. Software wise the Treo 600 was a step back from the Tungsten T3 PDA. The screen was smaller and the software felt sluggish in comparison. I had deliberately chosen the 600 over the 650 because I had previously worked agency side on the Palm account and been a long-suffering device owner so knew how crap they were at bug fixes.
snapperfish limited
Unfortunately Palm had not been as progressive in comparison to Nokia with its default email client. The software didn’t support IMAP. Fortunately I used to follow Mitch Kapor’s blog and he had recommended an app from a small New Zealand company SnapperFish.

SnapperMail was a compact modern email client. It has a number of features that we would expect now:

  • It supported IMAP
  • It supported SSL client to mail box encryption*
  • it was really easy to use
  • You could work with attachments including zipped files**
  • There was no restriction on the file size of attachments, the only restriction was your email account rather than your email client

This looks like the kind of technology you would have thought Palm should have done. At the this time Palm were competing against Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003, BlackBerry 6200 series, 7100 series and early 8700 series. Yet the default email client was back in the 1990s.

*The full-fat application cost US$39.99

**SnapperMail came bundled with HandZipper Lite which handled the compressed files and JPEGWatch Lite image viewer

I used this alongside MetrO – a public transit directions app and QuickOffice Pro – to read Office documents as part of my modern smartphone experience. It wasn’t just me that loved SnapperMail, it was praised by Walt Mossberg back when he wrote at the Wall Street Journal.

SnapperMail won two Palm Source (Palm’s software licence business) Powered Up awards in 2003. It was recognised as Best Productivity and Best of the Best Solution.

More information
SnapperMail Has Solid Software For Savvy Mobile E-Mail Users | WSJ
QuickOffice
MetrO – open source mass transit application
PalmSource Welcomes Developers with Awards, New Tools; Announces New Licensees | PalmSource press room

I/O and Google’s viewpoint on technology

Google I/O happened on May, 18 – 20.  There had been a lot of pieces of coverage about the different products and services released. But I wanted to spend a bit of time reflecting on what I/O tells us about Google’s viewpoint on technology.

Giving apps a second chance

Google knows as well as anyone that the app moves towards a maturity model where consumers stick with the core apps that they want and then don’t go any further.
apps
Data shows that consumers use their top five apps 88 per cent of the time. So why would Google care when it knows that 60 percent of the top apps on the Android platform?

The reasons for an expanded app usage include:

  • A proportion of Google’s advertising (like Facebook) is derived from the promotion of app downloads
  • Android devices are reaching market maturity in many markets, growth is likely to come from new uses – at least some of which will be derived from third party platforms
  • Google has staked its ambition in the PC sector on its Chrome operating system being able to run apps from the Android eco-system. In order for that to happen there needs to be a healthy community of developers
  • In the same way that DoubleClick’s ad network greatly expanded the inventory of Google’s advertising business, third party applications offer Google an additional source of usage for its own services. If you want to see the future of Google Apps look at the the way the likes of Baidu and Tencent allow third-party integration with their own tools

Streaming or ‘instant’ apps is part of Google’s efforts to encourage consumer trial of new apps and enhance relationships with developers. Firebase, it’s new analytics platform for mobile developers helps them have a better relationship with their installed user base allowing them to use data to target notifications and campaigns.

More faith in wider area networks (WANs) than personal area networks (PANs)

Android Wear’s updates were interesting. Put simply Google has more faith in data being delivered in a timely manner over cellular or wi-fi networks than it does for inter device transfers over variants of Bluetooth. Both the Apple Watch and Android Wear products suffered from performance lags when the watch was a thin client of a phone. Having a cellular radio on board the phone presents challenges with battery life, but speeds up real world performance.

The original design failure wasn’t down to network performance, but is likely to have implications for personal area network technology like Bluetooth in its different variants or ZigBee. These technologies are all about scale, lose a scale advantage and it poses a problem for future adoption by others. This can happen in a virtuous way. Apple’s adoption of USB benefited the standard greatly and drove interest in peripheral development for both Mac and PC. Apple’s abandonment of FireWire and the 3.5″ diskette marked their decline.

Lots to be concerned about from a privacy point of view?

Google Home moved yet another pair of Android powered ears into our environment. It was obvious from Google’s description of services that a paid marketing model to be the ‘car booking’ or equivalent service of Home could be very lucrative for the search giant. How this device could be used for market research, tracking brand mentions or government surveillance also poses some conundrums moving beyond smartphones to brown goods.

Android N features file based encryption rather than treating the whole device as an encrypted disk. This raises questions around the comparative ease of access from a privacy perspective. Secondly, SafetyNet allows Google to reach into a phone to remove pre-existing applications without user permission. There is no explanation if they also have write privileges to the phone as well. If so, expect law enforcement and intellectual property owner interest. From the way it reads this would affect apps and content that have been side loaded as well as got from an app store.

Android is giving the high ground to Apple on privacy presumably because it considers its own customers don’t care about it that much.

Reference designs in VR to drive adoption and commoditisation 

Google’s Daydream project looks to provide standardisation in hardware. By going down this route, Google hopes to spur on the sensor market required for improved AR experience and drive uptake. These will likely be a very different experience to the computer workstation powered Occulus Rift. Driving this technology into the smartphone market may combat the current stagnation in phone sales growth.

More information
Google I/O 2016 event page
A16hz on Google I/O 2016
Everything Google just announced at its I/O conference
Palm, Apple, Google and the whole mobile device thing
The Limits of Google
If Google’s right about AI, that’s a problem for Apple – Marco.org
ISIS’s Mobile App Developers Are in Crisis Mode | Motherboard

The New Nokia

Microsoft finally let go of its licence for the Nokia license on May 19, 2016.
Slide03
There is a lot of logic to this move:

  • Microsoft has already written down the full value of the business acquisition
  • It has got the most valuable technical savvy out of the team and moved it into the Surface business
  • It removes problematic factories and legacy products

For the businesses that have acquired the rights to use the Nokia name and the factories the upsides are harder to see.

The factories may be of use, however there is over supply in the Shenzhen eco-system and bottlenecks aren’t usually at final manufacture, but in the component supply chain.

There is still some brand equity left in the Nokia phone brand. I analysed Nokia along with a number of other international Greater China smartphone eco-system brands using Google Trend data.
Slide06
There has been a decline in brand interest over the past 12 months for Nokia of 37%
Slide07
Nokia still has comparable brand equity to other legacy mobile brands such as BlackBerry and Motorola
Slide08
The brand equity is comparable to other value mobile brands. Honor; Huawei’s value brand has had a lot of money and effort pumped into it to achieve its current position.
Slide09
But it’s brand equity doesn’t stack up well against premium handset brands from Greater China. The reason for this is that smartphone marketing and fast moving consumer goods marketing now have similar dynamics – both are in mature little differentiated markets. Brands need to have deep pockets  and invest in regular advertising to remain top-of-mind across as large an audience as possible. Reach and frequency are more important than social media metrics like engagement.

In addition to advertising spend needs to be put into training and incentivising channel partners including carriers.

They are entering a hyper-competitive market and it isn’t clear what their point of advantage will be. Given the lock down that Google puts on Android and commoditised version of handset manufacture, the best option would be to look for manufacturing and supply chain efficiencies  – like Dell did in the PC industry. But that’s easier said than done.

Garnering the kind of investment required to seriously support an international phone brand is a hard sell to the finance director or potential external investors.

Slide13
Growth is tapering out.
Slide14
The average selling price is in steady decline
Slide16
This is partly because the emerging markets are making the majority new phone purchases.
Slide15
Consumers in developed markets are likely holding on to the their phones for longer due to a mix economic conditions and a lack of compelling reason to upgrade.
Slide12
All of the consumers that likely want and can afford a phone in developed markets have one. Sales are likely to be on a replacement cycle as they wear out. Manufacturers have done a lot to improve quality and reliability of devices.

Even the old household insurance fraud standby of dropping a phone that the consumer was bored with down the toilet doesn’t work on the latest premium Android handsets due to water-proofing.
Slide20

More information

The answer to the question you’ve all been asking | Nokia – Nokia’s official announcement
Gartner highlights a more challenging smartphone sector for Nokia than when it “quit” in 2013 | TelecomTV
Nokia is coming back to phones and tablets | The Verge
So the Nokia brand returns.. with a Vengeance | Communities Dominate Brands

Supporting data slides in full

Huawei’s expansion into smartphone market

Huawei released their annual results for 2015 last week. By going through their press release library and annual reports I have tried to piece together a picture of their consumer business and how it has grown over time.

Huawei isn’t like other businesses you might be used to in terms of corporate structure. It is based around worker participation in profits with Chinese colleagues benefiting from profit share. It is a private company so it’s numbers don’t have the same level of disclosure requirements as public companies. It’s books are audited by a reputable accounting  firm.

I found some inconsistencies in the way information is disclosed. For a number of years Huawei used to quote US dollar equivalents to its numbers, but has stopped doing so in the 2015 report.

Other inconsistencies:

  • High-end device sales are only listed for the past three years as the company started to focus on the premium marketplace
  • Honor sub-brand device shipments were disclosed for 2014 and 2015 as the brand filled the low-to-mid market segments Huawei’s range had previously extended down to
  • I only have two years worth of revenue numbers from Western Europe, if I get more I can then start looking at trends over time
  • In 2014, they disclosed the proportion of sales from e-commerce and the number of Huawei branded stores. In 2015, they disclosed the total number of retail outlets worldwide that sold Huawei phones

Between the currency fluctuations and the slight changes in information there may be some errors in my numbers – please bare this in mind.

I have outlined my charts below as JPEGs and have embedded a presentation at the bottom for convenience.
Consumer devices shipped
Consumer average revenue / device
Huawei consumer business growth over time

What does 2016 and beyond bring?
Overall sector outlook
Looking at forecasts from market analysts and The World Bank Huawei will experience tougher market conditions with lower growth forecast across major markets like China. Smartphone market maturity will mean lower exceptions of sector growth as well.
Macro economic data
As a presentation