Oprah time: The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone by Brian Merchant

I bought this book when it came out in July and have gone back and forth reading it. I’d read books on Silicon Valley before; the Apple eulogising Insanely Great by Steven Levy which told of the graft and hard work that went into the original Macintosh or Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Hafner & Lyon which discussed engineers exceeding long works. My favourite one is still Robert X Cringely’s Accidental Empires that portrays Gates as a coupon-clipping megalomaniac and Steve Jobs as a sociopath cut from the same cloth as Josef Stalin.

Merchant’s The One Device is different. It doesn’t eulogise in the same way, but it also lacks immediacy as it feels detached from its subject matter. Unlike Levy’s work, Apple didn’t cooperate with Merchant at all. The book is broad in scope and sometimes loses its way, each one of the chapters could have been an interesting short book in their own right and this leaves it being faintly unsatisfactory.  I guess this is one of the reasons why it took me so long to read it.

In the meantime the book stirred controversy over quotes attributed to Tony Fadell about then colleague Phil Schiller.  This made me cast a critical eye over some of Merchant’s adventures in the book. In particular inside the Foxconn industrial complex.

On a more positive note, Merchant’s vision is grander than previous authors. One man’s mission to pull all the intellectual threads together on what made up the iPhone. The iPhone moves from becoming the child of an over-worked and under-appreciated Apple engineering team to being the totem of a global village.

If you’ve read a quality newspaper you know what he’s going to say about the global supply chain. He also touches on the decades of software and technology development that led up to the iPhone.  How its multi-touch interface came out of a 1990s doctoral thesis. Ultimately the value of Merchant’s book many not be his writing, but instead becoming a new template for journalists writing on Silicon Valley to look beyond the David & Goliath mono-myth and instead dig into the tangled history of innovation.

Future of Web Development (according to Samsung)

Interesting presentation that says much about Samsung’s agenda.

 

The web VR is interesting because of the effect that even a small amount of latency can negatively impact the user experience.

Web Bluetooth reminded me a lot of iPhone / desktop ApplePay integration / authentication of payments.

The connected home ten years later

A decade ago I worked on AMD Live. A hodgepodge of hardware and software that provided media access where ever and whenever you wanted it.  Here is a short video that we made at the time to bring it to life. The idea was that AMD would be able to sell higher specifications of PC components into the home to act as digital hub. They wanted to push their Opteron server processors into the home.

An engineer came in and spent the best part of a day setting everything up throughout the house prior to shooting the film. At the time much of the streaming boxes didn’t work as promised so some of the screen images were put in post-production. There was a mix of cloud services and home hosted content. At the centre was a PC running Windows Multimedia Centre. There was a raft of third-party apps needed as well

  • Network management apps
  • Video and image compression apps
  • Instant messaging (that wasn’t MSN or Skype – no idea why it was in the bundle)
  • TV tuner software
  • A music jukebox application
  • Network management
  • An AMD GUI which provided a 3D carousel effect and integrated web browser

It was all a bit of kludge.

Digital content was well on its way. Streaming technology was well known but unstructured. RealNetworks had been going commercially since 1997, but the playback quality was dependent on Internet network connectivity, We only started to see widespread DSL adoption from 2003 onwards in the UK. By the first quarter of 2003, DSL was enabled at 1200 of the 5600 telephone exchanges across the UK.

Apple’s QuickTime streaming server was open sourced back in 1999; so if anyone wanted to set up a streaming network they had the technology to do so.

Digital audio content prior to 2003 had largely been ripped from optical media or downloaded online via FTP, Usenet or P2P networks. iTunes launched its music store in 2003.

From a standing start in 2002; by 2004, 5 million devices with a HDMI connection had been sold. The built in copy protection had been developed by an Intel subsidiary and was adopted by all the big Japanese consumer electronics manufacturers.

By 2005, Apple had started selling iTunes movies and TV programmes  alongside its music offering that allowed sharing of an account on up to 5 concurrent devices.

Apple launched its MFi programme in January 2005, which begat a raft of speakers and stereos with iPod connectivity in the home and the car.

Sonos released its speaker system including a wi-fi mesh network and AES network encryption. Flickr had a well documented API that allowed for a fully functioning photo album and picture streaming which was used in early web 2.0 mashups.

AMD Live was on the back-foot from day one. From a high end perspective of audio streaming Sonos had it locked down. For everyone else moving an iPod from room to room had the same effect.  Mini-video servers could be configured from mini-PC boxes, but they were only for the technically skilled. Even the Mac Mini launched in 2005 didn’t make the process much easier. The key advantage is that it could use iTunes as a video source and a playing software.

Back then because it was US centric in its view AMD Live completely ignored the rise of the smartphone as a music playback device.  By 2007, Nokia launched ‘Comes With Music’ which put mobile streaming in play. Apple Music and Spotify have now made streaming effortless. Video playback now comes from devices the size of a thumb drive. New intermediate screens from tablets to smartphones changed viewing habits and the PC has become redundant as the home hub for all but the most enthusiastic AV aficionados.

The sublime world of machine learning

Scott Galloway talks about the way brands are using AI (machine learning) and the examples are very much in the background so that the impact on the customer experience won’t be apparent. In many respects this is similar to how fuzzy logic became invisible as it was introduced in the late 1980s.

The Japanese were particularly adept at putting an obscure form of mathematics to use. They made lifts that adapted to the traffic flows of people going in and out of a building and microwaves which knew how long to defrost whatever you put into it. Fuzzy logic compensated for blur in video camera movement in a similar manner to way smartphone manufacturers now use neural networks on images.

The Japanese promoted fuzzy logic inside products to the home market, but generally backed off from promoting it abroad. The features just were and consumers accepted them over time. In a quote that is now eerily reminiscent of our time a spokesperson for the American Electronics Association’s Tokyo office said to the Washington Post

“Some of the fuzzy concepts may be valid in the U.S.,”

“The idea of better energy efficiency, or more precise heating and cooling, can be successful in the American market,”

“But I don’t think most Americans want a vacuum cleaner that talks to you and says, ‘Hey, I sense that my dust bag will be full before we finish this room.’ “

More information
The Future of Electronics Looks Fuzzy | Washington Post (December 23, 1990)

Oprah time: The Inevitable: understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future by Kevin Kelly

I re-read Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants and then decided to revisit The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future. The books make sense as ideal companions for each other, despite some overlap in terms of proof points.  On the face of it The Inevitable is a less ambitious book than What Technology Wants.

The inevitable

In the book Kevin Kelly touches on the kind of areas one would expect in  typical presentation given by an innovation team at an advertising agency. He is an unashamed techno-optimist and The key difference is two-fold:

Kelly pulls it together as a coherent idea rather than 12 slivers. He provides in-depth cogent arguments that bind the trends together. Kelly argues that transparency in governments will compensate for the erosion of privacy. I don’t agree with this particular viewpoint. If you are interested in how technology is shaping our world buy What Technology Wants; if you are still hungry for more follow it up with The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.