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.

I watched Apple WWDC so you didn’t have to

There was a mix of hardware and software updates. Apple put a lot of focus on  virtual reality, augmented reality and prepping their operating systems for handling larger amounts of data.  There was work done to further optimise video and photo usage on device.

The event offered bad news for online advertisers and a number of consumer electronics manufacturers. Online advertising using retargeting or autoplay video is going to be blocked in Safari. The new HomePod speaker took aim at ‘casual hi-fi’ like Sonos, Bowers & Wilkins and Bose.

Apple is working very hard to try and understand user intent, which is one of the first pieces it needs to put in place to develop the experience of a truly programmable world. What do I mean by a programmable world? A ‘web of no web’ where device intelligence behaves as if it understands user intent like a good valet. It is moving in a stepwise manner towards this.

What was more surprising is how Apple has gone big on VR and AR creation and consumption. Whilst video post-production houses probably have the most to complain about when it comes to Apple’s Pro equipment, they are not name checked. Apple has started to move to address their concerns. The external graphics support in macOS implies that a furture Mac Pro will have the software to match hardware.

More details by platform:

macOS

The name High Sierra implied an OS update that might seem incremental to consumers, but has major technology changes under the hood.

  • Data – Apple File System as default (many features similar to Sun Microsystems’ ZFS). Faster for file swaps and giving a faster computer experience
  • Video – better quality video algorithms with smaller file sizes and integration with
  • Graphics – upgraded Metal API – Apple had been using it on machine learning applications within the OS. Metal 2 has been used to accelerate system level graphics and provides access to app developers. There is OS support for external graphics accelerators. The external graphics developer kit is based on AMD Radeon card.
  • MacOS supports VR through Metal for VR. Steam, Unity and Unreal supporting VR on the Mac. Apple seems to believe that VR and AR content is the desktop publishing of the 21st century, they have gone hard on making the best creators platform that they can
Safari
Focus on being the fastest browser experience, even in comparison to Chrome
  • Autoplay blocking – which will impact advertising network video views
  • Intelligent tracking prevention – positioned to target advertising retargeting and cross-site tracking
Mail
Productivity refinements including a split screen view
Photos
  • Uses machine learning to improve searching and photo recognition and integration with photo-editing

tvOS

  • 50 media partners integrated into TV app
  • Amazon is coming to Apple TV. Interesting move of detente between Apple and Amazon

iOS

iOS 11 – focus on underlying technologies:
  • Machine learning APIs – to help adoption of CoreML on device for third party apps
  • ARKit – to aid AR in apps. Clever work done on scaling and ambient light. This about providing a market for the content which which would be created on the Mac
  • Chinese specific features: including support for QRcodes, SMS spam filtering. Chinese users have a particular set of contexts and these innovations could become popular in the west
  • Interface tweaks in control centre and the lock screen.
Messages
  • Improving discoverability of app stickers and apps – much needed
  • Automatic synchronisation of Messages across devices, delete once, delete across all devices
ApplePay
  • Person-to-person payments as an iMessage app. Obvious competitor would be WeChat in China and PayPal in the west
Siri
  • Improved expressive nature of the voice.
  • Follow-up questions, presumably to improve context
  • Provides translation services
  • Siri integration into a wide range of apps including WeChat and OmniFocus They’ve tried to use on-device learning to try and improve context and being helpful. Siri knowledge is synched across devices. Uses web history to improve Apple News and custom dictionary spellings
Apple Maps
  • Indoor navigation for airports
Photos
  • Better image compression to save space on device. New depth API that can be accessed by 3rd party apps
  • Video autorotates a la Snapchat / Snap glasses
App Store
  • Apps now reviewed in less than 24 hours
  • First app redesign in nine years. Tweaks to improve discoverability and merchandising of apps including in-app sales
 watchOS
  • The biggest feature in watchOS 4 is the Siri-powered face. The Siri-powered watch face provides contextual information on the ‘home screen’. It takes into account past habits, time, location etc. Apple’s language around this was interesting, they described it as an ‘Intelligent proactive assistant’.

More details by hardware

Mac hardware
  • iMac – improved displays, brighter and support for 1 billion colours. Moving to Kaby Lake Intel processors. Up to 64GB of RAM on the iMac and 2TB SSD. Discrete Radeon graphics cards on larger iMacs. – big focus on VR development.
  • MacBook – Kaby Lake processors. Pro machines get updated graphics as well. The MacBook Air gets a processor boost.
  • iMac Pro – single piece machine with workstation specification including 10Gbit Ethernet. Presumably as an interim measure until the Mac Pro arrives next year. How upgradeable would the iMac Pro be, which is a key consideration for workstations
iPad hardware
  • iPad Pro – 20% bigger screen, 120Hz screen refresh rate. Doubling default memory sizes up to 512GB
 
Apple HomePod
Apple is going after Sonos and brown goods companies like Bose, Bowers & Wilkins and Bang & Olufsen. The Siri functionality is a hygiene factor rather than a serious competitor to Amazon Echo. There was a big emphasis on the privacy functionality of Siri in HomePod
Further reading

WWDC 2015: you know the Apple news, but what does it mean?
48 hours with the Apple Watch
Eight trends for the future: web-of-no-web
Eight trends for the future: contextual technology

Every Day Carry (EDC): the digital edition

Every Day Carry (EDC) is a movement that’s sprung out over the past few years. It fetishes the artefacts of everyday life and often features over-engineered products.

It covers a wide range of analogue real world items that people (usually men) bring with them when they leave the house (and it might include a bag). There is a whole other post on why its real world products, but thats for another time.

If the concept of every day carry was brought over to the smartphone what would it look like?

What would be the ten must have apps on your phone beyond the default installed apps?

Mine, in no particular order:

  • Accuweather – pinpoint weather information that’s a step up from BBC weather or the default weather app on the iPhone
  • Buffer – app for social media publishing
  • CamScanner + – a document scanner for your iPhone
  • Citymapper – better for getting around London than Google (or Apple) Maps
  • Newsblur – a subscription based RSS reader by Samuel Clay. It learns what you like over time
  • Pinner – a client for Pinboard.in social bookmarking service
  • TravelWise Ireland – The Irish foreign ministry has an app providing background, safety information and emergency contact details for countries around the world

 

The mobile and telecoms industry and it’s progress

Just over 11 years ago I watched Charles Dunstone talk about Carphone Warehouse and the state of the industry at the LSE.

Sir Charles Dunstone at Huawei Ascend P6 launch

I came across the post by accident the other evening and wondered how well Dunstone’s view held up over the past decade or so.

On VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol)…

I think that the difference between Europe (particularly the UK) and the US is that VoIP will be very big in businesses, in residential homes you can’t have broadband without having an exchange line: that’s the way the regulator has decided it wanted to make sure that BT can make a living. If you’ve got broadband, if if you don’t want it, if you pick your phone up you’re going to get a dial tone that you can make a phone call from. Once you’ve got broadband unbundling, once you’ve got a connection from the exchange to the home it doesn’t cost you anything to connect a call whether its over broadband or you pick the normal phone up.

So suddenly a normal phone has the exact same economics as Skype, so I think what will happen, what you will see people like us do is offer VoIP-priced services on your normal phone at home without you having to put a headset in your PC or mess around and do all that kind of stuff. There are some people who will find reasons to do it and things that they want to do within it. The majority of people with a fixed-line are people with a family, over 30 years old, 50 per cent of it is there home alarm and ring people, 50 per cent of it is that they want to be able to ring the fire brigade if the house catches fire in the middle of the night. You won’t get them to use their mobile or use VoIP as they want to sit by their bed, get a dial tone and dial 999.

So I think in residential its not going to have a massive impact, in businesses its a different thing, with VoIP you can have multiple lines over one exchange line and that’s going to completely revolutionise business telephony.

Vonage is already more expensive than we are for your phone service and we’re not even using an unbundled broadband line on it. The economic difference is very different here than it is in the US.

Dunstone clearly didn’t have an idea about rise of wi-fi and devices using Skype as a client, though he clearly saw the business case of Skype for business. This made sense as by the late 1990s UK call centres were using VoIP complete with integration with customer records. Just under just over a year later 3 launched its dedicated Skype handset and Skype became available on the Symbian mobile operating system for download. There was resistance to OTT VoIP from T-Mobile in particular.

Now FaceTime, Skype, WeChat voice-and-video and Google Hangouts are ubiquitous. The voice call has been replaced by visual and text messaging on OTT services similar to the instant messaging clients of yore.

On where mobile phones are going…

I don’t have a clue where things will be in ten years. A few predictions on mobile phones, it is a unique device because the last 15 years have changed the world, more than it had changed for 500 years before that. 15 years ago, no one left their home without their money and their keys, now no one leaves home without their keys money and mobile phone and its taken a part in peoples lives that no other product has for hundreds and hundreds of years.

That relationship is so powerful that if a producer wants to gets content to you, they can guarantee it if they can get it to a mobile phone, so that’s why we see cameras, now everyone carries a camera and a mobile phone. Soon everyone will be an iPod and a camera and they’ll keep getting better and better. By next Christmas you’ll be able to buy cameras with flashes, zoom all this kind of stuff. I think that video is going on mobile phones, I think that payment is coming, payment systems is coming onto them and Carphone Warehouse is the largest retailer of digital cameras in the UK by accident. We didn’t mean to sell one of them, they just come in the products that we sell as standard and its just that everyone else’s business is morphing into ours because of the unique relationship the product has.

My final prediction on phones on the next year to two is that fashion is about to become a big thing in phones, at the moment they are driven by technology. We had an extraordinary experience this Christmas with a pink V3 we brought out. We’ve done some analysis that absolutely blew us a way, you’re starting to see the manufacturers talk to the big brands about putting things into phones and people spend stupid money on pens and watches and shoes and clothes. I think that all that madness is also going to end up in mobile phones as its such a public personal accessory.

Dunstone smartly limited his predictions to the next few years rather than looking forward a decade and his view of the camera as a key function driving purchase is still proved right. At the moment the intra-Android handset feature battle on premium handsets is fought on camera technology. Huawei and its Leica partnership, LG and Samsung with their respective double cameras and Sony with their powerful sensors.

The iPhone 7 is also sold in a similar way as Apple’s Shot on an iPhone marketing campaign shows.

Dunstone also saw the smartphone as a media device and for many years  content has been side loaded on to phones. Sony Ericsson had launched the Walkman-braned W800 the previous year. As SD card capacity increased, it wasn’t too much of a leap to assume that the mobile phone could replace lower end flash memory MP3 devices.

Nokia would be launching its multimedia focused N-series phones just a month after this talk. I remember seeing Christian Lindholm in the lift at Yahoo! with a Nokia N93. The phone looked like a chimera between a flip phone and camcorder.

Ten years later and video recording and editing technology is available across both Android and iOS handsets. One of the last projects I was involved in at Yahoo! was co-launching the N73 with Nokia which featured the Flickr photo app on the phone as standard. 11 years later and my iPhone still has flickr on it.

Dunstone believed that the phone would become a fashion item. At the time LG had partnered with Prada.  Vertu had been established seven years previously by Nokia. Today premium handsets have established themselves as as fashion items. TAG Heuer has experimented with its own smartphone, Porsche Design worked with BlackBerry.

On the flip side smartphones have become commoditised; Android manufacturers have seen their margins hollowed out. Huawei made a big push into the premium space with its P series phones yet sees declining handset prices as the medium tier handset segment eats into premium sector sales.

Dunstone’s predictions about mobile payments were too optimistic. There were various technology options explored by mobile carriers. Handset mobile payments did take-off in Japan. SMS based payments took off in East Africa. Smartphone hosted wallets have developed slowly however. Card payments are still pre-eminent in the western world at the moment.

On the competiton…

I’ve basically got two types of competition: people like Phones4U and The Link who are trying to do what we do and we just get up early and try and do it better and try and beat them up every day. And we have a team, we meet at 8 am every single morning and look at everybody else’s prices and reprice based on what happened that day its that brutal. We fight, fight, fight.

My other competition is the network stores which is a combination of wanting to have some direct impact with customers and a certain amount of vanity about wanting their brand on the hight street. They don’t compete with us in terms of the volumes of sales that they do, as the market gets more fragmented I think that its less likely that the customer is going to say I just want to go and see the world according to Orange today, rather than even going to one of my normal competitors. In reality it will be let me go and compare Orange with everybody. I think that its going to change but there’s not a very strong economic rationale for them in the first place.

Dunstone didn’t seem to realise how precarious the independent mobile phone shop was as a business. Network shops are now showrooms and service centres for when things go wrong as consumers go to the web. Carphone Warehouse adapted by becoming a triple play carrier in its own right as well as selling other networks mobile plans. Dunstone’s peer John Caudwell had the good sense / luck to sell Phones4U on to private equity providers just six months after this interview.

The mobile carriers didn’t have it a lot easier; O2 was spun out of BT in 2002 and bought by Telefonica of Spain just prior to this interview. T-Mobile and Orange merged their UK operations to form EE. EE was then acquired by BT, some 12 years after BT had spun out O2. 3UK has made an unsuccessful bid for O2, the UK competition authority shut the bid down.

On the transition of phones to computers…

Absolutely they’re changing into computers, they start to have bugs, they start to have all kinds of usability issues. Our job is very simple and I think the worst thing that could have happened for me is that there could have been one mobile phone network and one really simple phone and the people understand it so that they did not need anyone to help them set it up and work out which one to buy. So we absolutely love complex markets as this gives us something to offer and something to do we have to keep changing. I just watch in delight as Microsoft come into the marketplace because that’s not going to work is it? Its going to have lots of bugs and crash and do all these sorts of things that needs tons of support. Lots of competing systems Symbian and others, so its another level of complexity alongside all the complexity of the operators, all the complexity of the tarrifs – Bring it on.

Dunstone realised that smartphones would bring complexity to the mobile phone industry. He seemed to think it would be closer to the PC industry in terms of complexity. He saw what I suspect was a different opportunity in that – particularly building client relationships. In retrospect, he underestimated this disruption.

More information
Dunstone on…. | renaissance chambara
Nokia debuts N series trio | The Register

Watson’s peer isn’t an AI, it’s just like Tony the Tiger

e
IBM have done some iconic advertising since the late 1990s. Sun became the dot behind dot com; but was out-marketed by IBM’s ownership of e-business.
e hip
For some early clients like Boxman – there were accusations that IBM was learning about the internet whilst it did the work. And for many many of the products it was little more than putting HTML lipstick on a mature technology pig.

In 2008, that seems to have changed to smarter planet as IBM looked to get involved in infrastructure from building management to traffic control.

In 2011, IBM’s Research division saw the culmination of a seven year project that had one of their supercomputers perform on TV game show Jeopardy!  Marketing really started to change in 2014 in a dramatically different direction. IBM started describing a mix of machine learning and big data analysis technologies as Watson – they have their own Watson business unit. The implication being that the company had a corporate mascot. Think Tony the Tiger meets The Terminator.
What I Got When I Mailed Tony The Tiger An Autograph Request
The Watson you might have been sold may use similar technology principles but there isn’t a single sentient AI doing your tax returns in one milli-second and pharmaceutical research the next. Yet having talked to friends who work in a number of sectors and that’s precisely how they perceived Watson.

 

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.

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

June 2016 online marketing and technology research slides

Here is a copy of the slides that I pull together (when I have the time) each month of publicly available data that would be of use.

This month I have some new data around search which came from disclosures at Google I/O in terms of search volumes. We talk about social as if search has gone out of style but its growth is still staggering, driven by mobile device penetration.
Google global search volume
Looking at global search revenue over time, Google’s monopoly position becomes immediately apparent.
Global Search Revenues
More details about me here.
Slide20
Full presentation available for download as a PDF on Slideshare

What are the major reasons behind Yahoo’s drastic downfall?

I came across this question on Quora and decided to post my answer with additional data points and information here as well.
Yahoo! star
This is a big question. In the answers that it will receive you are likely to see:

  • Difference of opinions about the reasons of the decline
  • Differences of opinion  about when the decline actually set in. Which begs the question was the downfall that drastic?

Before we get into the why, lets think about the nature of businesses.

Public listed companies generally don’t last forever

The AEI said that 88 per cent of the companies that made up the Fortune 500 in 1954 are gone. Yahoo! is between 21 and 22 years old depending which way you count its age.

Yahoo! has outlasted many of its peers:

  • Excite – merged with @Home Network in 1999. It went bankrupt in October 2001. It was sold in December 2001. By 2007, the business was broken up by territory.
  • Lycos – was sold three times, each time for a fraction of the purchase price
  • Hotbot – bought by Lycos
  • AltaVista – minority stake sold to CMGI in 1999. Bought by Overture in February 2003. Yahoo! acquired Overture in July 2003

Only MSN remains of the original brands that it competed against. If MSN wasn’t a Microsoft business, its survival would be questionable. Microsoft’s online services lost money from 2006 through 2010. By comparison, Yahoo! has kept making a profit – despite its issues.

Macro-effects

The technology sector has become a hunting ground for active investors. Back in the 1980s, American publicly listed brands were attacked by investors:

  • RJ Nabisco – leveraged buyout by KKR
  • Gulf Oil & Unocal – T. Boone Pickens had failed bids for both oil companies but made a large profit on his holdings
  •  TWA – leveraged buyout by Carl Icahn. Icahn’s business practices were responsible for its bankruptcy in 1992 and 1995
  • Revlon – acquired in a hostile takeover by Ron Perelman, much of the business was broken up to pay for the deal

In the 1990s, factors changed:

  • Credit lines for deals dried up as some leveraged buyouts proved to be bad for investors
  • Businesses developed more effective defences including poison pills, golden parachutes and greater debt
  • Overall value of the stock market increased. This reduced the amount of opportunities to get companies on the cheap

Moving forward 20 years, the technology sector became in a similar place

Historic technology businesses have moved from being high growth to value businesses. This changed the nature of investors interest in them.

  • Microsoft gave a seat on its board to an activist shareholder ValueAct Capital
  • Apple started paying dividends and raising the debt on its balance sheet to fend off Carl Icahn

Google’s unique two-tier shareholding structure has proved to be an effective defence so far.

A business like Yahoo! looks like a classic corporate raid target as its value is less than the sum of its parts. It has a regular cashflow that could service a lot more debt at current interest rates. It has assets that can be quickly sold.

Capital has become much cheaper. This is partly a result of low interest rates set to keep the economy out of trouble in 2008. But there is also a lot of foreign capital and pension fund money looking for a home.

Missed opportunities

Given that we have the perfect vision of hindsight, Yahoo! missed key opportunities. Here are some of them.

Yahoo! failed to buy Google

Yes, Yahoo! did fail to buy Google. And their competitors failed to buy Google as well. Excite rejected the opportunity to buy Google for $750,000 in a deal arranged by Vinod Khosla. By comparison Terry Semel, then CEO of Yahoo! failed to buy Google for $5 billion. At the time Yahoo!’s entire market value was roughly $5 billion.

Yahoo! failed to buy DoubleClick

While Yahoo! was playing catch-up with Google on search. Google outbid the online industry to pay $3.1 billion for DoubleClick. DoubleClick provided advertisers with more opportunities to place banner ads than Yahoo! did.

Yahoo! failed to buy Facebook

Terry Semel offered $1 billion for Facebook in 2006. Semel wouldn’t go to $1.1 billion Facebook’s board wanted.

Yahoo! failed to sell to Microsoft

I don’t think that the Microsoft deal was a serious offer. There are  reasons to be suspicious:

  • Microsoft couldn’t make its own online business profitable at the time. The deal was unpopular with shareholders
  • Yahoo!’s contribution to the open source community would have been an antitrust issue
  • It would have to get through approval by Japanese competition authorities
  • It would likely have to get through Chinese antitrust authorities

Yahoo! didn’t communicate these risk factors to shareholders. Which then left the door open for the Microsoft-funded Carl Icahn coup later on.

Yahoo!’s board has failed the company

I think that there is a stronger argument for this when you look at their selection of CEOs over the years

  • Tim Koogle – led Yahoo! on the upcycle of the dot.com boom. He resigned and replaced by Terry Semel during the bust that followed.
  • Terry Semel – was a senior media industry executive who bought the business out of the bust. He never got the product and never used email. He never managed to build a media company despite his Hollywood heritage.
  • Jerry Yang – history will look with more favour on Jerry Yang in the future. He did the Yahoo! Japan  and Alibaba deals which are the most interesting parts of Yahoo! today. As a CEO, his time was consumed by  Microsoft’s hostile bid
  • Carol Bartz – Bartz was a Microsoft approved appointee. Her deal on Facebook Connect saw the social network build its business on the back of Yahoo!’s user database. Bartz does the Microsoft search deal badly. She also launched mobile apps that were bad. The one thing she needs respect for is her approach to marketing. Bartz realised that she needed to promote the entire Yahoo! brand. Although there was a buzz marketing team in the US, most marketing was based around products. Unfortunately the execution of the brand campaign was poor. This was partly because it was led from the US with little engagement of regional and national marketing teams.
  • Scott Thompson – stayed for five months. Allegations were made about his education, better due diligence on his recruitment required.
  • Ross Levinsohn – Ross served as interim CEO after Thompson left. It is hard to know what CEO he would have made. But his successor seems to have borrowed his strategy.
  • Marissa Mayer – Despite the goodwill Mayer had going into the job she hasn’t managed to change Yahoo!’s current business. That the company’s strategy is being driven by activist shareholders says a lot.

Problems in execution

Yahoo! had its fortune hitched to brand display advertising. Growth has dropped in this for the past ten years. Yahoo!’s declining advertisng revenues started in Q2 of 2006. Part of the problem was that Yahoo! had been too successful to begin with. Yahoo! sold its display advertising for way more than it was worth.

Yahoo! failed to monetise search as well as Google. And then handed its search business over to Microsoft, who failed to do as good as job as Yahoo! managed on its own.

Yahoo! failed to execute in mobile, despite some smart early efforts. Photo community Flickr was the default photo app on Nokia’s N73 blockbuster smartphone. The N73 launched at the end of April 2006. It was was one of the last things I worked on before leaving. Given that headstart Flickr could have been Instagram. Instead its a more specialist community of ‘proper’ photography enthusiasts. Yahoo! Messenger and Mail both worked on Nokia handsets from the mid-2000s. Yahoo! Go was an app which provided access to services including:

  • Flickr
  • Address book
  • Calendar
  • Email
  • Maps
  • Search
  • Content: news, weather, finance, sports, entertainment

It could have provided the same function that Android provides for Google, but Yahoo! considered as ‘beta software’ right up to is finish in January 2010. Yahoo! has been providing Apple with weather information and stock data for the iPhone. Yet it hasn’t managed to build a successful iPhone app.

One way of illustrating the decline of Yahoo! in mobile is to look at the user numbers of Yahoo! mail, which seems to have peaked around September 2011.
Yahoo! Mail, Hotmail and Gmail users over time
Hotmail shows a linear increase over time, likely due to organisation changes as it has moved to the cloud and Gmail takes off, presumably on the back of Android – though iOS users also have Gmail accounts.

Yahoo!’s acquisition process was broken. Ever since Yahoo! wasted 1 billion dollars buying Mark Cuban’s Broadcast.com the business slowed down. Broadcast.com was a scare on the collective memory. Capital decisions took longer, acqusitions took longer. The cheque book was harder to open. Under Marissa Mayer, it was finally let loose, but the purchases seem to have made little difference.

Yahoo! failed to become a media company. Back when I was at Yahoo! we launched Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone – a sort of proto Vice News in 2005. Despite Semel’s Hollywood background, he and following CEOs never made it work. Despite the fact Yahoo! had joint ventures with TV networks in Australia and Canada. When Marissa Mayer finally managed to get talent in the door, audiences had moved to other sites:

  • Gawker Media
  • Buzzfeed
  • Daily Beast
  • Aol’s blog network
  • Huffington Post

Yahoo! failed to make social work. Yahoo! owned pioneer social brands:

  • Yahoo! Chat – chatrooms were the Facebook Groups of yesteryear. Yahoo! was doing social before it was a thing
  • Delicious – neglect, internal politics and corporate interference meant that Yahoo! never capitalised on Delicious. Despite its tribulations there are some people who still use it, though I am not sure why
  • Flickr – corporate interference and neglect destroyed the potential growth of photo sharing site Flickr. The site is kept going as a photographic enthusiasts community. It could have been Instagram. Thankfully, Yahoo! only spent $30 million on it
  • Yahoo! Messenger – Yahoo!’s Messenger had a poor mobile client, but could have been WhatsApp. Facebook dominates the sector along with Tencents WeChat, NHN’s LINE and Daum Kakao’s KakaoTalk
  • Tumblr – Yahoo! was forced to writedown the value of Tumblr to nothing. The company failed to monetise the popular blogging and curation platform. Tumblr is one of Yahoo!’s few products that attracts a millennial audience

Yahoo! products had a poor experience. I launched over 14 products at Yahoo! in just over a year. I only ever used 2 of them on a regular ongoing basis – Delicious and Flickr. Other products like Yahoo! 360, Yahoo! Answers or Yahoo! MyWeb 2 – fell into three categories:

  • Dogs to use – particularly in the set-up part of the process
  • Not particularly useful – Yahoo! Answers, great idea in prinicple but poor cultural fit. That poor fit meant that it filled up with noise, Yahoo! Answers isn’t as useful as Quora
  • Strangled soon after birth – so it became frustrating to commit your time to them as a user

Politics paid a part in this process. The Communications group (responsible for Messenger and Mail) had a lot of duplicate products. Yahoo! Photos was a bad version of Flickr. For storing your bookmarks there was:

  • Yahoo! Bookmarks
  • Yahoo! MyWeb
  • Yahoo! MyWeb 2
  • Delicious

This all bogs management down and sucks away resources. There were also so many projects that never saw the light, due to constant changes in priority.

More information
Fortune 500 firms in 1955 vs. 2014; 88% are gone, and we’re all better off because of that dynamic ‘creative destruction’ | AEI Ideas
Microsoft’s Bing/MSN Results Truly Horrifying — Loss Rate Balloons To ~$3 Billion A Year | Business Insider
Stupid Business Decisions: Excite Rejects Google’s Asking Price | Minyanville 
A Microsoft First: Activist ValueAct Gets a Board Seat – WSJ
How Yahoo! Blew It | Wired
Yahoo! Could Have Bought Facebook For 2% Of Today’s Valuation | Business Insider
Sorry Microsoft, Yahoo — Google Just Got Bigger | Ad Age

What the IFTTT is going on?

So first it started with an email just under three weeks ago:

Hello,

We have been busy bringing improvements to the IFTTT platform. Because of these technical updates, some Channels will no longer be supported.

On March 23rd, the following Channels and their Recipes will be removed from IFTTT: App.net, BuzzFeed, Campfire, Diigo, Etsy, ffffound, Last.fm, Readability, Yahoo Fantasy Sports, and Yammer.

Since the beginning of the year, we’ve added over 30 Channels and encourage you come check out what’s new and noteworthy on IFTTT!

—The IFTTT Team

Now this list includes a mix of former digital titans like last.fm and Yahoo!. But some of the others listed there are business that still have a lot of heat behind them like Buzzfeed.

Then Sunday I get this:

Hi,

We’re working on a new IFTTT platform for developers that makes building Channels and Recipes a breeze.

Recently, we’ve worked with our partners to migrate to the improved platform, but some have chosen not to do so. Unfortunately, the Pinboard Channel did not migrate to the new platform and will be removed on April 4th.

Pinboard is one of our favorite services and we’re all sad to see it go. We hope down the road it may be back.

Stay tuned to the latest Channels launching on IFTTT!

— The IFTTT Team

Ok, pinboard.in isn’t a service that huge amounts of people rely on. But for those of us that do rely on it, its as important as Evernote or email.  It’s user base tends to be tech forward kind of people.

But it begs a wider question, why the short notice and how come IFTTT can’t bring services along with them that have tech forward users? Pinboard have posted their version of what happened on their blog and it makes for disturbing reading. The link is at the bottom of this post, I recommend that you take some time to check it out.

A quick look on Google News shows that this loss of services from IFTTT hasn’t been covered, and there is nothing on the IFTTT blog that I could see.

I have rebuilt my recipes that use pinboard.in in a services called Botize. It costs €4.99 a month or €49.99 a year and only accepts payments by PayPal.  If I come across better services I will share them on here.

More information

My Heroic and Lazy Stand Against IFTTT | Pinboard blog – disturbing guide to IFTTT’s designs on your data and business model.

PrivaTegrity: the flawed model of distributed keys

Dave Chaum’s idea to to try and balance between state actors demand for internet sovereignty and the defacto end of citizen privacy, with the need to address emotive causes such as terrorism, paedophile rings and organised crime got a lot of attention from wired.
Yesterday evening on a bus stop in Bow
The principle behind PrivaTegrity is that there would be a backdoor, but the back door could only be opened with a nine-part key. The parts would be distributed internationally to try and reduce the ability of a single state actor to force access.

However it has a number of flaws to it:

  • It assumes that bad people will use a  cryptographic system with a known backdoor. They won’t they will look elsewhere for the technology
  • It has a known backdoor, there is no guarantee that it can’t be opened in a way that the developers hadn’t thought of
  • Nine people will decide what’s evil
  • If you’re a state actor or a coalition of state actors, you know that you have nine targets to go after in order to obtain access by hook-or-by-crook. It was only Edward Snowden who showed us how extraordinarily powerful companies where bent to the will of the US government. The UK government is about to grant itself extra-territorial legal powers to compel access. There is no reason why a form of extra-ordinary rendition couldn’t be used to compel access, rather like Sauron in The Lord of the Rings bending the ring bearers to his will. Think of it as Operation Neptune Spear meets a Dungeons & Dragon quest held at a black site

More information
The Father of Online Anonymity Has a Plan to End the Crypto War | WIRED
Privategrity

Brandwatch on luxury brands

Not the most polished presentation but good content by Brandwatch on the state of digital and social with regards luxury brands.

More about Brandwatch here.

WeChat Life Report

Nice collection of consumer behaviour data on WeChat. Over the past year WeChat has expanded the services that it provides to include Skype like conference calls, which changes and expands the behaviour in this report. (Presentation on Slideshare)